Tag Archives: Robyn Gioia

Hiroshima Through the Eyes of a Japanese Girl

As a teacher, (and author of Under Siege!) I find books to be a great source of information and an intimate connection to a subject. The subject of historical fiction is one dear to my heart. In a previous Mixed-Up Files post, I talked about using historical fiction in the classroom and how it brings life to an era long-ago. The very nature of historical fiction opens doors for discussion and understanding.

When students study history, we want them to understand the big concept, not just facts and dates. We want them to see the humanity and feel the emotion that was part of an event.

In my interview with author Kathleen Burkinshaw, author of The Last Cherry Blossom, we transport back in time to Hiroshima where we experience the elements of humanity and emotion through the eyes of a Japanese girl.

Please tell us about The Last Cherry Blossom and how you came to write it?

Author Kathleen Burkinshaw

When my daughter was in seventh grade, she came home from school very upset. They were wrapping up WWII in their history class, and she had overheard some students talking about the ‘cool’ mushroom cloud picture. She asked me if I could visit her class and talk about the people under those famous mushroom clouds, people like her Grandma.

I had never discussed my mother’s life in Hiroshima during WWII. My mother was a very private person and she also didn’t want attention drawn to herself. But after my daughter’s request she gave me her consent. She bravely shared more memories of the most horrific day of her life. Memories that she had locked away in her heart because they had been too painful to discuss.

The main reason, my mother agreed (aside from the fact her granddaughter asked her), was that she knew students in seventh grade would be around the same age she was when the bomb dropped. She was 12-years-old. She hoped that students could relate to her story and by sharing her experience, these future voters would realize that the use of nuclear weapons against any country or people, for any reason, should never be repeated.

I received requests to visit other schools the following year. I began to write about my mom and August 6th after teachers requested a book to complement their curriculum.

I told my mom about this request. Later that week, she sent me a copy of her most treasured photo from her childhood. It is the one of her and her Papa (which I’m so grateful that Sky Pony placed it in my Afterword). When I looked at the photo which I remembered from my childhood because it always had a place of honor in our home; I realized there was more to her life than just war and death, she had loving memories as well.

That’s when I knew I needed to start the book months before the bomb. I wanted to show the culture, the mindset, and the daily life in Japan during the war. The main character, Yuriko is trying to figure things out in her own life, dealing with family issues, school, and then dealing with heartbreak. Yet, she finds strength she never thought she had that leads her to a new hopeful beginning. I intended to give the reader the view of the last year of WWII through the eyes of a 12-year-old Japanese girl-something that has not been done before.

How is Hiroshima’s history present in the story?

I used information that my mother gave me about her childhood as well as researching about Hiroshima and Japan during the war. (This was not an easy feat to find information written in English). The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum website had some great information.

My family and I visited Hiroshima for the first time in July 2015. Sadly, we went to honor my mom at the Hiroshima National Peace Memorial Hall for Atomic Bomb Victims. My mom passed away in January of 2015(but she did see the publishing contract and read one of my drafts). I met with some librarians at the Memorial Hall and learned that my mom lived less than two miles away from the epicenter! She had described it as a lot further away, so it was miraculous she survived and lived a healthy 82 years, (except her last few months)! I researched information by viewing the exhibits in the Hiroshima National Peace Museum. Standing on the same spot where my mother had witnessed so much horror and death, broke my heart and I cried through most of the museum. It just made me want to hug my 12-year-old mother, tell her she will have incredible strength, and find hope again.

Lastly, the fact that my mother’s Papa had his own newspaper company in Hiroshima, I could use the information that I had found to give a glimpse into the world and set the tone to the story by what everyday citizens were reading in newspapers and listening to on the radio. In this way, I could give the emotional impact that two paragraphs and a picture in a text book cannot do.

How much of the story is historical fact and how much of the story is fictional?

I would say that 75% of the book is fact either from my mother’s life or the history in Hiroshima and Japan during WWII that I gleaned from my research.

The timeline for events in the main character, Yuriko’s family life is probably the biggest section of fiction because I had to have it fit in the one-year time span. Some of the conversations and smaller side events were also fictionalized.

However, the description of August 6th is taken from my mom’s account of that day. So much so that when I read excerpts, I can’t help but tear up because I can still hear my mom telling me and crying as if it just happened all over again.

What will students learn from reading The Last Cherry Blossom that will help them relate to this time in history?

Students will learn that there is always another side. My hope is not only to convey the message that nuclear weapons should never be used again; but to also reveal that the children in Japan (like my mother) had the same love for family, fear of what could happen to them, and hopes for peace as the Allied children had. I want the students to walk away knowing that the ones we may think are our “enemy” are not always so different from ourselves. A message, I feel needs to be heard now more than ever.

A discussion guide is available on Kathleen Burkinshaw’s website: http://www.kathleenburkinshaw.com

 

Transporting Students Into the Past With Historical Fiction

What teaches you the perspective of others… the struggles a society may have suffered, the demands of distant cultures, or about an era so far removed from our own, that you are forced to wrap your brain around a different logic?

HISTORICAL FICTION is such a beast. It transports you into the past where life and a culture previously existed. You become part of a world where you walk-the-walk alongside characters dealing with the trials and tribulations of an era long gone.

Creative Commons Read Aloud

When I was in college, we were introduced to Jim Trelease, an educator who stressed that reading aloud builds students’ imaginations and improves listening skills. It also gives them a love of books.

I have read many books aloud to my classes ranging from 4th to 8th grade since my first year of teaching. (In case you aren’t aware, read-alouds are in addition to students’ regular reading and work that is associated with it, not a replacement for it.)

Last school year as a teacher, I used historical fiction to bring life to the social studies curriculum. I correlated our read-alouds to what was going on in their social studies lessons.

I read the section first with my best dramatic voice, and  asked comprehension questions along the way. We stopped, occasionally, for someone to look up a more challenging vocabulary word in the dictionary.  They identified locations on maps; they researched details to know more about a related topic; they ate foods that we read about.

A good portion of the class asked if they could take notes. Before long, everyone was recording in their journals, which supported their required writing and reflection afterwards. As a teacher, I know that annotating their thoughts helps them to develop a stronger understanding of the material and organize the details.

The best part were the discussions sparked by the stories themselves. They were meaningful and thought provoking. Mini-lessons to further understanding were also part of the process.

I collected their journals every week to do a quick check for comprehension and to assign an effort grade. If a student was absent, they picked-up the book and read the pages they had missed. At the end of the book, they took an assessment test. Many reported that our read-alouds with social studies was their favorite subject.

In Blood on the River: Jamestown 1607 by Elisa Carbone, we traced the journey from England to the coast of America on our map. We focused on how the colonists grappled with the hardships of the Jamestown colony as it struggled to survive, discussed their governing laws, and debated how business sponsored the settlement.

We also learned about the introduction of slave labor. When we got to the 13 colonies in social studies, there wasn’t a student in the class who didn’t understand what was involved in starting a new world.

In Under Siege! by (me) Robyn Gioia, we continued our discussion of how European nations were expanding into the New World for resources and the conflict between early colonial groups maneuvering for control.

In the story, my class learned about one of U.S. history’s best kept secrets: the 1702 English attack on the Spanish settlement of St. Augustine, Florida (a city later recognized as America’s oldest). Students deal with the angst and hardship of being under siege inside a fort surrounded by a superior enemy. At the heart of the story is survival and loss, war, friendship and adventure.

In Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson, we see the colonies through the eyes of a slave girl. There were many discussions on the ownership of peoples and the burdens they bore, the dependence of society on slave labor, the laws governing the colonies, the discourse between factions, and the devastating hardships of war.We continued our read into the next book in the series, Forge, which deals with being a slave and a soldier coupled with the realities of war.

Johnny Tremain, by Ester Forbes, was not used as a read-aloud for the entire class. It was read by one of my literature circles. Those students were quick to jump in with further details about the Revolutionary War during open discussions. Insight into the Sons of Liberty was a favorite topic.

There are many wonderful historical fiction books out there. The problem is narrowing it down to just a few. Interacting with history through read-alouds is an excellent way to build conceptual knowledge and for students to internalize the intricacies of that era long ago.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Revised and Updated

Peachtree Publishers is putting new covers on my companion novels Do You Know the Monkey Man and Yes, I Know the Monkey Man! What do you think? Here are the original covers:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And here are the new ones:

Do You Know the Monkey Man was published in 2005. I signed a contract for it in 2003 and I wrote the first draft before 2000. My main character listened to her music on a Walkman in my first draft. (That was changed to “MP3 player” before publication. “MP3 player” rather than iPod, because who knew how long these iPod things would even be around?)

As soon as I saw these new covers, I asked my editor, Kathy Landwehr, if I could revise and update the books. She agreed that I could, so I marked the deadline on my calendar and noted I also had a MUF post due right around the same time. Suddenly I had a topic for this post: revised and updated middle grade novels!

I knew Lauren Myracle revised and updated her Internet Girls series ten years after they were published. I just saw this article on the Nerdy Bookclub blog and learned that James Preller recently revised and updated his Jigsaw Jones books. But when I started talking about this with people in my various writing circles, I had a hard time finding anyone else who had revised and updated a book. I wondered why that was. Were books simply not staying in print long enough to warrant an update?

Peachtree tends to keep their books in print for many years, so I asked Kathy if she could put me in touch with any of their other authors who have revised and updated one of their books. She couldn’t. Because she didn’t know of any other authors who had done it!

She said, “We’ve revised a series that began publishing in the nineties to update some references in the early titles, so they’d be consistent with the more recently published books. The editorial staff reviewed the books and had the author approve all of the changes. Some of our backlist is historical and doesn’t require updates. Many contemporary titles are set in the outdoors and the content, which doesn’t involve much technology, doesn’t require updating. And then there are some titles in which dated references are so thoroughly integrated into the plot that updating them would require a major overhaul. We haven’t felt that this sort of update would improve the reading experience; kids are perfectly capable of understanding older references and technologies, just as they understand them in historical fiction.”

Okay, once I got in to my own revision I understood what she meant by “references so thoroughly integrated into the plot.” Some of the things I wanted to fix weren’t as easy to fix as I had hoped they’d be. It was like dominoes. As soon as I changed one thing, that change affected something else.

Was this really worth it? This whole thing was my idea. Nobody told me I had to revise or update my book.

I talked to my friend Carol Gorman, who has gotten rights back to many of her previously published middle grade novels and released them under her own publishing imprint, Skylark Lane Press. I wondered whether she had done and revising or updating. She said, “I revised and updated all of them, including my first novel, published in 1985! The characters now have cell phones and they like Harry Styles instead of Leonardo DiCaprio. Although Harry Styles is now probably out of date!”

I asked how she felt about the revision and she said, “I think the improvement is mostly that the books will appeal more to today’s kids than if they felt ‘old-fashioned.’ I learned when I taught at Coe College that today’s kids think that anything, say 8-10 years old, is ‘back in the day’ and really ‘old’!”

I also talked to Robyn Gioia, who published a children’s mystery entitled Miss President with a traditional publisher years ago. Like Gorman, she revised it after it went out of print and self-published a new edition. She said, “Self-publishing was just becoming big and many authors were doing it, so I fleshed it out more, made it stronger in several parts but basically kept the story the same.”

But then after a couple of years, she decided to revisit the story. She decided she wanted to turn it into a fantasy! Talk about a major revision! She said, “I had just read the Rats of Nimh to my class and thought it would be fun to work in a different style. I drastically changed the story.  The Ghost, The Rat and Me is totally different than the original and I love this version the best.”

I did decide to go forward with my revision, too. But wasn’t just technology that I updated. The speed limit in Iowa has changed since I first published Do You Know the Monkey Man. (You’d be surprised how many kids wrote to tell me that the speed limit was 70 on the freeway. Not 65 as my characters said.) I also realized psychics probably charge more today than they did in 2000. And teenagers are paid more for babysitting now than they were then.

I ended up changing quite a few things. Things I didn’t necessarily intend to change. Things that had nothing to do with technology. I’m a better writer now than I was in 2000, when I wrote the first draft of this book, so once I got in there, I just couldn’t stop myself from fixing EVERYTHING. I didn’t make any plot changes, but I did a lot of work at the sentence level. And I changed one very big scene that I had never been happy with. I had a different editor at Peachtree when I first published this book. This was one of my early books, and at that time in my career I tended to do whatever my editor said, whether I agreed with her or not. Most of the time I did agree, but there was one scene in this book that I strongly disagreed with my editor on. But I rewrote it her way anyway. And I’ve always regretted it.

Well, now I have a new editor. And a chance to rewrite this book. So I rewrote that scene the way I wished I could have written it in the first place. And I didn’t tell my new editor what I did. If she finds it (and I suppose she could find it if she turns on track changes) and she misses the dialogue I took out, we can talk about it. But I don’t think she’ll find it unless she does turn on track changes.

Working on this revision reminded me of something Elizabeth Gilbert said when she was in Seattle a year ago. She was talking about reviews and how she doesn’t let them get her down. She said, “Do they think I don’t know that’s there? I wrote the best book I could at the time.”

That last sentence really resonated with me. I can be a bit of a perfectionist. (I can hear every editor I’ve ever worked: “A bit???”) The truth is no book is ever going to be perfect. We do the best we can at the time and then we let the book go.

But sometimes we get a chance to take another stab at a book. Under the guise of “updating the technology.”

Now that my “update” is done, I’m glad I took the time. I can’t say it’s a perfect book. But it’s better than it was.

And I can’t say that it’s totally modern. But again, it’s better than it was. And I really appreciated the opportunity to go back and make it better.