In Wild Girl, Patricia Reilly Giff’s most recent novel, a 12-year-old moves from Brazil to wintry Long Island to live with her father, a horse trainer at a race track, and her older brother. Lidie knows very little English and misses the warmth of her homeland and the horse she loved to ride there. She forges an immediate bond with Wild Girl, her father’s recently purchased filly, who is also adjusting to a new home and a very different environment. The book will be published by Random House’s Wendy Lamb Books. Bookshelf spoke with Giff, whose 60-plus novels include two Newbery Honor titles, about her latest release.
How did you come to set this story in the world of horse racing?
So many things inspired this novel. I had wanted to write this book for a long time. For years, my family and I lived in Elmont on Long Island, the town where Belmont Racetrack is located. I don’t mention the track by name in Wild Girl, because I am also familiar with other racetracks and I wanted to leave myself a little wiggle room in terms of the details. When kids read books and find things that aren’t perfectly accurate, they point a finger and let me know! When we were living in Elmont we were surrounded by the world of horse racing. My daughter went to school with the daughter of a trainer at the racetrack and with the daughter of a woman who made the silks that jockeys wore. I loved that world. In fact one of my first dates with my husband was attending opening day at Belmont.
Did drawing the parallels between Lidie and Wild Girl come easily to you?
Yes, that part of the novel was not difficult for me—the horse connection was there from the very start and it was really fun to write about. The hard part was figuring out how to get the horse to Lidie, how to bring them together. I knew I wanted to open the story in Brazil and needed to get her to New York without losing the reader. I wanted to be as economical with Lidie’s story as I was with the horse’s story.
What was the inspiration for the character of Lidie?
I also wanted this novel to be about the experiences of immigrant children and how hard it is for them to assimilate. I was a reading teacher for 20 years and I worked with many kids who had recently moved to this country and didn’t speak English. I drew from that experience to write this novel. I remember so well walking down the hall one day with a child who spoke no English at all. She wasn’t able to tell me she needed to use the girls’ room and it didn’t occur to me that she might, so we walked right past it. And then she had an accident and I remembered that incident for the rest of my teaching career. I felt it was my fault that she had had such a terrible embarrassment. In the novel, the same thing happens to Lidie. I put that incident in as a little, gentle reminder to teachers. Sometimes I put things in my stories for more than one reason.
Do you find that your teaching experience often works its way into your writing?
Everything in my life affects my writing. There are no separate parts of my life. For most of my teaching years, in both New York City and then in Elmont, I was involved with kids who had problems. I had tough kids who were angry or unhappy. Because I was so interested in reading, I was tremendously interested in how to teach kids who struggled with reading how to read. I wanted to give them that joy. Many of my books convey to children who can read a sense of what it must be like for kids who are not able to read. In fact my last book, Eleven, is about a boy who has trouble reading.
Do you miss teaching?
Well, actually I still do teach. My family has a children’s bookstore, The Dinosaur’s Paw, in Fairfield, Connecticut. The heart of the bookstore is my son Jim, who runs the store. My daughter is in charge of the windows and keeps the books, and four times a year I teach a series of writing classes for adults who want to write for children. In fact in my class right now I have three students who just sold books to publishers. That’s very exciting!
Is the store then an important part of your life?
Yes, we all love the store, although it’s hard these days and the profits, as you can imagine, are very slim. Still, we love to have classes visit from many different schools. They come from as far away as New York City and New Haven. I love going to the store and speaking to the kids.
That must be gratifying to you to have such easy access to your young readers.
It is fun to have those class visits. There have been some wonderful moments. One comes to mind. My Polk Street School books have been translated into several languages, including Japanese. The Japanese translator came to stay in the apartment we have in New York City and we became good friends. Now each time she translates one of the novels she sends me a copy. One day when a class was visiting the store, there was a girl who was Japanese and she looked very solemn, almost sad. I realized that I had one of the Japanese translations in my pocketbook, so I took it out and gave it to her. Her face suddenly brightened and she took it out of my hand. It made her day—and made her seem important to her classmates.
Are you currently working on a new novel?
Yes, I’m writing a book that is now called Journey, but who knows in the end what the title will be. It is the story of two girls, one from modern day and the other from the Revolutionary era. I have a master’s in history and that is a love of mine, along with reading. The novel is about a bloody battle that was a major turning point of the war. I wanted to use a modern-day girl who learns about the battle to bring the story into contemporary times, so that kids will have a sense of how the war made this country what it is today.
Looking at the list of your novels, it appears you like setting your stories in a variety of eras.
Yes, my love of history definitely comes into my writing. When the first reviews of Lily’s Crossing came out, they referred to the book as historical fiction. And I remember saying, “Oh my God. I did not write this as historical fiction!” The novel takes place in 1944 and I was a child growing up at that time. Lily is a bit older—but not much. I feel that all of my books have something to do with my life. I recall my mother reading things I’d written and saying, “Oh, I remember when that happened.” And I’d say, “How can you remember it? I just made that up.” And she’d tell me that something similar to what I’d written had actually happened when I was a child.
Thanks so much for taking the time to chat.
Well, I’m afraid I can talk on and on! Sometimes when I visit schools, kids will interview me for the school newspaper. They ask me questions and my answers tend to go on and on, and they try to write down everything I’m saying as quickly as they can. And one day, a kid holds up her hand and said, “Do you think you could just answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’? Aren’t kids wonderful?
Wild Girl by Patricia Reilly Giff. Random/Lamb, $15.99 ISBN 978-0-375-83890-3