Last week I introduced you to Donna Nordmark Aviles, who talked about her recent book tour in Kansas presenting her three independently published books. This week, I am posting the second part of Donna’s interview, in which she talks about the books themselves. Donna has published three books for middle grade readers which recount the true history of her family.

Donna, tell us about your 3 books and what inspired you to write them.

My first two books, Fly Little Bird, Fly! and Beyond The Orphan Train together tell the true story of my grandfather Oliver Nordmark’s early life as an orphan train rider from NYC to Kansas in search of a home. I was inspired to tell this story by my father who, in his infinite wisdom, sat my grandfather down to record all the stories of his youth. Those tapes were then given to me as a Christmas present so that I would know and have our family’s history. Once I listened to them, I thought, “Wow, that would make a great book!”

Since my children were still quite young at the time, it took several years before I got to work on the project. My third book, Peanut Butter For Cupcakes: A True Story From the Great Depression, is the story of Oliver raising his own six children during the Great Depression. Since he never had a real parent of his own, life with Oliver is full of fun and adventure one moment only to be marked with poverty and abandonment the next. Yet through it all, it’s the story of how “boys will be boys” even in the hardest of times! This book was inspired by Oliver’s four surviving children who also readily gave me their oral histories and encouraged me to write the story.

You told me that someone in the book business recently commented that your books are not really “historical fiction.” In what genre did he categorize them, and do you think this matters to readers?

Those comments were from informal book reviews I received from Writer’s Digest. The reviewer referred to the stories as non-fiction, but I’ve spoken with a professor at the U of Maine and she stated that they would best be classified as non-fiction narratives. I would agree with that. The Writer’s Digest reviewer suggested taking the current book and weaving additional fictional details into the story to enhance the book (especially Edward’s character.) That is a valid criticism and one that I would act on if this were not my family’s story. My goal was to keep the story true to fact and that is what it is. When students ask me if “that really happened?” with regards to any story in the books, I can confidently reply, “Yes, everything you read in these books is totally true and actually happened.” I will tell you that kids are pretty impressed by that – I suppose they are used to reading fiction and historical fiction and not knowing for sure what really happened and what was made up by the author. It’s a different format for them and one that educators are seeking to work into their curriculum. On a scale of 1-5 with 1 being “poor” and 5 being “excellent”, the books were reviewed by Writer’s Digest on 12 different points and received four “5’s”, six “4’s” and two “3’s”. I’m pretty happy with that!

What was the most difficult part of the books to write? What was your favorite part? Do you have a favorite of the three books?

Without question, the most difficult part of these three books to write was the first two chapters in Peanut Butter For Cupcakes. The book begins with my grandmother, Estella Nordmark, pleading with her husband to be allowed to apply for a job in the coffee shop of the local hotel to earn a bit of money to keep the family going until Oliver can find work. She gets the job but on her second day of work is the victim of an accident which ends up taking her life. It was very emotional to write about. She left a husband and six children all under the age of eleven – the youngest being my father who was just 15 months old. After those two chapters were complete, I had to put the project aside for several months.

My favorite part to write would probably be the entire first book, Fly Little Bird, Fly! because after I completed each chapter, I would give it to my ten-year-old daughter Estella (named for her great-grandmother) to read and then we would discuss it, deciding if kids her age would like it….if a word was too big for a kid her age to understand…things like that. So it was a great mother/daughter project and a secret that we kept from nearly everyone else until the story was complete.

It’s really hard for me to pick a favorite of the three books since, to me, they are all one story and I have been touched personally by all the characters in one way or another. The Orphan Train Movement, as well as the Great Depression, were difficult times to live through in our country’s history and having my own family connected to these two periods in very personal ways makes them very real for me. I hope that the books, when read by others, will help to make these time periods come alive for them as well!

What’s next for you?

Oh, Dianne, I wish I knew! I have a personal commitment to never say “no” when asked to do something to promote my books or the Orphan Train Movement so I continue to add engagements to my calendar, but I also am eager to get to work on a new project. I played with some ideas during my “down time” in Kansas so now I am trying to get to the point where I can schedule daily “writing time” and add more structure to my day. We all know how hard that can be so wish me luck!!

You can find Donna on her blog or learn more about her books and school presentations on her website.