Plank Road Summer by Hilda and Emily Demuth (Book Giveaway Contest)
June 1, 2010 in Book Club Possibility, Books With Social Studies Content, Creative Writing activities, Demuth Hilda and Emily, Elementary Educators, Middle Grade Novel, Research Ideas, Tuesday Tales, Writing Skills Tags: Book Giveaway Contest, Emily Demuth, Hilda Demuth, historical fiction for kids, Plank Road Summer, Underground Railroad book
I am happy to be hosting sisters, Hilda and Emily Demuth, on my blog today to discuss their wonderful middle-grade, historical fiction novel, Plank Road Summer. Here’s a description of the book from Amazon.com: ” Welcome to the adventures of two 13-year-olds, Katie McEachron and her friend Florence Mather, who experience an exciting summer in 1852 as the plank road that runs by their homes brings mysterious strangers to their dinner tables and the plight of runaway slaves to their consciences. Katie McEachron is a forthright, impulsive girl who has not yet learned the importance of keeping silent. Her friend Florence Mather, a solemn and hardworking girl, came with her family from Cornwall, England. She has an eager mind, but her mother is less interested in Florence’s education than in having her help at the inn. One day in May, a stranger arrives at the Mather Inn. The visit of the stranger launches a string of events that will make this a most unforgettable summer for the two girls. . . . “
**Anyone who leaves a comment or question for Hilda and Emily will be automatically entered into a comment contest. One lucky commenter will receive a copy of the book. Please leave comments by Thursday, June 3 at 8:00 p.m. CST. Now on to the interview. . .
Margo: Welcome, Hilda and Emily. What made you decide to write Plank Road Summer together?
HILDA: In the spring of 1999, I’d started writing again after a ten-year hiatus, and I was casting about for a new project. Emy had been working on various projects. At some point, she or I mentioned the plank road story she’d had in mind for years. In some free-writing, I described a view of the lilacs from the bedroom window of the farmhouse in which we’d grown up, and somewhere Emy had written a very similar description. She and I had shared that bedroom for many years, after all. For me that was the sign that the two of us were meant to write a story set in our childhood home.
EMILY: It really was my idea to write about the plank road. When Hilda approached me about writing it together, I decided there was a better chance of getting it done if we collaborated. That we were both very familiar with the setting—the lay of the land, the McEachron homestead, the two staircases in the Mather Inn—made the work much easier. We didn’t need to describe to one another what the Mather Inn might have looked like—we’d both been there.
HILDA: And we’d both run across the pasture to visit the neighbor girls, just like Katie McEachron runs across the pasture to visit Florence Mather.
Margo: How wonderful that you took your childhood home and made it into this story! How did the collaboration work? Did you each write different parts, work on it together?
HILDA: That first summer, we spent a couple of days together plotting the novel, sitting up late after our kids went to bed. Emy’s three children and my three, all aged ten and under, were thrilled to spend so much time with their cousins. Early on, Emy and I decided to have two main characters, a toll-gate keeper’s daughter and an innkeeper’s daughter and to alternate the points of view in the chapters. It seemed perfectly natural that each of us would focus on one character. We’d write our chapters and then e-mail the drafts and edit one another’s work.
Margo: E-mail is so wonderful–what did we used to do without it? And with it, you both have created a beautiful, interesting, and educational book for children! Why did you choose to write historical fiction and specifically this time period for children?
EMILY: Hilda and I grew up in Racine County, Wisconsin, on Hwy A, which had once been a plank road. Though I read lots of historical fiction as a child, I never read anything about a plank road. I was fascinated by the idea of horses and wagons and stagecoaches stopping to pay tolls—my experience of toll gates was Mom or Dad dropping coins into the gates as we traveled on the Interstate through Illinois. I actually started writing a story about the plank road as a seventh grader. It just took a lot of years and some help from my sister to get it finished.
The plank road era ran from the mid-1840s-1850s, which coincided with the work of abolitionists and the Underground Railroad in Wisconsin. According to the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, runaway slaves, even when they reached free states, had to be returned to their masters. Enforcement of this law made slavery an issue even in Wisconsin, as people tried to determine what to do when confronted with such a law. It might seem obvious to us, 150 years later, to determine the right thing to do. But I think it’s fascinating to transport children to another time so that they can ask themselves, “What would I have done?” Even more interesting is to consider what issues of our own time will be viewed in a different light 50 or 100 years from now.
Margo: I love historical fiction for the very reasons you just mentioned, Emily. It really does transport children back in time to understand history much better than what they would learn in a textbook! How much research did you need to do?
EMILY:We spent quite a bit of time researching—in archives, at museums and historical sites, and on-line. Most of our research was helpful and added to our story. However, we now laugh at some of the historical details we included in early drafts of the story just because we were so proud of ourselves for knowing them. Those were the details that sounded out of place when we read our chapters aloud.
But just like any writer knows more details about her characters than actually appear in the story, a writer of historical fiction will know more history than actually appears in the book.
HILDA: Some of our research was funded by a Lilly Teacher Creativity Fellowship. As an Indiana teacher, I was awarded a $7500 grant for a project titled “Girls of the Plank Road.” Emy and I embarked on what we called the Plank Road Trip in the summer of 2000. We spent a week traveling to Wisconsin historical sites with an entourage that included my kids, Emy’s husband and kids, our mother, and our younger sister. With the other adults along to supervise the children, Emy and I were free to ask questions and discuss our work in progress. We’d start a conversation with: “We’re the Demuth sisters. We’re writing a book,” and the living history volunteers or museum curators would open doors and drawers and cupboards, eager to share their knowledge and their love of the past.
Margo: Congratulations on receiving such a terrific grant, and all your hard work really paid off. Emily, I know what you mean about all the historical details in your manuscript–I had the same issues when I wrote my middle-grade, historical fiction novel set during the Civil War in Vicksburg, Mississippi! What are a couple of activities teachers and/or parents can do with children who are reading this book?
HILDA: Our website has an eight-page teachers’ guide available free to download. Some of the suggested activities include building a plank road with Popsicle sticks, designing a ninepatch quilt featuring scenes from the book, and writing journal entries from the point of view of various characters. Some readers will certainly want to research the history of the Underground Railroad in their own communities.
EMILY: Hilda also visited a school where students wrote scripts and acted out scenes from the book. How wonderful to see our characters come to life in that way!
HILDA: During my visit to that school I taught–or attempted to teach–students a few old-time dances like the ones that the Yorkville settlers would have known. Another way that readers can connect with the world of Plank Road Summer is by exploring opportunities to learn square dances or circle dances of the pioneer days.
Margo: Hilda and Emily, thank you so much for visiting and sharing your book and writing process with us today! Readers, don’t forget to leave a comment to be entered into the book giveaway contest!