Nonfiction Award: Interview with Sally Walker

At Midwinter 2010 in Boston, the winner of the inaugural YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults will be announced.’  To celebrate this award, the YALSA blog will be publishing interviews with some of the shortlisted authors.’  First is Sally M. Walker, author of Written in Bone: Buried Lives of Jamestown and Colonial Maryland.

Written in Bone

Written in Bone

Written in Bone as described by the Nonfiction Award Committee:’  “By presenting a detailed examination into the work of different types of forensic archaeology at excavations in both Jamestown, Virginia, and Colonial Maryland, readers are rewarded with both a picture of this fascinating work and an appreciation for what it contributes to our knowledge of history.”

YALSA Blog:’  Congratulations on being included in the shortlist for the YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults!’  What was your reaction to finding out you were on the shortlist for this first-ever award?

Sally Walker:’  My heart started racing, like I’d been using the elliptical at the YMCA. Of all my books, WRITTEN IN BONE is the dearest to my heart, so maybe that was the most fitting first response. Now, I’ve settled into incredibly happy. All in all, getting the news was a great way to start my day.

YALSA Blog: What inspired you to explore the history and science of Written in Bone?

Sally Walker: History is one of my favorite topics and I love visiting historical sites of all kinds—Gettysburg, Mount Vernon, the Cahokia Mounds, the courthouse in St. Louis where the Dred Scott case was tried. Anywhere historical is great with me. Of course I am fond of science as well; I have a degree in geology and archaeology. Scientists, particularly those who enjoy mucking about in the dirt, are great, fun people to talk with—although I freely admit a slight bias, since my husband is a geologist. So, anytime I can combine history and science, I’ve got a writing task that is fun, but also challenging, since I must make complex scientific topics not only understandable and accessible to young readers, but also interesting. With WRITTEN IN BONE, the interdisciplinary nature of the book was especially gratifying because taken together, history, science, and art provided the means by which “my” colonial people could tell us their stories.

YALSA Blog: You visited the archaeological digs that you write about.’  What was that like?’  How did that affect your research and writing?

Sally Walker: For me, an archaeological dig is like an exquisite puzzle: so many jumbled bits and pieces asking us to put them in order. It’s not only physical work, but it’s a mind game, too. Excavating a skeleton is a very poignant, yet painstaking, procedure. I couldn’t help but care more as I became more familiar with each set of remains. I hope that WRITTEN IN BONE conveys not only my respect for these colonial people, but also that it draws the reader into their stories as well. The human bonds that we share transcend both death and the passage of time.

YALSA Blog: As a history nerd, I really enjoyed getting this kind of look at early colonial history.’  Did you learn anything that surprised you?

Sally Walker: YES! I learned that colonial women cleaned their teeth with tooth polish made from tobacco ashes, salt, and vinegar. And some were so ferocious in their tooth whitening endeavors that they wore grooves into the enamel of their teeth, sometimes exposing the tooth’s nerve. Still, the average colonial person’s teeth were more than riddled with decay. This made me appreciate my dentist and dental hygienist enormously.

YALSA Blog: Were any of the scientific tools now available to researchers seem especially amazing to you?

Sally Walker: Isotopic analysis is one of the modern tools that scientists have available. I find this incredibly fascinating because it can supply clues to a person’s birth place, where he or she lived, even how their diet changed over time. That said, I am a fan of good old stratigraphy—looking at dirt layers and seeing what information they contain. Doing that brings back many happy memories of my college days.

YALSA Blog: If you only had five words to describe Written in Bone, what would they be?

Sally Walker: Ah, a fun question that I can answer in two ways. The first: Poignant. Captivating. Bittersweet. Compelling. Paradoxical. Or as a five word sentence: Their stories speak to us.

YALSA Blog: Why do you write nonfiction, especially nonfiction for young people?

Sally Walker: My childhood was filled with a gazillion nonfiction stories, most of them told to me by my father, an amazing nonfiction storyteller who loved history—of all kinds—and exploring the natural world. He told my sister and me (as well as all of the neighborhood children) stories about every historical event in our town as seen through the eyes of the people who had lived it. As we explored nature, every leaf had a name and a story to go with it. Even the raccoon family that lived in our backyard had stories to tell us. Always, my dad’s storytelling included research adventures—to an old house, a cemetery, a park, a farm, even the Empire State Building—during which we learned more exciting information. While I love reading fiction, I am especially fond of telling and writing true stories. Perhaps my early experiences contributed to this. Besides, a well-told nonfiction story captivates almost everyone.

YALSA Blog: Is there a nonfiction book that you particularly admire?

Sally Walker: Wow, there are many. But one that comes immediately to mind is Jennifer Armstrong’s SHIPWRECK AT THE BOTTOM OF THE WORLD. It tells the story of Ernest Shackleton’s 1914 Antarctic expedition that while going disastrously wrong, ultimately wound up as a terrific survival story. One thing I loved about it was that at first there were loads of photographs taken by one of the crew members. They became progressively fewer as the text went on. But I didn’t care!! The writing was so very strong that I’d read a number of pages before I noticed that the photos were gone. Now THAT’S good storytelling!! In the adult book world, I totally enjoyed David McCullough’s JOHN ADAMS.

YALSA Blog:’  Can you tell us anything about your next project?

Sally Walker: My new book, which is in layout stages now, is titled FROZEN SECRETS. It’s about a cold, mysterious place as far away from my Illinois home as you could go without leaving Earth. I tell the story with the help of my favorite people—earth scientists! The publisher, Carolrhoda Books, plans a late 2010 pub date.

YALSA Blog:’  Thank you, Sally!

About Melissa Rabey

I'm a teen librarian for a library system in Maryland. I became a librarian because I love books, I love technology, and I wanted to connect people with those two things. I'm happy that I get to do all this and even more.
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