I’ve been a fan of Newbery Honor winner Gennifer Choldenko for quite a few years now. She writes interesting historical fiction that young people (and adults) can really get into. I was honored to feature her book Chasing Secrets back in 2017, and her newest book, ORPHAN ELEVEN, offers yet another set of engaging characters in a delightful setting:
Four orphans have escaped from the Home for Friendless Children. One is Lucy, who used to talk and sing. No one knows why she doesn’t speak anymore; silence is her protection.
The orphans find work and new friends at a traveling circus. Lucy loves caring for the elephants, but she must be able to speak to them, and to warn others of danger. If Lucy doesn’t find her voice, she’ll be left behind when the circus goes on the rails. Meanwhile, people are searching for Lucy, and her puzzling past is about to catch up with her.
Do you have favorite kind of coffee?
I have a special kind of love for my $28 stove top cappuccino maker. OMG how I look forward to my morning cappuccino. I don’t have a lot of rules in life. But here is one I try hard not to break: I’m not allowed to drink my cappuccino until I start to write.
Sounds like a good rule! I love the character of Lucy in ORPHAN ELEVEN. In what ways does her silence offer her protection, and in what ways does it hinder her?
Silence is powerful. It’s like a poker face. People don’t know what you’re thinking and that can be useful. But silence can be a prison too. Because of what Lucy has been through, when she opens her mouth, it triggers a negative internal voice that overwhelms her. So her silence is a way to avoid dealing with a problem that is crippling her.
That’s both beautifully, and painfully, symbolic. Parts of ORPHAN ELEVEN are also told through letters. How did you know that this needed to be a part of the story’s narrative?
I love letters. (In fact, in my twenties I wrote letters for a living. I kid you not.) Letters give readers an intimate view of a character and of that character’s relationship with the letter’s recipient. What a character includes and what she withholds is so revealing. Early on in the writing of a novel, I don’t question myself I just let the narrative spill out as it wants to. It’s impossible to steer when you have no idea of your destination. Dilly’s voice came to me first in a letter. And the letters she writes felt like an anchor for the book. Many other things changed as I revised Orphan Eleven, but Dilly’s letter writing remained constant.
Fascinating! What is a book you’ve read recently that you might have needed when you were younger?
One of the things that was missing for me in the books of my childhood was diversity. The characters in the books available then were mostly white and straight. I wish I could have read books by Christopher Paul Curtis, Veera Hiranandani, Padma Venkatraman, Rita Williams-Garcia, Jerry Craft, Kwame Alexander, Linda Sue Park, James Howe, Varian Johnson and many many others.
For Gennifer Choldenko’s other books, go to: http://www.choldenko.com/