Laurie Halse Anderson’s has written all kinds of books for kids. She has published everything from fun, clever picture books (1998’s Turkey Pox) to intense, young adult novels such as Speak (1999), a look at the emotional aftermath of date rape.
No matter the subject, Anderson, 49, approaches each project with the same amount of dedication. She knows that if a manuscript doesn’t read true—if a young person can see holes in a character or plotline—it just won’t cut it. That commitment to honesty has earned the Mexico, N.Y., resident an intensely loyal following.
“Kids don’t like being tricked,” Anderson said in a phone interview during a recent break from the tour to promote Forge, released last November. “They are passionate consumers of literature, and they know what they want.”
Forge is the second book of historical fiction in a trilogy following the lives of two young former slaves. It focuses on 15-year-old Curzon as he endures struggles as a Patriot army soldier during the Revolutionary War.
Anderson began the trilogy with Chains in 2008. In her typical fashion, Anderson immersed herself in the historical details of the storyline. She spent time at Valley Forge, tracing the footsteps of a young soldier—without the benefits of modern conveniences like North Face outerwear or even shoes--in order to develop a deeper understanding of a young soldier’s life. She also submitted her manuscript to historians for review of its accuracy.
“When you are writing historical fiction, the preparation is important,” Anderson said. “(As authors) we know the kids are going to be interpreting these characters and it is up to us to be accurate.”
It doesn’t hurt that Anderson has a genuine love for history. “I’m a very patriotic American,” she said. “So I adore the opportunities I have as a writer to help young people develop a deeper understanding of daily life in a different time period.”
Anderson is acutely aware of how her readers respond to her work. The tour to promote Forge included stops at schools, enabling her to hear readers’ reactions firsthand. “It’s a blast,” Anderson said. “The traveling gets to be a hassle after a while. But it’s a small price to pay in order to be able to do this.
“When I come into a school and talk to kids, I feel a little like Mary Poppins,” Anderson added with a laugh.
Anderson said some of her ideas come directly from readers. The basis for her 2009 novel, Wintergirls, evolved from letters and e-mails from young people struggling with eating disorders.
Perhaps surprisingly, Anderson said that her own four children, now adults, are not among her sources for material. She has made a point to keep them out of her manuscripts. In fact, aside from her oldest daughter, who manages a bookstore, Anderson’s children have remained rather uninvolved in her writing life.
Anderson is also an avid blogger (madwomanintheforest.com), giving her fans a look at her life and writing process.
As much as she loves having such a strong link to readers,
she admits that there are times when she has to unplug and disconnect.
“You have to seek the balance,” she said. “When I’m home and I’m writing, I don’t have as much time (for blogging). I don’t have any Internet access in the house I write in.”
That would be her writer’s cottage on her Mexico property, where Anderson retreats to work on her manuscripts. Nestled in the woods, the cottage was built for her as a gift by her husband, Scot Larrabee.
Anderson, a native of Potsdam, is a graduate of Fayetteville-Manlius High School and Onondaga Community College. She went on to Georgetown University and later worked as a reporter before life’s twists brought her back to Central New York. Anderson has lived in Mexico since 2004. She said the weather and the rustic vistas of Oswego County are conducive to the writing life.
“You know, I love cold weather and snowy days. So, I love where I live,” she said. “But, it’s also the people here. This is a community of hardworking people, and there is a lot of emphasis on family values.”
As much as Anderson loves her work, and as much as she champions youth literacy, her own reading skills took some time to develop. She credits her second-grade teacher, and a lesson on haiku, for planting the seeds of the author she has become. To parents who are concerned that their children may not be reading as easily or as much as they would like, Anderson said in many cases, it’s just a matter of finding the right book.
“I have never in my life met a reluctant reader,” she said matter-of-factly. “It’s about finding material that speaks to them--something they can feel a personal interaction with. Kids are curious about the way the world works.”
Among the best resources for new readers are school librarians. “A good librarian can show kids that they have a wide range of choices no matter where they are. If I could do anything, I would mandate that all schools have a professional, full-time, certified librarian on staff. When schools face tough academic decisions—as so many are these days—librarians are often among the first to be cut. Librarians are not protected and don’t have job security,” she said.
“I’ve always said, the library is the heart of the school,” Anderson added. “Librarians are absolutely necessary, and schools with good leadership support this.”
With a lengthy promotional tour under her belt, Anderson expects to be spending some quality time in her cottage over the next few months, working on new projects. The third book in her historical fiction trilogy, titled Ashes, is written and scheduled for release next year. ■
Award-winning writer Tammy DiDomenico lives in DeWitt with her husband and two sons.