Stories from the Author’s Life

Writing Your Own History

“History tells us what people do; historical fiction helps us imagine how they felt.”
Guy Vanderhaeghe, as quoted in “A Good Guy,” Quill & Quire, Sept. 2011

Figueredo, D.H. The Road to Santiago. New York: Lee & Low Books, 2003.

Alfredito and his parents want to join relatives for Christmas.  But how will they get from Havana to Santiago? The trains are not running because of the fighting between government forces and the rebels.  Set during the late 1950s and based on the author’s own childhood, this informative picture book with colourful evocative illustrations by Pablo Torrecilla is recommended for readers 7 to 11 years old. 

Winter, Jonah. Born and Bred in the Great Depression. New York: Schwartz & Wade Books, 2011.

The author’s father grew up in east Texas during the 1930s, a time of fear and hardship for so many all across North America. This gently lyrical picture book, softly illustrated by  Kimberly Bulcken Root and accompanied by black and white family photographs, shows a country family struggling to earn money but also appreciating the joys of life: playing the banjo, enjoying a game of chess, reading books from the library, “…learning to love those things that didn’t cost a single penny.” Highly recommended for readers of all ages. [Country life; Depressions; Family life; Fathers; Historical fiction; Texas]

 

Chapman, Fern Schumer. Is It Night or Day? New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010.

“In 1938, Edith Westerfeld, a young German Jew, is sent by her parents to Chicago, Illinois, where she lives with an aunt and uncle and tries to assimilate into American culture, while worrying about her parents and mourning the loss of everything she has ever known. Based on the author’s mother’s experience, includes an afterword about a little-known program that brought twelve hundred Jewish children to safety during World War II.” – CIP. A memorable story of courage and resilience highly recommended for readers 11 to 15 years old. [Chicago; Grief; Holocaust; Immigrants; Loneliness; Jews; WW 2] 

De la Cruz, Melissa. Something in Between. Don Mills, Ont.: Seventeen Fiction from Harlequin Teen, 2016.

This story of a teenager who wins a National Scholarship Award is inspired by events in the author’s own life.  Jasmine is full of confidence, a popular cheerleader has always worked hard to do everything perfectly. But her Filipino parents have been working without proper documentation and the whole family is now about to be deported. All her plans are in jeopardy because her parents have failed to become legal residents of the U.S.A.  

The portrayal of life for undocumented residents is informative. The depiction of emotional pain encourages empathy. But the story is altogether too much of a fairy tale: Jasmine is a self-pitying heroine who must prevail over the forces of injustice. This 432-page novel, inspired by the author’s experiences, is nevertheless recommended for teenagers looking for a romance story.

Dead End in Norvelt

Gantos, Jack. Dead End in Norvelt. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 2011.
Twelve-year-old Jack spends the summer of 1962 helping an elderly neighbour write obituaries after his mother grounds him for mowing down the garden his father wants to use for a bomb shelter.  Much like in Rex Zero and the End of the World by Tim Wynne-Jones, there is concern about a possible nuclear war with Russia. This humorous novel, based on the author’s own childhood in Pennsylvania, is the Newbery Medal winner for 2012. [Family life; Pennsylvania; Summer; Old age; Historical fiction; Newbery Medal; Humorous stories]

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Cynthia Rylant’s picture book, When I Was Young in the Mountains, is based on memories of growing up in the Appalachian Mountains of West Virginia.

Many of Robert Newton Peck’s books, including his Soup stories, are loosely based on his childhood in rural Vermont.

Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie books are based on her childhood in the American Midwest during the late 10th century.

John Fitzgerald’s Great Brain books are also based on his childhood experiences, although they are set several years before he was born in Utah in the early 20th century.

Many of Laurence Yep’s novels, including The Dragon’s Child which tells of how his father came to San Francisco when he was a young child, focus on his family’s Chinese ancestry.

Most of Mildred D. Taylor’s novels, including Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry are based on the family stories she heard while growing up in Ohio.

Esperanza Rising

Ryan, Pam Munoz. Esperanza Rising. Scholastic, 2000.
Twelve-year-old Esperanza’s life goes from wealth to poverty when her father dies, her uncles take over the family’s ranch in Mexico, and she and her mother are forced to become farm labourers in California during the 1930s.  This novel is based on the life of the author’s grandmother. [California; Child labor; Depressions – 1929; Farm life; Historical fiction; Immigrants; Mexico; Poverty]

 

Anne Ylvisaker’s novel The Luck of the Buttons was inspired by a photograph of her grandmother taken in 1927.

Kerry Madden’s novel Gentle’s Hollow was based on stories of her husband’s childhood in North Carolina and Tennessee.

Kristin Levine’s novel The Best Bad Luck I Ever Had was based on her own family’s history in Alabama. 

The Lions of Little Rock

Levine, Kristin. The Lions of Little Rock. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2012.
Twelve-year-old Marlee is shy. She likes thinking and she likes math, but she doesn’t like talking so much. And she is not courageous. But when high schools are closed in her home town because local officials oppose integration, Marlee learns to speak up. Based on the childhood of the author’s mother, this novel will appeal to readers twelve years old and up. [Arkansas; African Americans; Racism; Schools; Family life; Mothers and daughters; Historical fiction; Friendship; Courage; Mathematics; Faith] 

The Paper Cowboy

Levine, Kristin. The Paper Cowboy. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2014.

“In a small town near Chicago in 1953, twelve-year-old Tommy faces escalating problems at home, among his Catholic school friends, and with the threat of a communist living nearby, but taking over his hospitalized sister’s paper route introduces him to neighbors who he comes to rely on for help.” – CIP. Based on the childhood of the author’s father, this quickly-paced but thought-provoking novel is highly recommended for readers 12-years-old and up. [Bullying; Child abuse; Communism; Conduct of life; Family problems; Friendship; Historical fiction; Illinois; Newspaper carriers]

Some of  Tomie dePaola’s books, including 26 Fairmount Avenue,  describe his own childhood.

Jacqueline Woodson’s picture book Visiting Day is based on events in her childhood: visiting her uncle who was incarcerated in prison. The illustrator, James E. Ransome, used his own memory of visiting his brother to create the dramatic full-page pictures of the prison.

Click HERE to find more novels based on historical facts.

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Nicola Campbell’s picture books, Shi-Shi-etko and Shin-Chi’s Canoe, were inspired by hearing her family’s stories about growing up in the interior of B.C. and being sent to residential schools.

Click HERE to find more stories about the aboriginal people of North America.

The Endless Steppe


Esther Hautzig wrote The Endless Steppe , a novel about her family’s exile to Siberia during World War 2.

Between Shades of Gray

Sepetys, Ruta. Between Shades of Gray. New York: Speak, 2012, c2011.

“In 1941, fifteen-year-old Lina, her mother, and brother are pulled from their Lithuanian home by Soviet guards and sent to Siberia, where her father is sentenced to death in a prison camp while she fights for her life, vowing to honor her family and the thousands like hers by burying her story in a jar on Lithuanian soil. Based on the author’s family, includes a historical note.” – CIP.  For mature readers.  [Historical fiction; Labor camps; Lithuania; Russia; Siberia; Survivalism]

Audrey Couloumbis wrote War Games , a novel based on her husband’s childhood in Greece during World War 2.

Jane Yolen wrote and illustrated a picture book, All those Secrets of the World, about her childhood memories of her father going to war.

Lois Lowry’s Crow Call, about a little girl getting to know her father again after his return from World War II, was based on a memory from her childhood.

Click HERE to find more novels about World War II.

 

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Eugene Yelchin’s Newbery Honor book Breaking Stalin’s Nose was based on an incident in his childhood in Russia.

Thanhha Lai’s novel in verse Inside Out and Back Again was based on her memories of coming to America from war-torn Vietnam when she was ten years old.

Suzanne Collins, author of The Hunger Games, has also written a picture book, Year of the Jungle: Memories from the Home Front, about receiving postcards from her father, who was stationed in Vietnam when she was six years old.

Click HERE to find more novels about conflicts from 1945 to the present day.

The Dragon's Child

Yep, Laurence. The Dragon’s Child. New York : HarperCollins, 2008.  
Ten-year-old Gim unhappily moves to America with his father in this novel based on the life of the author’s father. Set in 1922, the novel shows how Chinese immigrants had to pass detailed tests before being admitted to California. Includes an afterward with additional historical details.  [California; China; Chinese Americans; Emigration and immigration; Fathers and sons; Historical fiction; Stuttering]

Click HERE for tips on writing your own true story.

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