History Comes Alive in Chasing Secrets by Newbery Honor-Winner Gennifer Choldenko
Gennifer Choldenko | The Children’s Book Review | August 26, 2015
My father loved to write. Every day he’d come home from his day job, slip off his starched white shirt, and put on a goofy madras number, which buttoned easily over his big stomach. Then he would pour himself a martini, scoot behind an oversized Underwood typewriter, and begin tappity-tap-tapping those keys. He was happier behind that typewriter than he was almost anywhere else in his life.
Was it his influence that made me a writer? Or was it some genetic predisposition towards all things literary? It’s hard to say, but clearly the love of writing is hardwired into me. I can’t wait to get up in the morning, make myself a foamy cappuccino, and get to work.
I’ve always known I love to write. What has surprised me the most in the last ten years is how much I’ve come to love history.
My father read a book a night. He had a large library with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves bursting with books—but his special love was California history. I’m not sure this registered with me when I began writing my first historical fiction novel, Al Capone Does My Shirts. My reason for beginning that book had more to do with capturing the attention of New York editors with a unique idea than it did with a pure love of history. But there’s no escaping the truth now. I have just published Chasing Secrets, my fourth historical fiction novel set in California. Chasing Secrets is about a real-life plague outbreak that occurred in San Francisco in 1900.
I write books set in San Francisco because the Bay Area is my home and I seem to need to walk my books as I’m writing them. Admittedly, this was easier with books set on Alcatraz Island, as many parts of Alcatraz are remarkably similar to the way they were in the thirties. But finding San Francisco circa 1900 in today’s San Francisco? That took some imagination. The proximity to the bay, the wildlife, the birds, the fog, and the shipping routes is the same, but what of the rest of the city? Armed with memoirs, maps, and old newspapers and photos, I searched for buildings built before 1900. I toured old hotels and historic homes in San Francisco and in Sacramento, trying to sort out what my characters’ homes might have looked like.
What was intriguing and heartbreaking was how the real-life plague story brought the zeitgeist of the city into sharp focus. Why was Chinatown quarantined but nowhere else? Why would California’s governor declare there was no plague? Why would doctors attribute plague deaths to other causes? Why were hospitals so dangerous?
The really fun part was getting to be the main character: Lizzie, who is, as my mother would say, full of everything. I especially enjoyed seeing her relationship with her aunt evolve. At first, Lizzie sees her aunt as an impediment. But slowly she begins to understand Aunt Hortense, and the world they lived in, in a deeper, more nuanced way. Uncle Karl was also really fun to write. Uncle Karl is a selfish man with a deep, unselfish love for Lizzie and her brother, Billy. I think Uncle Karl is my best villain so far.
And as for my real father . . . he was nothing like Lizzie’s uncle or her papa. He shared more traits with Moose’s father in the Alcatraz books.
Unfortunately, he didn’t live long enough to read that fictional version of himself. He died when I was a teenager, so he never got to hold any of my books in his hands. Even so, I often imagine my historical fiction sitting on his library shelf. It is my greatest hope that he would have loved my books, even if his beloved youngest child hadn’t written them.
Written by Gennifer Choldenko
Publisher’s Synopsis: Newbery Honor–winning author Gennifer Choldenko deftly combines humor, tragedy, fascinating historical detail, and a medical mystery in this exuberant new novel.
San Francisco, 1900. The Gilded Age. A fantastic time to be alive for lots of people . . . but not thirteen-year-old Lizzie Kennedy, stuck at Miss Barstow’s snobby school for girls. Lizzie’s secret passion is science, an unsuitable subject for finishing-school girls. Lizzie lives to go on house calls with her physician father. On those visits to his patients, she discovers a hidden dark side of the city—a side that’s full of secrets, rats, and rumors of the plague.
The newspapers, her powerful uncle, and her beloved papa all deny that the plague has reached San Francisco. So why is the heart of the city under quarantine? Why are angry mobs trying to burn Chinatown to the ground? Why is Noah, the Chinese cook’s son, suddenly making Lizzie question everything she has known to be true? Ignoring the rules of race and class, Lizzie and Noah must put the pieces together in a heart-stopping race to save the people they love.
Ages 9-12 | Wendy Lamb Books | 2015 | ISBN-13: 978-0385742535
About the Author
Gennifer Choldenko is the New York Times bestselling and Newbery Honor–winning author of many popular children’s books, including Notes from a Liar and Her Dog, If a Tree Falls at Lunch Period, Al Capone Does My Shirts, Al Capone Shines My Shoes, Al Capone Does My Homework, and No Passengers Beyond This Point. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she hopes never to see a rat. Dead or otherwise. Visit her online at choldenko.com.
Enter to win a copy of Chasing Secrets (Wendy Lamb Books, August 2015), written by Gennifer Choldenko. Giveaway begins August 26, 2015, at 12:01 A.M. PST and ends September 25, 2015, at 11:59 P.M. PST. Enter here »
Chasing Secrets Blog Tour Schedule
August 24: Bookhounds YA
August 25: Ang Reads!
August 26: The Children’s Book Review
August 27: Through A Glass, Darkly
August 28: Reviews Coming At YA
August 29: Booking Mama