Barry Denenberg: The research for Mirror, Mirror on the Wall was particularly difficult because it wasn’t as straightforward as, say, the Civil War. I had to find out not only what it was like to be blind, but blind in 1930; the history of Perkins School for the Blind; and lastly, 1930s Depression Boston. To supplement, I did something I usually don’t do — interviewed people. Early on I was championed by Cafer Barkus, who heads the Hilton Perkins Leadership Program. Cafer, who is blind, teaches all Perkins’ international teachers of the blind and was with me from beginning to end of the project. He suggested, and set up, a day long discussion with three students from the 1930s. Those discussions, which I taped and transcribed, were critical to the construction of the book. In addition, I went to Cafer time and again for his views on certain subject areas. This collaboration was unique for me, and I dedicated the book to him.
RFA & EST: There seems to be a recent increase in the number of books for young people about Helen Keller. Did you research Keller’s life? What role, if any, did her life play in your creation of Bess Brennan’s life?
BD: Reading a biography of Helen Keller got me interested in the Perkins School and led to the Dear America book. However, I am disappointed because Laura Bridgman who preceded Helen Keller at Perkins and whose story, although much different, is quite instructive and compelling, is one publishers seem unwilling to take on. I have been turned down by two publishers to write a book on her. Both experiences were important to me, Ms. Keller’s and Ms. Bridgman’s.
RFA & EST: Did you visit the Perkins School for the Blind? What is different about the way things are done at Perkins today compared to when Bess was there?
BD: I made numerous trips to Perkins to visit with Cafer Barkus and, during one visit, talk with his students. Architecturally and structurally the buildings and the grounds are still much the same. That was invaluable to me as I tried to picture Bess’s environment in my mind. Of course, much is different, the technology, the teaching techniques and so forth. Perhaps the most profound change is that now the Perkins School cares for children who are, in the majority of cases, multiply handicapped not only blind.
RFA & EST: Most of the Dear America books focus on girls whose lives are altered by major events in American history. Certainly the Depression is a backdrop for Bess’s story, but it pales in comparison to her blindness. Why did you choose to downplay the history in this Dear America novel?
BD: The Dear America books are not, for me, necessarily about history. Last night my thirteen-year-old daughter asked me what the difference between social studies and history was — a difficult question. Being blind, although certainly not an American experience, is part of what it was like to be living in America in the past. Blind Americans are part of our history. The Dear America books are about “lesser lives.” They are about those of us who are not Presidents and Senators. It is within that context and the importance that I think the Perkins School for the Blind had in American history that I proposed the project.
RFA & EST: What challenges did you encounter in writing from the perspective of a blind person?
BD: Mirror, Mirror on the Wall presented more challenges for me than any of the other books I’ve written in the series. I do not care for political correctness, but in this case I admit to being concerned that I would be crafting a stereotypic and therefore inaccurate portrait. Here is where I constantly relied on the always diplomatic but wise and willing to go to the heart of the matter, Mr. Barkus. The two of us tackled a number of tricky questions such as: Do blind people have a better sense of hearing and smell? In our joint effort we also wanted to make sure we maintained the sense of humor about being blind that came across loud and clear in my interviews with the 1930s Perkins students.
RFA & EST: One of Bess Brennan’s school assignments was to write a paper on the hero or heroine she admired most in history. If you were given that same assignment, who would you select and why?
BD: First I must say that questions like this are best answered by thirteen-year-olds and not fifty-something writers. Too cynical. But, let me answer it: J.D. Salinger. For one, he saved my life. I can remember precisely the feeling that overwhelmed me when I first read The Catcher in the Rye. “Oh my God,” I thought, “I am not alone.” For what he did for so many alienated kids, for his high standards, for his own writing, for his continued insistence on something that is virtually gone from our society — privacy, for not doing any Bud light commercials and not receiving any lifetime achievement awards, he is my hero. He is also the person I model my writing after (economy, a voice that rings true, and a sense of humor).
RFA & EST: If your readers would want to learn more about the Perkins School or other schools for the blind, what books or other sources would you recommend for them?
BD: I would suggest reading Helen and Teacher by Joseph Lash or Helen Keller by Dorothy Hermann or The Imprisoned Guest by Elisabeth Gitter (which is about Laura Bridgman). These books will give the reader insight into two different times in the history of the Perkins School. I think a good reader who is thirteen or older could read any and all of the three.
RFA & EST: With the publication of Mirror, Mirror: The Diary of Bess Brennan, you have written five books in the Dear America series. If you had a chance to spend one day with the main character in just one of these five novels, which character would you choose? Would it be Emma Simpson from the Civil War diary When Will This Cruel War Be Over? or Mary Driscoll, the Irish mill girl from So Far From Home or Julie Weiss from the diary One Eye Laughing, the Other Weeping or Amber Billows from the Pearl Harbor diary Early Sunday Morning or Bess Brennan from Mirror, Mirror on the Wall?
BD: Taking your question literally, I would spend the one day with Julie, but the one I admire most is Mary.
RFA & EST: What is one thing you hope young readers will take away from Mirror, Mirror on The Wall: The Diary of Bess Brennan The Perkins School for the Blind, 1932?
BD: My favorite Zen saying is: LIVE EACH DAY AS IF YOUR HAIR WERE ON FIRE. That is the one thing I would hope my readers would take away from reading Mirror, Mirror on the Wall.
Interview conducted by Richard F. Abrahamson, Ph.D., Professor of Literature for Children and Young Adults, University of Houston, Houston, Texas and Eleanore S. Tyson, Ed.D., Clinical Associate Professor, University of Houston, Department of Curriculum and Instruction, Houston, Texas.