YA Author Spotlight Presents...
Just like some romance authors choose a certain era to focus on, Barbara Greenwood focuses her YA novels in the time of Pioneer America. She has written a wide range of books from how to handle public speaking (Speak Up! Speak Out!) to how to make some pioneer crafts (Pioneer Crafts). She has a also written some Canadian based tales (The Kids Book of Canada, Spy in the Shadows, A Question of Loyalty).
While Barbara Greenwood grew up in Canada and her Pioneer Series (A Pioneer Story (aka A Pioneer Sampler), A Pioneer Thanksgiving, A Pioneer Christmas) chronicling the lives of the Robertsons takes place in Canada, the way the stories have been written, they may as well have taken place in a pioneer U.S. location.
But the story that I want to focus on today is A Pioneer Thanksgiving. While this is a kids book, it can be enjoyed by those of all ages. The story is well constructed that younger readers won't get lost but not so simple that older readers will get bored.
What makes this a truly great holiday book to own are the wonderful illustrations by Heather Collins and the recipes and factoids provided in each section. There is something for everyone in this book and is definitely worth a read!
Did you know that early harvesters thought that there was a harvest spirit that lived in the plants? I know I didn't, and that's just one of the interesting tidbits that you'll find within its pages. You can learn how to make a Corn Dolly, a Nutting Basket and homemade cranberry sauce from scratch using fresh cranberries!
All kinds of fun stuff, including games the pioneer children played!
Fun and educational for all, a win-win all around!
Now that you know more about the book, let's get to the interview with the author herself!
Q. In the U.S., we celebrate Thanksgiving with a large feast (akin to early harvest celebrations), family gathering and in some cases, prayer. Do you have a similar holiday in your country? If so, what is it called and when do you celebrate it?
A. In Canada we celebrate Thanksgiving on the second Monday in October. Here, it started off as a harvest festival and because we are a northern country, our harvest is in by October. In earlier days, when we were more rural than urban, Thanksgiving started with a Harvest Home festival in church with the altar or communion table decorated with autumn fruits, vegetables and plants. This would be followed by a family dinner with all the aunts, uncles and cousins meeting at “grandma’s” house. Today, it is still a time for large family dinners and most people still stick with the traditional turkey although ham has become an alternative.
Q. What, if any, holiday traditions (decorating, gathering with friends and family for a meal, etc.) do you have?
A. In my family, we meet year about at either my house or my sister’s house for a family dinner. Our children are all adults now, so everyone brings a dish to add to the table and the hostess makes the turkey, stuffing and gravy. We have a large farmer’s market in the city, so just to make it feel more like the olden days we get a fresh, free-range turkey for our “feast.” Decorating is not as lavish as at Christmas and usually has a maple leaf theme as the leaves are turning about this time.
Q. If you were to have a Thanksgiving meal with us, which would you put on your plate: white or dark turkey, white potatoes or yams, green beans or corn, bread rolls or crescent rolls? (If you have other ideas for a Thanksgiving feast, please share them!)
A. My personal preferences are for dark turkey meat, stuffing and gravy, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, broccoli or green beans and pumpkin pie for dessert. We have taken a family decision not to add bread to this large meal but to have carrot and celery sticks on the table instead. The younger members of the family also insist on having exactly the same meal every year because otherwise it wouldn’t be Thanksgiving.
Q. Tell us 3 things you are thankful for this year, please.
A. Two years ago, a few weeks after Thanksgiving, my husband died of a sudden heart attack. I am very grateful this year for the many friends who still remember him with love and who have told me so over these past few weeks. I am also thankful for the 40 happy years we spent together and the four children we raised together because the memories and particularly the children have helped my through the past two difficult years.
Q. Just for fun, if you could be among any of the original members of that first Thanksgiving, who would it be, the Pilgrims or the Wampanoag (Native Americans)? Why?
A. Probably the Pilgrims. They had to have been almost delirious with thankfulness at that first Thanksgiving. They had taken a tremendous risk in coming to a new land, they had suffered backbreaking hardships just to provide themselves with shelter and food, they had nearly died of starvation and miraculously here they were not only still alive but with a harvest that would carry them through the winter. Even though they all knew they couldn’t have done it without their Native American friends they must have felt the most terrific sense of accomplishment and relief.
Q. Considering that feast, what do you think that first harvest celebration meal would be? What would the meal be if it happened in your country?
A. In Canada the early settlers had potatoes, wheat, salt pork, fish and, if they were good hunters, game birds, so their harvest celebration would be a selection of all those foods set out on the table. A little later in their settlement history, they would also have apples, turnips and maple syrup to add some variety
Now, let’s get to your writing:
Q. Why YA Fiction? What’s the draw?
A. I write historical fiction, which I discovered as a reader when I was about ten, but which I really fell in love with when I was twelve and read Cue for Treason by Geoffrey Trease and Mara, Daughter of the Nile by Eloise Jarvis McGraw. Both books, despite their totally different settings, combined adventure and mystery in a way that made history seem heartstoppingly exciting. Both books also explored the ethics and morality of their characters’ actions, an aspect of storytelling that, I think, begins to intrigue young readers as they enter their teen years. I started writing my own stories about then, when I was 12 to 14, and right from the beginning they were stories set in the past. The past is a country that I found intriguing then and which I continue to find engrossing. It didn’t occur to me that writing would ever be anything more than a hobby until I was through university, had been teaching school for a number of years and was raising my own children. Because at the time, my life on every front involved children, it seemed natural to write for that audience. And because I had never lost my love of historical fiction my logical audience seemed to be Young Adult. Also, I often feel that I have never gotten beyond being that twelve-year-old in love with Cue For Treason and I’m really writing for the reader that was me all those years ago.
Q. If you could describe your writing with a word or phrase, what would it be? What do you want readers to take with them when they've finished reading your story?
A. I hope that when readers finish one of my stories they think “that was a cracking good tale.” I want them to feel satisfied that they have, for a short time, stepped into another life and lived an adventure that’s made them both feel and think. This is my test of a good story: as I finish the last page, I turn back to the beginning and start again – slower this time to savour it because the first time I read like the wind to find out what happens next. If I have no desire to go right back to the beginning and remind myself how this great adventure was introduced, then I know it hasn’t been truly satisfying. The best compliment a reader could ever pay me would be to say, As soon as I finished, I read it again.
Q. Have you ever written holidays into your stories? If so, which ones and why?
A. I have written three books about the everyday lives of an early settler family called the Robertsons. Everyday life on a backwoods farm in the 1830s was just work, work, work so to make the stories interesting I concentrated on moments of high emotion when something sad, scary, dangerous or very happy was going on. That’s where the holidays came in. After the hard work of planting, weeding and harvesting the crops, Thanksgiving was truly a joyous celebration. Not only was the backbreaking toil over for a few months but safely stored in barn and root cellar was enough food to carry them through the winter into the next growing season. They were truly grateful for that bounty and for this one holiday in their very hard lives, the dinner table was laden with food. But there were other happy times, as well. In A Pioneer Christmas the Robertsons are not just looking forward to a holiday meal. For families living on isolated farms, winter was their one time for visiting. Not only did they have free time, they also had roads frozen and coated with snow along with sleighs could skim safely, rather than the muddy tracks they faced in summer. And because my Robertson characters came originally from Scotland they also celebrate (in a Pioneer Sampler the first book in the series) Hogmanay, their name for New Year. This is a very important day in the Scottish calendar when the old year is swept out the back door and they wait for a dark haired visitor to bring good luck in at the front door. In each of my three pioneer books a story is woven around the relevant holiday.
Q. Who decides what you write about, you or your muse? What kind of influence do you have over your story, or is the muse always the one basting the turkey?
A. I like to tell myself that my stories are planned, but I know that, really, I am waiting for the muse. However, she doesn’t come without a little coaxing.
Because my stories are all set in the past, the coaxing takes the form of deciding on a moment in history that interests me, and then doing some general reading about that period. As I’m reading I have lurking at the back of my mind, three questions Who, Where and What? Among all this real-life action that I’m reading about I’m asking myself who might find him/herself caught up in this moment and faced with a difficult choice or problem? As the real-life events start to suggest possibilities for the fictional story, the muse starts to stir and, if I’m lucky, she’ll present me with enough intriguing bits and pieces that I can start writing. That’s when she really takes over. My best ideas always come when I’m in the middle of writing. As long as I can get started – and reading background usually does that for me – I can count on the muse to keep the action rolling. So, I choose the topic, then prime the pump to get the muse working.
Q. Have you ever based a character on a real-life person? If so, why? Was it simply to immortalize them or was there more to it than that? If you can, tell us the name of that person, please! We’re all curious here!
A. Everyone I’ve ever met has become grist for this writer’s mill and, just as the millstones grind fine, my imagination grinds those observations fine until a bit of this person and a bit of that person is combined to make a character. And a lot of that combining is done subconsciously. Even though I like to think I’m a careful planner, almost always the next character needed just walks out of the depths and is suddenly there. In Gold Rush Fever, my protagonist, Tim, is wandering along a riverfront street in Dawson feeling sorry for himself and furious with his brother who has rushed off leaving him to look after their baggage. He can hardly take in all the bustle of the little street stalls around him until suddenly he smells pancakes cooking and there at a stall is a girl pouring batter into a frying pan. I had no idea this girl was about to walk into the story but there she was telling Tim to hurry up and get his money out and making sarcastic remarks about city folk who are completely useless out in the gold fields. I had to scramble around to find a suitable name for her (Flora) but as she waved her spatula around like a flyswatter I realized she was just what I needed to perk up my protagonist and make a few sparks fly in the story. I don’t know who she was in real life but I have met a number of Floras – always ordering people around, often being annoying, but sometimes being just the catalyst one needs – so I think I was immortalizing the busybodies I have known.
Q. What character did you have the most fun creating and why?
A. I have the most fun creating some of the secondary characters. Even though I spend most of my time with the protagonist and have to find ways to make his/her interior life as compelling as the action I’m throwing them into, it’s the supporting characters I can really play with. I can exaggerate their eccentricities whether they are sharp-tongued, mawkishly sweet or just odd. For example, in Gold Rush Fever, when my protagonist, Tim, is about to try climbing a treacherous mountain pass on his way to the gold fields, he runs into an old man on the same trek. From the moment I named him Ned Mumby (secondary characters can have odd names as well as odd personalities) I could hear his drawling voice. “She’s some steep, all right,” he says surveying the snow-covered rocky climb, and from the moment I heard that I that I knew not only was he going to be Tim’s mentor but also that he would be both lovable and comic.
Q. If you had the opportunity to meet just one of your characters in real life, who would it be and why? Which of your characters would you never want to meet under any circumstance and why?
A. In my latest book, Factory Girl, I give my protagonist, Emily Watson, a problem to struggle with that is more difficult and upsetting than any that my previous protagonists have had to contend with. The year is 1912, a time when the children of the working poor were lucky to learn to read, never mind get a reasonable education. But so far, Emily has been lucky. She is a bright girl, doing well at school, and she dreams of staying long enough to qualify for one of the new office jobs opening up to women. But then there is a family crisis and Emily is forced to leave school at 12 to work in a garment factory. There she meets immigrant girls who speak very little English, are desperate for the pittance they earn each week and are easily exploited by the factory owner. Emily, too, needs that pittance or her family will starve. Even though she is appalled at the way the child workers are treated, when she is given a chance to speak out publicly, her first impulse is to back away. Bit by bit she summons up the courage to do what she finally realizes only she can do to help the other girls. I would like to meet Emily because she becomes a courageous, feisty girl, but I’d like to know her for another reason as well.
All my books have been illustrated. For this book, my editor and I decided, instead, to use archival photos of actual children working in factories. For the cover we discovered a wonderfully evocative photo of five girls posing outside a factory. The middle girl, who became Emily in my mind, stands, hand on hip, with a look on her face that says “Don’t mess with me.” This is the Emily I would like to meet, that real girl in the archival photo. Ever since I set eyes on her I’ve wanted to know how her life really worked out.
A Story of Harvest Celebrations in 1841 revisits a family I first created for A Pioneer Sampler. By the fall of 1841 the Roberstons have moved from their log cabin to the new, larger house they have just finished building. This year they will celebrate not just the new house and a good harvest, but by the time they sit down to dinner they will also be thankful for a happy ending to what could have been a tragic day.
I feel strongly that for children to become interested in the past, they must meet it first in an engrossing story. If they care about the characters and are anxious about their fate, they are more likely to take note of the historical background. For that reason, this and all my books start with a story. Between the chapters, as the story unfolds, are information pages that explain parts of the historical background that cannot be included in the fiction.
Sarah sat in the little bedroom off the kitchen, reading to Granny. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want-,”
A gentle snoring from the bed interrupted her. She sighed and glanced out the window. A blue jay swooped past, heading to a distant field. How she longed to be out in the crisp fall air! But after the noon meal Ma had said, “Granny needs a bit of company,” so here she was, cooped up in the house.
A soft drone of voices came from the kitchen, where Ma and Nettie Burkholder were making pies for tomorrow’s Thanksgiving dinner.
“She took to her bed the week we gathered in the wheat.” Ma was talking about Granny. Sarah sat up and listened hard. “If only I knew what to do. The foxglove tea’s done her not one whit of good. I’m so afraid she’ll not be with us much longer.”
Sarah’s heart started to pound. Granny? Not with us? Surely Ma didn’t mean … A bubbly snort drowned out Mrs. Burkholder’s answer. Granny was awake again.
“My cup runneth over.” Granny’s voice was little more than a crackly whisper. “Such comforting words.” She sighed. “And the harvest all safely stowed. So much to be thankful for. D’you mind last year’s, Sarah? Och, what a feast we had to celebrate. And those berries! What were they called now? Your mother made such a good sauce.”
“Aye, that was it. What I wouldn’t give for one more taste of that sauce. Well, my lamb, read on.”
Sarah is so upset at what she has overheard that she decides Granny must have the cranberry sauce she craves. But her determination almost leads to tragedy when her little sister follows her down to the cranberry bog. In this combination of fiction and non-fiction, the story of Sarah’s cranberry harvesting along with other stories of the family getting ready for Thanksgiving are interwoven with illustrated information pages about old-time harvest festivals, corn dollies, nutting, how to make bread and much else relevant to the tradition of harvest festivals.
For some non-holiday enjoyment, try the following: