By Harriet Alonso, Emerita Professor of History, The City College of New York, CUNY
This coming November 21, Seven Stories Press will publish my first Middle Grade historical fiction, Martha and the Slave Catchers. For over thirty-five years, I have been writing non-fiction books for adults, so you might wonder why I took up my pen (I mean, keyboard) to write for children. And why choose fiction? Believe me when I say that I have thought about these questions nearly every day now for the almost seven years it took me to reach this point. Let me share some of that journey with you, especially as it relates to my commitment to our values as peace historians.
Some non-exact time somewhere around 2010, I started to have the flash of an idea that I might like to try writing a story for children. Part of my reasoning had to do with plain and simple frustration with college students taking my U.S. survey course who were clueless about so much of U.S. history. I could forgive the students who had not been educated in the U.S., but a good number of my folk came directly out of the New York City school system. Why did they know so little? And why were newspapers and educational journals citing studies indicating that most junior and senior high school students hated history? Now, I guess I should ‘fess up here and admit that when I was in those exact same grades way, way back in the late 1950s and early 1960s, I hated history, too. My students often found it incredible when I told them that. But, I said, in the 1980s, I discovered women’s history, and the world changed. So, with the advent of social history, why hadn’t it changed for them?
I had no answers, but I began pondering about what small part I could play in eradicating our bad reputation. One inspiration was a graduate course I team-taught with a colleague in the School of Education called Social Studies Inquiry for Childhood Education that focused on how to build curriculum around the U.S. woman’s rights/suffrage movement. One thing led to another, and through conversations with several educators and a whole lot of reading, I became interested in the materials used to teach children about history. I guess that’s what my brain was centering on when the idea for writing a children’s book crept up on me.
I had written a few pieces of adult fiction but had never seriously tried to have them published. But the children’s book idea was very enticing. And as for subject matter? Well, it seemed an easy choice. The very well-known author’s adage, “Write what you know,” definitely led my way. I had spent ten years researching and writing Growing Up Abolitionist: The Story of the Garrison Children which came out in 2002. Yet, I had never grown tired of reading about abolitionist children, the Underground Railroad, and the personalities involved in that part of our history. In fact, that project led to my developing and teaching courses in U.S. Family History, the History of Childhood in America, and Biography and the Antislavery Movement. When I last taught the U.S. Survey, I asked my students how many of them had studied about U.S. slavery. All had, but none knew anything about the antislavery movement. So I concentrated on that. Several students later told me that the information had opened their eyes to something very new and exciting. Throughout this period, the seeds for Martha and the Slave Catchers took root.
As I tested the waters, I realized that I had to learn a whole lot about how to write for children. During the winter of 2013, when I was on sabbatical, I took two invaluable courses in Writing Children’s Literature at the Gotham Writers Workshop. Every exercise I was assigned I used to try out a different plot point, various voices, different scenarios. By the time I was done with the courses, I had the rough draft for the novel. I then spent a year revising and sending out query letters to agents and editors. In the fall of 2014, I signed with Marie Brown Associates and two years later with Seven Stories Press which is currently expanding its children’s imprint, Triangle Square Books for Young Readers. Seven Stories is a publisher dedicated to human rights and social justice. Check them out at www.sevenstories.com.
Martha and the Slave Catchers is a story about the effects of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 on the lives of two children in Connecticut. Here is a brief synopsis of the plot:
Danger lurks in every corner of almost fourteen-year-old Martha Bartlett’s life—and all because her mama and papa, agents of the Underground Railroad in Liberty Falls, Connecticut, decide to claim as their own the light-skinned orphan of a runaway slave who died in their attic hideaway. They name him Jake.
After the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 is enacted, two hired slave catchers, Will and Tom, kidnap Jake and take him south to the plantation of Robert Dawes, his supposed biological father and “master.” Always ambivalent about her demanding, mischievous, and learning impaired brother, Martha nonetheless feels guilty about his disappearance. After all, it was her job to watch over him on that very day he was snatched. She pledges to find him and bring him home.
Martha becomes part of an Underground Railroad plan to rescue Jake. That journey takes her away from the safe world she has always known to a world full of danger, bigotry, violence, and self-discovery. Missing their connection with famed slave rescuer, Harriet Tubman, Martha and Jake are forced to start their perilous journey north with only each other to depend on. Meanwhile, Will and Tom are always close on their heels. Will they receive help from the Underground Railroad in their escape? Will they make it to safety? Will they ever see their home and parents again? These and other questions are answered by the end of the novel.
I wrote Martha and the Slave Catchers with several ideas I want to share with young readers. I guess you can say, I want to help to build upon the beliefs we in the Peace History Society share about peace, human rights, and nonviolence. To do this, I definitely followed the “write what you know” principle for crafting fiction. But I also kept in mind several rules about writing for Middle Grade students, especially the importance of placing the children in steadily escalating danger which they get themselves out of, keeping the pacing fast, and taking my readers seriously.
So, what are those things I know about?
First, I know about the Garrisons and other abolitionist families, and I borrowed from their stories. There are several incidents in Martha’s story that came right out of my book on the Garrisons. (Some of these are explained on the Martha and the Slave Catchers page on my website: http://harrietalonso.com. I titled the list, “What are the Historical Facts behind Martha and the Slave Catchers?”). I want children to know that young people in the past were raised by parents who felt so strongly about human rights that they put themselves in danger by hiding runaways in their homes. Martha’s home education mirrored that of real abolitionist children in terms of what she read, the games she played, and in her early training that it is sometimes necessary to keep secrets and tell lies if it means freedom for an enslaved individual. When I wrote the book, I was not anticipating the current uncertainty of our own freedoms and those of immigrants in this country. Now I wonder if the story will take on new meaning.
Second, I wrote about what it was like to be a child of two or more races and/or ethnicities in the nineteenth century. Jake is a light complexioned mixed-race child being raised as white in a predominantly white community. Martha discovers at age thirteen that she was a foundling who will never know what her racial background is. My own son is Puerto Rican and European Jewish. I remember well his questions about this mix when he attended elementary school in the 1970s. At times, he was dismayed, and offering up the character of Juan Epstein from the tv sit-com Welcome Back, Kotter, didn’t seem to help. I think it took him some time to work the whole thing out. So, this was something familiar to me personally as it is to many parents and children in mixed-race and adoptive families. Questions of identity are no strangers in children’s lives.
Third, I wrote about disability. Jake is what in today’s terms we could describe as autistic. Because I needed him to be able to perform independently and to be a partner in his and Martha’s escape from the slave catchers, I gave him clear abilities. But my own grandson, who is severely autistic, does not have Jake’s capabilities. Over the years, I have observed his and other autistic children’s behavior and used them to build Jake. His hand movements, his rocking, his fits, his jumping. . . all of these things are taken from my grandson’s experiences. My hope is that the siblings of these children will identify with Martha’s frustration with Jake, but that they will also grow, as she does, to understand their siblings and appreciate and love them for who they are.
Finally, children’s book writing instructors tell us budding writers to get rid of the adults as quickly as possible so that the main characters can save themselves. And while I did adhere to this rule pretty well, I did not do it completely, largely because Middle School readers are still young enough to appreciate their need for supportive adults. However, I did manage to sidetrack Martha’s mother with deep depression and her father, therefore, with too much to do to pay attention to his children. In that way, Martha could be the main person who saves Jake from slavery and brings him home. But Martha and Jake have a strong adult structure that supports them, and that is the antislavery community and the Underground Railroad. I want children who read my book to understand that while children can be strong and creative and brave, there are also adults in their lives who will cushion them, guide them, and help develop them into the next generation of human rights activists.
Of course, I am nervous about the reception Martha and the Slave Catchers will receive when it comes out in the fall. And I am somewhat excited about the new little character who keeps popping her face into my thoughts demanding some attention. I can say for sure that it is challenging to write historically sound, exciting books for children, but I hope some of you will give it a try. If you are thinking about this or currently playing with a story, please get in touch with me. I’d love to see PHSers build on this idea. After all, children are our future, and we must nurture them in the best ways we know how.
I can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.