(Left) February, 2018: West Pelzer Elementary (SC) Students Early in Their Reading of Don't Know Where, Don't Know When (Snipesville Chronicles, Book 1) (Right) May, 2018: Skype Visit with Author, Speaking from London.
I won't lie: I was worried.
The enterprising vice-principal of West Pelzer Elementary in rural South Carolina had hired me to speak to fifth graders, and ordered a class set of Don't Know Where, Don't Know When. But, of course, I had no idea whether she had classroom teachers on board, and that was essential.
When I turned up to present Could You Be A World War II Kid?, a program that serves simultaneously as historical background to the book and an introduction to it, I had a chance to speak to Jessica Johnson and her colleagues. They were concerned about it being perhaps too complex, especially in its vocabulary, for the kids' reading level.
And by this point, so was I. I have readers of all ages and backgrounds, including kids younger than these from underprivileged areas. But I also trust teachers to know their students' abilities.
Mrs. Johnson was willing to work with it. I offered to consult, and kept my fingers crossed.
The books are often used in schools as read-alouds. A rural middle school buys more than 100 copies every year to give to 6th graders. They're also on the summer reading list (and used in an economics classroom) for 7th graders in an elite private school. But an entire class of readers of varying ability in a Title I school in 5th grade? I hadn't seen that in person.
And then came the fantastic news: The kids loved the book. It was a hit.
I hoped Mrs. Johnson wasn't just being polite in telling me this, and offered to Skype with the kids from London, where I was researching future books. The reply was immediate and enthusiastic. Once I met with the kids, I knew this was the real deal.
But why was I surprised? This was, after all, my target audience when I began writing with several years experience of working with kids in the rural South under my belt, and, as I said, I have fans as young as nine, and even a few eight year olds. But I also have adult fans, among them several academic historians, and a professor of English Literature who holds degrees from Cambridge and Oxford. Suppose the younger kids were hugely exceptional?
I should have been more confident. I have never forgotten readers who struggle with reading, I have seldom compromised on my vocabulary, or knowingly talked down to my readers. What I have done, based on long experience teaching college freshmen, is made the meaning of complex words clear through context. And, of course, I have consciously kept the story moving. If kids want to know what happens next in a story, they will persist (as surely Beatrix Potter knew when she used "soporific" in Peter Rabbit), and they will, as a result, learn more vocabulary and become better readers. This isn't the philosophy of reading programs in schools, with their prescribed "reading levels". But most librarians consider those problematic at best, and increasingly, so do teachers.
That said, I owe much to Jessica Johnson. Mrs. Johnson is an impressive teacher, and I don't say that lightly. She recognizes the value of reading in opening up the world to kids in a struggling rural community, and she was willing to encourage the kids to stretch. That's key.
I asked Mrs. Johnson for a quote for my website. Here's what she wrote: "I accompanied my project based learning unit on WWII with Don't Know Where, Don't Know When for my 5th graders at West Pelzer Elementary in South Carolina. The book was a DELIGHTFUL addition to the unit and included a much needed child perspective of this major event in history. My class cannot wait to read the next book!"
Like many writers, and women, and women writers, I often doubt myself and my work. But once again, I've learned that optimism and confidence are a better approach. I should have known better.
Annette Laing, PhD, is an academic historian of early America and the Atlantic World. She was formerly a tenured professor at Georgia Southern University, where she was a member of the department of history and the Africana Studies program faculty. She is the author of The Snipesville Chronicles series of MG/YA time-travel novels.
Academic & Public Historian, Middle-Grades Author (The Snipesville Chronicles), Practitioner of Non-Boring History, Mother. AnnetteLaing.com