Monthly Archives: May 2015

Author Interview: Jane Sutcliffe, Historian and Biographer

The White House is BurningToday’s guest is Jane Sutcliffe, the author of more than two dozen nonfiction books for young readers. Her titles range from picture books to middle-grade, with biographies profiling presidents, figures from entertainment, business, and sports, and more. Her most recent publications are The White House Is Burning (Charlesbridge, 2014), about one horrific day in the War of 1812, Stone Giant (Charlesbridge, 2013), about Michelangelo’s creation of David, and a biography of U.S. Admiral Chester Nimitz (Chester Nimitz and the Sea, Pelican Publishing Co., 2013). Thanks, Jane, for sharing some wicked cool history stuff today!

What sparked your love of history and biography?

When I was in fifth grade I had a history textbook that I remember very clearly. It was an anthology of biographies of famous people, like Walt Disney and Marian Anderson. We got the book on the first day of school and we were supposed to cover it in the next ten months. By that night I had read every chapter. There was something about reading about all these fascinating people and about what they had done that I found irresistible. After that I think I read every biography in the local library. I can still picture the long low shelf where they were stacked. I was so thrilled when I had the opportunity to write my own biographies of Walt Disney and Marian Anderson many years later. It was a way of paying respect to those people whose lives had so influenced my own.

Tell us a little about your newest book, The White House Is Burning. What inspired you to delve into this sometimes-overlooked bit of history?

I think the overlooked bits are the most fascinating. History is full of amazing stories and I love shedding a little light on them.

Here is what happened. A few years after 9-11, I was watching a special on the anniversary of the tragedy. The announcer happened to compare that day to other tragedies in American history, like Pearl Harbor and the burning of the White House in 1814. It caught my attention. I knew from school history courses that the White House had been burned by the British, but hearing about it in that context made me realize that, for the people who lived through it, that event was as terrible for them as 9-11 was for us. I started doing a little reading and started turning up these amazing first-person accounts of what happened that day. And it was not just the burning. There was a battle, an invasion, a hurricane, a tornado, and an explosion—all packed into one 26 hour period. There was a trash-talking villain and a pretty heroine, a fool, and an unsung hero. Talk about wicked cool! How could I not write about it?

In The White House Is Burning, you intertwine first-person accounts from both the American and British points of view with the narrative, which gives the book a real “you are there” feeling. How important is it to you to feel as though you’re walking in the shoes of your subjects? How do you achieve that feeling?

Even though I get excited about history, I know that to some people reading about the past sounds about as exciting as day-old mashed potatoes. So I try to spice it up. One way is by letting real people tell the story in their own words. These were living breathing ordinary people who had witnessed something extraordinary, and felt compelled to write about what they had seen. So I let the reader experience the shock and grief of that day through their words.

I also challenged the reader to think of the events of August 24, 1814 as if they were happening in the present day. I wrote an introduction that asks: What if you turned on your TV today and saw breaking news of the White House in flames? It’s hard not to feel stunned and horrified when you see it happening right in front of you. Those are the same emotions the residents of Washington experienced two hundred years ago.

You’ve written about historical figures from Sacagawea to President Obama. Of all the persons you’ve written about, do you have any favorites? Why?

I am frequently asked this question when I do school visits. My standard answer is that it’s as hard to choose a favorite biography subject as it is to choose a favorite friend. But I’ll tell you a secret: I do have two favorites. They are John and Abigail Adams. John Adams kept a diary his entire life and wrote in detail about his experiences and observations. Abigail was a gifted letter writer, and she and her husband kept up a steady correspondence through a number of long absences. Their writings document two amazing lives and made it easier for me to understand who they were and what motivated them. It also made it easier for me to include some great quotes and anecdotes.

I’ve found that research can be very addictive, and it’s sometimes hard to know when to stop. How do you decide when to stop doing the research and start writing?

I couldn’t agree more. Research is a bit of a guilty pleasure for me, too. You never know where you’re going to find that perfect little bit of information that’s going to make your book shine, so it’s tempting to want to look at just one more source, and then one more after that. Of course, it’s also a great way to put off writing and still feel like you’re accomplishing something. And it’s just so much fun! My rule of thumb—when I’ve consulted so many primary sources that I start to find errors in my secondary sources, it’s time to start writing.

What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced as a writer?

Time. Always time. There is never enough time to write all the books I’d love to write. I’d spend every day writing if I could, but I don’t think my family would be very happy with me. So, like everyone else, I try to balance what I have to do with what I want to do. I do try to write something every day, though. I once heard writer and historian David McCullough compare his writing schedule to rolling a tire down the road. As long as you keep hitting it just a little, he said, the tire will keep rolling. It’s when you stop that the tire falls over. I try to keep my writing from falling over.

What are you working on now?

I’m so glad you asked. My next picture book, Will’s Words: How William Shakespeare Changed the Way You Talk will be released by Charlesbridge in March 2016. And I’m also working on a picture book biography of Edward Hitchcock, a scientist who researched dinosaur footprints before the word “dinosaur” was even coined. His theory was that these mysterious footprints had been made by giant extinct birds. His ideas came to be regarded as kind of loony. But as they discover more and more about the relationship between birds and dinosaurs, modern paleontologists are beginning to appreciate just how right he was, and I’m so excited to be able to tell his story!

Cool! Edward Hitchcock is from my neck of the woods, here in Western Massachusetts, where we have a treasure trove of dinosaur footprints along the Connecticut River Valley. That’s terrific that you’re working on his bio–I’m looking forward to reading it!

Thanks, Jane, for sharing!

Readers who want to find out more about Jane and her books can go to her website.

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“Michele Barker was good enough to come down to teach my high school advanced fiction class, and the session was just wonderful! She provided materials that showed them in a very real way what revision is really about. Then walked them through the material and talked to them about the material. So not only was it engaging but incredibly helpful. The students had a wonderful time with the writing exercise that Michele designed specifically to illustrate the material she was covering. This was one of the most productive and successful visits ever.”

–Barbara Greenbaum, Arts at the Capitol Theater Magnet High School, Willimantic, CT


“Having M.P. Barker visit your classroom is a perfect way to show students how content reading can benefit the reading of fiction. She described how she researched for her two novels by showing various examples of certain texts from that time. Also shared were her writing strategies and even a calendar of events for the story which helped her to stay on track. These real-life examples of editing and revising truly spoke to my students about the importance of those steps in their writing.”

–Mary Munsell, East Granby (CT)  Middle School

“Thank you so much, Michele, for presenting to my class once more. Your visits continue to be the highlight of the semester for my students. As you know, the college freshmen who place into my developmental reading classes are often discouraged and frustrated readers. Many admit that yours is the first book they’ve ever read cover to cover, and they credit your anticipated visit to our class as their motivation. As a published author, you rank a certain level of “celebrity” for them, and meeting you face to face makes them feel important, makes reading your book important. And you never disappoint. You are professional yet approachable, and your amicable, unassuming manner puts them immediately at ease. You bring not only the book to life for them, but the history as well. … Thank you again, Michele, for making a difference.”

– Paula Bernal, Developmental Reading & Writing Instructor, Springfield Technical Community College

“Michele’s presentation to first year college students was quite revealing and surprised some of the students who had no idea how difficult writing could be. Her knowledge of and skill in historical research contributed to the creation of a highly interesting book so germane to today’s problems of conflict and resolution. This is a great book to teach critical thinking skills!”

– S.M. Santucci, Adjunct Professor, Holyoke Community College, Cambridge College

Comments from Students:

“…[T]he fact that a 700 page manuscript became a 300ish page novel floors me. I know cutting extra stuff out is a big part of editing/revision, but I can’t believe all that information can be dumped with enough to still make a coherent and compelling novel. I was also surprised at how many rejections you can get before you get one acceptance- and how far you still have to go before publication. I really liked learning about her method of organization, and that there is no wrong way to organize unless you leave it unorganized….I also greatly admire how much research was put into those books. That’s a step I tend to forget, but it really makes all the difference. Nothing is worse than reading something and thinking the author doesn’t know what they’re talking about.”


“One thing I learned from Michele being here, is that there are a lot of different things that can be done to keep organized. I liked her method with the calendar, where she had pieces of paper with the scene attached to the days they were happening, like a timeline…One thing I will try and use in my writing as I move through this revision phase is to rewrite my pieces at least three times. Also to write down questions I have as I’m writing about possible new ideas and characters, because it could help me later in the process if I get stuck.


“I was surprised by how relatable her revision and editing process story was. I found a lot of my habits in her presentation. It was kind of like an, “Oh, I’m not the only one,” type of thing. I was also really surprised on how much she was able to cut down. 700 pages to 300 is an insane difference….I loved how she organized almost her entire book into sections that would really help me not be intimidated by editing a book that long. All of her organization techniques were fascinating. They way she cut her book into a timeline, her evaluation sheets, even her rejection letters were organized. I could tell that all of that organization really helped her, and maybe if I ever get stuck on revision I’ll organize everything too… She really improved on her writing when she took a second glance and rewrote what she was trying to say/get across. I think that would be a good strategy if I ever get stuck on something, or I am not liking how something is coming out. It’s a good ‘refresh’ button.”


“I couldn’t believe how much she had to cut down on her book- from 700 pages to-what-350? Good grief! Also, I was surprised how she actually started writing the book. Bribed with dinners! Ha! Oh! Here’s one more- I was taken off guard to learn that one of her methods for revising her work was tables. The scene, the purpose of the scene, how to make it better, etc. How clever is that? I learned a lot of things, but the one that sticks with me the most is ‘show, don’t tell.'”


“One thing that surprised me was her ability to shrink her work, I know personally within the 2-4 pages I write I get attached to unnecessary sentences so I can only imagine how many she had to get rid of if she started out with 700 pages and end with 300…One thing I learned was that strategy and organization in writing is more important than I thought. Like the charts she used to keep track of where her characters were was neat and definitely something I might try while writing longer pieces.”


“I learned that changing the point of view of a piece can really alter it (i.e. what I did with my drafts) and that there is no such thing as revising too many times. I also learned that cutting down pieces of a draft does not mean that a scene was bad, it just means that it wasn’t as important as the others…I’m probably going to use the calendar timeline that she brought in. I have a lot of issues with orienting my stories in time, especially if I’m doing time skips and things, and it looked like (and from what she said, was) a very helpful tool.”


“1 thing that surprised me: How organized she was. That board she had with the time line of her story was very thorough, it was almost a story in itself.

“1 thing I learned: There is a fine line between having too little research and too much research. You can’t dump information on your reader and expect them to stick around for very long.

“1 thing I’ll apply to my writing as we go through this revision phase: Organization. I thought it was astounding how much detail that Michele went into in planning how her story would go. But even with all that paper, she kept it all in one place and organized.”


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