by Sandy Brehl
Gayle Rosengren, author of Cold War on Maplewood Street, is a Wisconsin writer and a friend. The October 2015 release of that title, her second middle-grade novel, coincided with the anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis and current efforts to re-establish diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba.
Gayle was kind enough to take time from working on her next novel to answer a few questions here about Cold War and her writing.
Sandy: Welcome, Gayle! I loved the concept for Cold War on Maplewood Street when I first heard about it. I, too, was a tween during the Cuban Missile crisis and remember it vividly. For people who lived through it, those years don’t feel like history, but for young readers, it easily qualifies – that was half a century ago! How would you summarize a child’s perspective on what the Cold War was all about, apart from the actual Cuban Missile Crisis?
Gayle: My understanding of the Cold War as a child is summed up by a popular slogan of that decade: “Better dead than red.” I remember quite clearly thinking then that there must be something wrong with me, because if I had to choose between communism (whatever that even was) and death, I probably would have chosen communism! But the slogan effectively conveyed the message that the Russians (or Soviets) and communism were to be feared.
And that fear was epitomized in the threat of a nuclear attack. We had the atomic bomb, but so did the Russians. In fact, the United States and the Soviet Union had so many powerful nuclear bombs that we were not only capable of destroying each other but of taking the rest of the world down with us.
I remember getting nervous every time I stumbled on a TV news spot of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. He was always either scowling, shouting, or on one amazing occasion (at the UN) furiously waving his shoe! These images stirred up the fear that was always smoldering inside me, ready to blaze up given the slightest encouragement. Was Premier Khrushchev’s anger a prelude to World War III? Was he going to give the order to attack us? I think it’s fair to say that children of the Cold War era grew up under a veritable mushroom cloud of fear.
Sandy: I remember having many of those same feelings, Gayle. During the Cold War, a generation (or more) of children grew up in the shadow of possible nuclear attacks. Now an entire generation of children since September 11, 2001, have lived their lives with ongoing wars in the background. What parallels and contrasts do you see in the effects on young people living in today’s world?
Gayle: Although the fear of a nuclear attack always loomed over youngsters during the Cold War, the film footage of the World War II attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were our only visuals of it. They were horrific and created a cloud of fear that hung over us ever after, but they had happened years before and far away, and, fortunately for us, we didn’t see those films often.
It was only during the week of the Cuban Missile Crisis that the cloud dropped so low and clung so tightly that it was impossible not to recall those terrible images. Then fear became a clock tick-tick-ticking ominously in the background of our days—would this second, or perhaps this one, be our last before the sky exploded?
By contrast, young people today are confronted with a daily barrage of graphic horrors in films, newscasts, and videos both online and on TV. If they want to badly enough, they can even watch actual beheadings! The attacks on September 11th stripped away forever the feeling that we are safe. The attacks that have followed only serve to confirm the likelihood of more in the future. Given everything, I think it must be far more frightening to grow up in today’s world than it was during the Cold War.
Sandy: Turning from global matters to your personal process of writing . . . in other interviews you’ve said that you wrote the first draft of this story many years earlier, and it then changed focus and point of view in subsequent rewrites. Can you pinpoint what led you to those changed perspectives?
Gayle: The horrific school shooting in Sandy Hook was the primary influence on my final draft. As frightening as potential ISIS attacks may be, I can’t help feeling that children today must have an even greater fear of harm befalling them in what should be a place second only to their own homes in terms of safety – their school. Instead of air raid drills, they now practice lockdown drills – hiding in locked rooms and closets from potential intruders bearing guns and wanting to hurt them.
How terrifying must that be for students of any age, but especially those in early elementary grades? This kind of terror changed my goal for Cold War from simply being a story about what should be an unforgettable event in our past, to being a book I hoped would also speak to children about growing up in our frightening present.
I wanted to write a book that talked about fear, but in a way that would not frighten my readers. I hoped that by using the Cuban Missile Crisis – an event far removed from them – I could accomplish this. My theme was the importance of communication in every significant relationship: from President Kennedy and Premier Khrushchev as world leaders, to Mr. and Mrs. Waterman as spouses, to Joanna and Sam and their mother as members of a family.
Sandy: Your main character, Joanna, is in a battle within herself that is as deep and difficult as the political one hanging over their heads. You did a masterful job of blending the tension of the world stage with the tension of her feelings about her brother Sam. Was that a part of the story from the beginning or did you discover it along the way?
Gayle: The breakdown of Joanna’s communication with Sam was always at the center of my vision for this story about the Cuban Missile Crisis. I wanted their relationship to be the heart of it, reflecting the results of broken promises on the world stage. I also wanted her love for Sam to be her personal connection to the crisis, a source of ever-increasing tension and ever-changing emotions toward him – adoration, anger, guilt and fear.
Sandy: You certainly accomplished all that and more. What do you most hope readers will take away from this book?
Gayle: I hoped readers would take away at least these two things:
First, words can be stronger than weapons. I was disturbed when I realized how many adults of today – those born in the sixties and later – didn’t have a clue about what the Cuban Missile Crisis even was! And most of the others seemed to view it as a kind of false alarm. After all, nothing happened in the end, right?
But as I see it, the fact that “nothing happened” is the most important takeaway from this event. President Kennedy and Premier Khrushchev talked. They negotiated. And by using words instead of weapons, World War III was averted. How can this not be one of the core lessons taught in social studies classes?
Second, I wanted to extend a metaphorically comforting hand to children growing up today under very different but equally frightening clouds of terror. In Cold War on Maplewood Street, much of the angst and damage that resulted could have been avoided or significantly reduced by better communication. I used this as a vehicle for talking about unhealthy ways versus healthy ways to deal with fear or worry.
When I give presentations at schools, I show visuals of one youngster hiding under his covers, and another one holding her stomach, as examples of unhealthy reactions to fear and worry, and I contrast them with the image of a young person confiding in an adult and being reassured. We always feel better after voicing our fears, and having someone we trust help us to put them in perspective adds even more comfort.
“Speak up! Communicate!” is the message I emphasize at my school visits. We may not be able to eliminate the sources of all our fears, but we can minimize their negative impact on our lives by talking about them with a parent, teacher, or other trusted adult.
Sandy: That’s a message that is worth sharing far and wide. Has anything surprised you about reader reactions to this book?
Gayle: One of the things that surprises during school visits when children ask questions about Cold War on Maplewood Street is how many of them ask about Sam, wanting to know if he “is all right.” I reassure them that yes, Sam came out of the crisis unhurt, but their question reminds me of how very real the characters and their stories can be to middle-grade readers – which reaffirms the reason why I write for them!
Sandy: Will you tell our readers a bit about your current projects?
Gayle: I just sent my latest manuscript off to my agent and am eagerly awaiting his response. Compared to my first two books [Cold War on Maplewood Street and What the Moon Said, a Depression-era novel], the historical setting is more recent. And while it is a family story, as both previous books are, it’s also a survival story seen from the alternating points of view of a brother and sister. Beyond that, I’m keeping mum (I’m a bit superstitious!) until I know it’s going to be published. Fingers crossed!
Sandy: Well, I look forward to reading it when it finds its publishing home. Your stories and characters stay with me, and I’m sure that most recent work will be just as memorable.
Thank you, Gayle, for participating in this interview and for creating books that open doors to the past. You invite readers of any age to experience vicariously the similarities and differences of life in another time and to connect what they’ve discovered with their current lives.
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Cold War on Maplewood Street, by Gayle Rosengren
G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers (August 2015)
Hardcover, 192 Pages
Historical Fiction / Middle Grade (8–12)
Readers who want to know more about Gayle, her books, appearances, and future publications can learn more at her website: http://www.gaylerosengren.com
or follow her on Twitter @GayleRosengren or Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/gayle.rosengren
Reviewer Sandy Brehl is author of Odin’s Promise, a middle-grade historical novel set in Norway during World War II, with a sequel, Bjorn’s Gift, to be published early Fall 2016. A member of SCBWI, she lives in Muskego, Wisconsin.
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Related Post: Stephanie Lowden reviews two middle-grade historical novels about Cuban-American relations in the mid-1900s, including Cold War on Maplewood Street: http://thestoriedpast.org/cuban-american-relations-in-the-1960s
Related Post: Gayle describes Cold War and some thoughts behind her writing of it: http://www.literaryrambles.com/2015/10/gayle-rosengren-guest-post-and-cold-war.html