Rosalyn Schanzer is the author and illustrator of many books for children, including Witches! The Absolutely True Tale of Disaster in Salem, What Darwin Saw: The Journey That Changed the World, and George vs. George: The American Revolution as seen from Both Sides. She lives in Fairfax Station, Virginia.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for your most recent book, Witches!?
A: The full title of that book is Witches! The Absolutely True Tale of Disaster in Salem, and it’s funny you should ask how I got the idea since this YA story is so different from anything I’ve ever written…..except for the fact that every single word is true.
But from the day I started reading the primary source material, I was hooked. How could I possibly resist such jaw-dropping tales, and why did folks back then act the way they did in the first place? It was a mystery to me and I wanted to find some answers.
Here are two examples I found right away:
Everything about Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692 was weird to the max. The Puritans were absolutely convinced that the real devil and his real witches lurked in every nook and cranny, just waiting to afflict the innocent with a dread disease—or worse.
Even scarier was their belief that anyone could be a witch—your tiny baby brother or your best friend or even your own dog. Besides, some folks thought the devil could make himself look exactly like a perfectly innocent person when he did his evil deeds just so that the good guys would get the blame.
And when a reverend accused his innocent Indian slave of being a witch, she confessed anyway and swore that a hog, a great black dog, and the devil himself made her do it. And then she claimed that a red cat and a black cat scratched at her eyes and tried to pull her into the fire for trying not to cooperate.
Some things are just too amazing to ignore, so I wrote a whole book about it.
Q: Why did you choose to do black-and-white illustrations for this book?
A: I thought black and white would be ideal for such a dark subject, and the tiny spots of red on every page somehow symbolize evil (you’ll understand better if you take a look).
I did the illustrations on scratchboard, which made the artwork somewhat reminiscent of the woodcuts that were so popular around that time.
The symbolic artwork in this story is different from the artwork in my other books because it explores people’s secret thoughts and fears instead of showing the actual protagonists doing their thing in living color. Having an older audience gave me more leeway this time around as well.
Q: How do you select your topics and research your books?
A: I usually pick adventures from history that I don’t know a thing about. That way I can keep an open mind, meet some of the most fascinating good and bad folks in all of history, travel around the world to walk in their footsteps, and find new surprises every day.
Then I read enormous stacks of primary source material and giant piles of fat adult books written by the best historians in the business. Next I compare everything I’ve found to see who got the story right and who made mistakes (at least that’s my goal).
I save all the juiciest bits, hoping that nobody else has noticed them yet. And I try to put everything together by using a storyteller voice and making the result into a page-turner.
Q: When you're beginning a project, do you come up with the text first or the illustrations, or do they evolve together?
A: The text! I have a limited number of pages to work with, and the only way I know how much room is left for the artwork is to print out the text in advance.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Abe vs. Jeff: The Civil War as Seen from Both Sides. To get the gist, check out its partner in crime, George vs. George: The American Revolution as Seen from Both Sides. I am floored by the material I’ve unearthed so far.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: Just send chocolate!!
--Interview with Deborah Kalb