Vanguard author Harriette Gillem Robinet was born in Washington D.C. and spent her childhood summers in Arlington, Virginia where her mother’s father had been a slave under General Robert E. Lee. She attended the College of New Rochelle in New York and received graduate degrees in microbiology from Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. And she didn’t stop there.
Harriette Gillem Robinet’s list of awesome achievements is LONG. Four of her books books were named Notable Books in social studies; CHILDREN OF THE FIRE won the 1991 Award from Friends of American Writers; WASHINGTON CITY IS BURNING won the 1997 Carl Sandburg Award; THE TWINS THE PIRATES AND THE BATTLE OF NEW ORLEANS won the Midland Authors Award in 1998; FORTY ACRES AND MAYBE A MULE won the 1999 Scott O’Dell Award for historical fiction for children; WALKING TO THE BUS RIDER BLUES was nominated in 2001 for the Edgar Award by Mystery Writers of America; and was a Jane Addams Award Honor book in 2001; a finalist for the 2003 William Allen White Award in Kansas; a finalist for 2003-2004 Texas Bluebonnet Award Master List; and a finalist for the 2003 Rebecca Caudill Young Readers’ Book Award in Illinois. Her most recent, TWELVE TRAVELERS, TWENTY HORSES, is an action-packed favourite of chilren everywhere, telling the story of Jacob 13, Chloe 13, and Solomon, 9, who travel West with other slaves and a foolish young master who calls himself Honorable Mister Higginboom. They must keep their master from robbing a stagecoach and make sure the Pony Express takes Abraham Lincoln’s election news to keep California in the Union. School Library Journal said of it: “The details of the difficulties on the trail and the mini-mysteries regarding gold and murder both serve to ratchet up the thrill level. While valuable for curriculum support, the true gift of this historical adventure is its offering of a slave narrative that builds esteem rather than pity.”
Today Harriette Gillem Robinet lives in Oak Park, Illinois with her husband, McLouis Robinet. They have six adult children and four grandchildren.
Can you tell us a bit about your writing process? How do you work out your stories? Do you always begin the same way, say with story or character? Do you have any routines or resources that you’d like to share?
I do research for six to eight months, gathering information about the pivotal historical events, names at the time, foods they ate, and other details. Then I begin to set my characters into the story.
Which of your characters are favourites (I know, that’s a hard one!), and why? Which characters were more difficult to write? How do you discover and get to know your characters?
I love all of my characters. To make sure that no character is the same from one book to the other, I use character charts. My characters have their own lives, hopes and fears. I have European American children, as well as African American children, boys as well as girls, and in the end goodness triumphs.
What kind of reader were you as a child? What did you connect with? What were the ‘turning points’ for you as a young reader? What literature do you continue to treasure? What made you think? What kinds of readers have you met along the way?
As a child, I loved books. My mother took books away from me and made me go out to play. At night, I read with a flashlight in the closet. I haunted libraries and I read a lot of non fiction, such as about going to the North Pole and about the revolutionary war.
Can you elaborate on why think that historical fiction is essential at this time? How do you see today’s readers connecting with the stories of history?
History is like a lantern that can light children’s paths throughout life. How can we know where we are going, or appreciate where we are, if we do not know where we are coming from?
You’ve also written about people with physical challenges. What drew you to those stories?
We have a son with cerebral palsy, and I spent hours in clinics and hospitals with him. Disabled children need to find themselves in books. Each one of my books has a disabled character, such as Pascal in FORTY ACRES AND MAYBE A MULE. He is hemiplegia cerebral palsy, that is, paralyzed on one side of his body. That book won the Scott O’Dell award for Historical Fiction.
What’s the best advice that you’ve gotten/or would like to give to writers today?
If you love to write, you have to write. Put the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair, and do it.
What can we look forward to seeing from you in the future? What are you working on now?
I have two new books written and looking for a publisher.
Thank you so much, Ms. Robinet! It’s been an education and a real honour.
Visit Harriette Gillem Robinet online and get schooled.