An Appalling Anniversary

March 25th marks the 106th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in which 146 young garment workers met their death. Reading about this tragic event led me to write Ashes of Roses, a novel about a young girl who arrived in America filled with hopes and dreams only to find herself trapped in that infamous inferno. 

The research for this novel was heartbreaking. Most of the victims of the fire were young immigrant women who were grateful to have landed a job at the Triangle. It was almost closing time on Saturday afternoon and the girls were about to head home. There was no hint of trouble for the workers on the crowded ninth floor where the flames rushed in at the same time as the first warning. 



Springtime is Chicken Time!

The arrival of Spring brings blossoms, birds returning from the south, and baby animals on the farm. For chickens, this is a busy time of year. It all starts today -- National Poultry Day. The hens are all out celebrating, marching in the Poultry Day Parade. Tomorrow they will set to work, laying as many eggs as possible before Easter. 


Mary Jane  and Herm Auch have enjoyed getting to know their character chicken author, Henrietta Fowler over the course of her first two adventures — SOUPERCHICKEN, where she teaches herself to read, and THE PLOT CHICKENS, where she studies to become a writer. 

In THE PLOT CHICKENS Henrietta’s first attempt at publishing earns her a rejection. Undaunted, she prints out a small number of books and gives one to her local librarian. Alas, the poor hen gets smacked down once again by a nasty review, the bane of all authors. The review states that “chickens should never write books.” Ready to give up her dream of becoming an author, Henrietta’s spirits are lifted by her librarian, who tells her that the story hour children have voted her book the best.

In looking for a new story idea for Henrietta, the Auchs decided to give her one of their favorite author activities, a book festival, or in Henrietta’s case, THE BUK BUK BUK FESTIVAL. Now older and wiser, Henrietta doesn’t let the publisher know that she’s a chicken, so when she accepts an invitation to a book festival, nobody expectsa chicken to show up at the event. When chaos ensues, Henrietta reaches out to the loyal librarian, who comes to her aid once again, proclaiming that “A chicken who can write a book is a national treasure.”

A number of children's authors an illustrators make cameo appearances in this book. You might be able to spot Cynthia DeFelice, Bruce Coville, Susanne Bloom, and Vivian Vande Velde, to name a few. A little boy with a bright red shirt shows up in a some illustrations. That's the Auchs' grandson, Jack Giovanni Auch, who enjoys pointing out himself, his mommy and daddy, and also "Nana and Bompa." 


100th Anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire

There is some media buzz about the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, now that we’re approaching its hundredth anniversary on March 25. This has made me remember doing the research for Ashes of Roses. It was one of the hardest books I've ever written, partly because I'm terrified of fire. I remember hearing stories as a child, about this terrible fire that had killed so many young women – some of them in their teens. I thought that it had taken place in the Flatiron Building, because it was shaped like a triangle. Oddly enough, my publisher, Henry Holt, is now in the Flatiron Building. It wasn't until I started the research that I realized the fire happened in the Asch building off Washington Square.

I was also convinced that most of the girls in the fire were Irish, so I gave my main character my Irish grandmother's name, Margaret Rose Nolan. Again, research proved me wrong, and I learned that most of the girls in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory were Jewish, Italian, or from various Eastern European countries. I thought I would have to rewrite the whole beginning of the book, until I found “Anna Doherty, Irish immigrant” on the list of survivors. That allowed me to have my character be one of the very few Irish girls in the factory, which made her even more isolated.

A terrible thing happened when I was in the middle of revisions for my editor, Christy Ottaviano. I was watching TV on the morning of September 11, and saw the first World Trade Tower burning. I called Christy, thinking she might be ready to head for the train, unaware that the city would be tied up with traffic because of this fire. By the time I reached her, the second plane had hit, and we both knew that this would not be a mere traffic jam. While on the phone, we both watched in horror as people started jumping out of the towers. Because of the similarity to the Triangle Fire, where young girls jumped to their deaths from the factory windows, neither Christy nor I could work on Ashes of Roses for several months.

When I had completed the book, I was going to be in New York City, so I made arrangements to deliver it to Christy in person. As I was heading home on the train that afternoon, I saw a newspaper headline about the Triangle Fire. Rose Freedman, the last surviving worker from the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire had died that day. She was one hundred and seven years old.


The Origins of Guitar Boy

After Travis Tacey’s mother is hospitalized from a serious accident, his grief-stricken father throws him out. Travis has to find a way to survive with nothing but a few dollars, a change of clothes, and his great-great-great grandfather's guitar. Here is how some events in my life became the catalyst for this novel.

I’ve had a passion for guitars ever since I started playing one in graduate school. I still have my original guitar -- an old Guild Mark I, which has great sound, but it had become harder for me to play over the years because of its size. Then I met luthier Bernie Lehmann whose custom-made guitars were works of art. Bernie told me he could make a guitar to allow me to play comfortably. Because Bernie’s workshop is in nearby Rochester NY, I was able to watch my guitar grow from a few thin slabs of wood into an instrument that almost seems to live and breathe. Bernie has a passion for building instruments, making the whole process a pleasure to behold.

Some of the building steps seemed almost magical. We chose the wood for the top of the guitar by tapping it to hear its tone. One piece of Adirondack Spruce produced a low, ringing sound that made us both gasp. That would become the top for my new guitar.


Bernie worked on the painstaking process of thicknessing the top, and carving and placing the braces. The next time I saw the guitar, the top was so thin, you could see sunlight through it. That would allow the top to resonate, producing a full, rich tone.




The more trips I made to Bernie’s workshop, the more fascinated I became. I saw him bend guitar’s sides over a pipe heated by a torch, transforming a stiff piece of rosewood into graceful curves. Another day I watched him shape the edges with a small plane, peeling off curls of rosewood that filled the room with a sweet, spicy fragrance. I can still smell that rosewood as I play the guitar.






Finally the top, sides and back were joined and clamped, so I could hold the body of my guitar, minus the neck.






The binding went on next – a thin strip of pernambuco carefully placed around the top edge.





Knowing that I was an illustrator, Bernie suggested that I design something for the headstock. I drew this rooster, and watched Bernie carefully cut the individual pieces out of abalone and fit them into precisely carved openings in the ebony headstock.





Finally one day, I got the call that the guitar was finished. I arrived in time to see Bernie tune it up and play. It sounded as beautiful as it looked.

I was so excited by the guitar-building process, I wanted to write a book about it. When I approached my editor, Christy Ottaviano, with a proposal for a nonfiction project, she said she’d rather see me write a novel that featured a luthier as one of the characters.

I was disappointed at first, but then another guitar-related event came to mind, and the first strands of Guitar Boy started to intertwine. Years ago, when I worked as an Occupational Therapist, a college student with a traumatic head injury was admitted to our hospital for intensive rehabilitation. He had been reduced to the level of an infant, unable to speak, or even swallow. His limitations were so severe, the Physical Therapist, Speech Therapist, and I often worked with him simultaneously. He gradually recovered the ability to swallow and eat, but still had no speech.

Then one day his father told us that his son had been a big fan of folk music. One of the residents also played the guitar, so we started bringing the boy into the OT room at the end of every afternoon for a folk song session. He obviously enjoyed the music, clapping his hands to the rhythm, but he made no attempt to sing. Then one day we played If I Had a Hammer, and his voice rang out loud and clear. It took our breath away.

Now I had the two key pieces to start writing Guitar Boy. Soon I saw and heard snippets of 14-year-old Travis Tacey, and began to gather a family around him – his older sister, June, and the younger kids, Roy, Earleen, and Lester – all named after guitar players. I love this part of writing a book, where wispy ideas start coming to me and I try to fit them together like puzzle pieces.

I decided that the character with the traumatic head injury should be Travis’s mother, Geneva, and that her accident would occur before the book started. Then I brought the family onstage as they visited her in the hospital for the first time. From there, it was a matter of putting myself into the heads of the characters, learning what made them tick.

I had Travis meet luthier Scott McKissack. And when he did, I got to have Travis be as fascinated seeing Scott build a guitar as I was when watching Bernie Lehmann build mine.

What followed was the joy of working on the book with Christy Ottaviano – our sixth to date.
And she was right. It was meant to be a novel.