Welcome back! Vacations are ending, schools are starting, and next Monday is Labor Day! For some of us, this is the time we get back into our “normal” routines and dig into work. For gardeners and farmers, the summer growing season is winding down and the fall harvest will soon begin.
To help us commemorate Labor Day, Erin Hagar, author of the soon-to-be released picture book Doing Her Bit: A Story About the Woman’s Land Army of America, has joined us to talk about some amazing history connecting labor, women, and World War I.
Thanks for joining us today, Erin! Please tell us about your book.
Doing Her Bit is based on the true story of Helen Stevens, a New York City college girl who spent the summer of 1917 training and working as a member of the Woman’s Land Army of America, colloquially known as “the farmerettes.” These women provided crucial farm labor at a time when there were worldwide food shortages and many men were leaving farms to fight overseas or work in factories.
During her training, Helen learns to plow, plant, work with livestock and tend to general farm upkeep. But she’s frustrated that her capable team can’t get hired. Whether a farmer will hire them, and how they’ll do when given the chance, is the central question of the book. (SPOILER ALERT: They get the chance, and they nail it!)
What drew you to writing about WWI and the Woman’s Land Army?
You could have filled a thimble with what I knew about farming and WWI combined. But when I heard Elaine Weiss talk about her wonderful book Fruits of Victory: The Woman’s Land Army of America In World War I on my local NPR station, I was completely hooked. I had two thoughts: 1) How could I not have heard about these women before? and 2) Kids are going to love this “can-do” story.
Women participated in the war effort in multiple ways, but what made the WLA so amazing?
The size, scope, and the level of organization of the WLA was truly incredible. There were state and national offices, partnerships with colleges and universities, and grassroots efforts to connect with garden clubs and other social outlets. It involved politics and recruitment and fundraising and training and PR and logistics. And it all came together within a year and a half or so. To think about this level of organization in the days before instant communication is mind boggling to me.
How is the WLA connected to labor issues and reform?
The WLA was built on the backbone of the suffrage movement, the labor movement, and other progressive causes. One concrete way this played out was with the farmerettes’ wages. The leaders of the WLA wanted the women to get hired, so it was tempting to consider charging a lower daily rate for their work then men would have charged. But this could have caused men’s wages to decline when the war ended, and they didn’t want that. They decided to have the Farmerettes earn the same daily rate as the male farmhands, usually about two dollars a day. Some of that money went back to the organization (for food and other logistical support), but most of it were wages.
In my story (and this part is fictionalized), the team agrees to work for one day with no pay, to show the farmer what they’re capable of. At the end of the day, the farmer haggles to get another free day. The image shows the two sides staring each other down as the sun sets around them. The text reads, “Helen dug her boots into that hard, packed earth. Men’s work deserved men’s wages.” It’s one of my favorite spreads in the book.
What is your research/writing process?
Well, I devoured Elaine’s amazing book and anything else I could find about the Farmerettes. I learned about the food shortages of the time, the debate about the U.S. entering WWI, volunteer efforts on the home front, and the social justice organizations (like the ones fighting for women’s suffrage) that agreed to temporarily shift their focus to support the war effort.
And I read Helen Stevens’ 1917 account of her summer in the WLA published in the New York Times. It was primarily a PR piece, designed to highlight the Farmerettes’ accomplishments and drum up enthusiasm for the next year’s recruitment efforts. I didn’t think too much about this account at first, though, because in the early drafts I tried to have a generic group of Farmerettes at the heart of the story.
Soon, though, it became clear that one of these women needed to be front and center, and of course it had to be Helen. Her NYT piece had so many rich details that I added to the story: her fear of snakes, the smelly turnip plants, the fickle Model-T that often refused to start. It was such fun to rediscover that piece with new eyes, when I was ready to take the draft in a different direction.
What was your publication journey for Doing Her Bit?
Soon after I learned about the WLA, I started the MFA in Writing for Children program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. I worked on this manuscript with two advisors there. I tried to write about the Woman’s Land Army as a longer nonfiction piece, but it seemed so ripe (pardon the pun) for a picture book that I settled pretty quickly on that.
An early version of the manuscript won a prize at the school, which gave me some confidence and some really helpful feedback from a publishing house. Based on that feedback, I revised and submitted it to Charlesbridge. It is the perfect home for this story, and I’m so grateful to have had the chance to work with the great team there.
Erin Hagar writes fiction and nonfiction for children and teens. She grew up on Maryland’s Eastern Shore and now lives in Baltimore with her husband, two children, and a few too many pets. Erin works in curriculum and instruction at the University of Maryland, Baltimore and holds an M.F.A. in Writing for Children from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Learn more about Erin and her books at www.erinhagarbooks.com.
Doing Her Bit will be released Sept. 13. A great place to preorder/order a copy of the book is The Ivy Bookshop, an indie bookseller in Erin’s neck of the woods! I did!
Do any of you have family who participated in the Woman’s Land Army?
Welcome to 2016! We like to observe anniversaries, especially major ones–like centennials, or centenaries. Here are a few events, both sad and happy, that occurred in 1916:
- Much of the world was embroiled in the Great War (WWI), but the U.S. was trying to avoid being dragged into it. Verdun was the big battle in France; it lasted ten months. There were other battles, including the Battle of the Somme and the Battle of Jutland/Skagerrak. President Wilson was re-elected on the platform of staying out of the war. However, early 1917, Pres. Wilson requests a declaration of war.
- Pancho Villa and about 1,500 men leave Mexico and make a raid in New Mexico. U.S. General “Black Jack” Pershing chases Villa back into Mexico. What was up with this? It’s something I’d like to know more about.
- James Herriot, author of All Creatures Great and Small, was born on March 10 (or Oct. 3 or Oct. 13–I’ve seen all three dates). He was one of my favorite authors when I was about twelve. I wanted to be a veterinarian, partly because of his stories.
- One of the best movie actors ever–Gregory Peck–was born on April 5.
- Beverly Cleary, author of the Ramona books (among others) was born on April 12. Her character, Ramona Quimby, is one of my all-time favorite characters.
- Explorer Ernest Shackleton and all his crew from the Endurance escape–and survive–from their entrapment in Antarctic ice.
- The National Park Service was created on Aug. 25.
- Jeannette Rankin (R-Montana) is the first elected congresswoman on Nov. 11.
- And, finally, James L. Kraft patents tinned processed cheese. The following year, these tins of cheese, produced by Kraft and his brothers, become food for WWI soldiers.
I’ve barely scratched the surface. What other 1916 events would you add?
The Great War (1914-1918) was called great because it encompassed so much of the world. It was hoped to be the War to End All Wars. Unfortunately, it wasn’t. The Great War is now known as World War I.
In honor of the 100th anniversary of WWI, I’m compiling a running list of children’s books about the WWI-era that I have read, or that you have recommended to me.
The books I’ve just added to the list are in bold type and annotated.
Christmas in the Trenches by John McCutcheon, illustrated by Henri Sorensen
And the Soldiers Sang by J. Patrick Lewis, illustrated by Gary Kelley (2011, The Creative Co.)–fiction–A young Welsh soldier experiences the Christmas Truce on the Western Front during the first Christmas of WWI.
Knit Your Bit: A World War I Story by Deborah Hopkinson, and illustrated by Steven Guarnaccia (2013, G.P. Putnam’s Sons)–fiction–A young American boy learns how to knit and participates in a three-day knitting competition so he can contribute to the war effort.
Doing Her Bit: A Story About the Woman’s Land Army of America by Erin Hagar, and illustrated by Jen Hill (Coming Fall 2016, Charlesbridge)–fiction
Winnie: The True Story of the Bear Who Inspired Winnie-the Pooh by Sally M. Walker, and illustrated by Jonathan D. Voss (2015, Henry Holt and Co.)–non-fiction.
Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool–fiction
War Horse by Michael Morpurgo–fiction
The Usborne Introduction to the First World War by Ruth Brocklehurst & Henry Brook–non-fiction
Treaties, Trenches, Mud, and Blood (Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales) written and illustrated by Nathan Hale (2014, Amulet Books)–graphic novel, gives an overview of the causes, countries involved, battles, and results of WWI.
Stubby the War Dog: the True Story of World War I’s Bravest Dog by Ann Bausum (2014, National Geographic)–non-fiction–Stubby, a stray dog, adopts some U.S. soldiers, accompanies them to the trenches in France, saves their lives, and comes home a hero.
Five Children on the Western Front by Kate Saunders (2014, Faber and Faber)–A continuation of E. Nesbit’s Five Children and It books when the Psammead–a sand fairy–turns up in the British Pemberton children’s gravel pit again right before the oldest boy is sent to the war in France. As the war continues, the other older Pemberton children grow up, one becomes a volunteer nurse, and another becomes a soldier. Meanwhile, the Psammead deals with his past sins.
The Silver Pony by Sonya Hartnett, illustrated by Don Powers (first published in 2014, by Penguin, Australia)–Two French girls, Marcelle and Coco find an English soldier hiding in the woods. As they help him survive and return home to his sick brother, he tells them stories connected to the silver pony figurine his brother gave him to help him “do his best.”
Remember the Lusitania! by Diana Preston (2003, Walker Publishing)–non-fiction–Eyewitness accounts of the last voyage of the Lusitania, the British passenger ocean liner torpedoed by a German u-boat in 1915.
Women Heroes of World War I: 16 Remarkable Resisters, Soldiers, Spies, and Medics (Women of Action) by Kathryn J. Atwood (2014, Chicago Review Press)–non-fiction–This book features women from both the Allied and the Central Powers.
Hattie Big Sky by Kirby Larson–fiction
Rilla of Ingleside by Lucy Maud Montgomery–fiction
Crossing Stones by Helen Frost–verse novel
The War to End All Wars: World War I by Russell Freedman (2010, Clarion Books)–non-fiction–A thorough look at the causes, the nations, the battles, the technology, the people, and the effects of WWI.
What children’s books about, or set during, the WWI era would you recommend for my list? Why?
And the winer is…Amy Houts! Congratulations, Amy! Please email your address to me, and I’ll get these books sent to you.
In just over a month, on Veterans Day, the United States will honor those who’ve served our country as a member of our military. This day has its origins in Armistice Day on 11-11-1918 at 11 a.m., the day the fighting of The Great War (World War I) ceased.
We don’t talk a lot about World War I in the U.S. I suppose it’s because our military was only involved for less than two years. However, Europe was decimated, and the world is still dealing with the repercussions of that war.
In honor of the centennial of Veterans Day and World War I (1914-1918), I’m giving away a group of recently published kids’ books about the war.
To enter the giveaway, please comment below. I will conduct a random drawing the morning of Tues., Oct. 13. Entries will be limited to non-relatives and to those with U.S. postal addresses.
How did The Great War affect your family? What are some books about the war you’d recommend?