Saturday, January 28, 2012

Who is this man and what does he have to do with my newest book?

Story ideas come from all kinds of places. Recently the folks at Children’s Literature Network asked me to write a piece about my latest picture bookRiding to Washington (Sleeping Bear Press). The source of inspiration for that book was clear: I grew up hearing family stories about my father’s 1963 ride to Washington, D.C., to take part in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

Family stories and mementoes also inspired my newest book: World War I: An Interactive Adventure (Capstone). For this You-Choose book (in which readers choose a character and then have to choose that character’s next move), I had at least one clear source of inspiration in family stories.

My great uncle, Francis Dana Coman, served as an ambulance driver during World War I. He’s the direct inspiration for the story of Frank, a young American college student who wants to sign up with the American Field Service, a Paris-based group of Americans who volunteered to work with the French Army transporting wounded soldiers from the front to hospitals. AFS volunteers drove Model T’s fitted out to carry the wounded on stretchers. They faced danger in the form of stray mortar shells exploding, poison gas drifting from the battlefield, and trying to drive at night with the headlights off in a war zone.

Here’s one of the mementoes Uncle Dana brought back: a pre-printed postcard to be used by injured French and Belgian soldiers writing home. A quick translation reads:

Cross out the phrases that don’t apply. Add nothing more, aside from the date and your signature, or this card will be destroyed.
I’m fine.
I got a letter from you recently OR a long time ago.
I am wounded lightly OR pretty seriously.
I am a little OR pretty seriously ill.
I have been evacuated.
I am in a hospital.

It’s a real-life You-Choose adventure—one I’m relieved my great uncle never experienced first-hand. He survived the war, studied medicine, and went on to be the doctor on Rear-Admiral Richard Byrd’s Antarctic Expedition of 1928-30, and president of the American Polar Society. (That explains the furry outfit above.)

Uncle Dana died on February 28, 1952, well before I was even born, but as with all great characters, he lives on in stories.

PHOTO CREDITS: Thank you to the Ohio State University Libraries Richard E. Byrd Papers, where I found Uncle Dana’s portrait. The French postcard is part of my collection.

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