I have a new neighbor – and it’s none other than the fabulous YA author, Anne Blankman! Anne, a former youth services librarian, is the author of three historical novels for teens, including her latest – Traitor Angels – starred by Kirkus.
I invited Anne to post on writing the strong girl in history – and how she manages to tackle even the most sophisticated content so that teen readers can relate. Milton’s Paradise Lost? No problem… Here’s Anne Blackman.
My daughter was six months old when she gave me the courage to write. Yup, you read that correctly. Although I’d wanted to be a writer since I was a little kid, as an adult I couldn’t find the courage to “put myself out there.” Once I’d had my daughter and the first few sleep-deprived foggy-minded months had passed, though, I found myself gazing at her tiny, perfect face and knowing I wanted to be a good role model for her—which meant I had to stop surrendering to fear. I needed to start writing.
Fast-forward a few years and two books later, and it was time for me to start drafting my third novel, the YA romantic historical adventure Traitor Angels. The idea had been growing in my mind for a decade, ever since I took a college course on English poet John Milton.
One day in class I noticed something strange about the poem we were studying. Milton’s famous epic, Paradise Lost, is supposed to be about Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden—but Milton alludes to one character who shouldn’t be there: Galileo, one of the most well-known scientists in history. How weird, I thought. I wondered if Milton had included Galileo as some sort of cryptic message to readers. When I later learned that Milton had secretly met Galileo after the latter had been sentenced to house arrest by the Italian Inquisition, I began daydreaming about the men’s possible conversations. From these initial questions, Traitor Angels grew into an adventure that includes a scavenger hunt stretching across Restoration Era England, clues concealed in literary masterpieces, a fierce girl skilled in weaponry, a mysterious Italian scientist, and a conspiracy that, if it got out, could shake the foundations of civilization.
It took me a long time to write this story. One of my biggest stumbling blocks was the main character: Elizabeth, the fictitious sixteen-year-old daughter of John Milton. I wanted her to be a strong character, but mid-seventeenth century customs and Puritan culture were working against me. How, I wondered over and over, could I make Elizabeth a gutsy girl who would resonate with modern readers? It was easy enough to put a sword in her hands, but what else could I do?
Once again, my daughter inspired me. At the time, she was four years old and fascinated with the night sky. “Can I stay up late to look at the stars?” she begged me and her dad. We laid on lawn chairs in the backyard, watching stars wink into life overhead. As I saw my daughter’s eyes widen with delight, I knew I had figured out how to make my Puritan protagonist a “strong” heroine: Her true strength would live in her mind. She would want to be a scientist—a revolutionary ideal in the mid-1600s.
Later that summer, my husband, daughter, and I flew to the United Kingdom so I could speak at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. We traveled throughout England, visiting the city of York where I had once lived and walking the streets of London where my main character had walked. Throughout it all, I watched my daughter’s reactions: her fearlessness when she clambered onto the lion statues in Trafalgar Square, her interest in the ravens flying across the grounds of the Tower of London, her joy as she ran up and down the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral. This was who I wanted Elizabeth to be—someone who’s brave enough to be herself, no matter who’s watching. Someone who studies what fascinates her, regardless of whether it’s deemed “appropriate” for her gender. Someone who loves the mystery and beauty of the stars.
Traitor Angels is in bookstore tomorrow, May 3, 2016
Watch the trailer:
Other books by Anne Blackman: