May 21, 2010

The Summer Blog Blast Tour Presents: Nancy Bo Flood

Wednesday we celebrated Gunnerkrigg Court, our favorite webcomic, which brings a story to life weekly online. Story 2.0 continues today with our first downloaded novel.

Warriors in the Crossfire was offered at as a free .pdf for a limited time, to jump-start interest in the novel, and to provide a unique way to intrigue readers and familiarize them with the site and the brand.

It worked. For us, anyway. And it's interesting and timely to consider whether this can be a viable model, with Amazon's recent decision to separate out its free-to-download books from its Kindle bestseller list, and Publishers Weekly raising the question of whether the free downloads will be as useful a marketing tool as a result.

Here now is our interview with author Nancy Bo Flood, author of MG/YA novel Warriors in the Crossfire as well as picture book The Hogan that Great-Grandfather Built and non-fiction children's titles including Sand to Stone and Back Again and The Navajo Year.

Finding Wonderland: Hi, Nancy, and welcome to Wonderland.

Reading Warriors in the Crossfire, and Colleen's interview with Michael Trinklein this past week, I was struck by how little I knew about the island of Saipan, its history, or its role in the events of the Second World War. (Most people don't even realize that Saipan is a commonwealth protectorate of the United States.) More attention is generally given to the "big events" like Pearl Harbor, especially as time passes and the many individual battles recede from memory. What led you to write about the war as experienced by the citizens of Saipan?

Nancy Bo Flood: I was there, teaching the children and grandchildren of the war’s survivors. Saipan is a tropical island in the western Pacific, the kind one imagines with sweeping white-sand beaches and clear turquoise-blue waters. World War II haunts both land and sea, its presence washes in and out like the tide. I stood at Suicide Cliff where hundreds leaped to their deaths. When I wrote Joseph's story, I wanted to write a realistic and honest story that expressed not only the horror and destruction of war but the amazing resiliency of the human heart to survive, rebuild and forgive.

Few Americans know of Saipan. This island and the other 14 islands of the Marianas archipelago are part of the United States! These islands are far from mainland US – the Pacific Ocean stretches over nearly half of the world - but these islands have been critical to global history and to the Pacific battles of WWII. From Saipan and Tinian, US bombers made direct assaults on Japan, the most famous was the Enola Gay, loaded with the atomic bomb, it flew to Hiroshima.

Wonderland:That is indeed a grim piece of history that Americans should remember.

War is a continual horror, but in Warriors there is a specific moment when the tide of the war turns, and many Japanese lives are lost – civilians whose leaders believed in the phrase “Death before dishonor.” Nancy, this is pretty heavy stuff for a book that is for middle grade readers! When you’re book-talking this book with young readers, how do you justify telling this story? Do you feel there’s ever a time to hold back from telling the truth, to protect the innocence of younger readers?

NBF: What do we tell children about war? Most of the children in the world live in circumstances that many are afraid to describe in books for children. How ironic!

Does silence protect? Truth told with sensitivity, told appropriately to a child’s age – is that lack of protection or is it empowerment? When children are old enough to choose, do we want them to make informed choices about how best to settle disagreements? Or do we want them to choose war?

Heroism in war often is glorified and romanticized. Yes, of course there are heroes. Amazing heroes. During war, there are also heroic deeds done in daily quiet ways. Risking your life to get water. Sharing a precious piece of food.

War destroys childhood as it shatters schools and communities, takes parents and siblings as soldiers, and makes children into refugees.

If we want children to choose peaceful alternatives to diminish conflict, I believe we need to allow them a look at what war means. In the United States we are protected from what war really means, except for those who are deployed and their families.

I thought long and hard about these comments made by Melanie Newman, University of Winchester, in, Vol 2 book reviews:

“The moving description of the tragic events that took place when the Japanese realized they were losing the battle for the island left me wondering if the book was a little stark…The truth is that children encounter war and tragedy frequently on TV but here is a form of creative expression with more emotional impact than dramatic effect. It sparked a debate in my mind about the balance between protecting children from the distressing effects of conflict and helping them to see through it in such a way that it helps them to make judgments in their own lifetime…

My lasting impression is of beauty and peace battered by politics and power; even if beauty prevails, the cost is shocking and memorable – as is Warriors Caught [sic] in the Crossfire.”

Wonderland: Some powerful, thought-provoking words.

To change direction a bit, can you talk about the role of poetry and language in your book? Words and language are a huge theme, whether it's language as a marker that separates Japanese from villager, or the different ways of preserving history--through the storytelling of Joseph's father compared to the written kanji of the book of Basho poems. Do you see language and writing as something that brings the characters together more than it sets them apart from one another?

An ancient pond.
A frog jumps in.
The splash of water.

This poem was written hundreds of years ago by Basho.
What does it mean? Why is it in a book about war and two boys wanting to become warriors?

One 10-year-old reader waved his hand and blurted out. “A splash makes ripples. The frog is War.”

Wow! He got it.

Poetry is an invitation. As metaphor one poem holds many meanings and you, the reader, can take these delicious, mysterious words, hold them and decide… what do they mean to you?

In the gloom and darkness of the cave, Kento tries to renew a sense of hope and future in Joseph by using language. A true samurai understands that words have the power to take you anywhere, re-interpret the past, to re-envision the future. Take the trunk of a tree, carve it into a canoe, sail across the sea. Now take words, form them into a canoe, a rocket, reach for the moon.

Kento and Joseph discover a deeper understanding of being a warrior as they each discover the power of words. For Joseph, his father says: “See the place in your mind. See it and you will know how to find it.”

Poetry captures an essence. Narrative, the novel, captures an experience, usually the unfolding experience of a character in conflict that creates change.

Each chapter begins with a poem that introduces the chapter’s theme, but adds another layer, sometime a mystery, sometimes an essence of what happens. One of my favorites is entitled Journey (54). It reads:

Geckos chirped,
Kingfishers squawked,
Dogs barked.
This is home.
War cannot come here.

Debbie Gonzales described the emotional effect better than I can:
“...feel that rhythmic wave-like motion in the words. Back and forth, back and forth, only to come to a crashing halt with the final word ‘cannot’. Geckos…kingfishers…dogs…home… all symbols of the safe and familiar. And then BOOM, a harsh foreshadowing of things to come…war…here…cannot, twice repeated.
One more?

War (p102):
Shines silver
Across breadfruit leaves,
Broken shards of light,
Broken dreams,

Silver light shines across the broad-leafed breadfruit tree, a primary source of sustenance for the people of Saipan. One harsh moment, one turn, transforms moonlight into glass-like shards that slice, destroying all that was once cherished, sabotaging dreams, shattering souls.

All that in a few lines of words. It then takes the whole chapter to show it.”

Poetry is an essential element through Warriors. Poetry reflects Joseph's transitions from rebel to warrior, from student to teacher. What better source than some of the oldest poetry, Basho's haiku, which is often a riddle of words that capture the essence of change, conflict, or a metaphor of the moment. Basho's brief poems invite readers to bring to the poem their own yearnings and desires, to give meaning to make sense to you, the reader, at this moment in your own journey.

To See Peace (p 141)

After darkness
We see
What had been

Wonderland: What do you think is the role of the writer for children during a time of war and social unrest? Do you see parallels between the story of Joseph and Kento and the stories of children now in Afghanistan and Iraq?

NBF: One of the stick dancers from Saipan recently died in Iraq. What is my role as a writer?

When children grow up in the midst of conflict, they lose everything, including their childhood. "When will we ever learn?" Through story, a writer can create awareness. To be a child surrounded by war, what is that like? Is it about guns and bombs? I think for many children, it is also about losing precious parts of childhood, forever. School, family home, and even pets. In Faithful Elephants: A True Story of Animals, People and War by Yukio Tsuchiya and Ted Lewin, the elephant keeper tells of trying to kill his dear friends, his elephants. Children around the world relate to loving a trip to the zoo and staring at elephants curling their trunks or flapping their enormous ears. Why would anyone want to kill them? Fire bombs were exploding over Tokyo. No one had food, especially enough food to feed starving elephants. Who thinks about having to leave the family dog or cat behind, or killing all the zoo animals, when war breaks out?

Story lets us see with a new perspective. In Warriors in the Crossfire, Joseph loses almost everything he cares about. He discovers that being a warrior means to hold back one’s fist, to bow one’s head, to wait, to hide, to endure. He learns that his father's stories and his people’s songs, chants and dances - not guns or bullets - provide what is needed for one to survive war or peace.

I believe it is the role of the writer to provide stories that open eyes, that increase tolerance and compassion, that give us words to imagine peace.

Wonderland: When any writer takes on a story from another culture, there are certain risks involved, yet almost all of your writing deals with native cultures and peoples from other nations. What drives your interest in that arena, and what has it been like to research and attempt to inhabit and express the subtleties of the cultures you explore? What do you have to say to other authors who are interested in writing across cultures and telling the stories of a people not their own?

NBF: Listen. Ask questions. Listen again, be willing to change your impression and be willing to change what you write.

I listened to students who shared with me their family stories. I asked questions. Old timers were eager to "talk story" and wanted their stories told so that peace would prevail. They wanted their children to grow up in a peace-filled world with a future. Already some of their children have fought and died in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Arguments today fly like arrows about who can write about what culture, who can show or tell?

I think we need every voice that is honest, every set of eyes that look without glancing away, as Bahe Whitethorne, Navajo artist, said, “without filters, without stereotypes”. We need every book that offers an authentic opportunity to see into another’s world, past or contemporary, heroic or tragic, fiction or nonfiction. Even sci-fi!
“when a language dies, six butterflies disappear….”

Ellen Meloy has written of the desert with eyes that observe the shifting color of sunlight on rock, ears that hear how slowly water flows down an arroyo. In her book, The Anthropology of Turquoise, she reminds the reader that every voice, every language, offers a reality that is lost if that voice is silenced:

There are nine different words in Maya for the color blue in the comprehensive Porrua Spanish-Maya Dictionary but just three Spanish translations, leaving six butterflies that can be seen only by the Maya, proving beyond doubt that when a language dies six butterflies disappear from the consciousness of the earth. (quoted from Earl Shorris, “The Last Word”)

When a voice is silenced, a pair of eyes are shut.

So many voices to be heard. Voices as real, honest and beautiful as a butterfly.

Wonderland:We were alerted about your book because of Front Street Books’ unique way of getting the word out – allowing readers to download it for free for a limited time. What was your response when you first heard this PR tactic discussed? Has this changed the publishing process for you in any way?

NBF: I think it was a brilliant move by Stephen Roxburgh to offer a free electronic copy and jump-start letting readers know about a new book. Getting the word out to readers any which way because that is why we write. To share story.
(Electronic download now available for purchase at

The world of publishing books is changing. Stephen Roxburgh is a perceptive editor and a savvy publisher. As publisher of Namelos, when he asked to acquire my next novel, No Name Baby, I said Yes! His first priority is to make good books available to readers – easy and inexpensive - regardless of format.

Wonderland: Most of your work is creative nonfiction as with the very gorgeous Sand to Stone and Back Again, or historical fiction, as in The Navajo Year or Warriors in the Crossfire. Will you ever write straight genre fiction? What’s next on the horizon for you?

NBF: Next on the horizon is polishing No Name Baby, acquired by Namelos, so it is ready to be read. With electronic publishing this means a short time-line between acquisition and publication.

I have combined poetry and narration in Cowboy Up, Come to the Rodeo. I also acquired a very different voice which you might recognize at the next rodeo you attend.
In June I will being doing research at the Peace Center in Hiroshima, Japan, getting ready to write Kento’s story, a sequel to Warriors in the Crossfire.

Wonderland:Wow, a sequel already. Well, let's change gears again with a few lighter questions:

• What’s the most recent young adult or children’s book you’ve read?
Kekla Magoon’s The Rock and the River
• What’s on your bedside bookshelf right now?
Reading once again, E.L. Konigsburg, The View from Saturday and essays by Craig Childs, Animal Dialogues, Uncommon Encounters in the Wild. Books of poetry are within reach: Honey, I Love by Eloise Greenfield, a collection of Rumi’s poetry and something new, graphic novels. After Maus I am going lighter with Amelia Rules by Jimmy Gownley.
• Do you listen to music when you work? What kind?
Depending on what I am writing, I need silence or music that echoes the feel, rhythm and emotion of what I am writing. My favorite is Dean Magraw’s Red Planet, try it!
• Green tea, or bubble tea?
Assam – strong and black - or chai with extra red chili pepper
• Poetry or Prose?
Both mixed together. My new favorite is UBIQUITOUS, by Joyce Sidman.
• Early bird or night owl?
Night is my time to prowl.
• Outline, or write spontaneously?
I write long hand, transpose to the computer and begin revising. When the characters are talking in my head and driving me nuts, I write a beginning and ending and assorted pieces. I put the parts together and look for the story-line. This is when I take long, long walks.
• Love revision or hate it?
Revision is pleasure. The terror of the blank page is gone. Characters are demanding attention. I sink into a scene, disappear, and I am happy.

Some great answers! Once again, Nancy, thank you so much for dropping by our blog, and we wish you the best in your future endeavors. 

[Photos, from top: Nancy Bo Flood; map of Saipan; Warriors in the Crossfire Cover; Marpi Point, Saipan; Managaha Island, Saipan.]

A lot to think about here, and still more fantabulous interviews to discover. Check out:


Doret said...

And this is why I love this tour. I wouldn't get this anywhere else. Another book to add to the list.

Thanks so much for bringing Warriors in the Crossfire to my attention.

I gotta love an author that chooses poetry and prose.

Denise Doyen said...

what a lovely, informative interview. I met Nancy at The Whole Novel Workshop a few years ago; lovely lady with such a moving sense of story and poetry. This interview doesn't disappoint with either its well-researched questions or Nancy's thoughtful answers. I'm off to buy the e-book!

Unknown said...

Writing today from Saipan, may I share that the people are proud and happy that the world is reading their story of war and survival - thank you, everyone,

Nancy Bo Flood

tanita✿davis said...

It's fabulous how the internet can be useful to bring people from far away together.

Go, Saipan!

Thanks for dropping by, guys!

Sheila said...


Great Interview!

I read Warriors in the Crossfire when namelos/Boyds Mills offered it for free and loved it. My daughter, a middle school (7th and 8th) librarian has bought it on my recommendation and will be book talking it to the kids.


Sarah Stevenson said...

That's great, Sheila--thanks for stopping by and checking out our interview! Hope the kids enjoy the book.