Friday, February 17, 2017

My First Classroom Visit via 21st Century Technology!

Yesterday I had great fun Face Timing with 4th grade students from St. George's Independent School in Germantown, Tennessee. It seems that 4th graders at that school have been reading The Riddle of Penncroft Farm for many years, and the ones who read it this year wanted to talk with me about that story.

I showed them the various editions of Riddle, discussed the two errors on the original hardcover book jacket, and showed them a few artifacts, including a riddle. (You'll have to read the book or visit here to find out what that is.) I also told the teachers about the HBJ classroom guide for Riddle I uploaded to my website. (Find the link for that here.)

These kids had some excellent questions that sent me back in time to when I wrote this story. They also sent me deep inside my brain to figure out why I wrote it in such a way that students are still reading it nearly thirty years after it was published by Harcourt, Brace Jovanovich. (It has remained in print ever since!)


Here are some of those questions and brief summaries of my answers, although some answers are much more complete than those I actually came up with when "on screen."

How did you become a writer? Did you want to be a writer when you were a kid?

The main thing I did as a kid that likely helped me become a writer was to read. A lot. I did this mostly in closets, as we had a really noisy household. We five children all took music lessons on at least two and sometimes three instruments. With all that practicing, it was very seldom quiet.

I wrote a few things for fun when I was young, but it never occurred to me that I could be a professional writer. I just didn't have enough confidence in myself to think of this. Therefore, I didn't start writing with publication in mind until I was a grown up and actually met a published author. Somehow, that gave me the confidence to start writing myself.

Why did you make Geordie a shade?

I thought having a ghost in the story would be more interesting for kids to read rather than a straightforward story just about Geordie, completely set in the 18th century. Besides, it allowed me to write parallel episodes, past and present, like those in which Geordie and Lars visit the same places in different centuries (Brandywine Battlefield, Independence Hall, Valley Forge, etc). I found working out how to do this was challenging and fun, and I felt this approach gave some interesting complexity to the story.

Where did you get the names for your characters? How did you come up with the name and character of Lars.

Cassandra: I needed a name that could have several different nicknames, for obvious reasons. Thus I came up with Cassandra, with Cass, Sandra, and Sandy. (Besides, I've always loved that name.)

Lars: I said that I named this character after my nephew but this wasn't the whole story. I wanted my main character to have a name that sounded NOR-WEIRD-GIAN to his new classmates in Pennsylvania. Many people in Minnesota are of Scandinavian descent so names like this are very common. They were not so common in Pennsylvania when we lived there. I have a nephew named Lars so that made me think of it. Olafson is a very Norwegian name that I just picked randomly. Oddly enough, the picture of Lars on the original hardback copy looked quite a bit like my nephew Lars!

I came up with the idea for this main character when my husband, kids, and I moved from Pennsylvania to Minnesota in 1981. I was concerned that my two boys might have difficulty in making this move. (Our daughter was only a baby at the time.) I wrote this book to help them adjust to their new home somehow, as well as to help them remember all the Revolutionary War sites we often saw in PA. (We often went to Independence Hall, City Tavern, etc., and my boys actually learned how to ride bicycles at Valley Forge.)

Peter: I named Lars's older brother after a good friend who suggested I send an early draft of  Riddle to his father, an expert on children's literature. I did, and received some excellent advice on how I needed to change the story. (For example, in the original version, Aunt Cass had already died before Lars and his fam got to Penncroft Farm, and he suggested I keep her going until Lars meets her.)

If you decided to write a sequel to Riddle, what would it be about? 

Many kids have asked me to write a sequel, which is a high compliment indeed. I gave it some serious thought, but decided if I went on with Geordie and Sandy's story, it would be hard for me to create any surprises. We already know they got married and had children, as Lars and Pat are both descended from them. Furthermore, there would be no reason for Geordie to appear in the story. (He had only showed up before because Lars was lonely and unhappy, among other reasons.)

I toyed with the idea of writing a story about Patience meeting another ancestor from the time of the Civil War, and her home, Blackberry Hill Farm, was a stop on the Underground Railroad. In the end, I decided not to do this.

One of the teachers, Mrs. Goldberg, asked the following question: Do you add in details like Pat's wearing a special ring on a chain around her neck later, or was it that way from the beginning?
I honestly can't remember when I thought of tying the whole story together by having Pat's ring be one that played a significant role in the 18th century parts of the story. I did go back many times to add things or make changes, so I might have added this later on in the writing process. I do like to interlink details to make my story resolutions complex and satisfying.

I believe that my new book, A Buss from Lafayette, accomplishes something like this, too. One
reviewer said, "The story has a number of twists and turns, but the plot is resolved in a satisfying, wholly heart-warming dénouement." (To read this and other reviews, please visit my website

I had a GREAT time talking with these kids.
If your school class or homeschooling group has read one of my books and would like to Face Time with me, just let me know by e-mailing me at


P.S. All the kids agreed they'd like to see The Riddle of Penncroft Farm as a movie. Me too!

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