Tag Archives: kidlit

The Unexpected Life of Oliver Cromwell Pitts: An Interview with Avi

As a big fan of other novels by Avi like Crispin: The Cross of Lead and The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, I was thrilled to get to read an advance copy of The Unexpected Life of Oliver Cromwell Pitts and interview Avi. If you’re devoted to middle grade historical fiction, action, and adventure, you’ll definitely want to read this one!

About the Book

In The Unexpected Life of Oliver Cromwell Pitts, a young boy wakes to find his father missing and his house flooded by a recent storm. It’s 1724 in the seaside town of Melcombe Regis, England, and Oliver is alone with no money and no food. His father has left behind a barely legible, waterlogged note stating that he’s gone to London, where Oliver’s sister, Charity, is in some kind of trouble.

Exploring damage to the town in the storm’s aftermath, Oliver discovers a shipwreck on the beach. Removing anything from a wrecked ship is a hanging offense, but Oliver finds money that could save him from being sent to the ghastly children’s poorhouse, and he can’t resist temptation. When his crime is discovered, Oliver flees, following his father’s trail. His journey is full of cruel orphan masters, corrupt magistrates, and conniving thieves—but when he finally reaches his destination, Oliver finds that London might be the most dangerous place of all.

The Interview

All the reviews, which have been glowing and star-studded, compare this story to those of Charles Dickens. Are the wonderful similarities they note intentional? Is your book an homage to Dickens?

Thanks for your kind words about The Unexpected Life of Oliver Cromwell Pitts. I am a reader and admirer of Dickens, but I think this book is cast more in the light of those great 18th century literary lights, Fielding, Defoe, Sterne, Smollett, et al.

My real homage to Dickens is to be found in Traitors’ Gate. It is full of references to Dickens and his life. Indeed, my hero there is named John Huffam, which is taken from Dickens’ extended name.

Oliver is a fantastic character. He’s pugnacious and funny and brave. There’s so much to love about him. Where are the points of intersection between Oliver and a contemporary twelve year old? Where do they diverge?

Young people today, as in the 18th century, lived and still live in a world created, and usually controlled by adults. Not necessarily a bad thing, and often a necessary thing.  That said, the young will often chaff under the restrictions, both physical and psychological of the adult world. Keenly aware of what is fair and unfair, they are the ones who should sit on the Supreme Court.

As I was reading your book, I was struck by the very tricksy way you use language. Here’s a bit from the first page:

On November 12, 1724, I, Oliver Cromwell Pitts, lay asleep in my small room at the top of our three-story house, when, at about six in the morning, I was shocked into full wakefulness by horrible sounds: roaring, wailing, and screeching. Confounded by such forceful clamors, I was too frightened to shift from my bed.

You manage to start with action but also language that feels appropriate for the 1700s. Can you tell us how you chose language that evoked the time period but was still accessible to young readers?

I have a great love of language and words. I enjoy browsing through dictionaries. (Short chapters!) English, the only language (alas) I know, has a huge and wonderfully rich vocabulary that has evolved over centuries. All of it is available to the writer.  (And language invention is welcome.) I love using old, but understandable words in a historical context. Indeed, when writing historical fiction one of the key challenges is giving the language itself a sense of the past. I think of the Unabridged Oxford Dictionary as my writing partner.

One of my favorite things about this book is how funny it is. As I read, I started marking particularly funny lines, and by the end, I had a ton of tagged pages. Here’s one of my favorites:

I am of the belief that when two adults exchange a meaningful look in the presence of a child, there is little doubt that the adults will have nothing pleasing to say to that child.

Oliver is both astute and funny in this passage. And what about the horrible Mr. Probert (who gets what he deserves if you ask me!), who says:

An authority has written: The sooner poor children are put to laborious, painful work, the more patiently they will submit to it forever.

And of course, in this description of Oliver’s father:

A stiff-rumped clink-clank.

I could go on quoting you to yourself for a long time, but instead, can you tell us about the role of humor in this book? Dickens wasn’t very funny. How did you work in the laughs and still end up with a book that feels Dickensian?

Funny is serious work. In this book, what is humorous comes out of Oliver’s character, who is often alone, and keenly observant. But it also derives from the historical style of the 18th century, which can be comical and satirical. Writers of that day looked upon the world with amusement, affection, and skepticism, as did our own Benjamin Franklin.

The poorhouse where Oliver ends up is pretty awful, and Oliver’s escape from it is pretty marvelous. Were there really places like that for children in the 1700s?

The poorhouse is based on research I did, even to the daily food allowance.  I also came upon an image of a punishment basket. The moment I saw it I knew I wanted to use it.

I know there is a ton of research behind this book. Were there any delicious factual tidbits that would have loved to work in to the pages but didn’t have room for?

As for what I left out, there is a whole library about British prisons, Newgate in particular, that could have been included. I somewhat regret that I did not use more of that.

We at the Mixed-Up Files are obsessed with middle grade literature. Why are you drawn to writing for this age group? What do you think characterizes middle grade and makes it distinct from young adult or adult books with young protagonists like those by Dickens?

I love the way middle-graders read. They are passionate readers, who can engage fully with the experiences depicted in a story. They embrace character and plot with enthusiasm. They care about what happens. They can be articulate about what they read, too, but not in a pedantic fashion. “It’s good.” “It’s bad.” “I loved it.” I hated it.”

“It was boring.” “It was exciting.” All cool.

They approach reading with both hands and an open heart.

I once had a letter from a middle-schooler which began, “I read your book, and it was boring at first. But by page two it got really good.”

I loved that.

They also like puns.

For the reader who adores The Unexpected Life of Oliver Cromwell Pitts, which one of your other books should he or she read while waiting for the next installment?

Those who enjoy The Unexpected Life of Oliver Cromwell Pitts might like the above mentioned, Traitors’ Gate, and also, The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, Crispin, Beyond the Western Sea, Catch You Later, Traitor—all adventures stories with historical settings, all character driven.

I know more books are in the works. Any hints about what dreadful fate will next befall our noble hero?

As for Oliver’s fate, he has been sentenced to be shipped to the American colonies and sold into slavery for a period of seven years. I am writing the book now, and he is not enjoying the experience.  Freedom calls, but an iron collar round his neck is not easy to get off. And where is his sister?  I’m not one of those writers who always knows the endings.  So, I’m working as fast as I can because I too want to know what happens.

About the Author

Avi is the author of many books for young readers including Catch You Later, Traitor, the Newbery Medal novel Crispin: The Cross of Lead, and the Newbery Honor books The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle and Nothing But the Truth. He lives in Colorado. For more information, visit www.avi-writer.com.

Dia!

I had the opportunity to attend the 33rd annual Virginia Hamilton Conference at Kent State University in early April.  The event is the longest-running event focusing entirely on multicultural literature for children. One of the highlights of the program is the awarding of the Virginia Hamilton Literary Award. This year’s honoree is Pat Mora, author of over forty books for children, teens and young adults.

Pat is also the founder of El día de los niños/El día de los libros, (Children’s Day/Book Day), or simply Dia.

I must admit, that despite being directly involved in children’s literature for nearly twenty years as both children’s book festival founder (www.clairesday.org) and children’s book author, I knew nothing about Dia.

So, what is Dia? And what can we do as writers of children’s literature to participate and promote the initiative?

Dia’s roots began in 1925 at the first World Conference for the Well Being of Children in Geneva, Switzerland. Children’s Day was established after the conference, intended to bring attention to children’s issues. Many countries, including the Soviet Union, encouraged the publication of children’s books.

The Parade of the Red Army, Soviet Union, 1931.

In 1996, Pat Mora proposed connecting the celebration of children with literacy. The following year her concept was endorsed by REFORMA, the National Association to Promote Library and Information Services to Latinos and the Spanish-Speaking. The Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC) is now the home to Dia.

Dia is intended to be a daily commitment to connecting children and families to diverse books, languages and cultures. April 30th is designated as the culmination of the year-long celebrations.

Libraries across the United States celebrate Dia with book clubs, bilingual story times, and, (yay!) guest appearances by children’s book authors and illustrators.

ALSC has a website, where book suggestions, toolkits and great resources can be downloaded to help with a Dia Celebration. Check it out: www.dia.ala.org

The website has a locator tab to find a Dia event near you: http://cs.ala.org/websurvey/alsc/dia/map.cfm

Pat offered in her comments to the audience at Kent State University that we in Ohio were not doing enough to spread the mission of Dia. There is only one event listed in the national registry in my home state. Pat is right. We can do more.

My hope is to somehow bring together a collaborative effort to celebrate Dia with our partner library system, the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library, and our Claire’s Day event. Stay Tuned.

What will you do to support this important mission of connecting children with books? Perhaps you could read of one of your works at your local library. Or, maybe volunteer to share multicultural books with children at your nearby school. Or, even just share the Dia website with your local school and/or library.

I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Book Fiesta, written by Pat Mora, illustrated by Rafael Lopez.

 

Interview and Giveaway with Sarah Jean Horwitz – Author of The Wingsnatchers: Carmer and Grit Book One

Today we welcome Sarah Jean Horwitz, whose debut middle grade novel, The Wingsnatchers:  Carmer and Grit Book One, comes out April 25th from Algonquin Young Readers.

The Wingsnatchers:  Carmer and Grit Book One is a stunning debut about a magician’s apprentice and a one-winged princess who must vanquish the mechanical monsters that stalk the streets and threaten the faerie kingdom.

Aspiring inventor and magician’s apprentice Felix Carmer III would rather be tinkering with his latest experiments than sawing girls in half on stage, but with Antoine the Amazifier’s show a tomato’s throw away from going under, Carmer is determined to win the cash prize in the biggest magic competition in Skemantis. When fate throws Carmer across the path of fiery, flightless faerie princess Grit (do not call her Grettifrida), they strike a deal. If Carmer will help Grit investigate a string of faerie disappearances, she’ll use her very real magic to give his mechanical illusions a much-needed boost against the competition. But Carmer and Grit soon discover they’re not the only duo trying to pair magic with machine – and the combination can be deadly.

The Wingsnatchers is such a wonderful middle grade read. What are your favorite things about middle-grade fiction (as a reader and as a writer)?

One of the things I love about middle grade fiction – and fantasy in particular – is the unadulterated sense of magic and wonder. I don’t mean to say that the middle grade fictional universe is an uncomplicated one; on the contrary, this is the age when most kids are getting quite acquainted with the complexity of their own worlds, and the best stories know this. But there is an absence of outright cynicism, and that’s always a refreshing pond to dive into for a little while – both as a reader and a writer.

What inspired you to write The Wingsnatchers?

I knew for some time that I wanted to write a faerie-centric urban fantasy, but I never really had an idea with teeth to it until one day – as early as 2011, I think – a very specific image fell into my head: a boy in a shabby top hat and a faerie with a mechanical wing sitting on the brim. I was still in school at the time and working on other projects, so I put the two of them on the back burner, but I think I knew, even then, that this was the story to stick with. I just had to know more about them.

One of the things I love most about The Wingsnatchers is the world-building. Both the steampunk world of Carmer and the fairy kingdom of Grit come to life on the page in vivid detail. Can you tell us a little bit about your process in creating such a colorful and lively fantasy world?

Despite how integral the steampunk aesthetic is to the book now, it happened mostly by accident! The story is set (super!) roughly in an alternate 1880’s-1890’s, but that wasn’t always the case. When I started, it was way earlier – think mid-to-late 1700’s – and that wasn’t sitting quite right. Then, when my research into the Industrial Revolution went a bit too far down the rabbit hole and well into the 1800’s, I came across the early history of electric lighting – which, of course, became a central element of the plot and the story world. Building a Victorian-inspired setting from there, especially with a focus on the stage magic and vaudeville scenes, was just plain fun.

I was also, obviously, heavily inspired by Boston and its public parks. My personal map of the Oldtown Arboretum in the book is literally a traced-over and heavily rearranged version of the Arnold Arboretum in Jamaica Plain in Boston. I would walk by the Boston Public Garden at night and imagine the globes of the streetlamps powered by faerie lights. I love this city and its unique blend of old and new so much. I hope the fictional Skemantis is a fitting tribute.

Also, some of the coolest elements of the story world actually exist! The Moto-Manse, for example, is based on a Burning Man exhibition I found on Pinterest called the Neverwas Haul. It’s a thing!

Carmer and Grit are such wonderful heroes – and so perfect together. What drew you to writing these characters and what are your favorite things about each of them?

Thank you! Carmer and Grit were inspired by some of my favorite mystery-solving duos – all the way back from the original Holmes and Watson to today’s Joan and Sherlock on the show Elementary, Sam and Dean Winchester from Supernatural, and even Hiccup and Toothless from How to Train Your Dragon. I’m a firm believer in “platonic soulmates” – the one person out there who gets you, man, even if on paper, you may not have much in common. Carmer and Grit literally come from different worlds, but that doesn’t stop them from being a great team. In fact, it makes them better! I wanted to write a story about friends whose differences bring out the best in each other.

I love Carmer’s wry sense of humor and his determination to do the right thing, even if it’s uncomfortable or disadvantageous to him personally. I love Grit’s passion and impulsiveness – even when it gets her into trouble – and her frankness. I wish I could be as no-nonsense as she is!

There are so many interesting secondary characters in the book – from automata cats, to talking puppets, to the wonderful Antoine the Amazifier. Do you have a favorite?

The cats are my favorite, because my best friend hates them. Ha! Okay, let me explain: I was always convinced they were fun and creepy and different, even if they were pretty ridiculous, and she was like, “No, girl, just no,” but I kept them anyway. And I trust her opinion more than anyone’s in the world, but I kept them in anyway. And then not only did the book get published, but those creepy cats made it all the way to the cover! So that will be forever entertaining to me.

Your steampunk world is full of magic and science. Did you do any research while writing The Wingsnatchers? If so, what did you learn?

I did quite a bit of research! And then a lot of it got chucked out the window in service of the story, because magic is cool and I wanted to let magic be cool. Carmer would most definitely not approve. My major areas of research were the history of electric light and Victorian era stage magic and magicians. I obviously wasn’t concerned with writing a true historical fantasy, but I did try to play off the general “look and feel” and some of the driving social anxieties of the time.

The Wingsnatchers is Book One in the Carmer and Grit series. Can you give us any hints about what’s coming next and do you have any book recommendations for fans while we wait impatiently for the book two?

Well, I joked in my debut author group the other day that I was torn between two titles for book two: “Youths Flying Airships and Making Questionable Decisions” or “Everyone is a Little Bit Traumatized From the Events of Book One.” Does that count as a hint?

If you haven’t read it already, I highly recommend the wonderful The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill, which just won the Newbery Medal. It is the perfect blend of magical and honest and complex-but-not-cynical.

Sarah Jean Horowitz author of The Wingsnatchers: Carmer and Grit Book OneSarah Jean Horwitz is the author of the middle grade fantasy novel CARMER AND GRIT, BOOK ONE: THE WINGSNATCHERS and a member of the Boston Teen Author Festival organizing team. She loves storytelling in all its forms and holds a B.A. in Visual & Media Arts with a concentration in screenwriting from Emerson College. You can find her reading, writing, and occasionally dancing around like a loon throughout the Boston, MA area.

 

You can reach Sarah through her website or at one of these social media links:

Twitter: @sunshinejhwitz

Instagram: @sunshinejh

Facebook: sarahjeanbooks

Website: www.sarahjeanhorwitz.com

Sarah is giving away one Advanced Reader Copy of The Wingsnatchers:  Carmer and Grit Book One (US entries only, please).

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Patricia Bailey is the author of  the  middle-grade historical novel The Tragically True Adventures of Kit Donovan (April 2017). She blogs here and at her website patriciabaileyauthorcom.

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