More than 20 years ago, when Laurie Halse Anderson was researching the epidemic that inspired her first historical middle-grade novel, Fever 1793, she came across a stunning piece of information. “I found out that Benjamin Franklin was a slave owner, and that overturned everything I thought I knew about my country,” she recalls. “He was my founding father, he was from the North, and, in my naïveté, I had assumed that he wouldn’t own slaves—we never heard much about slavery in the North when I was in school.”
Out of that discovery came Anderson’s desire to write her middle-grade Seeds of America trilogy, which launched in 2008 with Chains (a National Book Award finalist and winner of the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction), continued with 2010’s Forge, and concludes with Ashes (Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books, Oct.). The author explains that, with this series, she wanted to explore what it was like for young slaves during the Revolutionary era: “Imagine what it would feel like to be a child caught up in the Revolution, when everybody around you is hollering and arguing about freedom, but they’re not talking about freedom for people who look like you.”
In her trilogy, Anderson uses primary-source quotes, from personal correspondence, newspapers, and the like, to open each chapter. “One of the quotes in Ashes is a newspaper advertisement announcing the sale of an enslaved woman and her two-year-old son,” she says. “It also advertises the sale of her six-year-old son, noting that he can be sold separately if the buyer desires. When you think about that, or about your own children and family being treated so callously, and then magnify that atrocity by millions of souls, it’s unspeakable. That’s why I had to write about it.”
Anderson is clear about what she hopes young readers take away from her Seeds of America novels. “I want them to have a great, fun read,” she says. “That is my job first and foremost, because if children have a positive experience reading a book, they are going to be more inclined to reach for another book—and another. There’s such exciting writing going on in children’s literature right now, and I have such hope that we can create a new generation of readers in America, which everybody would benefit from.”
Anderson is happy to be back at BEA. “Booksellers and librarians are my angels—I think they are for all of us in the writing community,” she says. “Booksellers all over America are so smart and so hard working, and they’ve had to reinvent themselves several times in the last couple of decades. But the bookstore lives on as the heart of any community.”
The author will participate in the “PBS Presents: Children’s Tales” panel this afternoon, 3:30–4:30 p.m., on the Downtown Stage, and will sign ARCs of Ashes tomorrow, 10–11 a.m., at Table 9.
This article appeared in the May 12, 2016 edition of PW BEA Show Daily.