An Interview with Susan Campbell Bartoletti about The Journal of Finn Reardon

  • Grades: 6–8

Richard F. Abrahamson, Ph.D. & Eleanore S. Tyson, Ed.D.: A few years ago you wrote a highly praised nonfiction book, Kids on Strike! How did the 1999 book influence your writing Finn Reardon's journal?

Susan Campbell Bartoletti: As I researched Kids on Strike!, I learned a lot about the lives of recent immigrants-how they lived, how they worked, where they went to school, and life on the streets. I relied on that research to develop the setting and characters in Finn Reardon's story. I also researched the events of the actual newsboy strike that took place in New York City in 1899 and how that strike influenced other children — messengers and bootblacks — to go on strike for better working conditions.

RFA & EST: Would you tell us about the research process you used in writing The Journal of Finn Reardon?

SCB: Even though I had already researched the newsboy strike when I wrote Kids on Strike!, I found that I had to start all over: I had to reread my notes and find more research. I always begin the research process the same way: first I read as many secondary sources as I can on the subject. Then I turn to primary sources: newspapers, magazines, photographs, oral histories, autobiographies, maps, etc. (At the Maps Division of the New York Public Library, I bought an 1894 city map and hung it on my wall. With pushpins, I marked the sites that I mention in my book.) I also try to visit the places that I am writing about, in order to gather sensory details that help make the scenes come alive. For The Journal of Finn Reardon, I traveled to New York City and walked the streets where Finn and his friends would have lived, worked, and played. I visited the Tenement Museum on Orchard Street and toured an actual flat in which families like Finn's might have lived.

RFA & EST:
What was the most interesting thing you learned during your research?

SCB: Kids will be kids whenever they can get away with it: it was true one hundred years ago and it's true today. No matter the circumstances — the living and/or working conditions, kids are resourceful: they figure out ways to cope and to adapt and to empower themselves. As a former teacher, I was very interested in public education at the turn of the twentieth century, back when Finn would have attended school. The city schools had too many students and too few books and desks. Seventy-five students ranging in age from twelve to fourteen wasn't unusual in a sixth grade class. Non-English speaking students were placed in regular classes with much younger American-born children. As the immigrant children learned English, they were promoted to higher grades with children their age.

RFA & EST: The newsies came from many different ethnic groups. Why did you choose to make your main character Irish?

SCB: For me, a story begins with music: I feel the rhythm, the cadence, the pulse of the characters and their voices and the setting. Because I had just finished writing a book called Black Potatoes: The Story of the Great Irish Famine, I was already filled with the music of the lives and culture of the Irish people, so I thought, why not use it?

RFA & EST: Finn's family is very close and loving despite their poverty. Did you pattern them after any real people?

SCB: No. Finn, his family, and friends are all fictional characters. When I develop characters, I do tend to create composites, developed from attributes of real people whom I know or whom I've observed. When I create a character, it happens in layers. The more I write and revise, the better I understand the characters. It was great fun to develop Grandpa Jiggsy (one of my favorite characters) and then develop the sort of characters who would play off him. Once I had Grandpa Jiggsy, I knew the relationship he would have with his daughter, Finn's mother, and with his son-in-law, Finn's father, and I built scenes and created dialogue in accordance with that relationship.

RFA & EST:
In your Historical Note, you mention that several of Finn's friends, such as Racetrack, Grin, and Mush, were "actual newsies." How did you find out about them, and is what happened to them as adults true?

SCB: Authors often fall in love with colorful names. I discovered the names in 1899 newspapers such as the New York Sun and The New York Times. The news articles gave details about the boys: for instance, Mush had a fondness for girls and often took them on dates to Corlear's Hook Park. Racetrack earned his name from his fondness for betting, and Grin, as you can imagine, smiled a lot. However, their lives as portrayed in this book and the epilogue are completely fictional.

RFA & EST:
You vividly recreate the poor living conditions in the Bowery tenements. What shocked or surprised you the most about life there?

SCB: The lack of privacy. The tenements were jammed with people living in small, cramped two or three-room flats, or apartments. To get an idea of living conditions, consider this: nearly fifty thousand people — mostly immigrants — lived in tenements in an area that measured about one square mile. Most tenements rose five or six stories high. The tiny rooms had no windows, no ventilation, and received air and light only from airshafts, the narrow space between buildings. In newer tenements, pipes carried cold running water to a community faucet located in the hallway on each floor or to the kitchen sink. In these buildings, a toilet, or water closet, was located in the hall. Each toilet was shared by at least two families. In older tenements, people fetched water from backyard pumps. The toilet was a privy, or outhouse, usually constructed to accommodate five people at a time. The overused water closets and backyard privies overflowed often, seeping stinking waste through the floorboards and into the yards. Most tenements did not have bathtubs. People washed up as best they could in the kitchen. Some went to the public bathhouse and paid a few cents to bathe.

RFA & EST: Finn aspires to be a reporter. What advice would you give your readers who might want to pursue a career that involves writing?

SCB: Read. Read. Read. Only a reader can become a writer. Develop a lively intellect and the ability to become interested in anything, no matter how mundane it might seem at first. Look for the story. Develop an eye for detail. Feed your mind and your brain: learn as much as you can about everything you can.

RFA & EST: How was writing from a boy's perspective different from writing your Dear America book, A Coal Miner's Bride: The Diary of Anetka Kaminska?

SCB: Finn's storyline is less complicated than Anetka's. But a simpler storyline doesn't necessarily mean a simpler book to write. In some ways it was harder to write Finn's story because I had to step inside a boy's thoughts, feelings, actions, and perceptions. I know a lot about boys: I grew up with three brothers. I raised a son. And, over the years, I've taught nearly 1500 boys Finn's age. Yet, even with all that experience, writing from another gender's perspective is stepping into another culture.

RFA & EST: You've said, "I like to tell stories about heroes." How do you define a hero? Who are the heroes in Finn's journal?

SCB: Wherever there is trouble, heroes emerge. Wherever there are victimized, exploited, and disenfranchised people, there are people who look for ways to access and transform the political systems in their lives. Those heroes are easy to spot in Finn's story. But they aren't the only heroes. Heroes can also be people who engage in the daily act of living. During insufferable times, each day lived is an act of courage. I am often asked if I write the books I write to show kids today how good they have it. I don't. I hope that my work gives kids courage. I hope it gives them courage to question and to think critically about history, authority, and institutions. Courage to consider and respond to their social, political, and existential responsibilities. Courage to find authority and agency for change within and among themselves. But most of all, I hope my work gives readers courage to live even the most ordinary life in an extraordinary way.

Interview conducted by Richard F. Abrahamson, Ph.D., Professor of Literature for Children and Young Adults and Eleanore S. Tyson, Ed.D., Clinical Associate Professor, University of Houston, Houston, Texas.

  • Subjects:
    Family Life, City Life, Jobs, Careers, Work, Irish American, Friends and Friendship
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