Thursday, December 20, 2012

New Voice & Giveaway: Barbara Elizabeth Walsh on The Poppy Lady: Moina Belle Michael and Her Tribute to Veterans

Check out the teacher's guide and the discussion/activity guide.
By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Barbara Elizabeth Walsh is the first-time author of The Poppy Lady: Moina Belle Michael and Her Tribute to Veterans, illustrated by Layne Johnson (Calkins Creek, 2012). From the promotional copy:

Moina Belle Michael, a schoolteacher from Georgia, successfully established the Flanders Field Memorial Poppy as a universal symbol of tribute and support for veterans and their families during World War I and II. 

Known as the Poppy Lady, Michael dedicated her life to servicemen and women.

As a nonfiction writer, what first inspired you to take on your topic? What about it fascinated you? Why did you want to offer more information about it to young readers?

I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was first inspired to write about Moina Belle Michael when I was ten years old and found a postcard in my dad’s box of World War II memories. It was addressed to my mom and signed, “Pat’s Poppy Lady.”

My dad met Moina during World War II. He and three hundred other soldiers-in-training were studying radio communication at the University of Georgia and living in the Georgian Hotel.

BEW's dad in Moina's poppy garden
Moina lived on a floor above them. Every day she would place fresh field flowers throughout the lobby and on each floor--a wonderful morale booster for my dad and his soldier buddies. She had a smile for everyone and would stop and chat, especially if someone seemed troubled.

On the day my dad found out that his two brothers were missing in action, Moina was there for him. For hours they sat and talked on a sofa in the hotel lobby. My dad said that if it hadn’t been for her kindness he wouldn’t have made it through that terrible time.

When I took my first writing course and had to pick a nonfiction topic my dad asked me to write about Moina. He worried that people had forgotten who she was and all she’d done for soldiers and their families.

And yet, after sixty years, my dad still remembered. Her small act of kindness had meant that much to him. I could see it in his eyes and hear it in the tone of his voice.

For that reason, I started on a journey learning all I could about Moina. And what I found impressed me.

At a time when women’s rights and opportunities were limited, Moina had made a difference. She was strong and purpose filled. And the motto she lived by--"Whatsoever your hands find to do, do it with all your might"--opened up endless possibilities for her.

I was positively inspired. I hope young readers will feel the same.

Book launch!
How did you approach the research process for your story? What resources did you turn to? What roadblocks did you run into? How did you overcome them? What was your greatest coup, and how did it inform your manuscript?

Writing Moina’s story was like putting together a jigsaw puzzle--one puzzle piece at a time.

Listen to an audio interview with Barbara.
I first searched the Internet for a personal connection. A woman living on the farmland where Moina grew up had heard of a book that Moina had written, but she had no other information.

Next I went to my local library. The head librarian had not heard of Moina but was interested in her story. We searched the library catalogue and found a 1941 autobiography, but no other books.

When Moina’s autobiography from Alibris arrived I felt like I’d struck gold. It held a treasure trove of experiences and turning points that helped mold and shape Moina’s character. I read the book over and again, marking so many passages with sticky notes that it soon resembled a porcupine.

But after outlining Moina’s story and going online to fact check my information, I ran into a problem. All the online resources drew their information from the same source--Moina’s autobiography.

I contacted the Poppy Chairmen of the American Legion Auxiliary and The Veterans of Foreign Wars. They provided me with the resources they used to teach the public about the poppy, but had little information about Moina.

It wasn’t until countless emails and phone calls later that I finally made a breakthrough. The woman who had nominated Moina as a Georgia Woman of Achievement in 1999 had met Moina’s two great-nieces at the induction ceremony. She shared their contact information with me.

Elinor and Lucia lived next door to one another in Georgia. Before contacting them I felt nervous and excited--all at the same time. What if they didn’t want someone delving into their family history? And how would they feel about a first-time author tackling the story of their great-aunt?

Sammie the Sea Dog
But I was pleasantly surprised. It was Elinor’s birthday, and she said my interest in her great-aunt was a birthday present. A house fire had destroyed much of the family’s paper-based records, but many of Moina’s personal belongings had been donated to various organizations for safekeeping.

Elinor, along with Lucia, offered to join me on my fact-finding journey. On our search for primary sources we combed through archives, museums, historical societies, and places where Moina lived and worked.

Once Carolyn Yoder accepted my manuscript and approved the text, my research took on a new direction. Before Layne Johnson created his beautiful artwork we combined our collected reference materials and images and made a file for each scene, ensuring historical accuracy.

Over the eight years it took to write and revise the book, Elinor and Lucia were my expert readers. I was especially grateful for their enthusiasm and support.

When I mentioned this to my dad he wasn’t surprised. It made perfect sense to him that Moina’s type of kindness would pass from one generation to the next.

Cynsational Giveaway

Enter to win a signed copy of The Poppy Lady: Moina Belle Michael and Her Tribute to Veterans by Barbara Elizabeth Wash, illustrated by Layne Johnson (Calkins Creek, 2012). Author sponsored. Eligibility: U.S.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

2 comments:

JoyCorcoran said...

I sometimes think the best way to learn history is through children's books. I just love finding out about new heroes this way. Thanks for the introduction to this fascinating book.

Cathy Mealey said...

Barbara - I just borrowed your book from the library this week and it is truly marvelous. My young daughter loves buying red poppies on Memorial Day and Veteran's Day. Sadly, it is becoming more rare to see them outside our stores. I am going to research the school poppy poster contest that you mention in the book - a great idea!

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