After the publication of two novels, Nory Ryan's Song (2001) and Maggie's Door (2003), which traced her family's roots back to Ireland and across the Atlantic to a landing in America, Patricia Reilly Giff has written a memoir about her more immediate family, Don't Tell the Girls (Holiday), focusing primarily on Nana, her rather rebellious maternal grandmother, and her search for details about Jennie, the paternal grandmother she never knew.
PW: What was your inspiration for writing Don't Tell the Girls?
Patricia Reilly Giff: I have always loved history as well as genealogy. I wanted to do a book for children about how they could find out more about their family's past. Originally this was going to be much more of a how-to book. And then Mary Cash, my editor at Holiday House, said, "You know, the book really comes alive when you talk about Nana and tell your family stories."
Suddenly the book began to change and become less about genealogy and more about my family's past and my own past. I knew Nana [my maternal grandmother] so well but had such a curiosity about my other grandmother, who died before I was born. My father had only told me that she had beautiful hair, but otherwise she was a mystery to me.
PW: How did you approach the research for the book?
PRG: Well, when writing a book like this you start with what you know and with what you have. I went through the attic to find pictures, so many of which had no names on the back. I talked to family members, starting with an uncle who didn't want to talk about the family. This was understandable, since [even though] Jennie was one of 12 children, only she and one brother could read and write. The generation that followed didn't want to be associated with them, since they had arrived. I was fascinated, not ashamed. I spent a lot of time in the library, looking through records, directories and ship's lists. And then at last I went to Ireland, where the family story all started.
PW: Did you uncover any information about your ancestors that surprised you?
PRG: For one thing, after poring over records in Ireland and failing to find the names of Jennie's parents anywhere, I discovered that their family name in Ireland was not Monahan, as it had been in the United States, but Mollaghan. And then I finally saw my grandmother's parents' names in a record book—leaping off the page—and I sat there weeping. I then was able to find the house where Jennie was born and, looking at it for the first time, I had this feeling that I was coming home. I felt that it was right.
PW: How do you think your maternal grandmother, obviously so central to your story and so important to your childhood, would respond to the book—and your portrayal of her?
PRG: I cried when I received the finished book, because I knew that Nana would have loved it, as would my mother, who died in 2001 just before I began working on the book. But it is there for both of them. And it is here for my children and grandchildren. Each of my seven grandchildren appear in the last chapter of the book, even the youngest, Jillian, who was born last September, just before the book was printed. I was able to change the ending at the last minute to include her.
PW: Do you think this book will encourage children to think about and inquire about their own parents' and grandparents' pasts and the times in which they lived?
PRG: To me, family is everything. I want children to realize how important their families are and what a support system a family is. I hope this book makes them think about the lives of their grandparents and parents and to think about the past. My grandchildren call them "the olden days," but they are not so olden. Children today experience blizzards, have snowball fights and go to the circus. I want them to realize that their grandparents probably did those very same things as well.
PW: Do you have any more books planned about your family history?
PRG: Oh yes. I write about my family all the time. A House of Tailors, which was published by Random House's Wendy Lamb Books last fall, is based on the life of Nana's mother, who came to the United States from Germany in 1870. I am definitely not finished writing about my family. I still have a lot I want to say.