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Author Interview: Gail Skroback Hennessey

Today, Feathered Quill reviewer Holly Connors is talking with Gail Skroback Hennessey, author of Mrs. Paddington and the Silver Mousetraps.

FQ: High hairdos of the 18th-century is definitely a unique topic for a children’s book. What made you decide to do a book about this fashion?

HENNESSEY: My goals for writing are to encourage reading with young people and sharing topics, especially in History, that might not be well known, and that children might find of interest to read. Any topic I develop must be something that interests me, as well. This particular topic was perfect for a story which met my writing goals!

FQ: Have you ever done a reading of Mrs. Paddington and the Silver Mousetraps to a classroom full of youngsters? I’d love to know how they reacted to learning about these hairstyles.

HENNESSEY: I was supposed to do a reading at the local Barnes and Noble and then Covid shut everything down. While in the classroom, I discussed the hairstyles during the 18th century and students found the topic very interesting, especially how women used beef marrow and sugar water to keep their hair in place for weeks. No wonder it attracted night visits from mice! I gave the students an assignment to design a hairdo for a grand ball competition. They enjoyed it and were quite creative with their hairdos.

FQ: The story doesn’t gloss over some of the unpleasant facts about life for those who worked for the wealthy of the time, such as Carista, the maid who “donated” her long hair to help make Mrs. Paddington’s hair creation. Was it important for you to show youngsters the unfairness that went along with some of these trends?

HENNESSEY: I try to always include the historical facts about the time period such as this one. It was a perfect “text-to-self” example for kids to share what they thought of Carista’s “donation.”

FQ: Have you ever visited the building in London where the silver mousetraps were sold? If so, are there any remnants (a plaque, perhaps?) to its previous life as a jewelry and mousetrap store?

Author Gail Skroback Hennessey

HENNESSEY: Actually, yes, walking in the area of Lincoln Inn Fields, in London, is where I got the idea! I came across a vacant shop (closed in the 1980s) that had the sign from the 1600s still posted (it’s featured in the book). Interestingly, the idea of a children’s story started to take shape. When I returned to the hotel, there was a book in the room, London’s Strangest Tales. One of the stories was about this very same jewelry store! What were the odds of that!

FQ: You’ve written eight books for teachers. Would you tell us a bit about those books? How are they utilized by teachers and do you have plans to write more?

HENNESSEY: The books are mostly biographical plays that I compiled for different publishers. I found my students really enjoyed the ones I developed, such as A Visit with King Tut, which I used in my classrooms. They learned lots of interesting facts about the mummification process and specifically King Tut. That was my first play. Since it was so popular with the kids (getting a chance to "act" out their roles), I thought this was something other teachers and parents might find beneficial to assist in the learning process, too. Additionally, I try to include additional fun facts, links for teachers, comprehension questions and extension activities to use with the plays. Yes, I am always adding to the plays (reader’s theater scripts) that I sell at my Teachers Pay Teachers Store, My most recent was Jules Verne. I learn lots of interesting things during my research. For example, did you know that many of Jules Verne’s ideas have become reality? Video conferencing, holographs, the television, the submarine, the helicopter, solar sails, drones, missiles, even the INTERNET are just some of his ideas used in his novels that we have in our world today. Even electricity, used to power the Nautilus in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, was not invented for 11 more years!

FQ: With over thirty books for children, you’ve written about things as varied as fairies and turtles (and of course hairstyles of the 18th century). What are your favorites to write? Fiction or non-fiction? And is there a topic you haven’t tackled yet but would like to?

HENNESSEY: Having my masters in teaching Social Studies, I love historical topics that might not be things mentioned in history textbooks, such as George Washington and the Camel he brought to Mt. Vernon one Christmas. I hope such reading passages encourage young people to read! I especially feel children need to learn about the role of women throughout history, often ignored in textbooks, such as female spies during the Revolutionary War, female soldiers during the Civil War and Women pilots during WW2. I wrote a story about the Pony Librarians, brave women that brought books, in all kinds of weather, to very remote areas of Kentucky. I also loved writing the Purple Turtle series and Coloured Fairies for Aadarsh Publishing. Each of these stories has a message in a way that is entertaining. Recycling, honesty, being a friend, getting over fears, etc. are just some of the messages in both these series of books. I enjoy writing both fiction and non-fiction. Topics for stories are always around, I just have to make sure I am “looking”!

FQ: Would you tell our readers a bit about your interactive notebooks?

HENNESSEY: My interactive notebooks are usually fun facts on a topic (such as the oceans, pumpkins, Rockefeller Center Christmas tree) and a Your Turn where children get to make responses to questions.

FQ: You also have a lot of biographical plays. How/why did you start writing these? Are they used in classes? Have you seen any of them performed by students?

HENNESSEY: I have written dozens of biographical plays on famous people in history, science and literature. I wanted kids to see that all famous people were once like them with many of the same issues they have today. For example, Socrates was rather homely as a boy and was bullied and called “frog face.” Michelangleo’s father didn’t support his interests in becoming a sculptor, etc. All my biographical plays include information on the person’s childhood, what kind of student they were in school, what sparked an interest in what they became famous for doing, etc. I have two types of plays. My To Tell the Truth Plays (like the TV Show) have three guests and only the REAL guest must tell the truth about their life. Students should be able to figure out the “real” guest by the end of the play. Originally, I got permission from the company that first started the TV show, Mark Goodson Productions to use their format. The other format is Ms. Bie Ografee and her Talk Show. A famous person is her guest (ie: Simon, a Victim of the Black Death) and her “studio audience” ask questions about their life and times. My plays on people such as Katherine Johnson, Marie Curie, Harriet Tubman, William Shakespeare and many more are quite popular with teachers. I observed some of my plays being used in the classroom while I supervised student teachers. My biographical plays are a fun/informative way to get kids reading and learning about famous people.

FQ: Your newest book, Fashion Rules!, is about clothing in the Middle Ages. Would you tell our readers a little bit about this book?

HENNESSEY: The story is about a man that visits a town where there are strict clothing customs as to the height of your hat, the length of the toe tips, the number of buttons allowed and even the colors of clothing/furs you could wear depending on your rank in life. This way just passing by, someone could tell their importance or lack of importance. The man is amazed by such strange rules and laments that he hopes one day people are judged by not who they are but what they offer society.

Publisher’s note: Gail has been honored as Outstanding Elementary Social Studies Teacher of the Year by both the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) and the New York State Council for the Social Studies.

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