A Q & A Interview on Resilience, Writing Historical Fiction, and the Research Process
by Traci Swain
“[Growing up], I didn’t understand that even people who are strong and brave feel sad and scared sometimes, that they need help from people in their families or at school. This is something I try to present in my I Survived books—a more realistic idea of what it means to be resilient.” —Lauren Tarshis
Kids and teachers love Lauren Tarshis’s I Survived series. Each historical-fiction story puts readers in the shoes of a school-age kid who is experiencing a major historical event firsthand…and has to fight and be brave and smart to survive.
So what goes into making each I Survived story so compelling? Read Lauren’s interview together with your students for behind-the-scenes insights on how Lauren researches her stories, what resilience means, and how your students can try writing historical-fiction stories of their own!
Growing up, how did you handle difficult situations? Did you consider yourself resilient?
As a child, I did not face the kinds of hardships that my characters face. In I Survived the Japanese Tsunami, 2011, my character, Ben, loses his father before the story even opens. Then he goes through an earthquake and tsunami, and loses track of his mother, grandfather, and little brother.
The struggles I faced were more like those many of my readers face—struggles in school, financial insecurity at home, feelings of being lonely and not fitting in.
I did not consider myself strong or brave or resilient, in part because I didn’t have a realistic understanding about what it means to be resilient or strong.
I didn’t understand that even people who are strong and brave feel sad and scared sometimes, that they need help from people in their families or at school. This is something I try to present in my I Survived books—a more realistic idea of what it means to be resilient. I want my readers to understand that sometimes it’s normal to feel sad or scared, and that sometimes, after facing a difficult challenge or experiencing loss, it can take a long time to feel better—and that we need help. I show models of all of this in my books. In I Survived the Japanese Tsunami, 2011, Ben had withdrawn from his family after his father’s death. He doesn’t want them to know how deeply he is grieving—he wants to be “strong” like his dad was. He learns that he needs his family, and that they need him. Together, they can support each other on a journey of healing.
“One day I asked my son Dylan, who was then around ten, what kind of book he wanted to read. He said, ‘A book about a cool topic, with lots of suspense, with a main character that’s a kid like me.’”
What was the original inspiration behind the I Survived series?
I was inspired as a mother of four kids who didn’t love reading—I was always looking for exciting books that would engage them, especially my three sons who really struggled to find books they liked. One day I asked my son Dylan, who was then around ten, what kind of book he wanted to read. He said, “A book about a cool topic, with lots of suspense, with a main character that’s a kid like me.”
And I was also inspired by my work in Scholastic Magazines—I’ve worked in this division for years and years. I’ve heard over and over from teachers that even reluctant and fragile readers will read just about anything if it’s written in a super-exciting way, with lots of description, and, most important, if it seems relevant to them. That’s what I try to do in each book—to create an exciting story, with characters my readers feel connected to.
Have you ever been really surprised by what you find when doing research for an I Survived book?
I am constantly surprised by what I find in my research, especially through the stories of real people who went through the event I am writing about. I do so much research. I have traveled to almost every place that I have written about in I Survived.
When it’s possible, I interview real people who went through the actual events. I watch videos, go to museums, interview experts. I know that my readers crave surprising details—what people in ancient Rome ate (they loved mice stuffed with figs), what tool wildland firefighters rely on most (a “Pulaski,” which is a hybrid axe/shovel invented by a legendary firefighter in 1910). There are so many fascinating details in any story. I try to find as many of these details as I can.
How do you go about choosing the historical events that you’ll feature in your books?
I’m very fortunate that I can rely on my readers to guide me. Since the beginning of the I Survived series, 21 books ago, I’ve been receiving emails and letters from kids. So many share ideas. They tell me what they’re interested in, and I follow their lead.
“The best advice for any young writer is to write, to practice. Writing is like playing a sport or a musical instrument, or dancing, or even playing video games. You get better with practice!”
Have you done any follow-up research into how things are going in the location in this or any of the books in your series (the aftermath of the events)?
Once I write about an event—a place, its people—I feel deeply connected to it. Each book opens a door of curiosity for me that stays open even after I’ve finished writing it. That’s one of the great gifts of writing the series—I have become interested in so many new things, from weather science to the Revolutionary War to the molasses trade in the early 1900s.
Sometimes I build personal connections while I write the books. My Children’s Blizzard book [I Survived the Children’s Blizzard, 1888] took me to South Dakota, where I met people who had family connections to that blizzard that happened in the 1800s.
I wrote about the California wildfires after receiving an email from Holly Fisher, whose family lives in Paradise, California. Her son is an I Survived reader and asked her to write to me in the days after the fire destroyed much of Paradise. I wound up visiting them twice, and am still in close touch with that family. We’re talking about them coming to stay with our family in Connecticut later in the year.
That’s just one example of the kinds of personal connections I’ve been fortunate to make as a result of writing this series.
What advice would you give to students who want to write historical fiction?
Historical fiction is so much fun to write because you get the best of both worlds—you delve into fascinating research and learn all you can. But then you have some freedom to create characters and their worlds.
But even the fictional characters have to be realistic. I make up my characters. But all that happens to them is based on research, what actual people experienced.
A great way for kids to practice this is to interview their parent, a grandparent, or caregiver about an experience they went through. It doesn’t have to be a huge disaster or battle. They can talk about an experience they went through as a child, a challenge or a triumph.
Then kids can write this story as historical fiction. They can use the information from the interview to create a fictional character. Depending on the age of the child, they can do extra research about the time and the setting. This can also be a fun family activity.
The best advice for any young writer is to write, to practice. Writing is like playing a sport or a musical instrument, or dancing, or even playing video games. You get better with practice!
Lauren Tarshis’s New York Times–bestselling I Survived series (which has more than 34 million copies in print!) tells stories of young people and their resilience and strength in the midst of unimaginable disasters and times of turmoil. Lauren has brought her signature warmth and exhaustive research to topics such as the battle of D-Day, the American Revolution, Hurricane Katrina, the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and other world events. She lives in Connecticut with her family, and can be found online at laurentarshis.com.
Photo © David Dreyfuss
This Book Is Available from Scholastic Book Clubs