Melissa Wiley Author Post
Rabbit-Trailing with The Nerviest Girl in the World
As a writing coach and a homeschooling mom, my favorite thing to do is find a compelling read-aloud to use as a springboard for all kinds of learning adventures. I love to assemble a collection of resources—books, poems, music, videos, art, recipes, games, maps, you name it!—that let elements of the book spill off the page into the wide world. These rabbit trails (as homeschoolers call them) help readers form rich connections with history, geography, science, and culture. And they’re fun!
The process is quite similar to the way I research my historical fiction novels. I like to collect as wide a variety of resources as possible, immersing myself in the world of the story I want to tell. I had a marvelous time gathering resources for The Nerviest Girl in the World, which is set on a ranch in San Diego County in 1911 in the very early days of silent film. Even more fun? Sharing them with kids!
My main character, Pearl, is an eleven-year-old girl who lives on a cattle-and-ostrich ranch. Her older brothers are cowboys who get roped into the moving picture business when a silent film director and his crew set up shop in town. Before she knows it, Pearl winds up making these newfangled movies right alongside her brothers.
As her name hints, my Pearl was inspired by the intrepid silent film actress Pearl White. My Pearl finds her way into the pictures by a different path, but it was definitely Pearl White’s incredible balloon stunt in The Perils of Pauline that got me thinking about all the dangerous situations my character might have found herself in back in the days when all actors did their own stunts, and there were no such thing as safety regulations!
Naturally, my first pick for a Nerviest Girl rabbit trail is The Perils of Pauline, which is available on YouTube. Pearl White really did climb down a rope from a hot-air balloon high above the ground—in a skirt, no less!
The next stop on the rabbit trail is another serial film, The Hazards of Helen starring Helen Holmes. My favorite installment is episode 13, “The Escape on the Fast Freight”.
The Hazards of Helen had 119 weekly installments—one of the longest film series of all time.
From there it’s a short hop to more silent-film fun. I’m especially fond of Buster Keaton, who has my family screaming with laughter in every scene. Here’s a compilation of some of his most hair-raising stunts.
My feeling is, you’re never too old for a good picture book! My family often uses picture books as introductions to a new time or place—even at the high school level. Here are delightful selections related to silent film:
- Smile: How Young Charlie Chaplin Taught the World to Laugh (and Cry) by Gary Golio
- Hedy Lamarr’s Double Life: Hollywood Legend and Brilliant Inventor by Laurie Wallmark; illustrated by Katie Wu
- Lights! Camera! Alice!: The Thrilling True Adventures of the First Woman Filmmaker by Mara Rockliff, illustrated by Simona Ciraolo
Newspapers and Photos
My research process for historical fiction draws heavily on local newspapers from the period in question. Old papers are crammed with story starters! I have a collection of intriguing articles I love to share with kids in school workshops; together we ponder the possible backstories of articles, like the one about the two well-dressed women who were arrested in an apple orchard in the middle of the night. I’m dying to know why they were wearing their best clothes to steal apples!
From the advertisements, we learn about food, clothes, furniture, entertainment, and all sorts of fascinating tidbits. The Library of Congress maintains a database where you can look up papers from your area and find out whether libraries near you might have copies.
Old photos are great story prompts, too!
Promotional photo from Pearl of the Army (1916)
This is my favorite photo of Pearl White. I’ve always wondered about the story behind it. Why is the pig sitting on her lap in a car?
Julie DenOuden, a fourth-grade teacher in California and blogger at Girl on the Move, wrote a Southern California travel adventure post to go along with The Nerviest Girl in the World!
I also find it important to introduce my kids to the First Nations on whose traditional lands a story is set. La Mesa, California (the real town on which Nerviest Girl’s fictional Lemon Springs is based) is located on Kumeyaay land. I recommend An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz as a resource for learning about the First Nations.
Ostriches, Horses, and Hot-Air Balloons—Oh My!
Just about any element of a book can be a springboard for discovery! One of my favorite parts of writing Nerviest Girl was learning about ostrich-ranching. One article from early twentieth-century Los Angeles described eager families taking Sunday drives to a local ostrich farm to watch the big birds gulp down oranges whole!
My family’s learning adventures related to the book included research about hot-air balloons and stunt horseback riding. We weren’t able to make it to a rodeo, but YouTube let us gallop through a passel of them.
Sometimes I think it would be easy to spend a whole year following rabbit trails inspired by a single book! But with so many captivating novels to choose from, we always find ourselves eager to dive into a new world, with new art, history, customs, and costumes to explore.
More Nerviest Girl resources:
- Interview with Chris Barton and Anne Nesbet about favorite silent film influences and experiences
- Homeschooling families are sharing photos of their Nerviest Girl book clubs and activities. Lots of ideas here, including balloon bookmarks and a megaphone cake!
- This Charlie Chaplin paper doll with movable limbs is especially fun.
- Brave Writer ARROW language arts guide for The Nerviest Girl in the World