I first “met” Gennifer Choldenko through her wonderful middle grade novel Notes From a Liar and Her Dog many years ago. Since then, I’ve been fortunate — blessed!– to share many meals, laughs and heart-to-hearts with Gennifer. I’ve always adored her and her work but after reading her true confession below, I adore her even more. Who knew the author of the popular Al Capone series struggled like the rest of us?! After you read her essay, I know you will want to run right out and get a copy of Orphan Eleven (Wendy Lamb Books) for yourself.
My process is not pretty. It’s not neat. It’s definitely not sane.
It depends on serendipitous finds, gut feelings, and middle of the night brainstorms.
So it was with Orphan Eleven (Wendy Lamb Books) which began with much research and used book purchases about a topic that does not appear in the book.
Yep, I started out researching orphan trains. I developed two characters: the protagonist a boy named Nico, a con man in the making, and his sidekick Lucy, a girl who had selective mutism. The book was called The Con Man’s Apprentice. It took place in 1920.
I wrote eight chapters before I came to a grinding halt. Two things bothered me. One: I could not figure out why Lucy wouldn’t speak. And two: I was more interested in the orphan train than I was in what happened after the kids got off.
Luckily, I’m always working on more than one novel at a time. So, I put the orphan train on the backburner. Then one day I happened to be browsing in a bookstore and I came upon a nonfiction book that answered my question about why Lucy refused to open her mouth. But that information tied the novel to a historical event that took place in 1939 — long after the orphan trains had stopped running. So I hauled my orphan train research to the garage and began again.
This time Lucy became my main character and Nico was her sidekick. And I began the search for information again. But oh what a glorious process this was. Did I mention I’m obsessive? Okay, well I wasn’t going to write about elephants unless I spent time with them.
So off I flew to Chiang Mai, Thailand to visit four elephant sanctuaries. This was the trip of a lifetime because I got to get up-close and personal with my absolute favorite animals. In another life I was definitely 9,000 pounds with a trunk and two huge flapping ears. And I found out all kinds of quirky pachyderm facts. For example: I met an elephant who stores sugar cane between his tusk and his trunk in case he gets hungry later. No need for a fanny pack with a system like this.
And then I wanted to capture the atmospheric feel of a circus that traveled on the rails in 1939 so, I read everything I could find about the circus. Probably the best research decision I made was becoming a member of the Circus Historical Society and spending a small fortune ordering back issues of their incredible magazine: Bandwagon. I loved CHS so much, that I flew to Baraboo, Wisconsin to attend the Circus Historical Society annual conference.
And then because the orphanage in the book is based on the Soldiers’ Children’s Orphans’ Home, I had to go to Davenport, Iowa to visit the site of this orphanage.
Are you allowed to have this much fun at your job? Just wondering.
The toughest thing about writing Orphan Eleven was when I had to send it to the copyeditor. I was so sad to leave the world I had created that I got a whopping case of postpartum depression. But I’m over it now and on to new work.
I only hope that you will enjoy reading Orphan Eleven as much as I enjoyed writing it. And okay . . . I’m also hoping you will tell your friends about Orphan Eleven because I would really like to write a second novel about the Saachi Circus Spectacular from the point of view of Bald Doris. In fact, Bald Doris is hammering on my head right now. “Me,” she says. “Why aren’t your writing about me?”
With more than two and a half million books sold, Choldenko’s best known Tales from Alcatraz series, has been called “A cornerstone series in contemporary children’s literature.” Publisher’s Weekly said Gennifer’s newest novel: Orphan Eleven: “Has all the ingredients to become a beloved middle grade book.” And Common Sense Media called it: “a riveting, uplifting page-turner.” Gennifer is sheltering in place with her loyal husband, her daughter, and her naughty iPhone chewing dog.