Beth Seidel Levine: Well, I really wanted to do something about World War I since the Dear America series hadn’t covered that topic yet. I had hoped to write the story of a nurse, but I found out the age requirement would make my character much too old for our readers. In the course of that research, however, I discovered the story of the hello girls and I couldn’t believe I had never heard about them before. They were such trailblazers! But, there is very little information out there. Just a few primary sources and some mentions in the larger books about women in the war. Nevertheless, I had to find out as much as I could. I had found my story.
RFA & EST: Would you tell us about the research process you went through to write When Christmas Comes Again?
BSL: First, I started writing just to get to know the character a little bit. Once I found her voice, that of a disillusioned society girl, I had lots of research to do. What would she wear? What were her days like? Then, I had to learn about the recruitment of the hello girls and the pace of the war. As I went along, I took notes, wrote diary entries, and devoured everything I could find — fiction and nonfiction — so that I would stay true to the time period. I learned so much and began to feel very close to the characters and their experiences.
RFA & EST: What was the most interesting or surprising thing you discovered during your research?
BSL: There were a few things that surprised me. I couldn’t believe how close the hello girls got to the action. This was at a time when women could not vote and when their rights on the home front were still very limited. So, this was a real departure from that notion. There they were shouting orders to soldiers, living in rough conditions, toughing it out just like the men. It was a real turning point for women — they got so involved. It wasn’t just the hello girls, but the Red Cross workers, the YWCA volunteers and so forth. Some very important professions were born out of the war experience. For example, it wasn’t until the end of World War I that physical therapy started to get the respect it merited in this country. Finally, training programs were put in place and many women found their way into the practice. A year after the war ended, women finally won the right to vote. The war was a catalyst to so many exciting turning points for women.
RFA & EST: You have edited books in the Dear America series, and now you have written one. How does wearing the hat of author differ from that of editor? Did your experience as an editor help you in your writing?
BSL: In some ways working on the books all these years helped a lot. I know the format very well. I have a good idea of what devices will work and how to pace a diary. Plus, I had the benefit of a great editor, Amy Griffin, who used to manage the Dear America series, and who taught me so much about how these books work. In other ways, I had so much fun making the story and characters take whatever direction appealed to me, such as adding in a little romance, something I have no real control over as an editor. That was exciting!
RFA & EST: There are many examples of romance in Simone's diary: how her parents met, how Simone and Sam met, how Simone's friend Francie ran into Thomas in California. Do you consider yourself a romantic? Do you think that time in America (early twentieth century) was a more romantic time?
BSL: Oh yes, I am a romantic. And war always provides a dramatic backdrop for romance because of the inherent danger and because of the separation it necessitates. Never knowing if you’ll see someone again, not knowing where they might be or if they’re well, it’s awfully dramatic. But it also leads people to turn inward, to reflect on their relationships, and to write it all down. Imminent danger leads us to savor important moments, I think. That’s why so many good stories are borne out of war.
RFA & EST: Thomas tells Simone, “When there’s nothing to keep you tied to home, there’s nothing to keep you from living your life.” Do you think he is right?
BSL: I think that’s one way to look at it, although we later learn that it’s not quite true for him. But, I also think Simone is right when she realizes that having ties to home gives you the courage to go out and live your life. For her, knowing that there are people waiting for her, rooting for her, well, that’s very encouraging.
RFA & EST: Other than your main character, Simone, who is your favorite character in the diary? Why?
BSL: Probably Maman. She is so strong and loving, but not overprotective and not at all provincial in the manner so many society women were at the time. She understands and listens to her children. She is dramatic and romantic and also very real. The way she refuses to succumb completely to her surroundings. The fact that she works, and the way she believes in Simone and relates to her need to go out into the world and take some risks, makes her a very endearing character.
RFA & EST: Is When Christmas Comes Again a story about social classes in America?
BSL: Maybe a little bit. I wanted to present the situation, certainly. But, I didn’t want that to be the focus. Rather, I wanted to show how people don’t belong in boxes — that there are so many dimensions to everyone. A rich girl can be kind and big-hearted and brave, just the same as a working-class girl can be. In the end, the hello girls were all there for the same reason: to help their country, to contribute. And the same goes for the soldiers — like Sam and Will. Class doesn’t matter when you’re on the front lines. In that way, I suppose the book is about social classes, but it’s also about character, about growing up and about family.
RFA & EST: What is the main thing you hope readers will take away with them after reading When Christmas Comes Again: The World War I Diary of Simone Spencer?
BSL: I hope they learn a little something from it, and I hope it makes them think about life and history and war. But if it doesn’t make them think about anything terribly important, I hope at least they enjoy Simone’s story and are happy with the way it all turns out in the end.
Interview conducted by Richard F. Abrahamson, Ph.D., Professor of Literature for Children and Young Adults, University of Houston and Eleanore S. Tyson, Ed.D., Clinical Associate Professor, University of Houston, Department of Curriculum and Instruction, Houston, Texas.