Researching The Art of the Swap for Nerdy Book Club by Kristine Asselin
*We’re excited to be giving away a FULL classroom set of hardcovers of The Art Of The Swap for the Nerdy Book Club—read on for instructions on entering!**
I am so happy to be at the Nerdy Book Club today. I’m thrilled to be talking about my new book co-authored with my friend Jen Malone, The Art of the Swap, out now from Simon & Schuster/Aladdin. This book has been part of our lives for almost three years and we can’t wait for people to read it.
Hannah Jordan lives in a museum…well, sort of. She is the daughter of the caretaker for mansion-turned-museum The Elms in Newport, Rhode Island. Hannah’s captivated by stories of The Elms’s original occupants, especially Maggie Dunlap, the tween heiress subject of a painting that went missing during a legendary art heist in 1905.
But when a mysterious mirror allows Hannah and Maggie to switch places in time, suddenly Hannah is racing to stop the heist from happening, while Maggie gets an introduction to iPhones, soccer (which girls can play!), and freedoms like exploring without supervision. Not to mention the best invention of all: sweatpants (so long, corsets!).
As the hours tick off to the art heist, something’s not adding up. Can the girls work together against time—and across it—to set things right? Or will their temporary swap become a permanent trade?
While it’s not historical fiction in the true sense of the genre, it was important to us to make the book as accurate as possible when referencing historical information. I thought readers at the Nerdy Book Club would be interested in some insight into our research process. Many of these strategies will work for students embarking on their own creative projects in your classrooms.
During our research, some things surprised us. We found out The Elms was very technologically advanced for the day. Things like electric lights, refrigeration, and an elevator would not have been strange for a wealthy young girl living in 1905—even colored lights and handheld cameras were around then. We had to adjust our own expectations and biases about what we *thought* we knew about that era—this is an important thing to remember. Sometimes you might have to adjust your story based on this new information.
We did a number of things to ensure our historical accuracy.
- Personal interviews. We met with Harold Mathews, the caretaker of The Elms (the mansion in which the story takes place). Mr. Mathews has been the caretaker for over thirty years, and gave us anecdotes and insight into his life (and his childrens’ lives) as they lived upstairs in an apartment above the mansion’s main level.
- For the classroom: Students can conduct personal interviews with family members or friends to give them insight into another time, place, or experience. Have them create interview questions they can ask of their selected interviewee.
- Google images. Don’t underestimate the power of a good image. Being able to visualize the setting when we couldn’t get there, being able to look back at historical images, and being able to look at pictures of real people who lived at the time in which we were writing—all of these things were supremely helpful.
- For the classroom: Looking at images is a great visual way for students to really see into the past (or present) to places they’ve never been. Pinterest, Google Images, and other image archives are amazing, but be cautious to not fall too far down that rabbit hole, or you’ll end up like me: wasting a whole afternoon reading society pages from the 1900s.
- Newport historical records and Preservation Society websites. Primary sources (like newspapers), walking maps of the area, historical anecdotes on the Preservation Society website—all of these gave us rich back story. We gleaned real names (like Maggie Dunlap) and real places (like the Tauro Tower) to use in the novel that all help to give the story an authentic feel.
- For the classroom: Primary sources are a great way for students to immerse themselves in a particular time or place. A walk through a graveyard, old maps of your home town, a field trip to a local historical society—all things students can do to create their own back story for their projects.
- Search engines. Both Jen and I Googled a lot to make sure facts were real. Though it’s tempting to use facts that pop up from Wikipedia, we always drilled down to legitimate sourced material. Who was the president in 1905? Why Teddy Roosevelt, of course. For sure, we know the Teddy Bear was introduced after Roosevelt’s fateful hunting trip in 1902, so having Maggie compare her own stuffed bear to the one she sees in Hannah’s room seemed right to us.
- For the classroom: I’m sure you do this as well, but we advise students to use Wikipedia as a jumping off point only—the footnotes listed on each resource page can often be traced back to original sources. As much as our students want to believe it, everything you read on the internet is NOT true…thought it’s tempting to take it all as fact.
In order to capture the historical detail of the time, we utilized all of these methods. Jen had the task of inserting a modern girl (as the voice of Hannah) into the Gilded Age. My job was to take an Edwardian period heiress and show the 21st century through her eyes.
At first, we didn’t set out to write a book focusing on women’s rights and how they’ve changed in the last century. But as we wrote, and the election of 2016 loomed large, it became obvious to us that we needed to take the opportunity to explore those issues more fully. Once we decided on that course, we spent time considering the differences in the girls’ lives and the lives of women in general. We learned about how Newport summer resident Alva Vanderbilt Belmont headed up a local group of Suffragists (and had tea cups imprinted with “Votes for Women”), we learned that Sarah Herminie Berwind really ran the household staff of the mansion, and we read a lot about the expectations and restrictions of early 20th century girls of privilege. Sometimes it was difficult to reconcile strong women of the day with the restrictive social mores.
We found it fascinating to see Maggie’s life through Hannah’s eyes. The life she expected to be privileged and fabulous and pampered (and it was) was also restrictive and binding with limited choices. Hannah comes to appreciate the things she has previously taken for granted in her own life.
Whenever possible we used real names and real circumstances. Though the portrait and subsequent art heist is 100% fiction, the Berwinds were real people and had real, fabulous parties in their home. There were servants in the house, including at least one kitchen boy—though his name wasn’t Jonah Rankin. And though Maggie Dunlap *was* a real person—the niece of E.J. Berwind—we don’t really know if she summered at The Elms with her Aunt and Uncle or the details of her subsequent life mission.
We hope this book can be used by teachers and librarians as a jumping off point for many discussions about how life has evolved for girls and boys over time. To that end, we have created two companion documents available for those who want more: a curriculum guide for use in classrooms and an activity guide for budding activists for use by classrooms, book groups, and libraries. Both documents can be found on the Simon & Schuster Education and Library resource page and on both of our websites. http://www.simonandschuster.com/books/The-Art-of-the-Swap/Kristine-Asselin/9781481478717
Both Jen and I would love to talk (or Skype) with classrooms and libraries about writing. Refer to our websites for more information.
You can find us both on Twitter:
In addition to The Art of the Swap, Kristine Asselin is the author of several works of children’s nonfiction as well as the YA novel Any Way You Slice It. She loves being a Girl Scout leader and volunteering with the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. She is a sucker for a good love song (preferably from the 80s), and can’t resist an invitation for Chinese food or ice cream (but not at the same time). She lives in Central Massachusetts with her teen daughter and husband, and spends part of everyday looking for a TARDIS to steal or borrow. You can find Kris online at KristineAsselin.com.