An essay from Gennifer Choldenko
Dear Teachers and Librarians,
Thank you for doing your best to convert a thousand hours of teaching plans into remote lessons overnight. Thank you for attempting to engage scared stir-crazy kids in your online lessons, while also making sure your own family was safe, fed, and entertained. Even in the best of times, teachers and librarians are underappreciated. And now that dearth of appreciation is all the more striking.
And thank you for keeping your enthusiasm for new books alive even after all that we’ve been through in the last few months.
The best I can offer you in exchange is a diversion – a gift from the eleven-year-old in me to the eleven-year-old in you. And that is my newest novel: Orphan Eleven.
Where did I get the idea?
Sometimes characters pop into my head and demand I write about them. Other times they appear at the periphery of my consciousness waiting to be invited in. In the case of Orphan Eleven, the main character Lucy Simone Sauvé, let me know that she was to be the protagonist in my book, but then refused to tell me why she wouldn’t speak. I loved her from the start, but soon grew frustrated with how closely she held the mystery of her selective mutism. Why wouldn’t she talk? It really bugged me. Then one day, I was in a bookstore poking around the stacks and I discovered a nonfiction book which explained exactly why Lucy refused to open her mouth. That was the day Orphan Eleven was born.
How did I research the book?
As I began to develop that novel it soon became clear just how much research the story required.
What I like to do when researching is get up close and personal with the experiences I’m writing about. That meant I needed to go to Chiang Mai, Thailand where I visited four elephant sanctuaries, to Baraboo, Wisconsin where I attended the Circus Historical Society Conference and to Davenport, Iowa where I walked the grounds of the original Soldiers’ Orphans’ Home – the model for the Home for Friendless Children in Orphan Eleven.
Of course, I read everything I could get my hands on. But there is simply nothing like first-hand experience. So in Chiang Mai, I met an elephant who stored his sugar cane in the space between his trunk and his tusks. Why? In case he got the munchies later in the day. In the stacks of the circus history archives I discovered an elephant act where a baby elephant pretended to be a hair stylist. Just feet from the Soldiers’ Orphans’ Home grounds I found a cemetery with unmarked orphan graves.
All of this, found its way into Orphan Eleven.
Why does it matter to me?
There was something about Lucy’s passion for elephants, her big sister, Dilly’s tenacious desire to find her little sister, and the highly creative world of the traveling circuses of the 1930’s that resonated with me. But more than that, Lucy’s struggle to find her voice was similar to my own. I did not have selective mutism, but I said very little and I’ve struggled for most of my adult life to find the voice I lost when I was eleven. So yes, I loved writing Orphan Eleven. I hope you love it as much as I do.