5 Questions for the Author: Deborah Kalb

I’ve got a treat for history buffs on Laura’s Bookshelf today. Middle grade author Deborah Kalb is here to talk about her new novel, GEORGE WASHINGTON AND THE MAGIC HAT.

Here is the blurb from Goodreads:

Adventure, history, and the drama of school life intertwine in this engrossing tale of a fifth-grade boy struggling to find his place after his best friend abandons him. Find out what happens when Sam’s class takes a trip to Mt. Vernon, where he accidentally buys a bossy three-cornered hat that sweeps him off to the eighteenth century and a warm friendship with George and Martha Washington. As Sam travels back and forth between his present-day life and incredible adventures with George Washington, he learns about history, himself, and the nature of friendship and families.

Welcome to my bookshelf, Deborah! I was so glad when we connected about our middle grade books. Both novels mention Mount Vernon, George Washington’s home, and one of my protagonists in THE LAST FIFTH GRADE is named after George Washington. The first president is an important character in your book.

I’ve got a great poem to pair with your book, which appears at the bottom of this post. But first, let’s get to your five questions.

Laura: You live in an area that’s infused with history. How did you incorporate setting into the story of Sam and George Washington? What details did you draw from the modern-day Washington, DC area?

Deborah: I’ve lived in the D.C. area for most of my life, so it was very natural to incorporate a variety of nearby places — from an elementary school in Bethesda, to Mount Vernon, to Nationals Park—into the story. Mount Vernon, George Washington’s home, is in Northern Virginia, not that far away from Bethesda, after all, so it would make sense for Sam and his class to visit that historic site on a field trip—and then my imagination took over!

[My children visited Mount Vernon with their elementary schools too!]

I looked into George Washington-related artwork in the area, and a friend told me about the statue of George Washington at the National Cathedral, so I thought that would lend itself to an interesting scene. Many of the historical scenes in which Sam finds himself are not in the D.C. area but instead in New York and Pennsylvania, for example. I did some research on those areas to see how they might have appeared at the time.

Laura: Sam is dealing with a lot of disappointments: a changing friendship, losing the starring role in the class play. How does he grow and learn to cope with these things over the course of the story?

Deborah: Yes, Sam’s fifth-grade year is not starting off well. He and his former best friend, Andrew, are barely speaking—Andrew has joined a travel baseball team and is spending all his time with the kids on the team. And Sam, who generally gets the lead role in school plays, doesn’t get the starring role—as George Washington—in his class play this time; instead, the role goes to Oliver, a new kid in class whom Sam finds very annoying.

But his time-travel adventures with George Washington, courtesy of the magic tri-cornered hat, teach him a variety of lessons. Not to give too much away, but one of the most important involves friendship, and another involves the ability to believe in yourself.

Laura: The voice of the magic hat adds a lot of humor to the story. How did you go about creating a persona for the hat? Did you research any dialect or common phrases from George Washington’s time?

Deborah: The hat was such a fun character to create! I thought about various magic personalities in books I loved as a kid, including the Half Magic books by Edward Eager, which often featured curmudgeonly magical creatures, and the hat seemed to develop as I kept writing. I didn’t know exactly what its personality would be as I started.

I didn’t specifically research any dialect—I think a lifetime of reading classic novels and biographies gave me a sense of how the hat might sound—but I did read books that included some of George’s own writings, and I tried to make the hat—and also the George, Martha, and other 18th century characters—speak in a decidedly different way from Sam and his 21st century friends. I love to write dialogue, so I thoroughly enjoyed that part of the writing!

Laura: George Washington is the father of our country, but he was also a slave owner. Can you describe how you addressed that issue in the book?

Deborah: Yes, that’s an important question. I definitely wanted to address that issue in the book, and I thought a lot about the best way to do so. Sam is studying George Washington at school, and some of the scenes in the book featuring discussions in his class focus on the fact that many of the founders of this country were slave owners, and the terrible dichotomy between their owning other people and their advocating for freedom for the colonies.

I also have a scene in the book where Sam meets an 18th century African American boy about his own age, and that causes Sam to think about whether this child is a slave, and what his life would have been like. In addition, his former best friend, Andrew, is from a biracial family and that makes Sam ponder the issue in an even more personal way.

Laura: Will there be more titles in your “The President and Me” series? Which presidents would you most like to write about and why?

Deborah: Yes, this is the first one in a series, and I’m working on the second one, about John and Abigail Adams, now! For the time being, I’m proceeding in chronological order, and will see how it goes from there. Many kids have asked good questions, such as, “What will you do when you get to some boring presidents?” and, “What will you do when you get to a really bad president?” We shall see!

Of course, Abraham Lincoln would be amazing to write about because of his historic role during the Civil War and the fact that he’s up there in the pantheon of great presidents. His life story includes so many fascinating episodes. And I’d love to write about FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt, because of their leadership during the Great Depression and World War II. I hope to incorporate many of the First Ladies into the books as well, to recognize the important contribution of women throughout presidential history.

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It’s Poetry Friday, so let’s find a great poem to pair with Deborah’s book. I know just the one. Check out this poem from DC area poet Justine Rowden’s book,  PAINT ME A POEM.

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Find out more about PAINT ME A POEM, featuring art from the National Gallery in Washington, DC.

Thank you for stopping by today, Deborah and George.

For more of this week’s best posts on poetry for children and adults, stop by The Logonauts. Katie is hosting Poetry Friday this week.