I am thrilled to interview my friend and fellow Creston Books author, Darlene Beck-Jacobson.
Teacher, speech therapist, and freelance writer, Darlene’s stories have appeared in Cicada, Cricket, and other magazines. Her debut historic middle grade novel, Wheels of Change (Creston Books), hits bookstores on September 22, 2014. She has also been working on another historic middle grade novel, A Sparrow in the Hand, exploring the coming of age of two sisters growing up in the coal mining area of Pennsylvania during the 1920’s. A chapter from this novel appeared in the March 2001 issue of Cricket magazine. You can also read this story on her website: http://www.darlenebeckjacobson.com
Here’s what Kirkus has to say about Wheels of Change:
Changes fomenting both locally and nationally during the final year of Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency are seen through the eyes of feisty, bighearted Emily Soper, daughter of a carriage maker in Washington, D.C.
Twelve-year-old Emily loves helping her father in his barn; she even dreams, in futility, of becoming a blacksmith like her father’s beloved employee, Henry. She and her best friend, Charlie, ponder such things as gender roles, women’s suffrage and “horseless carriages.” She dutifully tries to become a lady even while working on a secret that uses her “masculine” skills. As the year progresses, Henry falls ill, and Emily and her family are subjected to the uncertainties of changing times as well as some nasty treatment from white supremacists. Resemblances to To Kill a Mockingbird are strong, especially during a tea party hosted by Emily’s mother. A nice touch: Throughout much of the book, Papa teaches Emily—and vicariously, readers—new vocabulary words. The strength of the text lies in Jacobson’s ability to evoke a different era and to endear readers to the protagonist. The prose is straightforward and well-researched, heavily peppered with historical references and containing enough action to keep readers’ attention.
Readers will empathize with Emily as she goes through her own changes, and they will applaud her heroism in more than one chapter. (author’s note, photographs, recipes, bibliography, websites) (Historical fiction. 8-11)
Darlene, thanks so much for taking the time to do this interview.
It’s my pleasure, Robin.
Let’s start at the beginning. When did you know that you wanted to be a writer, and more specifically a children’s book author?
I’ve loved writing since I was a girl. I wrote letters to everyone I knew and made up stories in my head. Even as a student, throughout school, I was crazy enough to actually enjoy the writing or essay portions of exams. I began writing short stories in the late 1980’s into the 1990’s. Even though the stories were for adult publications at first, there was often a child narrator or main character. I think it may have been my own inner child directing me. There’s something about giving a voice to young people that appeals to me. It was a natural progression to want to write a book for young people.
How did you end up gravitating toward middle grade historic fiction?
It just seemed like a good fit. I love hearing stories of the past from people who lived it. I grew up listening to my dad recount his WWII experiences as a POW in Japan. I listened to my mother tell her childhood stories of life as a coal miner’s daughter during the depression. These are the personal stories you don’t read about in history books. Creating characters in those long ago settings brings the era to life for me.
I think Middle Grade kids like to hear about kids from the past—what they ate, wore, the games they played, and what they worried about. While many of the things seem strange to modern children, there is much that remains the same: friendship, family, getting along, fairness, righting wrongs and fighting injustice.
I LOVED Wheels of Change! I could not put it down. It has a timeless feel, akin to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie, and from page 1 found myself rooting for 12-year old Emily Soper, who unlike some of the adults in her life, was unafraid to take a stand for what is right. What makes Wheels of Change even more special is that it was inspired by the real life experiences of your grandmother, Mary Emily Soper. When did you realize that you wanted to tell her story?
There were two family facts I discovered while researching my family tree. One was that my paternal grandmother’s father was a carriage maker in Washington DC at the turn of the Twentieth Century. The other was that grandma received an invitation to a reception held at the White House by Theodore Roosevelt. She attended that reception and met TR. The story grew from there.
While this was the catalyst for Wheels of Change, I want readers to know the story is NOT a biography of my grandmother’s life. Everything else that occurs in the story is made up. I like to think of it as a re-imagining of grandma’s childhood. The grandmother I knew—and the Emily Soper in WOC—are two entirely different people.
You also explore the socio-economic, political, and industrial changes facing the United States in the early twentieth century. Was this your intention at the outset?
It was. I wanted to show how change affects us all and can bring welcome and unwelcome things into our lives. It’s up to each of us to decide the importance of those changes. We can’t stop change—it still happens all around us. But, if we make it work for us, we can see a better outcome.
From start to finish how long did it take you to write and research Wheels of Change?
It took about five years from the “idea” to a picture book that was too long and complex, and then to the final middle grade manuscript.
I’ve been fortunate enough to read your picture book, Together on Our Knees, about a young abolitionist, Matilda Joslyn Gage. Can you tell us how you became interested in her story?
I found Matilda’s name on a poster of The Alternative Alphabet For Big and Little People under the letter G. When I researched her online, I discovered she was a prominent abolitionist and suffragist who worked alongside Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, yet few people know about her. There are some wonderful books written about her adult life: She Who Holds the Sky by Sally Roesch Wagner, and Sisters in Spirit also by Sally Roesch Wagner. There is nothing featuring her as a child. Together on Our Knees is my attempt to rectify that.
Can you share some insights into your writing process? What’s a typical writing day like for you?
One of the few consistencies in my process is the first draft which I always do with pen and paper. I lose a measure of creativity trying to get the original ideas down on a computer, so I don’t use one until I have a written draft. That frees me up to make mistakes, scribbles and jot down ideas in margins or on sticky notes as I go. I try to write something every day—whether it’s a blog post, letter, a few pages of editing—and on days when I can’t or don’t write, I read or review ideas or plot points in my head to keep the story going, and to work through problems I’ve encountered.
How did you meet your agent?
I am especially happy to answer this question for you Robin since you and I share the same agent: Liza Fleissig of the Liza Royce Agency. I met her—and her co-agent Ginger Harris—at our NJSCBWI annual conference in Princeton, NJ in 2010. I pitched the idea for WOC to Ginger who requested 30 pages. Liza then asked for the full manuscript and made an offer of representation not long after that.
Liza selling the book to Marissa Moss of CRESTON BOOKS is another serendipitous thing we share, since your books, The Case of the Missing Carrot Cake, A Wilcox & Griswold Mystery (illustrated by Deborah Zemke), and Hildie Bitterpickles Needs Her Sleep (illustrated by Chris Ewald), will be coming out with CRESTON next year. It’s fun having that connection.
I couldn’t agree with you more! :)
Do you have any words of wisdom for new writers?
Two things always come to mind and have become a sort of life philosophy with regards to writing: Nothing ventured, nothing gained, which means you can’t be afraid to dive in and write, edit, pitch, ask for critiques, and do what needs to be done to get your manuscript out into the world. The second is, persistence. How many times did Edison fail before he got a light bulb to work? How many other authors faced multiple rejections before a success? If you learn your craft, do the revisions that are necessary and keep trying to improve your writing, YOU WILL GET PUBLISHED.
Lastly, how can your fans get a hold of you if they would like you to do a school visit?
Darlene, many thanks for doing this interview. And congratulations and much success with Wheels of Change.
It’s been a pleasure Robin. Thanks for having me.
And to learn more about Darlene, Wheels of Change, and toys and candy from the early 1900’s, please don’t forget to stop by Tara Lazar’s awesome blog, Writing for Kids (While Raising Them), www.taralazar.com, on September 19, 2014.