This post is part III of our four-part series on this year’s finalists for our annual Children’s History Book Prize. Join us here on our History Detectives blog over the next few weeks as we meet the authors and learn more about their amazing books. Read all four finalists, then help us choose the prizewinner by voting for your favorite in our online poll! Polls open the week of April 30. The winning author receives a $10,000 prize! Learn about the process of choosing the book prize winner.
This week we are joined by two hilarious ladies, Madelyn Rosenberg and Wendy Wan-Long Shang, who co-wrote This is Just a Test. Their novel is set in the not-too-distant past of the 1980s and features a Jewish Chinese American protagonist busily preparing for his bar mitzvah…and the possibility of nuclear fallout.
DiMenna Children’s History Museum: Two of the funniest characters in This is Just a Test are David Da-Wei Horowitz’s bickering grandmothers. Why did you think humor was an important element to include throughout the story?
Madelyn: We live for funny moments—in books and in real life. When something is scary or awkward or sad, humor gets us through. And humor had always been a part of what Wendy and I wrote individually, so it made sense it would be part of whatever we did together. So this meant we both knew that whether David was worrying about girls, his bar mitzvah, or nuclear war, having a grandmother that was an expert on avoiding scooping up dog poop was what he needed to put things in perspective.
Wendy: Humor also makes connections. When you laugh with someone, you are saying, we see things the same crazy way! The 1980s are a long time ago for readers of today (yikes!), but when they can share a funny moment with a character from that time, they can realize how much they have in common.
DCHM: Why did you choose to set this story in Virginia during the 1980s? What did you want kids to learn about that place during that time?
Madelyn: When you’re writing with a partner, it helps to have a familiar landscape. For us, the landscape was 1980s Virginia because that’s when and where we both grew up. We both felt like “onlies”—the only Chinese American kid at an elementary school in Fairfax, and the only Jewish girl in the 7th grade in Blacksburg.
Wendy: And we both remember watching “The Day After,” a major television event meant to scare us away from nuclear war, which turned into a life-changing moment for anyone who watched it! What we hope that kids take away from our book is that we’ve lived in scary times before and gotten through them. Also—and this is timely in the wake of the #enough student-led movement—we want readers to realize that their voices matter. They cannot stay silent and hope for peace. They can speak up and be heard.
DCHM: Friendship is an important theme in This is Just a Test—and in the About the Authors section at the end of the book, it’s revealed that you two are longtime friends. What was it like to write this story together as a team?
Madelyn: Best. Time. Ever. We traded back and forth and went on long walks to discuss plot. There are so many things that happen in life that keep us from spending time with the people we love, the people who make us better—carpools and family sagas and mowing the lawn. So to have something that made us make more time for each other was great. I really wanted to do my best for her.
Wendy: I think that some of our best stories come out of writing for specific audiences, and in some ways, we were that audience for each other. I love making Madelyn laugh, and Madelyn wrote moments in the book that literally took my breath away. We met in a writers group, so we already had a lot of trust, in terms of trusting each other’s sensibilities and decisions.
DCHM: What kind of research did you do for this book? Were there any primary sources that inspired you?
Madelyn: I’m a former newspaper reporter, so I always go straight to old newspapers. They have the news of the time period, and you can also see what people were thinking (opinion pages), what they were laughing at (comics, TV listings), what they were wearing (photos, fashion), what the weather was like (weather), and even what they were eating (food section, advertising circulars). We also looked at ‘80s newscasts and commercials, listened to music, and re-watched “The Day After.”
Wendy: I remember that at one point, we wanted our characters to plan to go to the movies, so we went off to look at the movie listings, which sparked a lot of memories. Movies from the ‘80s focused on three things: the Russians and the Cold War (Red Dawn, WarGames, Top Gun), kids with spunk (Goonies, Stand By Me, The Karate Kid), and Rocky. It was amazing how much the Cold War permeated our pop culture—Rocky even fought a Russian at one point!
DCHM: Why should young people read historical fiction?
Madelyn: When we were writing this story, we didn’t think it would have so many ties to news events that are happening today. But history does repeat itself, and readers can see that for themselves in our book.
Wendy: I love seeing the human thread in historical fiction—people are always people with the same jealousies, fears, and hopes, whether they are getting to school by horseback or jetpack. I think historical fiction helps readers understand the larger story, the timeline that includes all of us, and our collective progress and failures.
DCHM: What three words best describe This is Just a Test?
–Shana Fung, DiMenna Children’s History Museum