A conversation with James Cross Giblin about this book Did Fleming Rescue Churchill?
When did you first hear the story about Alexander Fleming saving Winston Churchill’s life? What inspired you to write a book about it?
My editor at Holt, Nina Ignatowicz, sent me the version of the story in which Alexander Fleming’s father, a poor Scottish farmer, saves young Winston Churchill’s life when the boy is about to drown in a bog. I think she hoped I’d be intrigued by the tale and want to retell it as a nonfiction picture book. And I was intrigued. But there was something about the way the tables were turned in the end that seemed just too neat. Before responding to Nina, I decided to check out the story on the Internet. What I found led to a very different kind of book from the one I’d originally envisioned—a book unlike any I’d written before.
How similar was your experience researching this story to Jason’s in the book?
My experience in researching the variations on the tale became Jason’s story. As I discovered one version after another, I grew more and more doubtful of its nonfiction potential. The clincher came when I arrived at the Churchill Centre website and discovered that there was no truth at all to the tale. I was about to e-mail Nina and tell her why the story wouldn’t work as a nonfiction picture book when I got another idea. Why not make it instead the story of a boy who is assigned to write a research paper on Sir Alexander Fleming? Like me, Jason is suspicious of the accuracy of this particular anecdote and tracks down its source. He is dismayed at first, but then he sees another way to use the story. When I speak about my research methods to groups of teachers and librarians, they often ask if I’ve ever thought of writing a book for young people on how to do research. I tell them it sounds like a great idea, but up till now I’ve never found a way to convey the material in a way that’s both informative and entertaining.
How is writing a fictional book with nonfiction elements like Did Fleming Rescue Churchill? different from writing a pure biography like your other books?
The research process isn’t different, but the way you shape the material is. For example, if I were writing a biography of Alexander Fleming for middle graders, he’d be at the center of the action and, relying strictly on the facts, I’d need to organize the main events of his life into a lively and meaningful narrative. But here Jason is the central character in a work of fiction, and Fleming’s biography is a sort of story-within-a-story. I had to imagine how a bright ten-yearold would approach the scientist’s life and that was probably the biggest challenge I faced in writing the book: to express Fleming’s life accurately and completely through the mind and writing style of a fifth grader.
How do you think the internet has changed the way young people do research?
Doing research on the Internet is probably the method of choice today for any young person with access to a computer. A good search engine can bring up an amazing amount of information very quickly. But there are pitfalls. It seems almost anyone can put anything on the Internet, and much of it—even on Wikipedia—has not been verified in the way a reputable encyclopedia verifies its content. I’d advise young people—as I do in the story—to combine Internet research with research in reference books they can find in their school or public library. That’s the method I use when researching my own books.
How is writing for a middle grade audience different from writing for a young adult audience? What are the challenges of writing for middle graders?
Writing a book for middle graders usually demands a tighter, more compact approach than writing for young adults. You also need to remember that a ten-year-old has less experience of life than a sixteen-year-old, and adjust your writing accordingly. That doesn’t mean you should skimp on the sort of details that bring a topic or a character to life. But you need to be more selective in a book for middle-graders.
You are both a writer and an editor. In light of this, what is the editorial process like for the books you write?
As a writer, I sometimes wonder if my experience as an editor is a help or a hindrance. The editor in me insists that I polish each sentence before going on to the next. This slow method has its advantages though. Where other writers often have to do three or more drafts before they’re finished, I rarely do more than one. Some might think a writer who is also an editor would be difficult for another editor to work with, but I honestly don’t think it’s the case with me. I value sensitive, perceptive editing, and need it as much as any other hopeful but often unconfident writer. And that’s the kind of editing I’ve received from Nina on both of the books I’ve published with Henry Holt—first The Boy Who Saved Cleveland and now Did Alexander Rescue Winston?