We’re delighted to welcome author Augusta Scattergood for a visit. Augusta writes historical fiction expressly for middle grade readers. She was on the NCTE panel with authors I interviewed about that event, but was gracious enough to share some other insights about historical fiction with us in her very own interview.
I’m particularly interested in what Augusta calls her “messy” approach to research when she is writing a book. When I work with students writing historical fiction, I want them to embrace Augusta’s style of research and realize that the work isn’t done once you’ve started writing the story.
Welcome, Augusta! We appreciate your answering our questions so thoughtfully.
First, how did you come to write history for young people?
I had the dream career for someone who wants to write: librarian. My first novel, GLORY BE, takes place during Freedom Summer, 1964. I was inspired to begin that book when Ruby Bridges came to my school. She talked about how it felt to be a young girl in the south during the Civil Rights years. My students knew her as the first African American child to integrate the New Orleans schools. But her telling of the story was heartfelt and painful, and they were so intrigued and had great questions. When I went home that day, I started to think about the events in my life at the time, with many embellishments!
I’d always loved reading historical fiction, still do, and now my own memories were part of the genre. After I got over that appalling idea, I realized I could set stories in a time and place that I remembered— Elvis and the Beatles, beehive hairdos, 45s.
1974 followed (THE WAY TO STAY IN DESTINY) and then the mid-1950s (MAKING FRIENDS WITH BILLY WONG). My memories weren’t as vivid but they were both interesting times.
The obvious next question might be, why do you write fiction rather than non-fiction, but what our readers really want to know is this: When you write fictionalized versions of history in the form of story for readers to enter, you clearly feel a responsibility to honor the truth of the history in your work. What are your methods for discovering that truth?
Research is one of my favorite things. I know, not everyone will say that, but I’ll always be a librarian at heart.
Before I begin to write, I know the approximate or maybe even the exact time my story will be set. So I read a lot of oral histories online, books and magazines in libraries, and newspapers from the place I plan to set my story. I want a sense of the time and place. Not just the historical events but what the people wore, ate, read, and especially how they spoke.
The big facts in my novels are easiest: When did Hank Aaron break Ruth’s baseball record, when did the Freedom Workers come to Mississippi, what songs might be playing on the radio. But it’s the details I dig deepest for.
And that’s when my research methods get messy! Or maybe they just seem that way.
As I write, I stop to research. Tiny details like the price of doing laundry in a coin-operated washer in 1974 or the name of a popular cookie sold in Chinese grocery stores in the 1950s send me down the Google rabbit hole. Once there, I often uncover something that changes the story, or at least enhances it.
(Maybe this is why it takes me so long to complete a novel.)
To me, the real truth in historical fiction is the story. When a reader connects to the story and discovers something she didn’t know, there’s the hook. Swimming pools actually closed rather than integrate? Chinese children weren’t allowed to go to public schools? You couldn’t sit in your comfy chair and change a TV channel?
This is exactly the kind of detail that gets me (and my students, as well) most passionately involved in stories, too.
What is your favorite source for beginning to research a historical topic (newspapers, museums, libraries)?
So far, all three of my middle-grade novels have grown out of something in my own life. My newest, MAKING FRIENDS WITH BILLY WONG, began when I read something a Chinese American friend had written about growing up and going to my high school during the Civil Rights years in Mississippi. I went right to the source, my friend. After that, I was fortunate that our hometown’s university had recently opened a museum celebrating and documenting the Chinese immigrant experience in the south, something not that many people are aware of.
My favorite place to develop an idea is a library with all its wonderful resources. But I also snoop around museums, the odder the better.
I browse through high school yearbooks and moldy old newspapers. I love second-hand shops. And my own treasures? A set of saved wax lips, a skate key, photographs, old prom invitations reveal a lot about a character.
Oh, I love this list, including the odd museum. Those are the best! Some of my favorite treasures from the research I've done on my current book are a diary, a Valentine card from 1912, and a receipt for the down payment on a truck.
And lastly, do you have any favorite middle grade historical fiction titles to share?
Here are a few of my favorites, in no particular order:
The War that Saved My Life, by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
All of Kirby Larson’s novels
Turtle in Paradise, by Jennifer Holm
The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, by Jacqueline Kelly
Al Capone Does My Shirts (and sequels), by Gennifer Choldenko
Brown Girl Dreaming, by Jacqueline Woodson
Wolf Hollow, by Lauren Wolf
Whistle in the Dark, by Susan Hill Long
This list is chock full of great reads - many I've already read, but some will be stepping up on my stack. Also, the titles you shared here have inspired me to begin compiling a book list for our readers.
Thank you so much for your time, Augusta! I'll be sure to share your thoughts with students when we work on the next collaborative novel.
You can find out more about Augusta and her books by visiting her website.