I was surprised to find myself at a reading given by award-winning children’s book author Susan Hood, because she’s written more than 200 books for small children, and I don’t read many of those. But I heard about her debut novel for middle-grade children, written in verse, and suddenly felt I had to find out more. The book, Lifeboat 12, tells the story of a shipload of British children being evacuated to Canada in 1940, when their ship is torpedoed, leaving very few survivors.
I’m fascinated by World War II stories, and this one happens to be true. I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to read a book in verse, but I bought it and read it, gripped from start to finish. You can see my full 5-star review on Goodreads and Amazon. I fully expect her to win another award for this book.
GC: You’re an award-winning author of books for younger children. What made you want to write this particular middle-grade book?
SH: I go against the old adage to “write what you know.” I like to write about things that surprise me. I discovered the true, but little-known WWII story of the SS City of Benares in my British mother-in-law’s childhood letters. The Benares was a British ship evacuating children to Canada during the Blitz. Six hundred miles from shore, it was torpedoed by the Nazis and sank. Six boys who survived on Lifeboat 12 ranged in age from nine to thirteen. So it was the perfect subject for a middle grade book. I just had to figure out how to write one!
My background writing picture books helped me to frame the story, focusing on the happier story of Lifeboat 12, instead of the whole City of Benares tragedy.
GC: I imagine it took quite a bit of research. How did you know when to stop researching and begin writing?
SH: Yes, it took a tremendous amount. I found out that many of the “boys” were still alive. So I traveled to England to interview the hero of the story (the real-life Ken Sparks) and spent weeks doing research at the British National Archives, the British Library, the Imperial War Museum and the National Maritime Center. It was thrilling because many of the documents I found were top secret for many decades after the war. I looked at newspaper articles, ship’s manifests, telegrams, letters, memoirs, menus, maps, hospital records, safety reports.
And the research doesn’t stop when you begin writing. That’s when you find out what you don’t know or when you find conflicting information within your sources. So writing and research went hand-in-hand for the two-and-a-half years I spent working on this book.
GC: What was your favorite part of the whole process?
SH: Finding Ken Sparks and being able to interview him was a thrill and a great responsibility. Sadly, he died two months after I met him.
The detective work in research is so satisfying, especially when you uncover new facts or solve a historical mystery. For example, I was hard-pressed to find any information about the 32 Lascars (Asian crewmen) aboard Lifeboat 12. I searched for months, consulting archives, professors, hospital records, and so on. Then one day—eureka! I came across an old, ripped file that listed the names of injured Asian crewmen. One man on the list was definitely on Lifeboat 12, so it was possible the others were the ones I was looking for. But there was no way to be certain. That was a hard lesson for me. It was difficult to admit that history may indeed be lost.
GC: Your verse is effective, I think, because it’s not in traditional rhyme. Did you write poetry before you began this book?
SH: Yes, I’ve written several picture books in rhyme, such as Double Take, Leaps and Bounce, and Just Say Boo. In Shaking Things Up, I started experimenting with different types of poetry. I wrote nonfiction poems about fourteen girls and young women who have changed the world using various poetic forms—quatrains, couplets, concrete poems, ABC poems, limericks, and free verse.
Lifeboat 12 is also in free verse, a popular format for middle grade readers. As a writer, I love the wordplay and imagery that allows you to convey strong emotions while giving the reader white space—breathing room to tackle tough subjects like World War II.
GC: What are you working on now?
SH: I just finished a companion book to Double Take, which I’m thrilled to say is nominated for the 2018 Connecticut Book Awards. And I’m working on a new picture book that should be announced in the next few weeks.
Note from GC: The Connecticut Book Awards ceremony will be held next Sunday, October 14, at 2pm at Staples High School in Westport as part of the Saugatuck StoryFest literary festival. Good luck, Susan!