Educators and writers hold a special place in my heart, and I’m delighted to welcome award-winning middle grade author Frances Schoonmaker who sees her writing as an extension of her work as an educator.
Below are her responses to my interview questions, followed by her bio and buy links.
You’ve written the Last Crystal Trilogy, an acclaimed trilogy for middle grade and up readers. In fact, the third book in the series, The Last Crystal, won the 2019 Agatha Award for the best middle grade/young adult mystery. Can you tell us about the trilogy and what inspired you to write it?
Underlying the obvious story in the trilogy is the struggle between our best and worst impulses: to save and preserve our world versus destroying it through selfishness and greed. This is embodied in immortal twins Celeste and C’lestin, charged with care of water contained in seven crystals, set aside at the beginning of the earth for its healing. Celeste steals them, giving up her immortality and using them to be the most beautiful woman who has ever lived. Only one crystal remains. C’lestin is determined to find it.
None of the children in the trilogy has ever heard of the Last Crystal or its life-giving water until they are drawn into a magical quest to save it. Their story spans 100 years and two world wars, starting on the Santa Fe Trail in 1856 and ending on the famous Santa Fe Chief train in 1944. They face life-threatening challenges and have to decide whether they will take action or cave in to despair. They all learn that there are some things only a child can do (because children can imagine possibilities that adults fail to see).
I wrote Book 3 first, inspired by a trip from Baltimore to Sacramento, California years ago. An uncle in Sacramento told how he made the trip from Kansas City to L.A. by train with his younger brother every summer when he was a boy. I kept thinking what kind of mischief kids would get up to, wondering what might happen if they stumbled into a private railroad car. Books one and two grew as I grappled with the backstory.
Were there books/authors who especially inspired your love of reading and storytelling as a child?
We had family story at our house with wonderful books like the Mother Westwind books by Thornton Burgess and classics: Robert Louis Stevenson, Mark Twain; Robin Crusoe, by Daniel Defooe; Heidi by Johanna Sypri. I read everything I could get ahold of, too.
In your work directing the graduate teacher education program at Teachers College, Columbia University, you drew heavily on children’s literature and storytelling. What led you to make the leap from educator, as well as editor of poetry collections for children, to writing your own fictional stories?
People often ask why a retired academic would want to write for children. Writing for children is one dimension of a professional career I have devoted to them and their needs. I taught elementary school for a dozen years and in four states before becoming an academic. So there hasn’t been a real shift of my interests, just a different way of expressing them. And, I had a story to tell. A good story doesn’t have age boundaries.
Your novels are known for their historical accuracy and authenticity. Can you tell us about your research process?
I think one of the stamps that Teachers College, Columbia University puts on you is a critical historical perspective. For me, the research is the journey in writing a book. I begin with an idea, learning more about it along the way. Sometimes that changes the story. For example, in writing Book 3, I did a great deal of research about train travel and trains in the 1940s, settling on the Santa Fe Chief. J.D., Mary Carol, Robert and Grace take the Chief from Kansas City. Who might be on the Chief in 1944? Who worked on the train? This led me to the Pullman porters and how their lives were impacted by the racism they faced and an important supporting character, Raymond Lincoln Moses. Details are important. What did people wear during a particular era? What slang did they use? What music did they listen to? While I could make up details, the historian in me said that I needed to find out. I visited the Railway Museum in Sacramento to climb aboard a retired Chief engine and old railway cars. I also took the Chief’s modern iteration, the Southwest Chief, from Santa Fe all the way to L.A. by sleeper car—twice. The reward is when kids get excited by the history as well as the story.
What made you decide to add elements of fantasy to your novels?
The fantasy came first—it’s the underlying theme. But fantasy doesn’t follow the rules of history. I don’t have any great objection to super-heroes, but I wanted the kids in my books to be real kids without superpowers. I didn’t want them bailed out by superheroes. I wanted real kids in a real world, taking on the quest, grappling with the fantastical, not always getting it right, but right enough.
Tell us about your writing process: Are you a plotter, pantser, or somewhere in-between?
In between, maybe? I have an idea. “What if?” There’s always a back story: “How come?” It is a bit like being a detective. I listen to my characters. If I follow a formula, this is it. The route from start to finish is not direct.
What advice would you give to aspiring children’s writers?
Know children. Write for them, from your heart.
What are you currently working on writing-wise?
I’m following one of the characters in book one, The Black Alabaster Box. When bounty hunters burn the barn, compromising the Johnson farm as a station on the underground railway, they decide to go West. Sid learns that the dark shadow of slavery reaches all the way to the Santa Fe Trail.
When you’re not writing, what do you enjoy doing?
I love my garden, walking, reading, the performing and visual arts, and travel.
Anything else you’d like to tell us about yourself and/or your books—or questions I didn’t ask that you wish I had?
I was reared on a farm in Western Oklahoma, not far from one branch of the Santa Fe Trail. I live in Baltimore with my daughter, granddaughter and three cats.
Readers often want to know about a scene that was difficult to write. There were many in the trilogy. When Grace Willis, the protagonist in Book I, escapes kidnappers I encountered a whole battery of questions: Which way did she run? If her kidnapper was a frontiersman who could track her, how was she to get enough distance from him to escape? What does a good tracker actually do? What do you do if you are running from one? I had to return to earlier scenes and do some rewriting. All the while, I had to keep balancing historical accuracy, plausibility and possibility.
Bio for Frances Schoonmaker:
Born in Lawton, OK, Schoonmaker and her two brothers were reared on a farm. Her parents were farmers and schoolteachers. As a child, she was fascinated by stories told by pioneer grandparents and exploring the remains of the dugout where her mother was born. Books about pioneers and those that create imaginative worlds were among her favorites. Schoonmaker makes room for both fact and fancy in The Last Crystal Trilogy, historical fantasy for middle grades and above. She draws on her childhood in rural Oklahoma to furnish vivid details of place and context for all three books of the trilogy. Book Three is scheduled for publication December 23, 2019.
After teaching elementary school for a dozen years, Frances Schoonmaker directed the graduate elementary and middle school teacher education program at Teachers College, Columbia University for nearly twenty years, a program drawing heavily on children’s literature and storytelling. Publications for children include five books in the Sterling Poetry for Young People series and Growing UpCaring, Exploring Values and Decision-Making (Glencoe/Macmillan). Upon retirement from Teachers College, Schoonmaker was awarded the title Professor Emerita.
Schoonmaker has taught, lectured, and consulted internationally. She led the teacher education initiative for Teachers College in Afghanistan, a collaboration with UNICEF and the Transitional Government of Afghanistan. She worked with the Queen Rania Teacher Aademy in Jordan, and served as Senior Curriculum Specialist for the USAID Teacher Education Project in Pakistan. She was Visiting Professor at Nanjing Normal University in China in 1998 and recipient of it’s Famous Foreign Professor Lectureship in 2013. She has been Visiting Scholar at the Institute of Education at University of London and at York University, UK.
Schoonmaker holds degrees from The University of Washington; George Peabody College, Vanderbilt University; and Teachers College, Columbia University. She resides in Baltimore, Maryland with her family.