Author Kirby Larson has joined us to answer questions about historical fiction and her latest book, Dash, which is also this year’s winner of the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction.
DW: Congratulations and welcome! What were your favorite books as a child?
KL: I was crazy for Pippi Longstocking (I wanted to be her!) and I loved Mrs. Piggle Wiggle, too. Other favorite reads included anything by Marguerite Henry, the Mushroom Planet books by Eleanor Cameron, and the Encyclopedia Brown books. I recall reading lots of biographies in 3rd and 4th grade, and all through grade school you could find me with my nose in a comic book.
How did you go from a history-phobe to an award-winning historical fiction novelist?
It was all about the human connection. As a young student, I had no concept that history could be personal. Then I heard that snippet of a story about my great-grandmother homesteading in eastern Montana prior to World War I and I was hooked — how did she manage it? Why did she attempt it? And why did she never talk about it? Once I began trying to answer those questions, I realized there are so many rich and wonderful stories waiting to be told, stories about the people — generally girls and women — who did not make the headlines but who still accomplished remarkable things. I have enough such story ideas now that I think I’ll be writing until I’m 99.
I love your author’s note and how the actual Mitsi’s story sparked your idea for Dash. Ideas are followed by research and writing. What did you need to learn about to write Dash, and how did you accomplish that?
That particular episode in American history — the incarceration of nearly 120,00 people of Japanese descent, most of them American citizens — has been one I’ve done lots of reading and research about. So I was fairly well grounded in the general elements of the story. My research for Dash required me to gather more details about Mitsi and her unique experiences. Fortunately, I was able to connect with her family and they were extraordinarily generous in sharing photos, letters and other personal documents. In addition, there has been very little written about experiences at Camp Harmony for younger readers. I had to familiarize myself with the camp so that I could move my characters around on that stage in a believable and authentic manner. I am so grateful to Mr. Louis Fiset for sharing a rare map of the camp with me.
What is your typical writing process?
Have you ever come upon a traffic accident and a police officer says something like, “Move along: there’s nothing to see here”? That’s what writing is like for me! My process is a huge, disorganized mess that no one else should ever be exposed to.
You’ve written before about WWI and II, especially in the U.S. West and Pacific Northwest. What is it about those eras, and those geographic regions, that speaks to you?<
There is a great discussion happening right now about the need for diverse books; I heartily agree that it’s so important for kids to be able to see themselves in literature. When I was growing up, I never saw kids like myself in books. I especially never saw kids that lived in the northwest. It seemed the stories I read took place in the midwest or on the east coast. I think we have a fascinating history here on the west coast and I want to make it as familiar to young readers as Chincoteague was to me. As to the eras I’ve written about: one thing a novelist needs is conflict. And what better source of conflict than a war? Though I do have two more WWII novels coming out, I also have two novels in the works that are set in 1910, sans war.
Kirby is also the author of other children’s historical fiction, including Hattie Big Sky (a Newbery Honor book), Hattie Ever After, The Friendship Doll, Dear America: The Fences Between Us, and Duke. For more info about Larson, see her website. In addition, check out my post last week about Dash and My Scott O’Dell Award Challenge.
Kirby and I have a copy of Dash and some Dash swag to give away to one lucky, random commenter (U.S. only). The winner will be announced next Tuesday. Do you have a question or comment for Kirby?
About a year ago I challenged myself to read all the winners of the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction and to blog about the history and writing lessons I learned from each book. At one book a month, this challenge will take me more than three years, but I’m about one-third of the way to my goal.
This month’s book is the newest winner (named in February 2015): Dash, written by Kirby Larson.
After the attack by the Japanese on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Mitsi’s best friend Dash, her dog, is her only friend, until she meets a new neighbor, Mrs. Bowker. Mitsi wants life to get back to normal, but soon the government declares that she, her family, and the rest of the Japanese Americans and Japanese immigrants on the West Coast must leave their homes for relocation camps. To make things worse, Mitsi is not allowed to bring Dash with her.
Relocation: I was somewhat familiar with the incarceration of Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans in the U.S. during WWII. However, it was eye-opening to see the camps through Mitsi’s eyes. For example, housing was terrible–some families lived in old horse stables.
However, Larson also showed how brave some of the Nikkei (those with Japanese ancestry) were, how they tried to establish a normalcy (schools, newspapers, landscaping), and how they looked out for each other. I was also thankful to see, again through Mitsi’s eyes, that some Americans remained loyal to the imprisoned Nikkei and tried to help them.
Author’s note and acknowledgements: I’ve said it before that I love it when historical fiction authors include an author’s note detailing historical context and additional information. In Larson’s, she reveals her novel was based on a factual Mitsi (Mitsue Shiraishi), who although an adult during WWII, was separated from her dog, Chubby.
Then, in her acknowledgement page, Larson included a website by Densho: The Japanese American Legacy Project, which provides lots of information, first-hand accounts, as well as suggestions for educators. The website also included a terminology section which was very helpful to me, because sometimes official vocabulary used at the time of an event is not accurate. So I learned why, and with what, some of the old terminology should be replaced.
For example, during WWII, the places the Nikkei were sent were called Internment Camps. But, according to Densho, internment is a term for imprisoning non-citizens during wartime. However, two-thirds of the Nikkei “interned” were American citizens. The camps are more accurately named incarceration/prison/concentration camps.
Plot Twist: This is trickier to talk about because I do not give away spoilers. But, there is a plot twist near the end of a story done so well I can think back and recall the trail of clues.
Since I’ve been studying and writing fiction, I can often predict a book or movie ending. However, Larson surprised me. How? She planted clues throughout earlier parts of the novel that suggested one thing, but ended up meaning something different. I can’t say anything more!
Author’s Note/Acknowledgement Page: Not only did Larson tell how she learned factual Mitsi’s story, but Larson also wrote about how Mitsi’s story made her think how she hates to be apart from her dog, Winston. This led to her wondering how difficult it would have been for Nikkei children who were separated from their beloved pets. Those thoughts led to Dash.
Therefore, when I’m developing story ideas, I should ask myself “what if”-type questions, such as how would this situation impact a child? How would I respond?
Finally, Larson thanked people who helped her with her research. It is confirmation to me to keep asking for help. People often go out of their way to aid researchers and writers share stories that need to be told to the next generation. In fact, Larson has agreed to help me! Join us next Tuesday for an author interview (and a book and swag giveaway) with Kirby Larson about Dash!
Larson is also the author of other historical fiction for children, including Hattie Big Sky (a Newbery Honor book), Hattie Ever After, The Friendship Doll, Dear America: The Fences Between Us, and Duke. For more info about Larson, see her website.
For another Scott O’Dell Award winner about a Japanese American WWII experience, see my post about Under the Blood Red Sun by Graham Salisbury.
Have you been separated from a pet for a lengthy time? How did you cope? What other children’s books about the WWII Japanese American experience can you recommend? As historical fiction writers, especially for children, how do we include the vocabulary of the past, yet be honest and respectful?