Classroom Connections: SEARCHING FOR SILVERHEELS by Jeannie Mobley


age range: 10-14 years
setting: Colorado, 1917
Jeannie Mobley’s website

study guide

Pearl’s lively narration reveals her transformation from an old-fashioned, romantic girl into a spirited, courageous champion. Mobley uses the legend of Silverheels to effectively “raise questions about the traditional roles of women and their sources of strength,” as she writes in her author’s note, against the backdrop of wartime Colorado. An engrossing, plausible story of several unlikely feminist heroines with a touch of romance and intrigue. — Kirkus Reviews

Please tell us about your book.

Searching for Silverheels is the story of a romantically minded 13 year old, Pearl, who works in her family’s café in the small mountain town of Como, Colorado in 1917, just after the United States has entered the First World War.  She loves the local legend of Silverheels, a dance hall girl of the gold rush era, who saved a town from smallpox. However, Josie, a cynical old women’s suffragist, scoffs at Pearl for telling the story to the tourists, arguing that Silverheels was more likely a crook after the miner’s gold than a hero. They enter into a bet, each trying to prove their version of the legend, but in the mean time, accusations of sedition and anti-patriotism arise in the town, threatening both Pearl’s family and Josie. Pearl is forced to decide what she really believes in and to act, even if it costs her.

What inspired you to write this story?

I have known the legend of Silverheels for as long as I can remember, being a Colorado native that spent a great deal of time in the mountains in the area where Silverheels lived, and where there is, to this day, a mountain named after her. I hadn’t thought about the legend for a long time, but when I heard it again I realized there are some odd inconsistencies in it that made me think that Silverheels had the perfect set up for a scam–tend the dying miners, seduce them with her legendary beauty, and then take their gold.  As a kid, I had loved the legend for its romantic, tragic beauty, and having this new vision of it as a more cynical adult, I thought, what an interesting story it would be to debate the story from the two sides.

I also realized what a good set up for exploring the roles of women in traditional society, and all the ways that women are called to be strong. So, I chose to set it during World War I so I could bring in the suffrage movement as well as all the things women did on the home front to keep the country going during the war.

Could you share with readers how you conducted your research or share a few interesting tidbits you learned while researching?

I did very little book research before I started writing this story. Since I’ve known the legend of Silverheels and the area where the story took place since childhood, I tried to draw on deep childhood memories to shape the character of Pearl and her experiences and feelings about her mountain home. While Pearl’s story is entirely fictitious, her feelings and personality are  drawn very much on who I was as a kid.  So, I did a small amount of research about the home front in various wars, and settled on World War I, mostly because the National Women’s party, one arm of the  suffrage movement, came to blows with the authorities over criticizing the president during war time.

I researched details as I wrote, stopping when I needed to fill in a detail–like when the first Liberty Bonds were issued, what they cost and how the program worked, or what the train schedule was like in Como, a railroad hub of the era, or how long it might have taken by train to get from one location to another.  Sometimes those details would draw me into an hour of research, sometimes I’d have to work on research for a day or more. And there were a few times I found things out and had to back up and rewrite things I had gotten wrong. That is a definite problem with my system of research-as-I-go, but I don’t know what I need to research until I get there.

Always, when I am writing a piece of historical fiction, I am “researching” in my time away from the writing desk, too. I watch TV programs or read novels set in that era or written in that era, I listen to period music, and I daydream, to get my mind steeped in the deeper feeling of the time period.

What are some special challenges associated with writing historical fiction?

Of course, there is always the challenge of getting the historical era right and finding the balance of including enough historical detail to get a sense of the era without overdoing it. I think it is also important to hit the right balance of making it feel familiar and also exotic.  Historical fiction appeals to readers for its ability to help us escape into a different world, but at the same time, I think historical fiction has a romantic appeal too. There is something warm about the “good old days,” even if they weren’t all that good in reality. I think many readers like the comfortable warmth of stories set in the late 19th/early 20th century. The sense of family and of home that linger in the memories of adults who read the Little House books as kids, for example. 

So for me, I try to evoke some of those same feelings in my work, while still being true to all the things that made the “good old days” not so good. Because there was a lot of hard work and discrimination and sexism in those days, and there was a struggle to survive. I try to keep all of that present in my work.

What topics does your book touch upon that would make it a perfect fit for the classroom?

My book looks at traditional roles of women, the home front during war, and the suffrage movement, all topics of interest in American History. We are now in the hundredth anniversary of World War I, which began in Europe in the summer of 1914, and continued until 1918. For the United States, the centennial of our involvement in the war doesn’t begin until 2017, but there is a new focus on that war right now, and this book fits into that topic very neatly.

I also think that historical fiction can fit in nicely with the focus of the Common Core on increased attention to informational texts, which include things like non-fiction and primary sources.  One of the intriguing things about historical fiction is it creates a personal interest in history, because it gets the reader emotionally involved with people in the past. And once that emotional involvement is there, it is much more interesting to do the background research (for example, people who never study history often love researching an ancestor). 

So, I think historical fiction can be a wonderful gateway into those informational texts, as readers of the novel say, “Did that really happen?” or “Did people really do that back then?” Those questions can be used as starting points for digging in deeper and finding out the truth. For example, in my book, suffragists are arrested at the White House in July of 1917, which triggers a protest rally on the steps of the State Capitol in Denver. Readers might then ask, did that really happen, and they can turn to the history books or old newspapers to find out. Toward that end, I do include various links to research resources in my teachers guides and on my website.

Are You A Blogger? Let’s Talk about BLUE BIRDS!

One of the most exciting things about being an author is connecting with readers. It’s incredible to me to realize there are people out there waiting for my next book. And it’s especially dear to know some of you come here regularly to listen in on the things I have to say.

9780399168109_BlueBirds_CV

As you probably know, the best way to launch a book into the world is to send it out with lots of love. What’s the best sort of love a reader can offer? Word of mouth, hands down. Word of mouth comes in the form of casual conversations, recommendations, blog posts, and reviews on sites like Amazon or Goodreads. It’s simply one reader talking to another.

Want to have a hand in a word of mouth campaign? I have ten advance reader copies of BLUE BIRDS to give away. I’d love if you’d consider writing a blog post to run the second week of January about one of the following things:

  • Friendship: how your friend(s) have influenced you, the role childhood friendships have played in your life, or any other friendship-related idea
  • Pivotal Moments: An instance when you experienced a world completely different from anything you’d ever known before, a time you stepped outside your own culture, or any other life-changing idea
  • Review: an honest look at what you think of BLUE BIRDS (Just because you read here doesn’t mean you have to like it! Every opinion is a valid one.)

To participate, leave a comment below. While I’ll only have ARCs for the first ten commenters, if you’d still like to participate, I have a lovely little thank you I’ll send along to all who choose to blog.

Thanks, friends! I’ll be in touch with more specific details soon.

A Conversation with Sarah MacKenzie of the Read Aloud Revival Podcast

I’m so excited to share with you a recent conversation I had with Sarah MacKenzie of the Read Aloud Revival Podcast. We talked poetry, how I stumbled into writing verse novels, and what three books I would take to a desert island.

Swing by and have a listen!

Caroline Starr Rose: Making Sense of My Name

It felt like time to pull this post out again, as I’ve gotten questions of late. Here’s the inside scoop.

Because it seems to come up often during school visits and while chatting online (there’s even been some confusion at Random House), I thought I’d explain my name today, specifically the Starr business.

Starr is my middle name. It’s not my maiden name. It’s not hyphenated. Just my plain ol’ middle name. I know my email address doesn’t help make things clear (I don’t use my last name, just my first and middle). I was named for my grandmother, Gene Starr, and my mother, Polly Starr. As I don’t have any daughters, my boys have graciously named the dog Boudreaux Starr.

When I was a middle schooler, Starr felt like a curse. I was always asked if my parents were hippies and if I had sisters named Moonbeam and Sunshine at home. Now I like it. A lot. It flows so nicely with Caroline and Rose.

So now you know!

Anyone else with a unique name?

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