Written by Rachel Walman
This blog post is part of a series on this year’s four finalists for our annual Children’s History Book Prize. Follow along each week as we interview the authors to learn about their awesome books! Read all four books, then starting April 24, vote online for your favorite to help us choose this year’s $10,000 prizewinner. Get your own copy of this week’s book, Wolf Hollow, from the NYHistory Store or check it out from New York Public Library, Queens Public Library, or Brooklyn Public Library.
This week, we sat down with finalist and author Lauren Wolk to talk about her amazing historical novel, Wolf Hollow. Set in Pennsylvania during World War II, the novel weaves together themes of prejudice, bullying, and small town life, revealing the shadows that war casts on people and communities.
DiMenna Children’s History Museum: Wolf Hollow is set in rural Pennsylvania during World War II in a community whose residents are still very much affected by World War I. Why did you choose to set your novel in this time and place?
Lauren Wolk: My answer has everything to do with the fact that Wolf Hollow is a blend of truth and fiction. The book was inspired by my mother’s stories about her childhood on our family farm in western Pennsylvania, by my own experiences there, and by hundreds of pictures depicting country life in the 1940s, so the time and place are based on fact. But as I wrote the fictional story, I took advantage of those truths and created a microcosm of the terrible situation unfolding in the greater world.
It’s no mistake that Betty has blond hair and blue eyes, for instance, or that she is a truly evil bully who does everything possible to gain power and destroy the lives of innocent people. Hitler and the other instigators and perpetrators of World War II terrorized and manipulated people into inaction or complicity—and they brought out the very worst in far too many. Betty does, too. But the war also brought out the best in some people, who acted with courage in the face of terrible injustice—people like Annabelle and Toby. That time and place gave me the perfect vehicle for telling a story of one small community and of the whole world at once.
DCHM: How have kids reacted to the incredibly vivid character Betty Glengarry who bullies your novel’s protagonist, Annabelle?
LW: Kids despise Betty, as they should, but they don’t doubt that such evil exists. She’s a monster, and they get that. But some of them do feel sorry for her. They wish she could be redeemed. They long for a happy ending for everyone, including Betty. But they understand how unrealistic that would be. Too many of us underestimate kids. How smart and insightful they are. We forget that they know a great deal about how it feels to be powerless and vulnerable—and how keenly aware they are of the world’s monsters and bullies.
DCHM: What inspired the character Toby, a reclusive WWI veteran?
LW: My mother told stories about the drifters who often came wandering through the area, looking for work or food or shelter. They were refugees, men who had been ruined by their experiences in World War I or the Great Depression, or both. Most of them passed through on their way to somewhere else, but one of them did stay in the area. He had been gassed in World War I and was mentally damaged and very unstable. He ended up in a draconian “insane asylum” in Ohio. The idea of such people in contrast to the relatively stable and deeply rooted farm families in those hills compelled me to create Toby, a character who seemed essentially dark, even dangerous, but was truly gentle, and sane, and good.
DCHM: What kind of research did you do for this novel? Were there any primary sources that inspired you?
LW: I had several primary sources: my mother’s stories, my own experiences and memories, and what I learned from my grandparents and uncles. I needed to do very little additional research. When I had a question, I’d either ask my mother or do a quick Google search to find out things like what radio programs were popular in the ‘40s. Otherwise, I already knew what I needed to know. Which is one reason why the book poured out of me in just three months.
DCHM: Why should young people read historical fiction?
LW: Everyone, including children, should know what’s best and worst about humanity. They need to know how to step out of their own shoes and into those of others who came before us. They need to be honest about the great good we’ve accomplished and the terrible crimes we’ve committed; the Age of Enlightenment and the Inquisition, both. In 1905 Santayana wrote in The Life of Reason, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” In 1948 Winston Churchill said that if we ignored the past, we’d exist in “the most thoughtless of ages. Everyday headlines and short views.” They were both right.
It’s critically important that young people read historical fiction because learning in a way that is pleasurable and engaging and immersive goes bone-deep. I learned a lot of history from fiction—not just isolated facts but truths integrated into stories, so I lived through bygone times alongside the characters, understood their experiences deeply, and learned from them. I owe a great deal to writers like Laura Ingalls Wilder, Mark Twain, Toni Morrison, Michael Shaara, and, most recently, Anthony Doerr. They are both artists and educators, and I am a lifelong learner because of their work.
DCHM: What three words best describe Wolf Hollow?
LW: Ah, that’s tough. I guess I’d say moving, honest, and dear. That last word is old-fashioned, like I am in many ways. I love Wolf Hollow the way I love my children—it is very much a living, breathing part of me. Very dear to my heart.
To learn more about the Children’s History Book Prize and all the finalists, check out last week’s blog post. Don’t forget to read all four books and vote for your favorite starting April 24!