A one-time medical student, Kimberly Brubaker Bradley quit after six weeks to follow her dream of writing for children, publishing her first novel, Ruthie’s Gift, in 2008. Her 2016 novel, The War That Saved My Life, which follows Ada, a girl born with a clubfoot, as she seeks safety and connection at the onset of World War II, won a Newbery Honor. Bradley continues Ada’s story in The War I Finally Won, as the 11-year old’s awareness of language and the world around her grows. Bradley spoke with PW about planning a two-book story arc, stories of family found, and her research process.
Did you always foresee telling this story over the course of two books? Did this impact your writing process?
Oddly enough, this is the first time I’ve ever written a true sequel and I did anticipate it right from the start. I used a literary device to control the narrative voice, beginning The War That Saved My Life with Ada telling her story from four years in the future. If I’d used direct point-of-view, she wouldn’t have known words for many of the things she’s trying to describe. I had to be able to explain the events of the story while still maintaining a childlike point-of-view.
I knew where book one would end and knew the second book would bring readers to the summer of 1943. Still, I was completely unprepared for how difficult both books would be to write. I sent 80 pages of book one, draft one to my editor [Jessica Dandino Garrison] and she wrote back, “This isn’t really your next book, is it?” It took a long time to find the right voice. I don’t outline and I only plot in my head. I mostly write scenes, then think it would be better if... I make a giant mess when I write, but trying to use an outline has resulted in really bad writing.
What inspired you to share Ada’s journey to find a family, both human and equine?
This is a hard question. My inspiration for Ada’s story goes back to other books I didn’t write, but shared some of the same themes of abandonment and found families. Ada’s creation was more organic than any of my previous protagonists. I dreamed about these characters and could see the ending of the book way in advance. I’m a character-driven writer; I usually put characters in situations, then figure out how to get them out.
Growing up, I always wanted a horse. I used to look outside every morning to see if one had showed up in the night. I knew it wasn’t realistic, but I would always check! I started riding in college and today I live on a farm, blessed with horses for myself and my children. The inspiration for Butter was a quarter horse named Pal, who happens to be the kindest animal ever. And the situation when Oban develops colic actually happened with a horse named Sid, though I wrote the scene before Sid’s experience; it played out very similarly.
What type of research did you conduct to accurately depict Ada’s experience as a child with a birth defect during the 1930s and 40s?
I was forced to go to England! This period of history is really important to the Brits; they teach it extensively. Evacuees are common in British literature and, on Amazon U.K., you can buy evacuee Halloween costumes! There are a ton of personal memoirs from people who were evacuated, including excerpts from a mass observation conducted as a sociological project in the 1930s. Ordinary people were recruited to keep diaries, then turn them in. Today researchers are going through them and publishing excerpts that illustrate everyday life from a wide range of people during the war.
I really needed to see Kent, too, which is the inspiration for the town Ada is sent to as an evacuee. The town is fictional and unnamed in the book because it allowed for more flexibility; the real townspeople remember exactly what happened during the war, which is limiting. It’s far easier and lots of fun to have a fictional city. The Imperial War Museum in London is also a tremendous resource. It has neat stuff like an air raid siren and Princess Elizabeth’s ration book from the war.
I found out many people I know have been born with a clubfoot. Even soccer star Mia Hamm was born with this birth defect! Today it’s fixed so completely and so early that few ever experience any stigma. Clubfoot is caused by a child’s position in the mother's womb and is not genetic, so, once fixed, it will never reemerge.
In terms of Ada’s emotional distress, the majority of my research involved understanding what happens to kids from hard places. A friend of mine adopted a child from an orphanage in a third world country, bringing him back to Kentucky. It was a stressful transition in lots of different ways; kids from trauma don’t immediately blossom, it takes time. Most of my research was about that transition.
In this second novel, Ada meets a young German Jewish refugee, learning that the enemy is not so easily defined. Did the contemporary political and cultural climate affect your writing at all?
Probably, but not in a conscious way. As a writer, I’m pretty attuned to needing to represent different experiences.
People often “other.” When my kids were quite little we went to a remote part of Costa Rica, to an itty bitty one-room school house. During recess, while adults were looking at the school, books, and materials, the kids were playing soccer in a field. The ball was kicked over barbed wire, everyone groaned, and the ball was retrieved. After, my son said, “Those kids are just like us.” They were from such different worlds, but, when they interacted, it was clear that they were still the same.
Like any child, Ada has to figure out where she belongs in the world. She wants to be accepted, but also has to learn to accept other people. The War That Saved My Life is about finding a place of safety; book two is about providing a place of safety.
The War I Finally Won by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley. Dial, $16.99 Oct. ISBN 978-0-525-42920-3