J. Anderson Coats is the author of The Green Children of Woolpit, a new middle grade novel for older kids. Her other books include R Is for Rebel and The Many Reflections of Miss Jane Deming.
Q: The Green Children of Woolpit was based on real 12th century chronicles--how did you learn about the story and at what point did you decide it would be the basis of your new book?
A: I’m not sure I can pinpoint a particular moment when I stumbled over this story and had an a-ha moment. I was the kind of nerdy teen who had research interests, and since then I’ve read a lot about the middle ages and medieval culture.
Deciding to create my own fictionalized account was a collaboration between myself and my amazing Atheneum editor. I brought up this story pretty much at random during a conversation about potential projects, and she was intrigued. Editors are wonderful people, and vital to the creative process.
Q: How did you research the book, and did you learn anything that particularly intrigued you?
A: I did a lot more internet research for this book than I ordinarily do. Mostly I’m a brick-and-mortar, page-and-cover kind of researcher, but in this case, I wanted to explore not just the historicity of the story, but the considerable amount of folklore and legend that’s grown up around it over the 800 years it’s been around.
I read the two chronicle accounts (in English and Latin), as well as scholarly articles unpacking the story in its historical context, but also internet posts by folklorists, anthropologists, UFO hunters, spec fic writers, listicle makers, amateur historians, and all kinds of folks who are interested in the peculiar and unexplained.
The best part of the story of the green children of Woolpit is there are no answers. There is so much we simply don’t know, that’s open to interpretation, so everyone gets a version.
One interesting thing I discovered was that there’s good evidence to suggest that this story was the inspiration for our modern notion of “little green men from space.”
One of the first pieces of science fiction written in English was The Man in the Moone, published in 1637, which mentioned how the green children of Woolpit “fell from the heavens.” This is possibly why aliens have been (and still are) so often depicted as green and not red or blue or any other color.
Q: What did you see as the right balance between the original story and your own fictional creation?
A: First and foremost, I wanted my story to stand on its own, as an engaging piece of adventure fiction for young readers. Beyond that, I wanted to write the story in such a way that it seemed to inform the chronicle accounts themselves.
In other words, that Agnes was one of William of Newburgh’s “so many and so great witnesses” with whom he spoke to investigate a story he found particularly weird, but some of the details of what she told him got lost in translation.
However, I also wanted to give a nod to the versioning that helped this story make its way down to me. There are references to a number of aspects of the green children legend that don’t appear in the chronicles themselves, but do appear in modern scholarly explanations, discussions of traditional of British fairy lore, and well-known retellings of the green children story.
My version is just one of many; I’m simply joining a long and rich tradition of folks who find this story interesting and want to share it.
Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book?
A: We in the modern era tend to think of medieval chronicles as “histories.” They’re records of what happened when and who did what, but this isn’t exactly what the monks writing them had in mind.
The monks were much more interested in figuring out the universe, and how it worked, and how their ideas of their God functioned in what they knew and observed. So a story like this one was more like a wonder – wow, look at this weird thing that happened. I wonder why?
Our modern way of thinking makes us want to try to determine what “really” happened, but to me the point of a retelling is to offer an interpretation of the story at the heart of the story.
To me, that idea is this – no matter when you are, there’s something very relatable about being deeply out of place. That is something we’ve all felt, something at the core of how kids feel a lot of the time.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I recently turned in pass pages for my YA historical, Spindle and Dagger, coming out in March 2020 from Candlewick Press, and now I’m tinkering with several projects that I hope I’ll be able to tell folks about soon.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with J. Anderson Coats.