Deadly, Julie Chibbaro’s new historical novel for teens, features 16-year-old Prudence Galewski, who finds herself on the front lines of a war against disease, contributing to the public good in a way few teenagers find the opportunity to do. Consider the fact that the book’s backdrop is a typhoid epidemic, and her story becomes even more exciting. Chibbaro (Redemption, Atheneum, 2004) talks about how this century-old story has repercussions in today’s world and what attracted her to Typhoid Mary in the first place.
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You tackle a lot of big issues—feminism, discrimination, individual privacy versus the greater good, just to name a few—do you think teens find these themes applicable to their modern lives?
Absolutely. Look at the news, at what teenagers are dealing with today: bullying, girls with identity issues who face the decision to be sex kittens or smart girls, the spread of diseases. When I was growing up, I was afraid to say I was Jewish, and I think kids still have this problem with identity.
I felt a girl or boy reading this could take their own story out of it, but also, with a teacher or librarian's help or with a reading guide, they could start talking about all of these issues that are important. I feel like these are things we need to talk about as a society. Writing is the only way I can get through to kids. I’m not a teacher, and it’s important to me to talk to them in some way, and the only way I can is through my books. So I always pack a lot of stuff in there!
Why did you feel the urge to write about Mary Mallon, also known as Typhoid Mary?
I only knew the story with her name as an epithet. Then I found out she was a real woman who had regular goals—to become an American, to live her life simply—who got wrapped up in this horrible thing. It was a fascinating story to me and a natural mystery. She was an immigrant, uneducated, and she had never suffered from the disease. Suddenly she found herself in the middle of a big media battle, accused of being a disease carrier. I felt I had to tell her story and clear up that myth.
Why did you use the structure of a personal diary to tell the story?
I felt like a book about a girl wanting to become a doctor could be a turnoff to readers—you say science, and their eyes start drooping! But a diary is a way to get really personal with Prudence. It was a kind of confessional. A diary was the best way to reach the heart of her, and the heart of her love of science.
Were you able to visit the places in New York that Prudence may have gone to?
I went to the [New York City] Tenement Museum, which is a building they were going to tear down but when they took the plywood off the windows the building was perfectly preserved from 1906. I was able to walk her neighborhood and visit where she might have lived. I read newspapers from that time, I read [sanitary engineer] George Soper’s article about the case, and I read Mary’s letters.
There’s a recurring theme in your book—truth versus lies. Characters lie to each other and to themselves, and the media lies to the public. What were you exploring?
The way Mary Mallon got the moniker “Typhoid Mary” was through the media. The newspapers named her that, and she could never get rid of that name. I feel very aware of how the media changes things around, or how we as human beings make stories into what we want them to be. Even history, you can read 10 different accounts of one thing, and it seems like a completely different story depending on the book you read, sometimes unrecognizably so. I like thinking about these things through Prudence, who questioned everything around her. She really didn't let anything go, truth or lie. She even suspected her boss, whom she was in love with. I didn't mean to be moralistic in any way, but I do feel like we should stay alert to what’s being said, to what we’re being told.
Atheneum / Feb. 22, 2011 / 9780689857386 / $16.99 / 12 & up