Thursday, June 21, 2012

Meet the Author: Peter Arenstam

Meet Peter Arenstam and pre-order his new book, The Mighty Mastiff of the Mayflower, due out July 11. Order here.

Why do you write for children?
Of the many reasons I write for children, two come to mind right away. First, when I started to work seriously at writing, my own children were young. I had my daughters, aged 11 and 8 years old, in the back of my mind as I was writing. I tried to imagine the kinds of stories they might like or stories I might like to read to them. I found it helpful to have a reader in mind when I was writing; someone “looking over my shoulder,” as I wrote; someone I was trying to entertain with the story. During this time, I was home evenings with my kids while my wife was at school pursuing a degree in nursing. After my kids were finally in bed I had a chance to work on writing - stories for children were a natural outgrowth of that time in my life.

The second reason hadn’t become clear to me until more recently. After doing classroom visits in support of my Nicholas, A Massachusetts Tale series, I realized a book written for children can have a profound, positive effect on their lives.  Often, when I talk with children in classrooms or at book signings, they know all the details of the stories, they care about what happens to the characters, and they want to know what is going to happen to them in the future. Even better, they sometimes offer their own ideas of what should happen in the next book. Through these reactions, I see the positive impact books can have in a child’s life. Writing well and with meaning is a responsibility of someone who writes for children. It was this notion that has lead me to pursue an MFA degree at Simmons. It is my attempt to elevate my writing so that it is worthy of the position children’s literature holds in a child’s life.

What's the most difficult part of writing historic fiction for middle-grade readers?
There are aspects of writing historic fiction that are challenging; some elements apply to an audience of any age and some to a middle grade audience in particular. Like all writing, historic fiction has to be engaging with characters the reader cares about and whose problems the reader wants to see the them overcome.

When I am writing for a middle grade reader I have to keep in mind the balance between trying to be true to the history and making that history accessible to a young audience. I work for Plimoth Plantation, a living history museum in Plymouth, Massachusetts where we recognize the messiness of history. When viewed from a modern perspective the world was a muddier place. Kids revel in the ideas of no baths for months at a time, the muckheap behind the house for disposing of all sorts of waste, and living in close proximity with cows and chickens and goats. But there is also the moral muddiness as viewed from our place in history. The way natives were treated, women’s place in society, the tight bond of religion and politics and how that impacted people’s daily lives are a few examples of what, in that time period, were considered acceptable views which are now outdated. The challenge for a writer for children is to portray the historic views in authentic context and yet gives the young reader the space to compare those views with how they are perceived today.

So, a clear example from my new book, The Mighty Mastiff of the Mayflower, is the scene where the pilgrims are exploring Cape Cod looking for a place to settle after a tempestuous voyage. At one point they come upon a cache of seed corn and some native graves. From an historic point of view, as written by a contemporary, the find of corn was a gift, one more sign the pilgrims were being watched over and sustained by their God. From their perspective they had a “right” to the corn. A modern interpretation of this event may say the pilgrims were actually stealing corn, clearly not theirs, and left by natives for their own use in spring planting. The balance a writer of historic fiction for children has to strike is presenting the history in an honest way and yet respect the reader enough to allow them to draw conclusions of the actions in the story based on a balanced world view.
What does The Mighty Mastiff of the Mayflower offer to children's literature ?
Admittedly, the story of the Mayflower crossing is one of the better-known stories in early American history. The challenge for me was to make the story fresh, engaging for children, and still impart historic information a new generation of readers may not know. I have tried to take the story beyond a mere retelling of the basics: Pilgrims left England, had a stormy crossing, arrived in the wilderness unprepared for what they encountered, and lots of people died. Because it is historic fiction I wanted to stay as close to the primary sources as possible. However there is scant information for how anyone felt, what they thought or how they reacted to events. I decided the mastiff, one of two dogs known to be onboard in 1620, would make an ideal main character. A child main character would not have been present for many of the important scenes of the story and therefore it would not make scene historically accurate to place them there. I tried to make Grace a sympathetic main character, one which children can identify with and root for.

Can you tell us about Grace? What will kids love about this seafaring dog headed for a new world?
The first thing to know about Grace is that I made up her name. We know from the historic record that there was a mastiff on the ship. William Bradford, the chronicler of the early years of the colony referred to the dog as “the great mastiff bitch.” By that of course, he meant the dog was big and a female. The dog’s name is never mentioned. We do know other ships brought mastiffs to New England; one ship in 1602 had two mastiffs named Fool and Gallant. I chose the name Grace to reflect a part of the Pilgrims' religious beliefs. There is also no record as to who owned the dog. Bradford records several stories that include the mastiff and from them I infer who may have owned, or at least who was watching out for the dog.

Like the humans in the story I wanted Grace to experience the excitement, danger, boredom and uncertainty that characterized the voyage and the whole Mayflower story. Grace has to make choices, give up her former life, make new friends, and deal with situations and events she has never experienced before. In other words, life events kids deal with all the time.  Whether it is starting a new school, moving to a new neighborhood or welcoming a new member into their families, children need to see they have what they need to successfully navigate changes.

What else should we know about your books and your writing life?
While a quick glance at the titles of my books to date are heavy on the side of historical fiction, and the preponderance of them deal with Mayflower-related themes, I have several works set in contemporary times. I am working on a YA novel, which although also set on the South Shore of Massachusetts, has nothing to do with historic ships. I also have a picture book manuscriptwhich deals with the contemporary issue of how a child deals with a parent who is away for an extended period of time.

Peter received a Bachelor of Arts degree in Philosophy from Bates College in Lewiston, Maine. He went on to apprentice in boat building at the Maine Maritime Museum where he became an instructor and freelance boat builder. He is currently a candidate for a Master of Fine Arts degree at Simmons College in creative writing for children. Peter works at Plimoth Plantation, in Plymouth, Massachusetts overseeing the restoration and sailing program of the reproduction ship, Mayflower II.  He is a frequent lecturer and public speaker on Mayflower and maritime history. He is co-author of, Mayflower 1620: a New look at a Pilgrim Voyage published by National Geographic in 2003. He is the author of the children’s book Felix, and his Mayflower II Adventures, published by Plimoth Plantation. His four book series, published by Mitten Press starting 2007, Nicholas, a Massachusetts Tale, remains popular with school-aged children throughout New England. The History Press will publish his current middle grade novel, The Mighty Mastiff of the Mayflower in July 2012. Peter and his wife Susan have two daughters, Hannah, 23, and Abby, 20.  They live in Plymouth in an old Cape style house near the ocean.

Visit:; Like The Mighty Mastiff of the Mayflower facebook page. Check out Peter's Plimoth Plantation blog - Mayflower II’s Captain’s Blog:

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