Monthly Archives: May 2013

A Difficult Boy: Frequently Asked Questions


Click on the cover to order your copy.

How long did it take you to write A Difficult Boy?

It took about ten years from the day I wrote the first scene to the day I had the published book in my hand, but the book went through at least five drafts in that time, and I didn’t write all day every day (I had to work for a living, too!). The first draft took about two years to write, and it was about 700 pages long–about as big as a telephone book! Well, of course, that was much too big, so it took me about two more years to whittle that down to a mere 500 pages. The next two drafts brought it down to about 350 pages. Meanwhile, I was trying to find an agent or a publisher –that took even longer than writing the book! After Holiday House bought the book, I worked with Regina Griffin and Leanna Petronella, my editors there, to tighten the story up some more, and took another 50 or so pages off it. Whew!

Is the story based on historical events? Were Ethan and Daniel real people?

BALL-01-0011-for-webNo. Both the story and the setting are fictional. I couldn’t find a real town that was exactly the way I imagined Farmington, so I invented a town on the western edge of Hampden County, Massachusetts, near the Farmington River.

Although Ethan isn’t a real person, his story was inspired by the document at left, which I discovered in the Connecticut Valley Historical Museum’s archives. The document was a bill that a man sent to an indentured boy’s mother, charging her for the cost of catching the boy when he ran away. That got me thinking: What kind of man was that master? Why did the boy run away? What would happen if his mother couldn’t pay the bill?

Before I knew it, the characters of Mr. Lyman and Ethan began to take shape. After that, Daniel made his appearance. Irish immigrants like Daniel came to New England in large numbers in the 1820s and 1830s to build canals and mills. So I used that information to help me imagine why Daniel’s family might have come from Ireland.

Jonathan Stocking, the peddler, was based on research I did at Old Sturbridge Village about peddlers in New England. I’d originally intended Mr. Stocking to make a very brief appearance, but he insisted on developing into a more prominent character. He also insisted on being quite different from the character I’d originally intended. I’d envisioned a tall, thin fellow in his twenties as the peddler. But when I started writing the scene, Mr. Stocking turned into a short, round, older man with a checkered past and a variety of talents. Mr. Stocking continued to pester me to tell his story, so watch for more adventures involving Mr. Stocking and Daniel in my next book, Mending Horses.

How did you research the period?

My training at Old Sturbridge Village involved learning about almost every detail of life in a New England town of the 1830s. When I worked there, I did many of the chores Ethan and Daniel do, like milking cows, mucking out the barn, planting crops, turning the manure pile, etc. So I used that experience when I described the way things looked and sounded and felt and smelled in the story (especially the smells!).


Me during my Old Sturbridge Village days

At Sturbridge Village, I also learned about the opinions and beliefs of people from the time period. It was interesting to see the ways in which people have changed since then—and the ways they haven’t!

Sturbridge Village has a fabulous research library, which provided a wealth of information. I also did a lot of research at the Connecticut Valley Historical Museum and Mystic Seaport Museum . I searched through reference books, old newspapers, indenture agreements, account books, and diaries and reminiscences of people who’d lived in the time period. For example, when Mr. Pease, the hired man, tells anti-Irish stories to aggravate Daniel, I adapted Mr. Pease’s tales from some jokes that were published in newspapers from the 1830s.

I also relied on several former co-workers from the Village for advice and fact-checking. I’m especially grateful to Dennis Picard, Director of Storrowton Village, for going over the manuscript to root out any historically inaccurate situations. He’s an amazing guy—I swear he has a photographic memory!

Do you speak Irish (Gaelic)?

No. I did consider learning Irish, but it’s such a complicated language that I found the prospect a bit intimidating. So I called on a couple of experts to help me out. Thomas Moriarty, a professor from Elms College (my alma mater), and George Bresnahan graciously translated all the Irish bits for me.

How were you able to make the details of riding so vivid? Are you a horse lover? Do you own a horse? Do you ride?

horsesmallI’ve loved horses ever since I was a kid. I read all Walter Farley’s Black Stallion books, and probably drove my mom crazy cutting pictures of horses out of magazines and newspapers. But my family couldn’t afford a horse or riding lessons, so I didn’t get the chance to learn to ride until I was in my twenties. Although I never owned a horse, I took riding lessons for several years, and helped take care of a couple of horses at the stable where I took my lessons. I don’t know that I was ever much good, but I had fun!

The best teacher I had was a red-haired girl named Kathy, who taught me to ride much the same way that Daniel teaches Ethan. No, we didn’t ride the horse together the way Ethan and Daniel do in the book, but Kathy described how to sit in the saddle and hold my posture just the way Daniel does, and she showed me how to get a feel for the horse’s motion. She also recommended a book called Centered Riding by Sally Swift, which was a real eye-opener. From that point, everything just started to click for me and my riding improved immensely.

Unfortunately, I haven’t had a chance to ride for several years. But I hope I will be able to do it again someday!

Is Ivy based on a real horse you either owned or rode?

Ivy is based on a combination of real horses I’ve observed and fictitious ones that I’ve read about. When I took riding lessons, there was a girl at the stable who had taken care of one of the stable horses for so long that the two of them had formed a very special bond. She would run around the pasture and play with this horse sort of the way Daniel plays with Ivy in the book–although Daniel and Ivy play a bit rougher!

gilsmallWhen I worked at Old Sturbridge Village, I became friends with a very special man named Gil Barons, who drove a horse and carriage around the village. Gil was in his seventies when I met him. He’d been around horses all his life, and told me lots of stories about the horses he’d known. He had a very special bond with his horse Monty, whom he’d owned for more than twenty-five years. I’m sure I picked up a lot just watching Gil and Monty work together.

Who are the two boys on the cover?

Well, that’s an unsolved mystery! Marc Tauss, who created the cover, used a photo that he found in an antique store. There was nothing to identify the boys in the photo, which probably dates from the late 1800s. He collaged the picture with a 19th-century account book and a horse silhouette to create the stunning cover image. (To see more of Marc’s work, check out his web page at

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A Difficult Boy

COVERWITHSTICKER-for-web Award-Winning Historical Fiction from Holiday House

by M.P. Barker

Hardcover ISBN: 978-0823420865
Paperback ISBN:  978-0823422449
Also available in e-book format.
To purchase a copy, click here.

It’s 1839. Young Ethan Root doesn’t want to work for Mr. Lyman, the wealthy shopkeeper in their small Massachusetts town. But Ethan has no choice—it’s the only way to pay off his family’s debt to the man. Ethan tries to befriend the Lymans’ other indentured servant, but Daniel, as everyone says, is a difficult boy. Sixteen years old, Irish, and moody, Daniel brushes off Ethan as if he were a pesky gnat. Ethan resolves to ignore the brusque older boy, but is then shocked to see how cruelly Mr. Lyman treats Daniel. Soon, Ethan, too, is suffering Mr. Lyman’s blows, and the two boys have only each other, as no one comes to their aid. Their shared love for a horse helps the boys overcome their differences and forge a tentative friendship. But when they take a desperate measure to protect the horse they love, the boys set off a chain of events that could destroy them both.

Click on the following links for more information:

Read an excerpt
Frequently Asked Questions
Awards and Honors
Educators’ Guide Based on Common Core Curriculum Standards
Book Group Discussion Guide
Gallery of images of people, places, and documents from the book
Websites for more information about 19th-century America

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Contact the Author

pittsfieldchapters4 smallI’m always delighted to meet readers of all ages. I’ve done illustrated talks for a variety of groups, including schools, libraries, book clubs, historical societies, and professional organizations. If your organization or event is within a reasonable drive of Springfield, Massachusetts, I should be able to meet your group in person. If long-distance travel is involved, contact me about travel arrangements and speaking fees. Or I can talk to your group via speaker phone, Internet chat, or Skype at a pre-arranged date and time.

Click here for information on school visits, presentations and writing workshops.

Click here for pricing for school visits and special events.

Use the form below to email me with your questions or requests.

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Saturday, 18 November 2017, 8:15 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
I’ll be a member of the  Historical Fiction: Finding Your Muse in Alternative Truths panel, along with authors Susan Stinson,
Deborah Noyes, John Crowley, and Ada “Wendy” Vowell at the WriteAngles Conference
The day’s program also includes panels on flash fiction, dialogue, science writing, and memoir, as well as workshops on the business of writing.
Willis-Hallowell Center
Mount Holyoke College
South Hadley, MA
($110 registration; $90 for students and senior citizens; breakfast and lunch included)





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News and Interviews

News Items:

8 Jun 2015: Mending Horses named as a “Must Read Book” by the Massachusetts Center for the Book

9 Apr 2015: Mending Horses named as one of Booklist’s Top 10 Historical Fiction Books for Youth

25 Jan 2015: Mending Horses reviewed in The Greenfield Recorder

7 Nov 2014: Article about M.P. Barker and Mending Horses in The Reminder

22 Oct 2014: Article about M.P. Barker and Mending Horses in The Springfield Republican

8 Oct 2014: Article about M.P. Barker appearing at Teen Reed Week event in Worcester Telegram & Gazette

17 Sep 2014: Article about M.P. Barker and Mending Horses in The Springfield Republican

 Jul 2014: Article about M.P. Barker in PRIME magazine

Apr 2014: Mending Horses received a starred review in Booklist

1 Apr 2014: Article about Mending Horses on

15 Feb 2014: Mending Horses received a starred review in Kirkus Reviews

16 Oct 2008:Worcester Telegram & Gazette article about M.P. Barker and Class of 2k8 mini-tour.

9 Sep 2008: Springfield Republican article about M.P. Barker discussing A Difficult Boy at the Bellamy Homestead

24 Jun 2008: A Difficult Boy featured in the Worcester Telegram & Gazette

18 Jun 2008:“The A List”–“Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” interviews Western Mass. authors about their summer reading.

19 May 2008: Springfield Republican article about M.P. Barker and A Difficult Boy

4 May 2008:A Difficult Boy mentioned in the Sunday Springfield Republican and the Boston Globe.

Radio Inteviews:

22 September 2014: Radio interview on The Bill Newman Show (WHMP-AM) [interview starts around 28:20]

26 March 2014: Radio interview on Writer’s Voice with Francesca Rheannon

Guest Blogs and Online Interviews:

9 November 2017: Online interview
Write Angles Conference blog

11 June 2015: Online interview
Linda Crotta Brennan’s Lupin Seeds blog

26 November 2014: Online interview
Sheila Boneham’s Writers & Other Animals

26 October 2014: Guest blog on writing and riding
Sheila Boneham’s Writers & Other Animals

Fall 2014: Interview in Ultimate YA

20 October 2010: Online interview
Damsels in Regress

2 January 2010: Online interview
Kathleen Ernst’s Sites and Stories blog

2 June 2008: Online interview at Susan Vanhecke’s Adventures in Authorhood website.

20 May 2008: Online interview about hair, nails, and killer sparkly red shoes to die for
Shop Talk with Laura Bowers

3 May 2008: Online interview
Trainspotting Reads Teen Book Reviews

25 Apr 2008: Online interview
Author Jessica Burkhart’s Blog

22 Apr 2008: Guest blog on indentured servitude in the 19th century

18 Apr 2008: Online interview

14-19 Apr 2008: Virtual book launch party for A Difficult Boy at the Class of 2k8 web site
Day One: About the Book
Day Two: About Writing
Day Three: Character Portraits
Day Four: The Face that Got Me My Agent
Day Five: Adventures in Living History at Old Sturbridge Village

14 Apr 2008: Guest blog on cutting a manuscript from 700 pages to 300
Darcy Pattison’s Revision Notes

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About the Books

mh cover final
Mending Horses
by M. P. Barker

(Holiday House, 2014)
ISBN: 978-0823429486
Click here to order your copy
Click on the cover for more information

Three outcasts – an Irish orphan, a roving peddler, and a child fleeing an abusive father – mend each other’s broken lives as they heal a circus’s mistreated horses.
2015 Banks Street College of Education “Best Children’s Books” list
 2014 Kirkus Prize nominee
2015 Booklist Top 10 Historical Fiction for Youth
2014 VOYA “Top Shelf” Reading List



COVERWITHSTICKER-for-webA Difficult Boy
by M.P. Barker

(Holiday House, 2008)
Hardcover ISBN: 978-0823420865
Paperback ISBN:  978-0823422449
Also available in e-book format.
Click here to order your copy.
Click on the cover for more information.

Their shared love for a horse brings together two indentured servants, who must overcome their differences to outwit their master and win their freedom.

2010-2011 William Allen White Award Master List
2008 International Reading Association Notable Book for a Global Society
2003 PEN New England Children’s Book Caucus Discovery Award winner


sis-prov-pic-for-web140 Years of Providential Caring: The Sisters of Providence of Holyoke, Massachusetts
by Tom Shea, Suzanne Strempek Shea, and Michele P. Barker

(Sisters of Providence, 2012)
ISBN: 978-0-9672840-1-9
Click here for purchasing information
Click on the cover for more information.

Co-authored with Tom Shea and Suzanne Strempek Shea. Written in celebration of the 140th anniversary of the Sisters’ arrival in Holyoke and the 120th anniversary of their incorporation as a congregation of the Springfield, Massachusetts, diocese, this book explores the history of a group of extraordinary women, from their roots in Montreal to the present.


chicopee-cover-for-webImages of America: Chicopee
by Michele Plourde-Barker

(Arcadia Publishing, 1998)
ISBN: 978-0738590066
Click here to order your copy.
Click on the cover for more information.

A pictorial history of a Western Massachusetts industrial community from its first settlement in the 1660s to the post-World War II era, featuring more than 200 vintage images.


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Welcome to the website of M.P. Barker, writer and historical consultant. I’m the author of A Difficult Boy (Holiday House, 2008) and Mending Horses (coming in 2014 from Holiday House), two historical novels set in 19th-century New England.

For a sneak preview of A Difficult Boy, check out the following video “Inisheer,” the background music on this video, is played by Irish musician Sharon Hussey, who graciously gave permission to use her recording of this Thomas Walsh compostion. See this Folk World article for the story behind the tune.

The video was created by Madison Meyer of M2 Productions and Joseph M. Barker, the love of my life (with a little teeny bit of input from yours truly).

The images of the indenture document, Mr. Lyman, the man on the hay cart, and the 19th-century town common are used courtesy of the local history archives of the Springfield History Museum. All other images are from istockphoto.

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