Patricia Reilly Giff Talks with Roger

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While already beloved for her popular and iconic Polk Street School chapter book series, Pat Giff surprised everyone in 1997 with Lily's Crossing, a stand-alone historical novel about the WWII home front that would go on to win both Newbery and Boston Globe–Horn Book honors. Twenty years and several equally well-received novels later, Giff returns to the same time period — but this time the story is about an American girl who finds herself in France as the war breaks out.

Roger Sutton: I think that a kid who's read Lily's Crossing will bring a particular resonance to reading Genevieve's War — two girls, same war, on opposite sides of the ocean.

Patricia Reilly Giff: Certainly I was very young, but I do remember the Second World War home front, which was the setting of Lily's Crossing. I had French friends who were a little bit older than I, who actually went through the war, and that was an entirely different situation. And with Alsace, of course, the Germans did not believe they were at war. They believed they were taking part of their country back.

RS: Genevieve is older than Lily, right?

PRG: Yes. Genevieve starts out at age thirteen — Lily was ten or eleven. But the story continues throughout the war, so she ends up in 1944 when France is liberated, and then in 1945, to be about eighteen years old. It was unusual for me to do that. Usually I stick to a very close time frame in my books. But I wanted to show all that happened, all the changes. The people had to go back to the German street names. They were not allowed to wear French berets. All of that was so interesting to me, and I hope kids will be interested in reading about it, too.

RS: Well, I sure was. I didn't know anything about what had gone on there. What was also interesting to me was the relative peace in which Genevieve and her grandmother lived for much of the time.

PRG: Yes, and that I know is true. When I was a young woman I had a friend who was a much older Alsatian woman. She had been born in Pfaffenhausen and later became an American citizen. But when her husband died, she went back to Alsace and was there during the war. She told me that anybody who had been born there before the First World War was considered German. And then after the First World War they were French, and then back to German again. I was very interested in the dynamics of this situation. She also told me that they had to be so careful not to express any opinion in front of the children, because they were then asked in school whether their families were on the side of the French or the Germans.

I myself was terrified during the Second World War. The war started when I was six, and I was so sure that we were going to be bombed and killed. And yet my French friend, who was older, said in the heart of it they lost that fear. They became used to it. They grew up with it, whereas in my imagination—which my sister always says is my biggest plus and my worst minus…

RS: Mine tends to go apocalyptic at the wrong time, too.

PRG: Yes. Those of us who love reading have that tendency.

RS: We know where you started with this story. But I've just read Writing with Rosie, your book for children about writing, and you don't outline, correct?

PRG: I do not.

RS: It's interesting, because the book starts at the end. It circles around. How much did you know going in of what you were going to tell?

PRG: That's an interesting question. Richard Peck taught me something years ago. He said that he writes to maybe chapter ten, and by that time he knows more and starts over again. That really resonated with me. So the first chapter that you see, which is the war, didn't get written until the end of the book. It came much later. I was studying. I was researching what happened in Alsace. When you look at books about the Second World War, you read about Paris, but there's not a lot about Alsace. Tomi Ungerger wrote a wonderful book about it [Tomi: A Childhood under the Nazis]. At my local library, which I love — the Trumbull Library — one librarian, Walter, became interested and managed to find me two books on Alsace written in 1915.

RS: Wow.

PRG: Which gave me the Klapperstein scene. When people gossiped, they had to wear a stone around their neck. Really. This is history.

RS: Our entire profession would sink into the ocean.

PRG: You are so right. There are no secrets that can be kept for very long.

RS: Do you keep researching as you write, or do you say, okay, I'm done researching? Because I'd be afraid once I started writing I'd find out more and have to change everything.

PRG: And you do. You do.

RS: What a pain in the ass.

PRG: Yes. I did keep reading what I could. I also went back and forth to look at the border areas. One of my writing students found someone who grew up in Alsace after the war, so I talked to her and asked her questions, because I was so worried about making a mistake.

RS: We're all worried about that these days.

PRG: Yes. But actually, making a mistake in a book — years ago, with Lily's Crossing, I said you could see the ocean from the bay, which I believed, because I lived in St. Albans, and we spent half our lives in Rockaway. So I wasn't researching, because I thought I knew. And then someone who was on the Newbery committee told me that that was brought up as an error, and luckily someone else said, "Oh, get a grip. This is fiction." That scares me when I'm writing, because something you always believed really might not have been true.

RS: I think that the setting you chose, in Alsace, is perhaps more relatable to American kids today than the danger and glamour of Paris during the war. It's a pretty ordinary life Genevieve lives there with her grandmother.

PRG: My main focus, really, was on the relationships that Genevieve had. Not knowing where her brother was. Making herself go back to the grandmother she didn't like. A friend who she believed betrayed her. The boy she falls in love with. All of those relationships seemed to be accessible to kids.

RS: There's a lot in there, too, about people making mistakes, wondering if something was the right thing to do — like when she decides she's not going to leave France, and she runs back to her grandmother. You can imagine a whole other story had she gotten on that train. Those are the sorts of dilemmas that kids have all the time. We all do, right?

PRG: Yes, everyone does. As we get older we have more options, because we've been through so many things. But for kids, the idea of doing the right thing is important.

RS: It can feel very life-or-death. You and I as old people know that, actually, a lot isn't life-or-death.

PRG: I just told this story to my granddaughter, who is agonizing over a project for school. When I was in school I had to draw a bird and label the parts. I was crying because my art was terrible, and my mother said to me, "Will this matter in two years?" That was such a moment for me. Many times in my life I've been upset about something and said to myself, "Will this matter in two years?" Not even in two months.

RS: Sometimes not even tomorrow.

PRG: Yes. So, I'm still writing in my old age, Roger. And still loving it. It fills my days. Writing is my salvation. I just get up in the morning, and I'm in this world that I scratch out and begin again and write over — and then suddenly it's lunchtime, and I'm back.

RS: How does it feel — I think about this a lot, now that I approach my dotage — when I think about the changes in children's books today from those in the late seventies, which is when I started.

PRG: Which is when I started too.

RS: What's it like for you now? Do you feel like a grande dame? Do you feel more relaxed? Do you feel more competitive? Less competitive?

PRG: Competition's never really entered into writing for me, because it's such a joy. I was a teacher, a reading teacher, working with kids who had such terrible problems, who were angry and serving life sentences in prison. What I think of sometimes, as I read the new books — do kids really need to see such a seamy side of life? I'm in the minority, such an old woman, perhaps. I love The Penderwicks. I love the books that have given kids joy, that give them hope at the end. Sometimes it seems to me the books right now are very depressive. Do you think that at all?

RS: I do. Sometimes the books seem like more of a downer than they used to. They can go blacker. They can go bleaker. But then if you look back at the reception of The Outsiders, for example, people said the same thing.

PRG: Yes, I hadn't thought of that. You're absolutely right.

RS: So I think only time is going to tell whether things have actually gotten darker, or if we're just observing the field from a certain elderly perspective!

PRG: And children are more sophisticated now. Their schooling — I'm amazed at the difference. Think about when we went to college. It seemed to me what I studied at Marymount was more of what the high school kids are doing today. They see so much more — the internet, even television. We didn't have television when I was growing up, until I was twelve or thirteen. I think you can't go back. Many of them seem so much more confident. I was shy, and I had Catholic nuns throughout my schooling, who were very tough, let me tell you that.

RS: Did the nuns try with you, as they did with me, to convince you that Easter was more important than Christmas? Which it is, theologically.

PRG: Yes, because that was the miracle.

RS: But there were no presents.

PRG: So you had the nuns too?

RS: I did not go to Catholic school, but we had CCD every week.

PRG: Yes, oh, yes. I had the nuns. I grew up in a very repressive childhood.

RS: You know, I sort of pity these kids who grow up today without a religion, even though their parents could be the most wonderful in the world. You need to have something to react against.

PRG: Yes. And comfort. After my son died recently, it certainly helped to have some feeling of religion. Although God knows my Catholicism is not what it was.

RS: Yeah, but it's always with one, isn't it?

PRG: I don't think you can get rid of it.

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Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.

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