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An Interview with Barry Denenberg about The Journal of William Thomas Emerson

The author answers questions about his book from the My Name is America historical fiction series.

  • Grades: 3–5

Richard F. Abrahamson, Ph.D. & Linda M. Pavonetti, Ed.D: You are no stranger to researching and writing highly praised books about American history. What surprised you most as you researched the Revolutionary War for The Journal of William Thomas Emerson?

Barry Denenberg: My research showed me that the American Revolution was more of a people's revolt than I had previously understood.

RFA & LMP: There are none of the usual historic Bostonians — Samuel Adams, John Hancock, Paul Revere — in Will Emerson's journal. Why is that?

BD: My goal in writing these books is to understand and absorb the essence of what happened at a particular time in American history and then create a cast of characters that accurately reflects that reality. Although I can't help but be inspired by some historic characters, I do not like to use them. Also, I think it is confusing for my readers. The letters I get show that some youngsters are unclear as to what is real and what is not, and I want to avoid any such confusion in my own writing.

RFA & LMP: There is an exciting sense of mystery and intrigue in Will's journal, from the notes written in code to the tension-filled spy scenes to the clandestine rendezvous.

BD: The American Revolution, especially in Boston, was an underground operation. I was drawn to Sam Adams, so his activities suggested a behind-the-scenes character to the book: hence Mr. Wilson. Once Will met Mr. Wilson and came to the Seven Stars Tavern, he just got caught up in the whole thing and it became a rite of passage for him that he responded to with the will and determination that turned out to be his character. But, I didn't do it consciously. A well-known author I know once told me that he just raises the curtain every morning when he begins to write and lets his characters do the rest. I try, as best I can, to do that, too.

RFA & LMP: You have written three Dear America books. The first two were aimed at female readers and your latest targets male readers. Do you think there is a difference in writing books for female versus male readers? Do you find yourself including different details or events or writing in a different way based on the gender of your reader?

BD: This is a difficult question that I've thought a good deal about. Historically boys did not keep diaries to the extent that girls did. Therefore, Will could not, in my mind, keep a "diary." But he could be writing things down, recording events that were happening. Will's story has aspects that appeal to boys: maps, chases, midnight rides. I'm not sure how much of that I did on purpose and how much of it is his character. But, I do not think there is much difference writing for boys or girls. I think Mary Driscoll is a real tough, independent kid and Emma, although self-reliant, is not. I think Will is serious, determined, and patriotic, but the boy I am writing about now (a boy rounded up during the internment of Japanese Americans in 1942) is flip and sarcastic. In truth, I am more interested in complexity of character than the simplicity of gender.

RFA & LMP: If you could ask young readers of Will's journal one question, what would that question be?

BD: Would you have stayed behind with Mrs. Thompson or gone with Mr. Wilson, and why?

RFA & LMP: What is one thing you hope young readers will take with them after reading The Journal of William Thomas Emerson?

BD: I'd like them to come away with the understanding that the American Revolution was not a distant, abstract event. I'd like them to see this historical event as a deeply emotional and complicated social and political upheaval that affected the lives of people just like us and was, to a degree at least, an attempt to create a better society.

Interview conducted by Richard F. Abrahamson, Ph.D., Professor of Literature for Children and Young Adults, University of Houston, Houston, Texas, and Linda M. Pavonetti, Ed.D., Assistant Professor, Oakland University, Department of Reading and Language Arts, Rochester, Michigan.

  • Subjects:
    Colonial and Revolutionary America, American Revolutionary War, Courage, Bravery, Heroism, Honor
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