Bringing History to Life: Ride On, Will Cody!

I’m excited to welcome back one of my favorite authors Caroline Starr Rose to the blog today to answer some questions about her newest book, Ride On, Will Cody!, which releases October 1. Be sure and read part one of the interview as well.

Can you tell us about the upcoming book?

Ride On, Will Cody! is a picture book about the third-longest ride in Pony Express history. According to legend, young Will Cody (later America’s greatest showman, Buffalo Bill) rode for the Pony Express at the age of fifteen. He claimed to have covered 322 miles in under twenty-two hours on a ride that required twenty-one horses. I should add that while most historians now believe Cody didn’t ride for the Pony Express, he no doubt had a huge influence on America’s collective memory of the eighteen-month venture through the reenactments he later included in his Wild West show. On a personal note, I’ve decided even if the story of his ride is more legend than truth, it still embodies the courage of the young men who rode for the Pony Express and gives a sense of Cody’s big, bold character. That’s enough for me.

Ride On, Will Cody! is an in-the-moment adventure as boy and horse (and reader) hit the trail together. I’m so happy readers will soon be able to jump in!

What led you to write this story? What made you decide to tell it as a picture book?

In 2012, my family was on vacation in Colorado. I happened to notice a sign in Golden for a Buffalo Bill Museum and convinced my family we needed to stop in. As I walked through the exhibits, a story idea began to stir. I didn’t know the specifics, but I knew it would be about Buffalo Bill. The following January, I checked out a number of research books. I was pretty convinced my story would focus on Cody’s Wild West show, but his Pony Express work (if it happened at all) was what really caught my attention.

What do you hope readers will get from reading the new book, (or from any of your books)?

I hope all my books momentarily sweep readers away to another time and place. I hope they see courage, determination, and hope — things my books always seem to circle back to.

What makes the historical fiction genre so appealing, both as an author, and as a reader?

Historical fiction allows readers to see people of the past as fully human. Flawed and wonderful. Short-sighted and brave. Their experiences might have been different than ours, but their emotions and motivations are things we recognize in our own lives.

Historical fiction was my true entry point into understanding the past. It went deeper and wider than a handful of paragraphs in a textbook and made history come alive for me. I hope my writing might do the same!

Why did you decide to tell this story, basing it on a real character from history, when your previous historical fiction has had fictional main characters?

That’s a great question. I actually have this historical fiction continuum in my head, divided into five categories. The first I call history light. May B. falls into this one. It’s a story with a specific historical setting (time and place) but includes no historical event or people. On the other end would be a novel like Melanie Fishbane’s recent release, Maud: A Novel Inspired by the Life of L.M. Montgomery. Not only does Maud center on a real person and is full of real events, Melanie had to be granted permission to even write the story! I’d classify a book like this as a five.

For those interested, I’ve called Jasper and the Riddle of Riley’s Mine a two and Blue Birds a three. Both have a specific setting and specific historical events. Jasper mentions historical figures, but I took liberties with the few I brought to life. With Blue Birds I had to go a step further and develop both personalities and motivations for minor characters who were nevertheless based on real people — a bit of a daunting task.

If I’d told myself I was writing a “level four” book For Ride On, Will Cody! (a real person as the protagonist but no official permission needed), I might not have tried. Instead I thought of it as “biography-ish” — an attempt to capture one moment in time in one boy’s life. (It’s not uncommon for me to play word games like this. Showing up to the blank page can be challenging. I want more joy and less angst in my work. Simply altering definitions as to what I’m doing sometimes is enough to do the trick.)

I wanted to reflect Will’s spirit and the determination of the young boys who rode for the Pony Express. I wanted to paint an experience with words. I’m really pleased with how the book came together.

Your first books featured female main characters, and your two latest ones have had male main characters. Has that changed your writing process?

I don’t think it’s changed my writing process, but it has exposed some unknown biases. More than once with Jasper my editor pointed out I wasn’t allowing him to fully experience emotion. Boys might express things differently than girls, but they are still emotional beings. Of course I knew this! My story, though, didn’t reflect this obvious fact. I’m grateful my editor called me on it.

What are the ethics of writing about historical figures? Did it provide any feelings of constraint as an author, or was it freeing having some general outlines of historical fact to work around?

The idea of ethics is an interesting one. I’ve just finished a non-fiction picture book about two historical figures. It was essential I not invent dialogue or events. I wasn’t even comfortable hinting at emotions these two women didn’t somehow express themselves.

For historical fiction, I feel story trumps history. I am very thorough in my research. Any time I deviate from what really happened, I mention it in an author’s note. Ultimately, though, I’m telling a story, and story needs to build and allow for a character to grow and change. I’m okay with simplifying timelines, for example, to better serve a character and her world. It’s my responsibility, though, to tell the reader when I’ve altered things.

I will say “general outlines of historical fact” help to shape plot. There are specific events in a historical timeline that will touch a character’s life. How she responds to these events (based on how she sees the world) is what makes a story.

How do you make the collaboration with the illustrator work when you’re writing a picture book? Do you have a favorite illustration from the book?

Authors and illustrators don’t collaborate. Publishing houses work hard to keep us separate, largely to honor the illustrator’s process. It wouldn’t do to have an author breathing down the illustrator’s neck! I’ve had my turn at the story. Once the book is with the illustrator, he brings his own insight and magic.

I will say that I got to see quite a bit of the process unfold with Ride On, Will Cody!, perhaps because it’s historical fiction and the art director wanted to be sure the depictions were right. I saw early sketches and read comments from the art director to the illustrator, Joe Lillington. It was very much like the author / editor revision process.

I love these illustrations, so it’s hard to narrow things down to one. My favorite, though, goes with the lines Station shines / on the horizon, / hoofbeats thunder, /echo ‘round. Will has been riding for a while and finally sees a station ahead. I imagined him alone, those echoing hoofbeats his horse’s. But the illustration! Oh my goodness. It was so much more than I could have imagined (and a great example as to why the illustrator needs room apart from a hovering author). Joe has included a herd of buffalo in the picture. It’s a great Wyoming scene but it’s bigger than that: The buffalo are a beautiful nod to the man Will Cody will become. The picture truly thunders in a way the language couldn’t on its own.

That’s the beauty of a picture book. The words plus the illustrations aren’t a simple 1+1 = 2 arithmetic problem. When words finally meet pictures the outcome is exponential, something so much more than either could have ever been alone.

Want more information about Caroline or Ride On, Will Cody!? Read part one of the interview and also follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Disclosure: I received a copy of the book from the publisher (but I’ve bought my own copies of some of her previous works). This post contains affiliate links. Thank you for supporting The Deliberate Reader!

Getting to Know Caroline Starr Rose

I’m excited to welcome one of my favorite authors Caroline Starr Rose to the blog today to answer some questions about herself and her writing process. Come back for part two of the interview, where she’ll explain her “historical fiction authenticity scale” and share about her newest book, Ride On, Will Cody!, which releases October 1.

Caroline Starr Rose
Can you tell us a little about yourself?

I’m a former teacher, a mother to two teenage boys, a pastor’s wife, and a children’s author. We’ve lived all over the country but have spent the last seven years in Albuquerque, NM, where my husband and I grew up. It’s been so special to share this place we love with our sons.

What do you do when you’re not writing?

I run, read, work crosswords, walk the dog, go to my boys’ sporting events. I love to cook when I have the time. Otherwise, not so much. My life is pretty uneventful, and I love it that way.

What’s your favorite picture book from childhood?

The Littlest Rabbit by Robert Kraus. Revisiting it as an adult, it’s a little weird (Rabbits throwing punches!), but I loved it as a girl.

What’s your favorite under-appreciated novel, whether for adults or children?

Undoubtedly it would be Long Night Dance by Betsy James (YA speculative fiction). Betsy spoke to my adolescent literature class at the University of New Mexico over twenty years ago. I picked up Long Night Dance soon after and was entranced. Every few years, I’d search to see if she’d continued the story. When we lived in Florida, I found the second book. In Virginia I found the third and wrote Betsy gushy fan mail. When we moved back to Albuquerque, I found out Betsy was offering a writing workshop and immediately signed up. We’re now friends and — this was huge for me — she let me read the fourth book in the series, Roadsouls, when it was still in manuscript form.

Has being a writer changed you as a reader?

Oh, yes. I used to be quite the reading snob (not that there’s anything wrong with that!). But the longer I’ve written, the more I’ve learned to appreciate books that I might not have picked up fifteen or twenty years ago. I think knowing the hard work that goes into writing has both broadened my taste and shown me plenty to admire in the books I’ve read. I’m constantly impressed with the way other authors tell a story through their choices with plot, structure, form, and point of view.

Is there any particular author or book that influenced you growing up, or influences your writing today?

I would have to say of all the authors I admire, Beverly Cleary has had the biggest impact on my writing. Ramona Quimby is hands down the best middle-grade character ever written. (This is my humble opinion, but it feels like absolute fact.)

The thing that has really struck me as an adult re-visiting the Ramona books is the compassion Beverly Cleary has for her character (and by extension, her young readers). Though she doesn’t shy away from awkward moments, there is a tenderness in the way Cleary deals with Ramona when she throws up in class, when she kicks her bedroom walls in anger, when she names her doll the most beautiful name she can think of — Chevrolet.

These books have reminded me what it was like to be a child. They nudged me to be more patient with the young people in my life. They’ve encouraged me to treat my characters with respect and love.

What’s the most difficult part of the writing process?

Well, all of it! But seriously, drafting is the part I like least. Everything is so wide open, it can be paralyzing. I don’t yet know my characters and their world (even if I’ve spent extensive time researching a setting and the history surrounding it). There’s a lot of stumbling around and wrong turns involved.

What do you love most about the writing process?

I love revision work with my editor. It can be incredibly hard (see above) but is so rich. At this point, the story is really underway. Major changes are still possible (twice over with Jasper and the Riddle of Riley’s Mine I tossed two-thirds of the manuscript and started again), but usually the focus is on digging deeper, making connections, really bringing the book to life.

I love, love, love returning to the world that’s under construction, spending time with the characters who become more real and complex and human as each day passes. It’s utterly absorbing. After reading the same (altered) manuscript for years, I’ve not once found myself bored. It’s fresh and exciting every time.

You’ve written 2 picture books, 2 novels in verse, and 1 prose novel. How do you decide what format fits which story? Is that planned in advance, or have you ever changed it after beginning a story?

I’ve never debated if an idea is a picture book or a novel. Knowing if a novel is meant to be written as verse or prose is another thing entirely.

The conventional wisdom is to read one hundred books in your genre (or form) before attempting to write in that style. I’d read all of two verse novels before writing my frontier story, May B., but that was because I had no intention of writing this way. My early attempts at the story fell flat. The ideas in my head were far from the words on the page. When I returned to my research I realized the voices of pioneer women were careful and spare, a reflection of their stark environment. I knew if I could mirror their voices I would be able to tell May’s story most truthfully.

I knew my Klondike Gold Rush story, Jasper and the Riddle of Riley’s Mine, was going to be prose, but I was convinced at first it would be an epistolary novel. It didn’t take long for me to realize this form did not suit my boy — a kid who didn’t take to schooling was hardly going to express himself with the written word.

Of my published novels, it’s only been my Lost Colony story, Blue Birds, that started as verse and stayed that way.

Form must absolutely serve the story and not the other way around.

Have you written a book you love that you haven’t published?

Several…and many more I’m so glad have never seen the light of day. I would suspect most of us who write fiction have experienced the same. There are a couple still making the rounds that — fingers crossed — will someday find a home. Hope springs eternal.

What’s been the best compliment you’ve received as an author?

I’ve received messages from both dyslexic children and adults who have read May B. and connected with the story. Here’s a beautiful example:

“At the end of May B., I am crying. I am crying at the ways she is so strong and capable. It was as if you were writing right into the places of my heart where those accusations of being careless and not good enough had settled. And you whispered that like May, I could overcome. I could hope for the good things even when they are hard. Thank you, Caroline. Thank you, May.”

How has releasing a book changed now that you’ve done this 5 times?

When May B. was a week from release, I wanted to climb under my bed and hide. After months of excitement, I suddenly felt dread. I couldn’t take back what I’d written. Soon everyone could see it and would have an opinion. That was kind of terrifying.

Generally, I’m a little more mellow than that first time around, but I’ve also learned to acknowledge patterns that come with the release of a book (and to treat myself gently in the midst of them). The nerves start a few months out as trade reviews roll in. (I always take a deep breath before opening an email from my editor that begins A review from Kirkus / Publisher’s Weekly / Booklist / School Library Journal). I am entirely too involved with stats those first months after a release. Penguin Random House has an author portal which uses Neilsen BookScan numbers (never a good representation of books like mine, generally marketed to schools and libraries, let me tell you!) and also tracks the number of books shipped (a better glimpse of sales). After the third-month mark, bookstores start to return unsold copies. It can be depressing. Honestly, it’s more information that is beneficial for any author to have.

I try to remember if my editor is proud of the book and I am proud of the book, that’s enough. I’m getting really, really close to believing this is true.

Want more information about Caroline or Ride On, Will Cody!? Come back Friday, and also follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Disclosure: I received a copy of the book from the publisher (but I’ve bought my own copies of some of her previous works). This post contains affiliate links. Thank you for supporting The Deliberate Reader!

May B. by Caroline Starr Rose

May B by Caroline Starr RoseMay B.May B. by Caroline Starr Rose. Childrens' book review by The Deliberate Reader by Caroline Starr Rose

Beautifully written in verse, May B. tells the story of a young girl sent to help out on the neighbor’s homestead. “Just until Christmas” she is promised by her father, and she knows that they need the money she’ll be paid.

Long before Christmas May B. is abandoned and left to fend for herself on the isolated homestead, and she struggles to survive.

Her current struggles echo her memories of trying to read at school under a new teacher.

I didn’t expect to love the book as much as I did, but May B. is an engaging heroine and long after I finished the book I’ve thought about her and hoped for a sequel, to learn what happens to her.

This is a very quick read, and if you enjoy children’s historical fiction at all I think it’s worth trying.

Find the book: Print | Kindle | Goodreads

Publisher’s Description:
May is helping out on a neighbor’s Kansas prairie homestead—just until Christmas, says Pa. She wants to contribute, but it’s hard to be separated from her family by 15 long, unfamiliar miles. Then the unthinkable happens: May is abandoned. Trapped in a tiny snow-covered sod house, isolated from family and neighbors, May must prepare for the oncoming winter. While fighting to survive, May’s memories of her struggles with reading at school come back to haunt her. But she’s determined to find her way home again. Caroline Starr Rose’s fast-paced novel, written in beautiful and riveting verse, gives readers a strong new heroine to love.

Book Details

Title: May B.
Author: Caroline Starr Rose
Category: Fiction / Children’s / Historical fiction
My Rating: 4.5 Stars

Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. Thank you for supporting The Deliberate Reader!