Interview by Philip Martin
Raymond Bial is the acclaimed author of more than 100 books, including many photodocumentary books for young readers, such as Amish Home, The Underground Railroad, Where Lincoln Walked, Nauvoo, Ellis Island, and others. His fiction includes books of ghost stories for kids, including The Fresh Grave, The Ghost of Honeymoon Creek, and Shadow Island. He lives in Urbana, Illinois.
Q: Tell us a little about your novel Chigger.
Chigger is a sweet, poignant novel set in a quiet little town in southern Indiana. It’s the late 1950s, and folks in this traditional town aren’t accustomed to change—quite the contrary.
The other kids in the fifth-grade class at Rutherford B. Hayes Grade School don’t know what to make of the scrappy newcomer who’s “not even starting school right.” She insists on being called Eddie—even though Eddie is a boy’s name.
The girl also has “quite a mouth on her” and so annoys several of the boys that she quickly acquires the nickname of Chigger. These buggy backyard pests, chiggers, cause a lot of itching and scratching, and the new girl does gets under the skin of these boys. However, it may turn out that these mean boys, not the new girl, are the real pests in this story.
Q: Tell us a little about Chigger, the character.
Chigger is the new girl in school. She immediately gets saddled with a derisive nickname, as she raises “quite a ruckus at school.” Dirt poor, always hungry, she nonetheless refuses help and won’t be pitied.
Fiercely independent, with plenty of pluck, she is clearly a fighter—with her mouth and her fists. But, according to Luke Zielinski, a classmate and sympathetic narrator of the story, Chigger makes all the wrong moves from the very start. Will she ever make a single friend—even Luke—as she battles for respect and a safe place for herself and her mother in the pleasant town of Roscoe? Will anyone ever stand up for her? And will folks “do the right thing when they see it clearly,” as the girl ultimately has to fight for her life?
Q: What compelled you to write this book?
Chigger was inspired by a true story and actual events. Many years ago, I was a substitute teacher in a mid-sized town in the Midwest and had an energetic girl not unlike Chigger in one of my classes. She reminded me of one of my childhood friends of the 1950s when our family lived in Seymour, Indiana.
Those were idyllic years for our family, but my friend struggled to get along with some of the mean kids.
In the early eighties, my mother was diagnosed with a terminal illness. It was such a shock to my brothers, sister, and me, because she had always been so vibrant and we had all had such fun with her as we had been growing up. After her death, I decided to write a touching memoir of several wonderful years when we lived in the little town of Seymour in southern Indiana.
But from the very start, Chigger became a funny book, because that was how my mother had lived her life. She had always “looked on the bright side” of things, even through the poverty of the Great Depression and the anguish of World War II.
And, of course, once Chigger appeared on the very first page, she ran away with the book.
What else could I do? My mom had always gotten a “kick out of kids” and I’ve always loved children. Like my mom and most Americans, I’ve also always rooted for the underdog. So, I wrote a story about an unforgettable girl who, because she and her Mom “don’t have no other choice,” has to take on the world.
Q: How does Chigger describe something about its setting in a small town in the Midwest?
Most of the novel occurs within the city limits of the imaginary community of Roscoe, Indiana. As the narrator recalls:
Although we’d gotten a taste of the real world through hula hoops and songs like “The Purple People Eater” . . . our town still resided under a canopy of shade trees and convention. At least that’s what my dad said.
We rode our bikes everywhere—to the Tastee Freez for ice cream cones, to Pearson’s Grocery for jawbreakers, to the Roscoe Cigar Store and Fountain for cherry Cokes, and to Harold’s Barber Shop with the liars’ bench out front to hear stories about the old days. . . . We also visited Griswald’s Hardware for ball-bearing wheels for our soapbox racers, because we lived just fifty miles south of Indianapolis and to a certain extent our lives revolved around the Indy 500. Above all, the favorite place of everyone—except me—was the Palace Theater where we went to see the monster films, which give me bad dreams to this very day.
Our lives didn’t extend beyond the city limits—the chicken hatchery at the Co-op elevator on the east side, the Dog ‘n Suds on the west side, the Skyway drive-in (which was strictly off limits to us until we reached the first year of high school) on the south side, and the Sinclair gas station, with the dinosaur on its sign, and the cemetery on the north side.
The town was nestled in an island of trees beyond which the land broke jarringly into the blaze of sky and plains. We seldom rode our bikes beyond the edge of town. In Roscoe we knew the safe limits of our own streets, neighborhoods, and living rooms. Yet we led rich lives, it seemed to me, for we were new and fascinated with the details of everyday life around us. We could stir up adventures in our own small world under the safest and most predictable circumstances.
Q: Do you have a favorite scene or moment in the book?
I loved writing every word of this novel, so it’s difficult to make unbiased selections. Chigger is obviously my favorite character, although I love all the other characters, especially in how they blend with each other, since this book is based on relationships.
As for scenes or moments, I especially like the scene in which Luke, who imagines himself a coward unlike his war hero of a father, stands up with Chigger and afterwards she tells him, “You stood up and fought like a man. Nobody’s ever stood up for Mom and me like that before. Considering what a coward you are, that must’ve taken a lot of guts.”
Q: Anything else about this book you’d like to highlight?
Although Chigger is a humorous novel with touches of nostalgia, the themes of the book are timeless, universal, and serious. On an immediate personal level, it deals with what is now called bullying in schools. Set in a small-town locale, I tried to craft a novel that follows the characters, especially Chigger, through one memorable summer of misadventures.
I wanted Chigger to be both entertaining and substantive. To do so, I went through at least twenty revisions of the novel in an effort to add all the right touches.
In the Roscoe, Indiana, of 1959, girls don’t have names reserved for boys … they prefer jump rope over marbles, and of course, girls would never use profanity … until Eddie Heck moves to town. Soon nicknamed Chigger by one of a nasty trio of boys, she challenges standard expectations for behavior. Her colorful language is sometimes explicit but fitting for her character and experiences. As the summer before sixth grade starts, Chigger tenaciously befriends Luke Zielinski … and there is a satisfactory comeuppance for her nemesis. – School Library Journal
Q: Tell us a little about yourself.
I was born in Danville, Illinois, but like Luke, my father was in the Air Force, so we moved often—eight times before I graduated from high school, including jaunts in Great Falls, Montana, and Tacoma, Washington.
Later, I also lived on the East Coast, but have always thought of myself as a Midwesterner. I’ve lived in Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin. I am especially fond of my childhood years in Seymour, Indiana, as evidenced in Chigger. Other works of fiction, The Fresh Grave, The Ghost of Honeymoon Creek, and Dripping Blood Cave, are also set along the Wabash River in Indiana. I also wrote Shadow Island, a mystery for young readers, set in northern Wisconsin.
Much of my nonfiction, such as Where Lincoln Walked and The Underground Railroad, is also largely set in the Midwest.
Q: Any stories about your personal writer’s journey?
Chigger was written in the 1980s and submitted to virtually every major publisher in the United States. My agent loved the novel, as did most editors, but they had a hard time categorizing it. It was a runner-up in a national competition with a New York publisher and was enthusiastically accepted by two other major publishers, who subsequently changed their minds with no further explanation. But I always believed in this novel and finally a wonderful editor at the University Press of Kentucky recommended MotesBooks, which published Chigger in a lovely edition—more than 25 years after it was written.
So there is something to be said for persistence.
Chigger was influenced by two of my favorite books: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird. Chigger has received excellent reviews, but one particular comment that recommended it as an excellent “ladder book” to those classics has perhaps meant the most to me.
I hope that children will enjoy reading about the adventures and misadventures of youngsters from a bygone era. The novel also appeals to adults, especially Boomers who remember the fabulous and not-so-fabulous ‘50s, and anyone who likes a good story.
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Interviewer Philip Martin is director of Great Lakes Literary, offering editorial services and website development for authors, and he is author himself of several books for writers, including How To Write Your Best Story.