Swanky Seventeener Bree Barton recently interviewed Cheryl Blackford, debut author of the middle-grade historical novel LIZZIE AND THE LOST BABY (January 12 from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books for Young Readers), over a cup of strong English tea.
About the Author
Cheryl Blackford was born in Yorkshire, England but now lives in a house in the woods in Minnesota where she is entertained by a wide assortment of wildlife, including coyotes. LIZZIE AND THE LOST BABY, set in World War II England, is Cheryl’s first middle-grade novel. She has written three non-fiction books for young readers and her picture book HUNGRY COYOTE (inspired by a coyote she saw one winter morning) won the 2015 Moonbeam Award in the category of picture books for ages 4-8.
About the Book
“Is it ever right to keep something that doesn’t belong to you?” That’s the question that haunts ten-year-old Lizzie as she adjusts to life as an evacuee in the remote Yorkshire valley of Swainedale. Set at the beginning of World War II, LIZZIE AND THE LOST BABY is told from the dual perspectives of Lizzie and Elijah, a thirteen-year-old Gypsy. To answer the question Lizzie must grapple with her own conscience and deal with the intolerance and prejudices of her hosts.
Bree: First off, congrats on writing such a lovely, lyrical book! When did you feel the first spark of an idea?
Cheryl: I had just finished a book set in Italy—which I haven’t sold—and I knew I wanted to write a book set in England. When I was small, I’d go visit my grandmother out in the country, and she had a stream at the bottom of her yard. My sister and I found an old tin bathtub that a farmer had probably used to water his cattle and we’d both climb in the bath and float downstream. I thought that would be a fun start to a story: two girls floating in a tub. And I thought they might find a baby on the stream bank.
Of course the story I would eventually write is nothing like the one I originally envisioned—the baby was the only element that stayed! I have no idea where the rest of the story came from, including Elijah, the Gypsy boy. I do love writing about the underdog and Gypsies are almost always the underdog.
Bree: That was something I loved: the Gypsy world you so vividly portray. The scenes with Elijah and his family were so real I could smell the rabbit roasting over the fire. And the prejudice is real, too. What drew you to this world?
Cheryl: The only children’s book I could think of with Gypsies was The Diddakoi by Rumer Godden, published in 1972. I went around in circles for a long time on what to call Elijah’s people: in Europe they’re Roma; in Scotland and Ireland they call themselves Travelers, but back in Lizzie’s time everyone in England called them Gypsies so that’s what I settled on. Maggie Smith Bendell, a friend and author in her own right—and one of my inspirations for writing this story—calls herself a Gypsy.
Gypsy culture is fascinating. It’s an oral tradition—their stories are told, not written down—and a lot of what has been written about them is inaccurate, misconstrued by people who bring their own prejudices to bear. When I read Maggie’s memoir, I was drawn to one story in particular about an English farmer who’d wanted to take one of Maggie’s brothers for himself. That paralleled Lizzie’s story and gave me confidence that the premise wasn’t as far-fetched as it seemed.
Bree: People would actually take their children away from them??
Cheryl: While I was writing the book, Irish authorities removed a blonde, blue-eyed girl from her Roma parents on the baseless assumption that she’d been abducted. They only returned the child when DNA testing confirmed the girl was the family’s biological child. Incredible.
Gypsies experience a tremendous amount of prejudice. Maggie is a great champion of Gypsy rights and she was hoping Lizzie and the Lost Baby would be published in England since Gypsy children are still bullied in schools. Unfortunately an English publisher hasn’t yet picked up the book. Crossed fingers.
Bree: I know your mother survived frequent air raids in Hull during World War II, and your father was sent to live with strangers in the English countryside. How did your family history inform your writing?
Cheryl: I was already planning the book when I went to England to visit my family for Christmas. I’d just returned from the local library where I’d been researching bombings and evacuations when my mother said, “You know, your father was an evacuee.”
This came as a total surprise. Neither my siblings nor I had any idea! My father had never talked about it. As you might imagine, this sparked some really interesting conversations about the war and my parents’ experiences.
I would have written the story anyway, even if I hadn’t found this out, but it was a great bonus. I actually think my mother had it worse than my father—her mother shipped off her younger brother but kept her at home. She remembers being in an air raid shelter listening to the bombs falling all around her and navigating the dark streets at night when blackout curtains masked all lights and street lamps could not be lit. It’s not commonly known that Hull was the second-most bombed city after London but the devastation remained long after the war.
Bree: Something I love about Lizzie’s journey is that she must find the courage to stand up for what is right, even when it means confronting grownups who’ve made very bad decisions. Were you like Lizzie as a child?
Cheryl: I was a pretty wimpy kid. Lizzie is probably the child I wish I’d been. I was opinionated—I had strong feelings about right and wrong—but I was a very obedient child in school and at home. I often wonder: If I were in Lizzie’s position, would I have the courage to do what she did? I hope I would. But I don’t know. It’s an intriguing question.
Bree: I love how ornery the characters are—Elijah isn’t all puppies and roses, and Madge starts off so grumpy and small-minded she gives poor Mrs. Bennet a run for her money. Even Bill, the villain, has layers.
Cheryl: Bill was the hardest character to write. Several times Jane Resh Thomas, my mentor and writing teacher, said, “You don’t want him to be a cartoon character. Even villains came from somewhere!” I think of him as a sociopath: he has no qualms about doing anything to get what he wants. But he also has a value to the group: he’s a musician—he plays the fiddle—and he’s a good provider with all his rabbiting.
I really enjoyed writing Lizzie. I loved seeing her growth as a character. She starts out so insecure and uncertain of herself, and in the end, even though it’s really hard for her to stand up to people like the Colonel, she does. She fights for what is right.
Three things you have within arm’s distance when writing:
- My reading glasses so I can see the computer screen.
- A postcard of a coyote that sat on my desk while I was writing my picture book, Hungry Coyote.
- A beargrass, yucca, and devil’s claw basket made by a weaver from the Tohono O’odhamNation in Arizona. The book I’m working on now is about a basket weaver, and having a concrete object helps me get into her head.
Part of the world you’d happily get lost in for a year:
The North York Moors. It’s a beautiful place through all four seasons, and I love the people—they’re very friendly. Lots of hiking. I could write.
What were you reading when you were Lizzie’s age?
I was an avid advanced reader—the local library gave me an adult library card when I was ten (Lizzie’s age) because I’d read all the children’s books. When I was a little younger than Lizzie I read everything by E Nesbit, Frances Hodgson Burnett, and Joan Aiken. And I loved The Borrowers by Mary Norton. I still look for signs of Borrowers living in the walls of my house.
Books you wish you’d read as a child:
I never read Beverly Cleary or Judy Blume since we read books by English authors. I just bought a whole box set of Ramona Quimby books—from Costco, of all places. I need to plow through them and catch up.
Top three contributions England has given America:
Downton Abbey, Jane Austen, and Benedict Cumberbatch. Though I suppose it’s a tossup between Benedict Cumberbatch and Colin Firth.
How do you take your tea?
With milk. We use tea bags—we’re heathens that way—but we never, ever boil the water in a mug in the microwave. That makes terrible tea.
About the Interviewer
Bree Barton likes having no middle name. Her short fiction has appeared in The Iowa Review, Mid-American Review, Literary Orphans, and PANK, and a book she ghostwrote was adapted for primetime TV. Her debut YA novel, Black Rose, comes out from Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins in 2017. If you like your fantasy with a healthy dose of magic, moonstones, and feminism, you’ll dig.
Bree tweets a steady stream of malapropisms @BreeBartonYA and will show you one eyeball at breebarton.com. She lives in a sunny California bungalow with Christopher, a brilliant writer, and Finley Fergus Fitzgerald III, a brilliant dog.