With exquisite detail and care, Kirby Larson crafts stories that invite readers to explore the substance and spirit of a particular time and place. Though often set against the backdrop of important historical moments, Kirby’s characters have their own stories to share—tales of community, courage, strength, and joy—that have the power to bring the past and present together in valuable and exciting ways.
Your work has given young readers a look at difficult, complex historical moments and events through the perspective of strong female characters. Why is this lens so valuable?
Often the stories with which we are most familiar are those of the headline makers. And, historically, that means stories about men. Yet, the more research and reading I’ve done, the more I’ve realized that the lives of the folks who didn’t make the news—women and children—are as amazing than those who did. As a writer, I’m always on the lookout for stories that add something new to the world of my readers, and stories told from the perspectives of young girls and women certainly fill that bill.
When writing for 21st century readers, how are you able to preserve historical authenticity, especially in instances where social norms or ways of thinking have shifted significantly?
Frankly, this is my biggest challenge. I want to honor the intelligence of my young readers by being truthful with them. This is the reason that research gobbles up the bulk of my writing time. In order to deeply understand past times and places, I scour old newspapers, letters, and journals; study faded photographs; trace my characters’ movements on yellowed city maps; listen to music and radio shows from the past; try recipes from vintage cookbooks—every single detail and fact I uncover is part of my time-travel ticket. As a writer for younger readers, the pressure to be historically accurate is intense.
It would have been disingenuous of me to ignore the anti-Japanese attitudes prevalent during the time period of Nanea’s story. Yet the last thing I’d want to do is perpetuate harmful attitudes and perceptions. Each book requires its own juggling act of balancing the truthful with the potentially hurtful. When Nanea’s best friend, Lily, and her family experience discrimination, Nanea wonders why such things are happening, which offers young readers an opportunity to think about such injustices, as well. Historical fiction is uniquely positioned to use societal flaws as opportunities to foster empathy in readers.
Your body of work, which includes titles for very young readers as well as those for young adults, shows a wonderful range! What are the greatest joys—and greatest challenges—you find in writing for readers at such different stages of maturity and development?
True confession time: when I am writing a book, I do not give one thought to the reader! My focus is on the character: what would she be feeling, doing, wondering at any given time. Her story is told as fully and honestly as possible. That seems to be the key to connecting with readers, whether they are 6 or 96.
You’ve described yourself as a reformed history-phobe. Do you have any advice for parents whose children have expressed an aversion to a particular subject or activity?
I did manage to raise two great kids, but it feels presumptuous to offer advice to other parents. My own experience might be helpful. I didn’t fall in love with history until a moment of personal connection, when I learned about my great-grandmother’s astonishing accomplishments. That was an epiphany: history is not dates and battles and generals; it is ordinary people like you and me and how they not only survived tough times, but thrived. I saw a similar connection happen with my children who fell in love at young ages with Gilbert and Sullivan operettas; hardly a typical music choice for kids! But a caring teacher helped them understand the stories behind and of those operettas. I think any time we can connect our children to a subject or activity through story, that’s half the battle of engaging them.
Finally, what would you most like the adults in your readers’ lives to know about you?
People often assume, based on my list of publications and awards, that the writing journey has been easy, or that I have it made. Nothing could be further from the truth! After my first five books were published, I did think I had it made. But the universe thought otherwise: there were seven long, discouraging, disappointing years between my fifth book and my sixth. But I didn’t give up. (Okay, I did give up a few times, but it was only for a week or so.) I kept writing, despite rejection after rejection after rejection. That persistence eventually paid off when I wrote my first historical novel, Hattie Big Sky, which went on to win a Newbery Honor. And with twenty some-odd books under my belt, I still haven’t “made it,” which I think is a great thing! There is something new to learn about my craft every single day and that possibility is what pulls me to my computer each morning.
Hattie Big Sky (2006)—2007 Newbery Honor Book
Hattie Ever After (2013)
The Friendship Doll (2011)—2012 NCTE/CLA Notable Children’s Book in the English Language Arts
The Fences Between Us: The Diary of Piper Davis, Seattle, Washington, 1941 (2010)
Duke: Dogs of World War II (2013)
Dash: Dogs of World War II (2014)—2015 Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction
Liberty: Dogs of World War II (2016)