Sherry Garland: One day I was talking to my Dear America editor about possible ideas for another book. She told me that Scholastic would love to have one set in California, but not during the Gold Rush since that topic was already under way. I did a quick survey of California history and became fascinated with the role of the Spanish/Mexican culture. Having been born only a couple of miles from the Mexican border myself, I've always been interested in that country's history and culture. I considered writing about an Indian girl living in a California mission, but finally decided upon the Bear Flag Revolt period. That was a turbulent time for the Mexican residents (called californios) as Americans moved in and gradually took the ruling power away from them. And the more turbulent the times, the more interesting the story.
RFA & EST: What was the most interesting thing you discovered in doing your research for Valley of the Moon?
SG: I had always heard about the Bear Flag Revolt, but I was surprised to find that it was so short-lived and almost bloodless. Very few people were killed on either side. Also, I was surprised to learn that just a handful of Spanish-speaking families owned all of California's lands and fought among themselves. And I had not realized that the fate of the Native Americans in California had been so harsh.
RFA & EST: María Rosalia is such a multifaceted main character. If you had to describe her in one word, what would that word be? Why?
SG: Inquisitive. She always wanted to learn. As a child María Rosalia wanted to learn how to read and write, though it was against the custom of the day. After meeting Señor Johnston she wanted to learn English so she could communicate with him and his family. And she had a burning desire to learn about her parents and her past. She later becomes a writer, and being inquisitive is one of the basic requirements for being a writer.
RFA & EST: María Rosalia and the Medina family are fictitious, but are they based on any actual people you uncovered in your research?
SG: I think the one family that influenced my descriptions of the rancho and its lifestyle is the Vallejo family. They were the wealthiest and most powerful landowners in northern California, where the story is set. One of the Vallejo children wrote his memoirs and described some of the activities I mention in my book, for example washday at the hot springs. Although the ranchos in the northern part of California were not as luxurious as those in the south near Los Angeles, I wanted to create the overall feel of the Spanish/Mexican haciendas.
RFA & EST: The Indian servants in Valley of the Moon are referred to as slaves. From your research did you find any similarities to the slaves in the South before the Civil War?
SG: The fate of the California Indians is especially sad and quite different than the slaves in the South. In the United States at that time slavery was legal. The Southern slave owners considered the slaves "property" and as such put forth an effort to feed, clothe, and medicate their slaves. In Mexico, however, slavery had been outlawed for many, many years. The Indians were supposedly working for the wealthy landowners, but their working conditions were often so harsh that they died in large numbers from exhaustion. They also died from diseases introduced by foreigners. There were distinct class lines in Mexico, and the darker the skin, the lower the position in society. It was very difficult for the Indians to rise above their class. Southern slaves were emancipated and went on to become a distinct part of American society while the California Indians and their culture vanished altogether.
RFA & EST: The Dear America Diaries have become some of the best selling historical fiction books published in the field of literature for young people. Why do you think this is so?
SG: Well, I'd like to think it is the wonderful authors, but that sounds a little too much like bragging. One of the reasons for the success of the Dear America series is the diary format. The diary is personal, it feels "real." Also, the diary format is easy to read. Unlike a novel that is divided into chapters, a diary has short entries that allow the reader to stop at nearly any point. I have always loved to read and write historical fiction, but in the past it was not easy to sell an historical fiction manuscript, especially for the 9-12 age group. But with the diary format, the readers are drawn into history and become so involved in the story that they don't realize they are learning history at the same time. Another reason the series is so successful is because of the historical accuracy. I can tell you that we authors have to do tremendous amounts of research — a year's worth for me. And then Scholastic hires a "fact checker" who is an expert in the field, often a history professor at a university or a museum curator. Valley of the Moon was fact checked by a gentleman working at the museum in Sonoma, where the Bear Flag Revolt took place. Lastly, the series is successful simply because it is a series. When a reader finds a book he or she likes, that reader will look for similar books. In a series, the consistency of the quality is established. Readers know that each of the Dear America books will contain interesting characters and reliable facts.
RFA & EST: If you could ask young people one question after they have finished reading Valley of the Moon, what would that one question be?
SG: I would ask readers if they have a different opinion of the Spanish and Mexican culture in California now. In our modern times, unfortunately, too many Americans tend to think that all Mexican-Americans came from illegal immigrants slipping over the border. Too many people don't realize that the Spanish/Mexican culture was part of California and the southwest long before English-speaking Americans arrived and that the ranching industry owes its existence to Spanish predecessors.
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 Assistant Professor, University of Houston, Department of Curriculum and Instruction. Houston, Texas.