Q: Of all the disgraced former presidents available, is there any special reason you chose Millard Fillmore to host your ghostly tours through American history? A: Why Millard Fillmore? I read years ago that some folks in the city of Buffalo had a tradition of lampooning President Fillmore on his birthday. Scores of people would gather at his grave on January 7th to bask in his obscurity. This struck me as a delightful tribute, and I've carried it with me. In my way, I'd say I was honoring the tradition of giving this man a bit more than perhaps might be expected. In addition, I also carry with me a bit of an asterisk to his legacy. Fillmore's presidency is complicated by, and doomed by, the Fugitive Slave Act. On the surface, he signed it and the case is closed. On a deeper dive, Fillmore (who "detested" slavery) truly believed his oath of office compelled him to sign the Act, albeit reluctantly, because of the existing fugitive slave clause that was already enshrined in the Constitution (that's right, all of the Constitution signers signed a fugitive slave act, and Washington penned another years later . . . lots of signers, clauses, acts, etc.). While all things "fugitive slave" now land squarely and solely on Fillmore's plate, in reality he felt he had to defend the Constitution, for better or worse. With that perspective, don't we want all our presidents to follow the oath to protect the Constitution? At any rate, in signing the Act, Fillmore stated that his reputation would be ruined. He was right. I might feel a bit sympathetic to his unwinnable situation. All that said, probably the main reason I went with Millard Fillmore...his name is simply, absolutely fabulous. It's fun to say. Q: The presidents showcased in The Presidents Did What? and The Presidents Did What, Again? did some truly, famously awful things, which the text never flinches away from. Nevertheless, both books are amazingly lighthearted! Do you have any tips or tricks for striking this notoriously tricky balance? A: As a host, Millard Fillmore sets the tone of the book. He has good-natured, outsized confidence and bravado, which makes him perfect for lighthearted quips and jabs, although there is nothing lighthearted about the topics! The topics I explore are genuinely traumatic, and everything I cover is thoroughly available in very serious tones amongst countless works. I wanted to create an atmosphere where historical topics that need to be introduced to readers are done so in an accessible way, which, in my case, is a bit of levity. I also believe that the apologetic nature of the presidents themselves helps to convey not only remorse, but an understanding that in today's world, these events most likely wouldn't have happened as they did, and our current presidents wouldn't make such decisions (we'd hope!). The presidents in my books are generally sorry for what they've done. This, combined with a bit of humor, strikes a balance with the weight of the history. Q: Authors writing politically inclined children's books usually tackle the subject from an inspirational angle. But you've taken a different approach, to say the least! Can you talk about why you feel it's important for kids to be told the bad side of history and politics, as well as the good? A: In truth, any formative geopolitical literacy requires the unfortunate understanding that nearly all of our relationships are a result of, or were forged in, conflict. The bad stuff. How we relate to ourselves, our neighbors, and our global community has been shaped by, in more times than not, a fairly lousy experience. If we want our future citizens to be responsible, accountable, and prepared players, whether in a global society or in the neighborhood, we have to fully disclose our history. Conversely, some of our crowning achievements as a progressing people came from overcoming our darkest times and most deplorable decisions. Kids need to hear all sides of our story. I'll give the last word to President James Garfield: "The truth will set you free, but first it will make you miserable." To learn more about Wag Harrison, check out his books, The Presidents Did What? and The Presidents Did What, Again?.
Q: How did you choose your Six Revolutionary WOW Factor Women? Did you know all of their names before setting out to write this book, or did you set out to research inspiring women of the era and discover them in the process? Which figure did you personally find most inspiring? A: Writing is a curious journey. Topics somehow find me, invade my thoughts, and refuse to let me rest. I started out researching an ancestor, Sidney Johnson McMechen, who exchanged her comfortable life in Maryland for pioneering life in wilderness near what later became Wheeling, WV. I wanted to understand how her life must have been, the choices she made, and her methods of creative problem solving. It occurred to me that maybe, if I learned about other women of that time, I might solve the mystery surrounding my ancestor. At the time, my cousin-in-law was curator of manuscripts and rare books for the library of The College of William & Mary. She introduced me to Ann Wager, the schoolteacher in Williamsburg, whose story appears in my book. She also recommended myriad sources pertaining to women in America’s colonial period. I was at the WOW Women buffet! I chose to study women of various backgrounds who were faced with difficult choices and used creative problem solving to resolve them. My hope is that these women will serve as positive role models for my young readers as they begin to make choices and engage in creative problem solving. I love all six of my revolutionary WOW factor women. I believe Elizabeth Freeman is the most inspiring, although I do also have a sentimental favorite. My West Virginian grandaddy was a storyteller, and I always loved his tale of how Betty Zane saved Fort Henry. I have yet to understand why Sidney Johnson McMechen chose to be a pioneering woman, but I did learn more about Betty Zane, who lived at the same time and in the same location as my grandaddy’s “Way-Back-Many-Greats” Grandmother, whose story had inspired my research. Q: I understand one of the more unique jobs on your résumé was leading ghost tours around Colonial Williamsburg and Yorktown! How and when did you first become interested in history? How did your enthusiasm for the topic help you engage with audiences? A: Whether it is through the written or the spoken word, my constant goal is to make the world a little brighter. For those wondrous moments when I engage the young and not-so-young in a story, I invite them to slip away from this troublesome world and into my world, where history comes alive and all things are possible. Although the connection between literature and history always interested me, I became a storyteller, not an historian. Ghost stories evolve over time as folks try to explain the unexplainable. As a teller of ghost stories, I did my best to entertain—not scare—adults and children so they might imagine the strange and interesting events that occurred in the historic homes of Williamsburg and Yorktown. As I grew as a storyteller, history gradually came alive. Remembering dates was no longer a chore. History had a grip on me. I even became a part of history when I learned, to my surprise, that the cannonballs still lodged in the exterior walls of several historic (and ghost filled!) Yorktown houses were made by Baker Johnson, the brother of my mysterious ancestor, Sidney Johnson McMechen. Those cannonballs were made at the request of George Washington to be used at the Battle of Yorktown, the decisive battle of the Revolutionary War. Q: Each WOW Factor Woman's story ends with a short discussion prompt designed to examine the story for its main takeaways. How early on in the writing process did you decide on this structure? What advice would you give other writers to build audience engagement into—or around—their own work? A: A group of friends, third and fourth grade teachers, helped me brainstorm my idea for this story. They suggested approaching this project as values-based historical fiction, written as a compilation of short stories. These teachers expressed a need for recreational reading during units about the original Thirteen Colonies and the American Revolution. They had plenty of biographies and histories available but lacked historical fiction, especially about women. Thus, the “WOW Factor” was born. When faced with a challenge, each woman had to dig deep within to make a choice and engage in creative problem solving. She may have used courage, respect, perseverance etc., as she discovered her WOW (“Watch out World—I can do this!”) factor. Everyone, no matter what age, can use a little personal insight. My hope is for these women to emerge as role models for readers, and that the world will be a brighter place as my readers, young and old, discover their own WOW Factor! As I see it, part of building audience engagement is inviting the reader to continue thinking about the story after it is finished. At the suggestion of my teacher friends, I included a pinch of history at the beginning of each story to give context, then ended each story with reflective questions. My hope is for these reflective questions to encourage communication between readers, whether it occurs in the classroom between students, classmates, and teachers, or at home with the family. Already, I have received encouraging confirmation that the stories live on in readers’ minds once the book is finished. One teacher has expanded her unit on foods of the colonial period to include foods mentioned in Six Revolutionary WOW Factor Women. Another teacher plans to incorporate the WOW Factor women into a class’s annual living history museum trip. Giving advice is tricky. But once you have your idea, it’s important ask yourself two soul-searching questions: Why am I writing this, and Who is my target audience? When you determine your audience, then you must think outside the box about what fun details you can weave into your story to keep your audience engaged, even long after the reading is finished. Burglars? A battle? Asparagus ice cream? Yes! To learn more about Heidi, check out her book, Six Revolutionary WOW Factor Women!
Q: Both of your Peter Polo books are full of rich cultural and geographic details of the time period. I understand you've spent a good deal of time in Asia yourself! What would you say sparked your interest in the history of the Silk Road? A: I started reading about Marco Polo when I was in elementary school, and I was especially interested in his adventures along the Silk Road. His tales of encountering new foods, customs, and landscapes really stoked my imagination, and I tried to read everything I could about the history and culture of that part of the world. As I grew older and had the chance to live in and travel to many of the same places Marco had visited, I was even more amazed at the stories he brought back with him to Venice, particularly at a time when Europeans knew so little about Asia. Q: Writing a long journey can be tricky: If it's too long and detailed, the reader will get bored; but if the trip is too short and easy, the main conflict loses steam, and the stakes don't seem very high. Peter's stories both begin with long, dangerous journeys across the Great Khan's empire. When working on this type of narrative, what do you do to maintain that balance? A: That is a great question, because I struggled throughout the book to maintain the balance you mention. I tried to break up the journey with moments wherein Peter and his friends encounter dangerous situations, and then sustain the action long enough build a sense of suspense in the reader. After I wrote the scenes, I would try them out on my chief critic—my wife—and often, it was back to the drawing board, based on her advice! The experience really made me appreciate the true masters of writing adventures for young readers. Q: An important part of any great journey is its end—when characters can either remain where they are, return home, or find some new destination or goal to pursue. If given the choice, which do you think Peter would choose? Would he want to remain in the Great Khan's court, return to his childhood home in Venice, or strike out in search of his own adventures? A: Another great question! Peter would find himself in a quandary when it comes to where he wants to be, as do many of us at different points in our lives. On the one hand, he is with his friends and brother at the court of the Great Khan in China, and that is certainly where he is happy in the moment. However, in both books, he exhibits a touch of homesickness for Venice, in particular his family and the food, and he daydreams of going back there one day. And then there is his longing to go places where he can make his own mark on the world, just like his brother Marco. That desire keeps him motivated to seek out new adventures with his friends—and it is what will take him to ancient Korea in the next book! To learn more about Craig, check out his two books, Peter Polo and the Snow Beast of Hunza and Peter Polo and the White Elephant of Lang Xang!
Surrounded by the opulent beauty of the Jefferson Hotel, I sat with author Marilyn Seigle. Almost immediately, we fell into easy conversation. As Marilyn regaled me with tales from her childhood in Kansas City to her shotgun wedding some years later, I found myself getting caught up in her life stories, almost as if I’d been there myself. You see, at 87 years young, Marilyn has lived an enviable life--a life full of laughter, love, and stories worth telling. At her core, Marilyn is a storyteller, and it doesn’t take more than an afternoon with her to see that. As her daughter, Sally, who joined in our conversation, put it, her mother “has wonderful stories that she tells very well.” When I asked Marilyn how long ago she began writing stories, she knew right away, down to the year. It was 1955, about six months after her whirlwind wedding with army officer John Seigle. Before getting married, Marilyn and John had known each other for only three months and ended up planning their wedding in three days. According to Marilyn, “the rest was history,” and the two enjoyed forty years of marriage together. It was during that first year, though, that the realities inherent with military life began to set in for Marilyn. The two were living at Fort Knox, and John was away much of the time due to the demands of his military career. At the time, there was a hiring freeze on at the post, and Marilyn was unable to get a job. So, she picked up a pen and started writing poetry. Up until then, Marilyn said, “I didn’t even know I could write verse.” Ever since, Marilyn has turned to writing in tough times and in good. She recounts a time when she was stuck on a broken-down subway train, which was an especially unfortunate situation, because she has combated claustrophobia for years. Marilyn said, “Any time I’m in a difficult situation, I can talk [or write] my way out of it,” and that’s just what she did. As she sat on the train, the lights flickering above her, she calmed her escalating nerves by taking out her pen and paper, and writing this verse: Here I am, alas alack! Sitting down here on the railroad track, Where it’s dark and not so pretty, In the bowels of New York City. Surely wish someone would come Fix this train and make it run… As Marilyn casually rattled off the little poem she had written on that broken-down train, I sat completely delighted and totally amazed by her ability to remember those words she had written so many years ago. This was not the first (or the last) time during our conversation Marilyn broke out into verse, and somehow, each instance was even more endearing and hilarious than the last. With so many entertaining poems and stories at her fingertips, it’s a wonder that Marilyn didn’t seek a publisher for her work earlier in life. Indeed, Marilyn became a published author at the age of 85, with the publication of her adorable children’s book, Bunny’s Busy Day in 2016. When I asked Marilyn what prompted her to seek out a publisher, she said that many people encouraged her. Of course, her family, especially her brother, urged her to get her work published, but she was always hesitant for fear of how difficult it might be. In the end, it was one of Marilyn’s closest friends and Brandylane author, Tansill Johnson, who finally convinced her. Marilyn said, “Tansill is the one who got me to you, and I’m forever grateful.” When it came to choosing which story she wanted to submit for publication, and there were many to choose from, Marilyn said she picked Bunny’s Busy Day because she wrote it for her grandchildren nearly twenty-five years ago, and it’s a special one. The story follows the Easter Bunny as he prepares for Easter morning. Johnny and Andrea Bunny, named after Marilyn’s grandkids, must help the Easter Bunny fill baskets to the brim so that they’re ready to be delivered to children on Easter morning. A sweet and adorable tale, Bunny’s Busy Day has proven to be a holiday favorite. Since the publication of her first children’s book in 2016, Marilyn has been inundated with requests from friends, family, even acquaintances, asking her to write poems for them. From get-well cards and thank-you notes to anniversary poems and birthday verses, Marilyn’s poetry has become quite the commodity. Marilyn is tickled every time she receives a request from someone, and she’s happy to oblige! But that’s not to say Marilyn hasn’t been busy with other writing endeavors—she’s been hard at work with us in publishing her second book, Boswell Bear Goes to School. Marilyn said she absolutely had to have another book published because “one is a fluke, but [publishing] two shows I’m a real author!” Boswell Bear Goes to School officially releases March 15, 2018. To Marilyn’s extreme delight, during our conversation we were joined by Robert Pruett, founder and president of Brandylane Publishers. It was at this point that any semblance of formality in our conversation melted away. When Marilyn saw him, she exclaimed, “You’re one of my favorite people!” and Marilyn, Sally, and Robert commenced to chatting like old friends, despite this being the first time they’d met in person. The conversation became a blend of one story after another. Robert talked with Marilyn and Sally about his career as a teacher, road trips gone wrong, his time living in the Northern Neck, and how Brandylane came to be. Marilyn, with hilarious interjections from Sally, talked about experiences living abroad in Germany and Belgium, a p-p-peachy trip to Turkey, and summers in Italy. The three of them chatted about everything from friends, family, health, and books, to the phases of life. All the while, I laughed along with them, happily listening to each story they shared. As the conversation came to a close, and we began saying our goodbyes, it struck me just how special it is to be in a room full of storytellers. It’s a unique privilege to be able to listen to stories that become even more special in the telling, and I feel privileged to have shared this story of the first time I met the witty, effervescent, and exceedingly endearing Marilyn Seigle.