Andrea White is the author of three books for young people: Surviving Antarctica, Radiant Girl, and Window Boy. She’s also involved in community efforts to keep kids in school until they graduate, and she’s married to Mayor Bill White of Houston, Texas, which happens to be my home also. I emailed her these interview questions, and she very kindly took the time to answer. Enjoy.
Eldest Daughter says every good interview begins with the question: what did you have for breakfast? I like to humor her, so what is your breakfast of choice?
I never had pomegranates until five years or so ago and now I love them. I heap a spoon of pomegranates on cereal from the bins at Whole Foods.
I think it’s fascinating and kind of cool that the mayor of my city is married to a writer of children’s books. How did you get started writing children’s fiction? And the perennial question, why do you write for children and young adults rather than adults?
I wrote three novels for adults, never published, but found I was better at writing for kids. I’m only an average prose stylist but I have a better than average imagination. Besides, I love going to schools and talking to kids.
I’ve read and enjoyed all three of your published books, Surviving Antartica, Window Boy, and Radiant Girl. They all have such different settings: a future dystopia mostly in Antarctica, the life of a boy with cerebral palsy in the late 1960’s, and finally Chernobyl in 1986. What led you to these widely different times and places? Didn’t it take an enormous amount of research to get each setting right?
The truth is–you never know where you ideas will come from. When I talk to kids, I always remind them that ideas can start really small. Ideas don’t necessarily come in fancy, wrapped packages. Nor are they accompanied by a fireworks display. They can be just a flash of insight that will lead you to interesting places you’ve never even dreamed of. The idea for Surviving Antarctica took root after I read, The Worst Journey in the World, by Aspley Cherry Garrard. He was a surviving member of the Robert Scott expedition. I grew fascinated by the Scott’s team attempt to be the first to reach the South Pole. When you write a book for children or adolescents, they have to be at the center of the action; and in a sane world, parents would never let their kids go to Antarctica alone. That’s when I decided to make up a new world. In 2083, public schools have closed. Kids watch school on television. History is taught through Survivor, Math through Dialing for Dollars and English through Tela Novelas. There are two moons in the sky, the natural moon and one that advertisers installed.
I got the idea for Radiant Girl, my most recent book about the Chernobyl disaster, from a photograph I saw on the Internet. The photo showed a girl on a motorcycle in the Dead Zone–where towns and families once flourished–and when I saw that picture of the girl I knew I wanted to write about Chernobyl. The inscription was, “As I pass through the checkpoint into the Dead Zone, I feel like I have entered an unreal world. It is divinely eerie like the Salvador Dali painting of the dripping clocks.”
With Window Boy, I was reading a biography of Winston Churchill by William Manchester. There was one sentence in the book that caught my attention. It said–Churchill had no problem standing up to Hitler, because as a child he fought the hardest enemy anyone ever has to beat–the despair that comes from being an unloved child. I decided in that moment that I wanted to write a book about Churchill. I didn’t have a plot, but I also knew I wanted to write about basketball because my son loves basketball and I wanted him to read my book. Then, one afternoon I picked up a New York Times Magazine and on the cover was a picture of a boy in a wheelchair. When I saw him, I knew I wanted him to be my main character. I had my plot when I asked myself what would happen if a boy in a wheelchair wanted to play basketball. If a boy like that had a dream that big, he could use an imaginary friend like Winston Churchill.
Your books are educational without being didactic. I think, having read some books lately that are oppressively educational, that education in a story is a hard balance to pull off. Do you think about that balance as you write? How do you keep the story the main thing?
I take it as a personal challenge to help middle-schoolers learn about big subjects like Chernobyl and Winston Churchchill. And to do that you have to make history come alive for them. A nuclear explosion would not be something that a teenager would be thinking about unless you mix some fantasy in with it. In the Ukraine, folk tales abounded. One story was about the domovky, or house elf, and I asked myself what would happen if the domovky warned the girl about the explosion.
As to research, I love it and want to tell the story as accurately as possible. And, that was not easy with Radiant Girl. When the explosion happened, Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union was not a transparent society, and even with an independent Ukraine, information about this catastrophic event is inconsistent and murky.
So I felt it was very important to go and see it for myself. I went to Chernobyl and met a wonderful guide named Rimma. Although no one is allowed to live in the Dead Zone, some people work there two weeks on and two weeks off, and tourists can visit with special permission. Rimma showed me many places. We went to the ghost town of Pripyat. We entered empty schools with lessons still on the blackboard and graded papers scattered on the ground.
She took me to that bright yellow Ferris wheel in Pripyat, a city near Chernobyl; it never had a chance to turn. Since my character, Katya, climbed this yellow Ferris wheel–so did I. (Or almost.) Let me tell you, never in my wildest dreams would I have believed that I would climb a Ferris wheel in Pripyat, Ukraine.
When I got back to Houston, I had a million more questions and I emailed Rimma, but I didn’t hear back. I made some inquiries and after several months found out that she had died of a stroke. She was a healthy-looking 46-year old. I don’t know and will never know if her death was related to the higher levels of radiation caused by the explosion; she was in and out of the Dead Zone regularly since it happened. Although my encounter with her was brief, I won’t forget her or her friendship.
I continued my research, but still had many questions about the Ukraine. Everything from–what first names should I use for my characters? What kind of cars did they drive in 1986 when the explosion occurred? How would my fictional family, Ukrainians who lived in a small village, celebrate Katya’s birthday? There were so many details I had to get right.
I was at a cocktail party one evening in Houston and ran into someone I knew; he had with him a woman with a lovely accent. I asked her here she was from—and yes, she was from the Ukraine.
Tetyana is a brilliant woman who is studying to become a doctor. She was a young girl living in Kiev at the time of Chernobyl. She remembered that day well. She said she still doesn’t understand it from a scientific standpoint, but on that day, the streets of Kiev went absolutely quiet. Even the leaves drooped.
Her father was an employee of a government agency like FEMA, and he instructed her mother and her to leave Kiev and go to the countryside. Her father had to return to the Dead Zone, and just like Katya’s father he died of thyroid cancer from exposure to radiation. Radiant Girl is dedicated to Tetyana’s father and the thousands of others like him.
This is the picture that Tatiana drew of Katya.
And, of course, what can we expect to see next from Andrea White? (Whatever it is, I’m looking forward to it. I’ve become a fan.)
I try to write every day. My current book is called Time Cops. It’s about an academy where kids learn to time travel. Here’s the opening paragraph:
“The Zone, an invisible structure, rose several hundred feet above the Lower D.C. slum. Were you to strip the cloaking paint from the building it would appear as a series of spoked wheels, one atop the other. The base, constrained by a gray xiathium fence, widened above the fence line, then narrowed again to a tower that rose to a sharp peak topped by a sphere. External stairwells and crenellated walks linked each storey; the whole edifice resembling a medieval castle made of machine parts. A stranger, on seeing it, might think he had found the inner engine of a monumental watch ticking silently in the midst of squalor.
Of course, no one can see time itself. No more than any stranger could see the Zone. Anymore than he or anyone else could view what went on inside that monumental watch. A watch made up of Chronos operatives—the moving parts of the machinery. The guardians of Time. Monks. Fanatics. Worshippers. But they prefer Time cops or just plain cops. They’re on the job. For you. For me. For our children. Our children’s children. Through the centuries.”