Ellen Levine: I loved writing Jedediah's journal. My first children's book is a nonfiction work called, If You Traveled West in a Covered Wagon. It is, as its title suggests, about travel on the Oregon Trail. Sixteen years later I wrote Jedediah's story, and I sometimes wonder if it was brewing in me for all that time. In a nonfiction book I work with the facts as I've learned them through research. The fun part is to figure out how to tell a story that a reader (and I myself) will be interested in.
With a novel, like Jedediah's journal, I am also in search of a story someone will want to read. And I also do a tremendous amount of research to learn, as in this case, about life on the Trail. The difference is that in a novel, when I explore what people do, why they act the way they do, and how they feel about it, I have created the world of people and their lives, and I am telling their stories as I discover them, not the stories of real people I've read about. The secret is, that in order for my made-up people to seem real, they have to become real to me.
RFA & EST: You have often mentioned the excitement you feel when you are engaged in the research process and your quest for accuracy as you start a new project. As you did the research for Jedediah's story, what did you learn that surprised you most? Since you have written another book on the Oregon Trail, was the research for this novel as interesting?
EL: The research for the novel was in many ways exactly like the research for the nonfiction book about the Oregon Trail. I read what historians had written about that period of time, and I read the diaries of people who traveled on the trail. What fascinated me both times was the sense of adventure in these pioneers, their excitement at the possibility that tomorrow could bring a new and better life. And so they were willing to leave home, say goodbye to friends and family they most likely would never see again, and set out for an unknown place. Today we have very few unknown geographical places left for us to explore. Today one way we can have an adventure is by reading and thinking and talking with friends about things we've never thought about before. You might call it a "frontier of the mind," if only we're not afraid to explore.
RFA & EST: Other than Jedediah Barstow, who is your favorite character in his journal?
EL: When you write a novel, in some way there's a small piece of you in every character — the good, the bad, the funny, the sad. And so you are connected to all of them, even those you don't particularly like. Other than Jedediah, I have a warm spot in my heart for Mr. Grouch and Missus Cavendish. And so I wasn't completely surprised as I was writing to discover that they became friends, indeed good friends, as I mentioned in the Epilogue.
RFA & EST: The word "hero" has been used countless times since the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11th. Where the pioneers who made the trek to Oregon heroes? What is your definition of a hero?
EL: A hero is a person of courage, who risks danger to help others. The firefighters and police officers who risked their lives (and too many lost them) in the September 11th attacks, were certainly heroes. But equally heroic were all those people trapped in the burning buildings, or running through the streets, who turned to help someone next to them as they struggled together. The smallest acts can be heroic. A Danish person during World War II who warned Jews that the Nazis were planning to arrest them was a hero. The simple act of passing on the information was heroic, for punishment if caught was severe.
We find heroes not just in well-known places like the World Trade Center. We find them in school yards, when a one kid befriends another who's been picked on by the class bully. When everyone either joins in or is silent as something hurtful is happening, the one who stands up and loudly or quietly says, "No. That's wrong," is in my book a hero.
I don't think the pioneers who traveled west were necessarily heroes. They were brave, adventurous, faced dangers and overcame them. When an ordinary person (as we all are) does extraordinary things for someone else, that makes a hero. I am certain there were moments of heroism on the Trail, times when someone reached out to someone else despite great risks. But the experience of traveling in a covered wagon to a new place by itself does not make someone a hero.
RFA & EST: You have said that writing is sometimes a lonely occupation. Was the experience of writing The Journal of Jedediah Barstow: An Emigrant on the Oregon Trail a lonely one?
EL: Writing is at times lonely work, for you do it by yourself. You can't talk with your friends or go to a movie or play a game or read a book AND write at the same time. Writing is just you and a blank page. But, and this is a big but, it's also not lonely. And that's because you become so involved with your characters, you actually feel you're having conversations with them. Just remember to keep the door closed, because sometimes you forget and talk out loud. And someone walking by might begin to wonder about you....
RFA & EST: Who are the authors who have had the biggest impact on your own writing?
EL: It's very difficult for me to say who are the authors who've most influenced my writing. Often powerful impressions from books are so deep and fully absorbed, when you start to write, you don't even know where things in you come from. It's equally hard to say who are my favorite authors. If I were stuck on a desert island and could only read one author, I think it would be Jane Austen, who wrote nearly 200 years ago about families in small English villages. You might ask how something written that long ago and about a world so far from mine could be of interest to me. That's what makes a great book: the people are so richly drawn that their sorrows and laughter can become mine across the centuries. As for children's books, I love too many of them to choose. I'll only say that as a writer as well as a reader, looking carefully at a book, I love Sarah, Plain and Tall by Patricia MacLachlan, The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson, and David Small's Imogene's Antlers.
RFA & EST: If you could ask young readers of Jedediah's journal one question when they finished the book, what would that question be? What do you hope young readers will take with them after reading The Journal of Jedediah Barstow: An Emigrant on the Oregon Trail?
EL: I have learned in the years I've been writing that readers very often see things in my books that I've never thought of. And so I'd ask what they think of Jedediah, and what kinds of decisions they might have made if they were in his situation.
In a larger sense the questions I'd ask are actually part of what I hope readers will take away from the book. In getting to know Jedediah, I hope a reader can see what I see in him and his situation: that no matter how awful a loss you suffer, no matter how impossible something may seem, if you let yourself see more than the dark shadows (the ones Jedediah saw as he walked around in deep sadness with his head down), you'll find there are ways out of the blackness. With all his troubles — the terrible loss of his family and his difficult new situation with Mr. Henshaw — Jed was able to experience not only sorrow, but also joy. He was able to play as well as grieve. Jedediah was a learner, and sometimes the lessons weren't easy — for example, Mr. Littleton catching him in his bigotry. Sometimes the lessons were hard but fun — woodcarving. In letting himself be open, Jed grew into a person I both enjoy and admire. I hope readers will see that.
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.