Katelan Janke: Winning the Dear America Student Writing Contest when I was in sixth grade is one of my happiest memories! Dear America author Barry Denenberg judged the contest, and he personally called to tell me the news while I was in school. I was jumping up and down and hugging everyone in sight. When I called my parents to tell them the surprising news, my dad couldn’t even figure out who was calling, I was so excited!
One of the best parts of winning the contest was that Dear America author Kathryn Lasky visited my junior high and gave a great presentation. I was incredibly thrilled to meet a “real author!” My original contest entry, “Survival in the Storm”, is one of my favorite short stories I have written, so it was ten times as wonderful to win with a story I love.
RFA & EST: What was the most interesting or surprising thing you discovered during your research for Survival in the Storm?
KJ: The hours I spent researching the Depression and Dust Bowl were both fun and extremely intriguing — I love research. What came as the biggest surprise to me was the normalcy of people’s lives during tremendous financial hardship and the exhausting dust storms. Contrary to what I thought, most people didn’t let these challenges completely change their lives. Churches still held picnics, schools performed plays, and children went to school as often as possible. A farmwife might scoop the dirt out of the house and then go to her Ladies’ Auxiliary meeting. I really admire that.
Another fact I found very interesting was the belief that rain could be brought about by setting off explosives. A man named Tex Thorton diligently worked to “bomb the skies of Dalhart” in an effort to shake up the clouds, so to speak. Several Dalhart citizens paid a good deal of money so that Tex Thorton could try his idea. Local residents even attended the bombings as if they were a spectator’s event. The explosions were attempted several times in Dalhart with varied results, and Mr. Thorton probably received way more credit for any moisture than he probably deserved!
RFA & EST: In your acknowledgements, you thank Mrs. Marguerite Green and Miss Portia Deeds. How did you meet these two women? Tell us how they helped with your research.
KJ: In fourth grade, I began working one hour each week as one of Miss Dees’ “readers.” She is a retired schoolteacher, who is now legally blind. Each afternoon, she has one or two students read the newspaper to her. We’ve been friends ever since! Mrs. Green was also a retired schoolteacher and the grandmother of my close friend Mary. Sadly, Mrs. Green passed away shortly after Survival in the Storm was released. Affectionately known as “Granny” by almost all who knew her, Mrs. Green was one of the sweetest souls I have ever known.
I extensively interviewed both ladies, and they helped me discover the true thoughts and feelings of those who lived through not only furious winds and dust, but an economic disaster, as well. Mrs. Green and Miss Dees were able to remember the littlest details, such as the price of eggs and butter. They helped me to better understand the things I had difficulty imagining, such as how exactly does a windmill provide water, or how milk was kept cold during the summer when there were no iceboxes or refrigerators. Most of all, their attitude of gratefulness is inspiring, and really made me think. They appreciated what they had; they didn’t complain about “needing” frivolous things. Making do with what was available was an accepted part of daily life.
RFA & EST: What was the best source you discovered as you researched the Dust Bowl era?
KJ: My interviews with Mrs. Green and Miss Dees were invaluable — both ladies were like history books that could answer my questions. Several of the events in Survival in the Storm are based on their stories. I feel privileged to have their experiences woven throughout the book. Still another important resource for the story was Dalhart’s local museum. The XIT Museum graciously allowed me to page through big books of fragile newspapers from the 1930s. Reading about the daily aspects of people’s lives helped transport me back to Depression-era Dalhart.
RFA & EST: Would you share with us your writing process in working on Grace's diary? How long did it take you to write her story?
KJ: The very first step (and my very favorite part) was to research like crazy. I spent hours gathering information and gleaning fascinating knowledge. I made a point to surround myself with my research to make it “real.” I even filled a photo album with copies of dust bowl photos from Panhandle towns and farms that my mum found on the internet!
Once I had seemingly filled every available surface in our house with notes and pictures, I began the real writing process. I actually started creating the middle of the book first and wrote in segments, rather than composing the entire story in one sitting. After completing several diary entries, I’d email them to my editor at Scholastic, Amy Griffin. Amy would then mail them back to me with her comments and suggestions. The book slowly began to come together, until bit by bit it became the completed diary of Grace Edwards. Originally, the story was entirely too long — one of my biggest challenges any time I write, it seems. Thankfully, Amy’s knowledge and expertise helped me get the manuscript reduced to the right length. Finally, after two years, the manuscript was complete.
Since school is a full-time job, it was often tricky to schedule time to write. My parents faithfully kept me motivated and encouraged when homework, studying, and extra-curricular activities seemed a bit overwhelming. Mum has always been my “pre-editor,” and she also helped me find out any needed bits of information or facts if I was pressed for time. Once, Daddy took me to a beautiful place in the country about 50 miles away in New Mexico just so I could have a peaceful, quiet time to work on character developments!
RFA & EST: You refer to Amy Griffin as “the most patient editor imaginable.” Would you tell us what it was like to be fifteen and working with such a respected editor? What was the author/editor relationship like?
KJ: The author/editor relationship is like a teacher and friend rolled into one. Amy is an extremely talented editor who guided me the entire way. Not only is Amy insightful and knowledgeable, she always gave me fantastic advice every time I needed it. It was both an honor and quite humbling to work with an accomplished editor like Amy; she’s really the best! Both Amy and I share a love of traveling, and we always seem to enjoy catching up on each other’s adventures via e-mail.
RFA & EST: Other than your main character, Grace, who is your favorite character in the diary? Why?
KJ: I have to admit, I love Ruth! Although it was initially unintentional, Ruth resembles me a great deal when I was seven, while Grace greatly mirrors my older sister Annalee, who is a year and a half older than I am. So, I guess in this respect, the sister relationship is a bit autobiographical. One aspect I grew to like about Ruth is the way she exemplifies the ongoing spirit of happiness and normalcy sustained by so many people, in spite of the devastating drought and dust. I think Ruth often personifies the idea that “life goes on.”
RFA & EST: A second grade teacher once wrote a note to your parents telling them she thought you would be a writer someday. What role did teachers and parents play in your development as a writer?
KJ: Mrs. Bledsoe was my second grade teacher who first seemed to see a little spark. Until that time, my parents hadn’t really considered my writing ability to be any more significant than my spelling or math skills, especially since my older sister is a talented writer.
It would have been next to impossible for my writing abilities to be developed without the enthusiastic support and encouragement of many incredible teachers and my wonderful family. In fact, it was my sixth grade reading teacher, Mrs. Harshey, who suggested I enter the Dear America story contest. I have been blessed throughout my school years with many teachers who have stressed both reading and writing — not to mention quite a lot of grammar and spelling, as well! Several teachers have truly motivated and inspired me to take my writing skills as far as possible.
I also have an amazing family. Both of my parents have always been very involved in my education. Not only did they read daily to my sister and me when we were young, they also managed to keep the television turned off, allowing us to develop our creativity. My mum has always been my pre-editor, and challenges me to expand my vocabulary (and we’ve even had a debate or two over comma placement). Daddy considers himself to be my biggest fan and loves to read whatever I write. Both of my parents are always willing to give creative advice or honest critiques. As I was writing Survival in the Storm, they helped me understand the emotions and feelings that the adult characters in the book would have felt — especially Grace’s mama and daddy. Since my own daddy is a dairy farmer, he helped me a great deal with the agricultural info. And, of course, my sister Annalee is just awesome. Many, many times, she had to patiently wait to use the computer if I was madly rushing to meet a deadline. Annalee will be off to college next year, majoring in journalism. I’m going to miss her. She is truly my “forever friend!”
RFA & EST: Most writers have a favorite scene or event in their stories—something they are pleased to have written. What part of Grace’s diary are you most pleased with?
KJ: This is a thought-provoking question. I guess I’d have to say that I am especially pleased with Helen’s letters while traveling to California and from the migrant camp. They offer a little window to what was occurring outside of the Dust Bowl region. I think the letters also provide a snapshot of what happened to many of the families who left their farms and lives behind, often only finding that they faced even worse hardships and circumstances.
RFA & EST: If you could ask your readers one question about your novel, what would that question be?
KJ: The question I would most like to ask my readers is a question I also ask myself: If you had to face difficult challenges as Grace and her family did, what are some of the truly important things in your life that would remain unchanged?
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.