The Puzzle of Pocahontas

How this author discovers the truth behind his subjects

  • Grades: 3–5, 6–8

Writing non-fiction is like putting together the pieces of a puzzle, says author George Sullivan.

Before he could write his non-fiction book about the Native American princess Pocahontas, Sullivan had to do a lot of research. Much of that research came from his visits to historic Jamestown site and museum in Jamestown, Virginia. But he started out by dividing up the project—the first step in puzzle solving.

"I didn't start by trying to recreate the life of Pocahontas," Sullivan said in an interview with the Scholastic Kids Press Corps. He began, instead, with one of the original settlers in Jamestown, John Smith, the man Pocahontas befriends and saves. He then researched the history of Jamestown and the early events there.

"I wanted to know, what was life like there?" he said. Only then, did he begin to research Pocahontas' tribe. "Where did they live, how did they live? You take different paths to complete the manuscript," he said.

Sullivan spent several months reading everything he could find about John Smith, including the settler's original writings, before going to Jamestown. Then he moved into the writing process, spending some of his time writing chapters or parts of chapters, taking notes, and doing interviews—principally with archaeologists.

He included the original old-world spellings of words in his book, writing them just as John Smith wrote them.

"I wanted to do that because it gives an authentic feeling to what I'm writing," he said. "It gives the reader greater insight into how the people [of that time] wrote and spoke."

Several of the organizations that Sullivan visited in Jamestown opened up their files to him, and showed him artifacts that told about the history of the area. Sullivan was able to take photos in Jamestown that would later be used in his book.

While Sullivan was at the historic Jamestown site, archaeologists took him to a newly completed project. They had found the remnants of the original fort, which many believed was under the waters of the James River. They found the fort's remains on the western bank.

"In their excavations, the archeologists had unearthed a great deal of material that told about life in those times," Sullivan said. Those findings became important parts of his research.

The author of several books in the Scholastic series In Their Own Words, Sullivan said he has always preferred writing non-fiction, because he is motivated by his curiosity.

"I like nonfiction because I'm a very curious person, and the research that I do I find introduces me to new worlds," he said. "I'm always interested in finding out what people were really like—how they live, what the family life was like, what motivated them."

Research and the process of writing also bring an author a better understanding of different people and the world they live in. When writing Pocahontas, he discovered the world of Native Americans, both past and present.

"I was impressed with what Native Americans do to preserve their culture, their background, their history," he said. "I know when I was doing this book and visiting the various reservations, I came away with a greater understanding of Indians and their culture, and how they are living."

For more information, check out Kid Reporter Maya Kandell's blog post and book review!

For more book reviews and author interviews, log onto the Scholastic Kids Press Corps's Kids Read Special Report.


American Indian Heritage Month

For more Kid Reporter coverage of the annual celebration of America's native heritage, check out the American Indian Heritage Month Special Report.

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