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Getting the Historical Details Right in The Ravenmaster's Secret

By Dianne Hess
  • Grades: 3–5, 6–8

The Ravenmasters Secret is a work of historical fiction set in the Tower of London in 1735. How did Scholastic editor Dianne Hess work with Elvira Woodruff, author of The Ravenmaster's Secret, to ensure that each historical detail was accurate and compelling for the story? Dianne Hess explains:

Friendship in a Time of War!
They were 11 years old. The year was 1735. She was the enemy, a young Scottish prisoner. He was her jailer, the Ravenmaster's son. They met deep in the confines of England's most fortified castle, the Tower of London, a place where terror ruled the day, a place where their friendship could cost them their lives!

The Ravenmaster's Secret is an adventure story about friendship and war, love and hate, weakness and courage. It's about a young boy who grows up within the Tower of London in the 18th century and passes the ultimate test of courage and friendship. When he discovers that the innocent young prisoner whom he befriends may lose her life, he must decide if he should allow her to die — or help her to escape.

Elvira Woodruff is well loved for her action-packed adventure stories with appealing characters and page-turning plots. Her stories also have heart, which makes her other books, like The Orphan of Ellis Island, The Christmas Doll, The Magnificent Mummy Maker, and George Washington's Socks, consistent favorites with kids aged 8–12. A part of their appeal is that they're packed with historical details and interesting themes.

Elvira and I spend hours, weeks, and months on end working together on revisions for her books until they are just right. We work on every scene until it shines. Every piece of dialogue, every bit of historical detail must be right. The emotional scenes must be authentic and true to each character. Usually I make Elvira keep reworking the emotional scenes until she makes me cry. When I call her up in tears, choked with emotion — we know the scene works!

We decided to add the map of the Tower of London to the book after the book was written. When we finally found the map and had it drawn by a mapmaker, scenes were rewritten so that the action in the story could be easily followed on the map. It sounds fairly simple. But the Tower of London changed in the last three hundred years, and we had to find a map that fit the time period in which the story takes place, which was not easy!

The Ravenmaster's Secret is so rich in historical detail and themes, we also decided we had to create a Web page featuring a 17-page printable teachers guide. The inspiration for this was the last chapter of the book.

Elvira ended the book with the Ravenmaster as a grown man. Then, she added one more chapter. This one took place in 2003, and featured a class trip to the Tower of London by contemporary children. I loved this last chapter. I loved the way the kids were clueless about what had happened 300 years before in the same spot. The reader had just gone through a harrowing adventure — and suddenly, people were walking through the same place oblivious to the horror that once existed there. Readers are in on this secret. They know exactly what had taken place there. And they would recognize themselves in the school children on a class trip to an historic place — oblivious to the real lives that unfolded in that spot.

Needless to say, we got mixed reactions to the new last chapter. Some people loved it. Some people felt it was too jarring to fast forward so radically and be shaken out of the 1735 world of the Tower that the author so artfully created. So we compromised. We cut the new final chapter from the book and put it into our teaching guide on the Web site! This way, kids would have a chance to discuss artistic choices and how an ending can change a book.

There is much more in this study guide. We talk about themes in the book. We discuss bullies and problems, courage and heroes. We talk about what life was like at the time — work, war, roles of women and children. We offer some imaginative games, like build your own Tower and live in the Tower for a day. There is a recipe for the Ginger Biscuits that are eaten in the story. There is a discussion of maps and mapmaking, executions, and life at the time. And the author talks about some of the artistic choices she made in the book regarding chapter titles and themes. We even invite readers to read the omitted last chapter and discuss how it would have changed the book by keeping it. And we invite them to write their own last chapter.

We hope these discussions and activities will help readers get the most out of their reading experience.

Enjoy!

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