Anne: Hello, Shirley! I’m thrilled that you could stop by to chat about your latest book for young readers, The Sky We Shared. It reminded me why I love historical fiction! Would you please give readers a super-brief summary of the action?
Shirley: Certainly. Based on Japan’s Project Fu-Go during the last stretch of World War II, The Sky We Shared focuses on two youngsters who tell their stories in alternating voices. In rural Oregon, Nellie waits for her father to come home from the army, filling her days with salvage drives, a secret crush, rationing, and annoying twin brothers. In southern Japan, Tamiko finds a secret way to support her country’s war effort while her brother goes off to fight the Americans. Nellie’s and Tamiko’s spheres couldn’t be more different…until their worlds collide in life-changing ways. The Sky We Shared weaves real history with characters who, like many youths today, must deal with war and hatred right alongside friendship, first love, and family.
Anne: Great. The Japanese Project Fu-Go (translation: “balloons carrying bombs”) is a bit of WWII history I’d never before heard. When/where/how did you hear about it? Please tell us a bit about your research for this story.
Shirley: I’m a history junkie, consuming all kinds of history-focused books, podcasts, magazines and websites, both for my own personal interest and in search of that next nugget of history to share with young readers. That’s how I literally stumbled upon the WWII Fu-Go project for the first time.
Once I decided to write a novel about it, I immersed myself in the facts of Project Fu-Go, as well as in the socioeconomics, politics and zeitgeist of the era, both in the U.S. and Japan. I read newspaper reports from the time (1945), and delved into relevant books, journal articles, government websites, museum information, and other resources. I wanted to know exactly what happened in the war that year, and I also wanted to know more general information about life in the 1940s. What did kids wear? What music did people listen to on the wireless? What idioms and slang were in popular use?
Since half the book takes place in Japan, I also worked directly with some talented experts in Japanese culture, history and language. One of those experts—I was so lucky to know him—actually grew up in Japan during WWII and was able to share firsthand accounts of the history described in the novel. Since the University of Massachusetts is in my town, I was able to connect with their department of Eastern studies for all sorts of support. My alma mater, Cornell, also came through with a language expert.
Anne: I love the way you built suspense by alternating chapters between Nellie’s and Tamiko’s points of view. What made you decide to tell the story this way, rather than, say, simply from Nellie’s point of view (the American side)?
Shirley: That was a very deliberate choice. I wanted to show how Nellie’s and Tamiko’s war experiences differed, and also how their lives were similar. What better way to do that than to let them each tell their own side of the story—with all the fear and bravery, resentment and friendship, propaganda and truth? I think the alternating viewpoints help reveal the shared humanity of these characters, who live on opposite sides of the world, on opposite sides of the war.
Anne: The sense of “shared humanity” was quite strong. While reading, I paused to get lunch, then returned to the book, but felt guilty eating in front of Tamiko and Suki because they were so hungry. Ha! That’s how real the characters had become for me. I’d love to hear how you develop your characters. Are there any writing techniques you find helpful for bringing characters to life on the page?
Shirley: I’m so glad you related to Tamiko and Suki! My own process for developing characters looks something like this: First, I wait until I “hear” a character knocking around my head. The character won’t be full-blown at this point, but they’ll be expressing a personal concern or interest in their unique voice.
As soon as that happens, I start writing. Writing helps me better understand a character—their motivations, goals, and personality—especially when I put them in conversation with other characters. Along the way, I constantly ask myself what the character’s interior monologue looks like. What are they daydreaming about? What are their hopes, pet peeves, regrets? In The Sky We Shared, for instance, I knew Nellie and Tamiko would be wondering when/if their loved one would come home from the war…and what lay in store tomorrow…and when the fighting would finally end.
Anne: I especially enjoyed the many little sayings sprinkled through the story, such as “fall down seven times, get up eight” and “one kind word can warm three snowy peaks.” Did you grow up hearing these sayings, or did you discover them while doing research for the novel?
Shirley: I love these Japanese sayings too. They’re so vivid and rich with imagery. I learned about them during my research, and from my language and cultural experts.
Anne: How long did it take you to write The Sky We Shared? And what are you working on now?
Shirley: Including the background research time, the writing, and the revising/editing, it took about two years. I’m currently working on two nonfiction picture book biographies about a couple of amazing women who belong to traditionally underrepresented groups.
Anne: Nice. Let’s end with some links so that readers can learn more about you and your work.
Shirley: Here are my website and social media links. I encourage readers, or anyone who’s curious, to get in touch:
Book trailer: https://youtu.be/9xMXnjYwAx4
Amazon link: https://amazon.com/dp/194762752X
Anne: Thank you so much for stopping by MG Book Village, and for writing such excellent historical fiction for middle-grade readers!
Shirley: Thank you, Anne! I enjoyed your thoughtful questions and the chance to chat about my story and writing process.
Shirley Reva Vernick is the award-winning author of five novels for young readers. A graduate of Cornell University and an alumna of the Radcliffe Writing Seminars, she is committed to creating stories that inspire hope, tolerance, and a love of reading. The American Library Association named The Blood Lie to its list of Best Fiction Books for Young Readers. The Blood Lie also won the Simon Wiesenthal Once Upon A World Book Award and a Sydney Taylor Book Award honor. Remember Dippy won the Dolly Gray Literature Award from the Council for Exceptional Children. The Black Butterfly is a Junior Library Guild selection. Ripped Away (Purple Dragonfly Award) and The Sky We Shared (a starred Publishers Weekly review) were released this year. Shirley’s favorite food group is ice cream.
Anne (A.B.) Westrick is the author of the older-MG novel Brotherhood. You can learn more about Anne at the MG Book Village “About” page.