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Breathing History - Frieda Wishinsky speaks with Linda Granfield
by Frieda Wishinsky

As a child Linda Granfield loved reading factual books. As an adult she loves writing them.

Raised in Melrose, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston, Granfield devoured books about figures in United States and Massachusetts history. "Since I grew up where the American Revolution started," she explains. "I knew all that American Revolution stuff, like following Paul Revere's ride." After a while, she longed to read more than the books in the young children's department of her library. "I was able to get special permission to go into the older kid's section," she says.

But Granfield not only read about famous people and events, she and her family explored the many historical sites in and around Boston.

"We'd pack bologna sandwiches and date bars," she recalls. "We'd take our picnic lunch to different free historical sites and listen to the interpretations. I loved it."

Then at the age of ten, she read an especially memorable book, Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott. Like many young girls of that era, Granfield wanted to be just like the assertive, tomboyish Jo. But unlike many young girls, she was able to visit the house in which the book was written. "My parents took us to Alcott's house in Concord, Massachusetts, to see where she wrote Little Women," she warmly remembers. She was so enchanted by the story that she adapted the book as a school play.

That same year, she also contributed to the school newspaper. "I thought I was on page 1," she laughs, "but when I found my old school newspaper in my mother's house, I saw I was only on page 3."

At home, she wrote short plays for her family. "I remember writing a little play when my new baby brother was born. I got special permission to hold him in front of the fireplace as I did a little recitation."

After high school, she attended Salem State College in Salem, Massachusetts, another town full of historic sites, and the scene of colourful historic events. "I was living and breathing history," she says. "It was all around me, like Hawthorne's The House of the Seven Gables."

The English Department at Salem State College was another source of inspiration. Many of her college professors were writers of books themselves. But in those days, she didn't think about becoming a writer; instead she trained to become a teacher.

After graduating in the mid-1970s, there were few teaching jobs available, so Granfield decided to go to graduate school. Completing her Master's in English at Northeastern University in Boston, she began to inquire about Ph.D. programs in English. "I wanted to research the Victorian period," she says, "but I had money for only one application. I asked my adviser where the best English department was, and he said, `If you want to travel a distance, go to Berkeley; if you don't, go to Toronto.' I didn't want to leave the East, so I went to Toronto."

Granfield moved to Toronto in 1974, where she began researching the life and work of Marie Corelli at the University of Toronto. "Corelli, a popular writer of the time but little read today, lived in Stratford, England," she says. "Corelli thought she was Charlotte Bronte reincarnated. But she did do a lot of good. She saved Shakespeare's birthplace, ran festivals, and created a whole persona for herself. George Bernard Shaw loved her."

Despite enjoying this research, Granfield never completed her Ph.D. She finished all the required courses and then left to get married and work at a variety of jobs, including a year's stint at The Children's Book Store, where she "learned about the world of books from the retail side."

It wasn't until after she began writing reviews of children's books for Quill & Quire that her own writing career began. In 1984, at a Canadian Booksellers Association conference, she relates, "Ricky Englander of Kids Can Press yelled out, `When are you going to stop writing about children's books and write one yourself?' I immediately knew it was the right thing for me to do."

In 1988, All about Niagara Falls was published by Kids Can Press. From there, Granfield worked on one non-fiction title after another. Her subjects ranged from Canadian government to newspapers to her most recent titles, In Flanders Fields: The Story Of the Poem by John McCrae (Stoddart, 32 pages, $16.95 cloth) and The Year I was Born-1984 (Kids Can Press, 48 pages, $9.95 paper). In Flanders Fields recently won the Information Book Award, which is sponsored by The Children's Literature Roundtables of Canada.

"For every project you have to stretch," she says. And she has done just that. She's explored science and math, subjects that were not her favourites as a student.

But is researching a new subject the hardest part of writing a non-fiction book? "The hardest part is knowing when to stop researching," she answers. One look at her detailed and organized notes, pictures, postcards, and articles substantiates her words. So does her enthusiasm for each of her subjects.

As Granfield continues to develop new books, she's discovering, just as she did as a child, that the categories books are placed in is arbitrary. The line between children's and adult's books has become increasingly blurred.

"I'm seeing a shift in approach," she says. "I'm seeing my books as intergenerational."

It's easy to see why. Her books have all the elements that hold any age reader's attention: thorough research, careful organization, clear writing, and compelling themes. l

Frieda Wishinsky's most recent book is Jennifer Jones Won't Leave Me Alone (HarperCollins Canada).


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