Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Interview with the author of "The Anna Mae Mysteries"

Lillian Cauldwell talks legend, race, critical thinking in new tween series

In “The Golden Treasure” (Star Publish), the first book of local author Lillian Cauldwell’s “The Anna-Mae Mysteries” series for tweens, heroine Anna-Mae Botts accomplishes something that’s eluded almost 145 years of effort by adults: finding the lost gold of the Confederate Treasury, supposedly buried in northern Georgia during Jefferson Davis’ flight from Richmond after the South’s surrender. Anna-Mae doesn’t do it alone, of course — she’s got the help of her eight-year-old brother Malcolm, her best friend Raul Garcia, three remarkably supportive grandparents and…a giant disembodied black fist, accompanied by a host of other supernatural phenomena.

Told from the perspective of two black kids and a Hispanic one growing up in rural Georgia, the book neither shies away from the obvious facts about race — like that all the members of a junior high clique are often the same color — nor invests them with the sort of futile hand-wringing sometimes engaged in by adults who see race primarily as a “problem” to be “solved.” Mostly, though, it’s an adventure story, pure and simple, focused on a bright girl who finds it hard to fit in sometimes, has a little brother who’s equal parts extremely useful and a pain in the rear, and occasionally finds her best friend kinda cute in a way that makes her insides a bit “gooey.” AnnArbor.com chatted with Cauldwell about it recently.
Q: Tell me how this book came to be.

A: I wanted to write a book for multicultural kids. I wanted them to know that girls could have adventures as well as boys can and that girls can think and solve problems — and yet (as tweens) they’re also in what I call “purgatory“. They’re not toddlers, they’re not holding their parents’ hands, but they don’t want mid-teens giving them trouble. They don’t know who they are, where they’re going, what people are doing, but here they are in junior high — they’re in the big leagues. And depending on how your junior high is set up, you may even be sharing space with the big kids, so…at any one time, there’s always a group that’s a little superior. I know how they’re feeling, and I wanted to get that across.

And I wanted to get across that life isn’t fair — but before you can do anything, you have to find out who you are, learn how to deal with what’s bugging you, and learn to get along. You can’t just disappear; you’re going have to deal with whatever problem comes along, and you usually have to do it by yourself. So to me, being that age meant that you were in the middle of nowhereland. I remember what it was like, and I remember what it was like watching my kid go through it, too. He was gifted, very smart, and his sophistication was up there with grown-ups…but his maturity was on the floor. (Laughs.)

Q: There’s lots of crazy supernatural stuff going on here! Are you a believer in the supernatural in general?
A: A lot of it was research. I’ve had one or two experiences that I don’t share much because people who haven’t been there don’t understand. My husband is an organic chemist, so there’s no way he’s going to believe that there’s anything else besides us out there. A ghost could walk through him and he wouldn’t believe it. But I’ve had those experiences, and I’ve known other people who’ve had those experiences, especially around this age. At this age…you’re more open to other things that may happen.

Q: What drew you to the mystery of Jefferson Davis’ lost gold?
A: I wanted them to find the lost treasure. I did not want my kids on a mystery where they found dead bodies or got shot; there’s plenty of that in the world and other folks can do a better job of writing it. So I wanted a mystery, and I started researching Davis, and the more I read, the more intrigued I became, because the gold he lost was not all Southern gold. He took out a loan from the French bank with interest, whether or not he won the war. Now, you’re not taught that in history class. And I found out which bankers he borrowed it from, and I discovered that it makes a difference whether you read the Northern or Southern account of the story. (Davis) ran out when the (Confederate) Cabinet fell, and he had a trick for storing the gold so that no one would find out, and he was trying to get it to Savannah to take the gold back to France. So I found the route he took for his great escape and added some of my own touches. ...
Everyone has their own theory about how the gold was carried, where it was buried, why it was buried, so I tried to give enough of the story without digressing too much from the adventure.

Q: I like how you’re very explicit about the systematic way the kids go about putting their clues together. Are you hoping to sneak some critical thinking skills into your readers’ enjoyment?
A: Oh, absolutely. Actually, the book is a plot. (Laughs.) I wanted to show that there are certain things you need to do to take this to its logical conclusion. When I went to school, you had to show all of your work on a problem, so that even though I never got the right answer, my teacher could give me credit for thinking. … I wanted these kids to actually sit down and think about what had taken place, who was involved, and how they got there. One of the things my husband taught me is that if you can’t find something where you think you put it, you can go and retrace your steps and you might find it. And it seemed like a girl would know this instinctively.

Q: Isn’t it interesting that you said your husband taught you, but a girl would know it instinctively?
A: (Laughs.) Well, maybe other girls. My mother knew it, anyway! I do think a big difference is that it seems like girls will go out and find the information they need and store it away for another time. I think that boys do have adventures, but I think girls maybe have better ones because they pay better attention to the details. They use them later because they want to make their lives better, while a guy seems more likely to say he can tough it out the way it is.

Q: You say toward the end of the book that the South is “still fighting the war between the states.” What do you mean by that?
A: A lot of places still have rigid class structures, still have strict rules about who can sit together. … I wanted to get across to kids that no matter where they lived in the United States, there was still superstition and prejudice and (basically) no democracy. There are still racial tensions in this country, and you ignore it at your peril. I had a friend who was a student out west and he decided to drive home to Ohio with a friend, and they stopped in this little town to get gas and a snack and just got this feeling like they better conduct their business and get out of there as fast as possible. On the other hand, I had a friend who was an adult and she and her friend stopped in Tennessee and it was the same thing — they knew they were not welcome and the local law was trying to figure out a way to throw them in jail.

And a kid in this situation acts differently than a grown-up, but they can feel it. They may not be able to say, “Oh, they don’t like me because I’m black,” but they know they’re not welcome. So Anna-Mae, she’s a black child in a white rural school district that’s located in Georgia, so there’s two strikes against her there. And on top of that, she talks to ghosts, so that’s three strikes!

Q: You have some interesting classifications that involve race — you provide names for two classes of white kids, and there’s a suggestion that black Anna-Mae is being treated less well by the authorities than her white antagonist. What conversation about race are you hoping to start?
A: I’m hoping to start (a conversation that says to) girls, and black girls especially, that there’s more to life than being a mother, than following a gang mentality, that they do not need to choose sports or become or a singer or an actress to get ahead. That there are other opportunities. ... And that girls don't need to dumb themselves down. My attitude is more of, “You are fine the way you are, it’s the rest of the world that’s out of whack, and don’t get down to their level. Force them to come up to yours.” There’s no reason for the girls of today to have that kind of attitude or that type (of worldview).

Q: Are you saying that there are no pressures on girls today?
A: No, there are plenty of pressures — you don’t have to look any further than Saturday morning TV! There’s a great deal of conformity and a great deal of pressure to do what’s acceptable. But why is it always the old maid (that we’re supposed to be scared of)? The wicked stepmother? I never hear anything about the wicked stepfather! I guess as I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten a little more conservative — don’t tell my hippie friends that, but I guess you just do — but it hasn’t gotten any easier to be a girl since I grew up in the ’50s.
And you know that junior high is when you learn how to kiss! I would be foolish if I didn’t recognize that at 12, you start noticing that boys and girls are a little different, and you maybe go a little past kissing. In my second book, Anna-Mae goes overseas and meets a 13-year-old boy, and Raul knows immediately that he’s dangerous, but he doesn’t know if he should shoot the guy or befriend him. And that’s how it goes at that age.

Q: I like that your son (cartoonist Ben Caldwell) drew the cover and also that you reference his “Dare Detectives” in the story. Does Anna-Mae ever have a walk-on in his work?
A: Not yet. But he’s very interested. He’s the one who suggested that when I set up the book, I storyboard it. So that was how I did it. He told me that kids want to be entertained, they want to be able to see what’s going on, because today’s world is so visual.

Q: What do you have planned next?
A: (Book Two in the series is) “The Holy Relic,” based against the Solomon and Sheba legend. The whole book is written as one big clue, so you have to figure out what I’m talking about, why Anna-Mae is where she’s at and how she’s going to get out of it. She encounters other people and other types of problems and ultimately realizes that as bad as the United States can be, it’s a lot better than overseas. Which a lot of kids don’t understand — we’re way ahead of the game. We’re not bombed continually, there aren’t troops in the streets. We do not have foreign soldiers living in our homes, our water supply is still working, and we live a pretty comfortable life. I think it’s important for kids to realize that any country can only offer as much as their citizens give back to it — it’s a two-way street. (Laughs.) I don’t say that right out, of course.
After that is “The Tablet of Stone,” which takes place in South America, and the fourth book is “My Mother’s Keeper,” which comes back to the United States. So I’m willing to take (the characters) all the way up until they become adults and have careers as investigators, but I wanted to keep away from murder and mayhem. And there are so many other types of mysteries to be solved! Sometimes they’re right underneath you, and they have just as much power.
You can get "The Anna-Mae Mysteries: The Golden Treasure" at Amazon, Barnes & Noble or Star Publish, LLC, or you can contact email Lillian Cauldwell for a signed copy. Cauldwell is also the founder of Passionate Internet Voices Radio.

Leah DuMouchel is a free-lance writer who covers books for AnnArbor.com.

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