The Persistence of History: Talking to Writer/Educator Toni Rhodes

Something a little different in this space today. I have a guest: Author and educator Toni Rhodes. Recently, Toni interviewed me on her website The Writing on the Wall, a wonderful compendium of ideas and resources for teaching history (read the interview here ). Today, it’s her turn to sit in the hot seat while I ask the questions. Thanks for being such a good sport, Toni. (And for giving us such a terrific reading list!)

Amy: We share an intense interest in World War II, an event and time that continues to be the setting for much that is popular in both fiction and non-fiction. What do you feel is the great importance of this war? Why do you think it still speaks to us so strongly 75 years later?

Toni: In WW2 there was a powerful and clear evil that we were fighting. There was a sense that if we didn’t win, the world would become controlled and oppressed by Hitler and the Nazis, who were intent on killing or enslaving whole populations of people. To this day we are still trying to figure out how Hitler came to power and how so many seemingly ordinary Germans carried out his heinous plans. Perhaps that’s why there are so many Hitler-related shows still on TV.

Cascade, Idaho. July 1941.
Cascade, Idaho. July 1941.

Amy: One of the things we first bonded over on FB was that we were both writing novels set in World War II. You have written a number of nonfiction books (which we’ll get to in a minute), but I recall you saying that you found writing a novel a different kind of challenge. Can you talk about that in more detail?

Toni: I love reading historical fiction, and I’m trying to write historical fiction. I think what trips me up is the whole process of creating a true-to-life time and place. All the research involved is daunting, to say the least. Right now, I’m writing a MG (middle-grade) novel set in the small town of Clarkston, near Atlanta, during the early 1940s. Briefly, the story is about a boy in his early teens who is too young to enlist in the Army but wants to do his part, especially because his beloved older brother has gone off to war. The boy thinks he has discovered a local plot to aid the enemy, and enlists his friends to help. Anyway, the plot is evolving.

Amy: What inspired this particular story and its main character?

Toni: First, I was thinking about writing a story set in the late ’30s – early ’40s about a fatherless boy who is darker than his classmates. An older kid bullies him and claims to know that the deceased father was “a colored man.” I actually wrote a first draft of this story, but the project stalled because I’ve been having health problems and couldn’t devote the energy necessary to do the rewrite.

Coney Island Cafe
Coney Island Cafe

Lately, I’ve been thinking I would incorporate elements of this story into a more upbeat tale about the boy confronting his fears and the bully by hunting Nazi spies in his own little hometown. Oh, and there’s also a dog who rides the streetcar by herself, and a sidekick named Jerry, and a Jewish girl who wants to be a friend, too, and help the boys find the Nazi traitors. How in the world I’ll fit all these pieces into the puzzle is beyond explaining at this point!

Amy: You taught elementary school in the Atlanta area for 10 years, and you’ve written a number of books and articles for the educational market about various world cultures and their histories. Every writer brings a point of view to their work. What did you feel was important for students to understand about other people’s cultures and histories?

Toni: I know that history is usually the least-liked subject for most students. This is really unfortunate because so many decisions people make throughout their lives, including political decisions, should be informed by what happened in the past. Otherwise, they become susceptible to propaganda. My main goal in my writing has been to get children interested in history from an early age. Instead of only writing about dates, kings, and queens, I’ve tried to introduce unusual topics. For instance, in my Wonders of World Culture series for Walch Education (see here), I introduce ‘treasure’ and ‘wonders’ of various cultures, like the Rosetta Stone of Egypt, the Taj Mahal of India, and the Rock Art of the African Bushmen. My latest book is The Writing on the Walls: Discovering Medieval and Ancient Graffiti for Middle School Social Studies, published by Prufrock Press (here).

Gigantic termite mound in Australia (copyright 2016 T.B. Rhodes and A.B. Kautz)
Gigantic termite mound in Australia (copyright 2016 T.B. Rhodes and A.B. Kautz)

Amy: Writers are often teachers, or were teachers at one time. Why do you think these two professions so frequently go hand in hand? How do they complement each other?

Toni: I guess it’s just natural for some teachers to want to continue teaching even after they’ve left the profession. Teaching sort of gets into your blood, so to speak. I know in my case the activity I enjoyed most was sharing children’s literature with my students. How they loved to act out the picture book Caps for Sale!

Amy: Your father, Verlin C. Blackwell, was an artist who made a series of drawings and paintings while he was serving in northern Australia during World War II. They’re quite good, evocative of ordinary people in that time and place. Did your father ever talk to you about this work? What have these drawings come to mean to you?

Toni: Yes, my father talked somewhat about his war experience, but his drawings, paintings, and photographs speak for themselves. He served in northern Australia where, apparently, he had plenty of time to draw and paint what was going on around him, including a Japanese air attack, which he painted after climbing to the top of the city water tower! One of my projects is to write a memoir of my father’s experiences in the Army. In this way I hope to understand him better and somehow get closer to him. (He was a bit of an enigma.) I’ve been in touch with a person who is a military historian and works in a museum in Darwin [Australia]. I’m hoping he can help me interpret the material my father left behind.

Verlin C. Blackwell and pet wallaby (copyright 2016 T.B. Rhodes and A.B. Kautz)
Verlin C. Blackwell and pet wallaby (copyright 2016 T.B. Rhodes and A.B. Kautz)

Amy: What works of historical fiction or non-fiction have you most enjoyed?

Toni: I read so much historical fiction that it’s hard to pick out favorites, but here goes (in no particular order):

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (I hate to rank books, but this is one of my favorites.)

All the Richard Peck books

City of Thieves by David Benioff (This is a favorite, too, and not many people have heard of it.)

Symphony for the City of the Dead by M.T. Anderson

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing books by M.T. Anderson

All of the historical fiction by Laurie Halse Anderson

All of the historical fiction by Karen Cushman

All of the historical fiction by Avi

The Devil in the White City by Erik Larsen

The Watsons Go to Birmingham by Christopher Paul Curtis

Rose by Martin Cruz Smith

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

The Plot Against America by Philip Roth

The Baker’s Daughter by Sarah McCoy

The Good Lord Bird by James McBride

The Orphan Train by Cristina Baker Kline

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

Well, that’s probably enough for now. Happy reading!

Amy: Thanks, Toni! 

(NOTE: Featured photo is “Spotlight.” Watercolor of Japanese night raid by Verlin C. Blackwell. Copyright 2016 Toni Blackwell Rhodes and Andrea Blackwell Kautz.)

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3 thoughts on “The Persistence of History: Talking to Writer/Educator Toni Rhodes

  1. Thanks, Amy, for this opportunity to be interviewed! Reading about my projects inspires me to keep on keepin’ on and never give up!

    Also, I wanted to thank the folks in my critique group who have given me writing help and inspiration over the years. 💝

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    1. That’s the nicest thing you could have said, Toni. That you are inspired to keep going. I think your MG novel sounds great. We will have to swap MSS at some point.

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  2. How generous of you to share your blogspace with a fellow author. Toni sounds like an interesting person and a writer of wide interests. I’m sure you two can commiserate on the rewards and sufferings experienced by writers whose creativity must be bent to the sometimes inconvenient facts of actual history.

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