Hi Sarah! Thanks for stopping by For the Love of KidLit blog to chat! Congrats on your debut book, THOMAS PAINE AND THE DANGEROUS WORD.
Thank you so much, Jennifer!
1) I have to ask, what inspired you to write about Thomas Paine?
My family became American Revolution enthusiasts after reading Laurie Halse Anderson’s picture book INDEPENDENT DAMES. We read more books, watched documentaries, and visited historical sites. Along the way, I learned about Thomas Paine and discovered a kindred spirit.
Like most of us, he yearned for adventure as a child. As a teenager, he ran away from home to be a privateer (a government-approved pirate). But he also struggled in life before discovering he had a persuasive way with words, which he later used to advocate for American independence in his famous, brash pamphlet Common Sense. So I hoped his resilient story would inspire kids to persist and to use their own persuasive words on topics important to them.
2) In writing narrative nonfiction, how do you find that delicate balance of using actual quotes and implying what the historical figure might have said?
Great question! I love the challenge of telling a compelling true story within the constraints of historical accuracy. A good quote does the heavy lifting for me — it provides the point I want to make in that person’s own words. Because Thomas Paine was such a good writer, it was tempting to use too many of his quotes. For example, during revisions, my editor felt our slavery discussion relied too heavily on Paine’s words and not enough on my own. So I had to revisit that balance–as you pointed out–and strengthen my narration to better convey both his outrage and his courage in speaking out on another “dangerous” topic.
Often, we have no idea what was said in a particular moment. So I rely on research to fill in the blanks and then I narrate a summary. For example, when Thomas arrived in America, we know he visited a Philadelphia bookstore and “struck up a conversation with the store’s owner, who was launching a new magazine and needed an editor. Thomas was launching a new life and needed a job.” Those are my words describing a conversation without knowing exactly what was said.
3) Researching Thomas Paine must’ve been interesting. Where did your research take you? Any surprises you found along the way?
For Thomas Paine, I mostly read books and primary sources. However, during revisions, I had the opportunity to travel to Washington DC where I viewed a first edition of Paine’s Common Sense at the Library of Congress. I was so nervous! And in our national museums, I noticed a shift from the word “slaves” to “enslaved people” which puts more emphasis on the humanity of the people forced into this role. So I incorporated that change into my revisions.
What continues to surprise me is how often historians repeat erroneous information from other historians without checking the primary sources. As a nation, we have a treasure trove of historical lore that has been embellished over time without regard to historical accuracy. (19th century historians were the worst!). So this is a constant source of frustration. If anyone is interested in learning more, Ray Raphael tackles this subject head-on in his history books.
4) How did it feel to see your story paired with Edwin Fotheringham’s illustrations?
I cried! I loved his picture book biographies with Barbara Kerley and THOSE REBELS, JOHN & TOM had been a mentor text for me. He creates rich, deep scenes full of detail and emotion while maintaining historical accuracy. So when Disney asked for illustrator suggestions, Ed topped my list. And when he said yes, I was stunned.
It was amazing to watch Thomas Paine’s journey visually develop over several drafts. Ed added layers to the story beyond what I could convey in words. And I really appreciated the collective team effort at Disney-Hyperion to get the history right.
5) Your next book, MOST WANTED: JOHN HANCOCK AND SAMUEL ADAMS, is due out in 2020. I can’t help but guess that these were some of your favorite historical figures to explore when you were teaching American Revolution history in elementary and middle school. How does your teaching background impact your writing?
I love teaching history to kids! It’s easy to view historical figures as staid, somber folks who live solely in textbooks. But kids delight in discovering that historical figures were just regular people facing tough choices during an extraordinary time, each with their own quirks and struggles.
Kids will continue to study the American Revolution in school, so my goal is to provide an entertaining and informative entry point to the subject. It’s so satisfying to see kids really connect with Thomas Paine and his story and want to learn more. Overall, I hope my books inspire more reading and learning about our legacy as a people and a nation, just like Laurie Halse Anderson’s book did for me. And I hope they inspire action, because each generation needs it’s own revolutionaries to take on the tough topics of the time.
Thank you, Sarah!
Thanks for hosting me on your blog, Jennifer!
About the book:
“The mind once enlightened cannot again become dark.”
As an English corset-maker’s son, Thomas Paine was expected to spend his life sewing women’s underwear. But as a teenager, Thomas dared to change his destiny, enduring years of struggle until a meeting with Benjamin Franklin brought Thomas to America in 1774-and into the American Revolution.
Within fourteen months, Thomas would unleash the persuasive power of the written word in Common Sense-a brash wake-up call that rallied the American people to declare independence against the mightiest empire in the world.
This fascinating and extensively researched biography, based on numerous primary sources, will immerse readers in Thomas Paine’s inspiring journey of courage, failure, and resilience that led a penniless immigrant to change the world with his words.
Sarah Jane Marsh is a writer of children’s narrative nonfiction and author of THOMAS PAINE AND THE DANGEROUS WORD (Disney-Hyperion, May 2018) and MOST WANTED: JOHN HANCOCK AND SAMUEL ADAMS (Disney-Hyperion, 2020).
Sarah has taught American Revolution history in elementary and middle school. Like Thomas Paine, Sarah attempted several adventurous careers (zookeeping, dolphin training, firefighting), before earning an MBA from the University of Vermont where she studied organizational change.
Also like Paine, Sarah believes in lifelong learning and speaking out for social action. She works with her community on youth suicide prevention, Adverse Childhood Experiences education, and meeting basic student needs.
3 winners will receive a finished copy of THOMAS PAINE AND THE DANGEROUS WORD, US Only.
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