May Amelia is a tough girl. She has to be, growing up in a family full of boys in Washington State in the year 1900. But is she tough enough to withstand tragedy, loss, financial hardship and guilt? Jennifer L. Holm shares with us what it was like for her to grow up with four brothers and how the stories of her own Finnish-American family infused The Trouble with May Amelia with an explosive mix of sauciness and tenderness. This is May Amelia's second appearance; her first, Our Only May Amelia, won a Newbery Honor in 2000.
Find out about more spunky heroines in historical fiction for kids.
May Amelia is such a great character—where did her strong voice come from?
Well, I have four brothers, and I would have to say the kernel of her personality is me! I had a little bit of an unusual childhood growing up. I could do anything the boys could do; if I saw my brothers doing it I was going to do it, too. I wasn't a protected flower, I was right out there playing kickball, punching, climbing trees, getting into mischief—I never saw that girls couldn't do things.
May Amelia's family has a much different structure than most contemporary families. At one point a bunch of teenagers are living alone in a cabin, taking care of each other. What might today's readers learn from them?
What stuck with me is that teenagers and kids had a lot of responsibility back then. My dad was the oldest boy growing up on the farm—it was a dairy farm—and he ran away to join up for World War II, and he always said, only half-jokingly, that he did it so he could get more sleep. He used to have to feed the cows before he went to school, then he had to get to school and come home and put the cows back and do more chores and more chores—it was part of the deal, there was a lot more work involved.
The setting is practically a character itself. What was your inspiration for Nasel?
It's a real place, my family lives there! My dad grew up there, and I still have cousins there, my aunt and uncle live there, my whole family is very cemented in this town—there's even a Holms Lane. We used to go and visit when I was little. It's a beautiful little town, just very wet, that's my memory of it.
May Amelia's dad and brother say some pretty terrible things to her about being a girl and yet her mother is a midwife and a really strong force in the community. How did this contradiction develop?
The books are based on my father's Finnish-American stories, and they like to talk and…to keep records, and the main record keepers in my family were my aunts, so there's a lot of feminist perspective. They were very concerned about things like what the grandmothers were up to. What struck me is how tough these women had to be to survive and how lonely it was. When you had a baby you might not have anyone to help you. I started writing the first book when I was 23—I was young and silly. I'm going to be 43 in June, so a lot of time has passed, and I've had two kids since then, and I think that's deepened my appreciation for what women had to go through to grow up back then.
Where does your research come from and how do you balance the wealth of historical detail with everything your imagination wants to put into your book?
It becomes this fine line—this is my constant struggle with writing historical fiction. I want to put in the funniest bit of historical detail, but the story should come first; it needs to be an entertaining story. In the book one of the things that changed was a story my dad always like to tell about my grandfather. He was a fisherman and was in a terrible storm, and it took him a day to get back, and by the time he got home my grandmother had had five proposals of marriage! There were men waiting at the front door hoping my grandfather was dead. My father thought that was hilarious. I took that story and twisted it so it's a different character; it's Uncle Aarno, who's telling it, and it's [family friend] Jane who gets all the proposals when her husband dies. The most bittersweet part of it was my dad told me so many of the stories and he was always my first reader, but he died a few years ago and never got to read this one. Some of his favorite stories ended up in here.
Holm recommends a few books for young readers interested in historical fiction:
The Fences Between Us, by Kirby Larson: "A historical fiction book featuring a complicated father-daughter relationship by a Washington State author."
Mind Your Manners, Alice Roosevelt!, by Leslie Kimmelman, illustrated by Adam Gustavson: "A picture book about a young girl who gives her father a hard time with pictures by a Finnish-American."
How They Croaked: The Awful Ends of the Awfully Famous, by Georgia Bragg and Kevin O'Malley: "A nonfiction book with lots of death and disaster that May Amelia would definitely want to read."