Literally and figuratively, Anita Silvey has worn many hats over the years: editor of The Horn Book, publisher of children’s books at Houghton Mifflin, author of four guides to children’s literature and anthologist (Help Wanted: Short Stories about Young People Working). Now Silvey dons a new cap: that of children’s book author. I’ll Pass for Your Comrade: Women Soldiers in the Civil War (Clarion) is a look at women who disguised themselves as men in order to fight. Bookshelf spoke with Silvey about her latest publishing venture.
First things first. What was your initial foray into the children’s book world?
Well, that was just a few years ago. I’d been trained as a teacher and arrived in Boston in 1970 only to find that there were no teaching positions available. I heard through a friend of a friend that there was an opening in the children’s book department at Little, Brown and he suggested I apply for the position. Right then I had my Citizen Kane moment—but instead of thinking it might be fun to run a newspaper, I thought it would be great fun to be in children’s book publishing.
Did you land the job easily?
Actually, at that time, it seemed there were 200 or 300 applicants for every publishing job that opened up in Boston. But I did get the job and Ralph Woodward, then publisher of the children’s book department, later told me that what interested him about me was that I had, as an undergraduate and a graduate student in teaching, used books with children. Apparently I was the only applicant for the job who talked to him about children’s responses to books.
Was working in children’s books all that you’d expected?
I thought that I’d landed in heaven. There were authors and illustrators coming into the office on a daily basis. I remember that Jerry Pinkney lived on Beacon Hill at the time, and Ellen Conford and Rosemary Wells published early books with Little, Brown. It was a wonderful confluence of working on exciting book projects and meeting the people who actually created those books.
So it must be rewarding to follow that same path?
It’s wonderful in terms of feeling that I too can do it, but again it’s daunting. I feel that before this I had experienced maybe seven-eighths of the children’s book process, but now I’ve completed the circle and seen that process from all sides. And the beauty of being on this side is that my book—something that five years ago was nothing more than a thought in my head and a piece of a conversation with my editor, Dinah Stevenson—is now printed and bound between two covers.
Can you talk a bit about how you arrived at the idea for I’ll Pass for Your Comrade?
When I think about the genesis of this book, I think of it stemming from my grandmother’s death in the mid-1970s. She was a great influence on my life as a reader and we often went to the library together. She spurred me on intellectually. When I went to help clean out her house after she died, I found beautiful old photo albums that I don’t believe she ever showed me. I came across a picture of three Civil War soldiers whom I knew must have been from my grandfather’s side of the family, since my grandmother came from Germany. I decided to discover who these soldiers were. I threw myself into that research and became a dedicated family genealogist. I ended up tracking down ancestors to the 14th century.
And did you discover who the soldiers were?
Yes, I did. They were indeed relatives of mine—three brothers from Ohio who fought in the same Civil War battles together. And I discovered that they all came home safely.
So tracking down their identities sparked your interest in Civil War history?
Definitely. I loved tracing my family history during this era, and it made me realize how very rich Civil War history is. I read a great deal, and went to Civil War battlefields and tromped around in the wilderness. And then friends who knew of my interest in this period gave me a book—The Fought Like Demons by DeAnne Blanton and Lauren M. Cook, one of the first serious academic books about women who fought in the Civil War, disguised as men. And I had one of those “ah ha!” moments. I’d always loved learning about women in history but had never known about these women soldiers. And I thought this would be a wonderful children’s book if I could find a way to tell the story.
Did you then return to Civil War battlefields to research the book?
I did. I went to Manassas, to Gettysburg, to many battle sites where I knew that these women had fought. It was important for me to actually walk the battlefields where they walked, where some fell.
What most surprised you about their stories?
The first question I pursued was, “Why did they enlist?” because they had to go such incredible lengths to disguise themselves as men and to avoid being discovered. And as I read more about these women my focus changed to, “Why did they stay?” The men had to stay in the army once they’d enlisted, but the women could have gone home, since they were registered under aliases.
So why did they stay?
They continued to fight because the cause—be it Confederate or Union—was obviously very dear to them. They grew to have a real sense of comradeship with their male counterparts. And even women who enlisted so they could be with their husbands stayed on and continued to fight even after their husbands were wounded. Every story is different, but they all combine to give a sense of the incredible determination of women who would not be bound by what society expected of them, but were bound by their desire to take their fate into their own hands.
With this book behind you, what lies ahead for you as an author?
I’m writing a book called Botomania, about individuals who have gone to such lengths as climbing the Himalayas and exploring the Amazon in search of wild plants—I’m kind of looking at botany as an extreme sport. That will be published by Melanie Kroupa at Farrar, Straus & Giroux. And I have a book due out next fall from Roaring Brook, Everything I Need to Know I Learned from a Children’s Book, an anthology for families. And in 2010 Clarion will publish a still untitled picture book I’ve written about Revolutionary hero Henry Knox, with illustrations by Wendell Minor.
It sounds as though you’ve embraced this new role.
Oh, I have! I usually wake up at 4:30 in the morning and begin writing. I find it extraordinarily hard work, but many days I pinch myself and say, “I can’t believe I am doing this, that I am on this side of the process.”
You did put your critic’s cap back on earlier this fall, when you wrote an article in School Library Journal [click here to read it] questioning the kid-appeal of recent Newbery Award winners, based on your interviews with librarians, teachers and booksellers. What was your reaction to the buzz that that piece created?
That much response tells me that people are eager to discuss the issue and are hungry for this conversation. I believe it will get us somewhere. Stirring up controversy doesn’t make me warm in the middle of the night. But if I write something that encourages people to talk about what they need to talk about, that is a good thing.
I’ll Pass for Your Comrade: Women Soldiers in the Civil War by Anita Silvey. Clarion, $17 ISBN 978-0-618-57491-9