History through the books

History through the books

(courtesy of HMH Books for Young Readers)
(courtesy of HMH Books for Young Readers)
Maggie Smith Bendell, left, author of “Rabbit Stew and a Penny or Two: A Gypsy Family’s Hard Times and Happy Times on the Road in the 1950s,” stands with Cheryl Blackford of North Oaks. Maggie is of Romani ancestry and a tireless advocate in England for people who were called Gypsies in the last century. She read and checked Blackford’s new World War II-era children’s novel for authenticity. (submitted photo)
Maggie Smith Bendell, left, author of “Rabbit Stew and a Penny or Two: A Gypsy Family’s Hard Times and Happy Times on the Road in the 1950s,” stands with Cheryl Blackford of North Oaks. Maggie is of Romani ancestry and a tireless advocate in England for people who were called Gypsies in the last century. She read and checked Blackford’s new World War II-era children’s novel for authenticity. (submitted photo)
The picturesque Rosedale Valley is surrounded by moorland, near the eastern coast of England. It’s a popular destination for weekend getaways. (submitted photo)
The picturesque Rosedale Valley is surrounded by moorland, near the eastern coast of England. It’s a popular destination for weekend getaways. (submitted photo)
Cheryl Blackford pauses on a winter hike in Rosedale, England, the model valley for fictional Swainedale. (submitted photo)
Cheryl Blackford pauses on a winter hike in Rosedale, England, the model valley for fictional Swainedale. (submitted photo)

Author brings Gypsie culture and WWII survival to life in new children’s book

Sitting on a train with windows draped in black, Lizzie, 10, and her brother Peter, 7, were among a group of fearful, anxious children being sent to the safety of Swainedale in the Yorkshire countryside to live with strangers during the World War II bombings in England. Some host families welcomed the children and others, like Lizzie and Peter’s, found them a burden.

This is the start of “Lizzie and the Lost Baby,” a soon-to-be published children’s novel by North Oaks author Cheryl Blackford.

“I wanted to set a story in a place that was special to me — Swainedale is a fictional representation of Rosedale [valley] in North Yorkshire, where my parents have owned a cottage for many years,” Blackford says.

“Their cottage is a model for the house where Lizzie stays.”

When Lizzie and Peter went exploring their new rural neighborhood, they heard cries and found a blanket-wrapped baby in a field. Lizzie soon met 13-year-old Elijah, a boy who was a member of a Gypsy community and was frantically searching for his beloved baby sister, Rose, whom he was forced to set down in a field while he went fishing with an older, bullying member of his group.

This leads to a series of moral dilemmas for the young girl. Should Lizzie look for the mother? What kind of mother would leave her baby in a field? Who gets to keep something lost? Should she follow her conscience and butt heads with the townspeople who wanted to give the baby to a one of their own kind?

People known as Gypsies have been scorned and treated badly for centuries. During World War II, Hitler sent many to concentration camps. But thousands, like Elijah’s father, fought in World War II and Lizzie learned about their kindness and generosity. Trying to follow her conscience and the lessons her mother taught her, Lizzie struggles with these issues.

A chapter book for middle grades, “Lizzie and the Lost Baby” will be published Jan. 12.

The book tells the difficulties of living with strangers — some kinder than others — and with wartime deprivations. Lizzie wrote letters begging her mother to come and take her home, but to no avail.

Pulled from family experience

Blackford explains in her acknowledgments that around 2.5 million people, mostly children, were evacuated from British towns deemed to be at risk from German bombing raids. Her father and uncle were among them, though Blackford didn’t learn that until she started writing her book.

Blackford herself grew up in the town of Hull, one of the most bombed-out towns in England. She says her mother stayed in Hull “with her widowed grandmother and endured frequent bombing raids in a cramped bomb shelter.”

Blackford was always interested in books and was a primary school teacher in England, but her life took a dramatic turn in 1985 when her husband took an engineering job in Shoreview in the depths of winter. They moved here with their two children for what they thought would be two years. But they stayed and became American citizens who make frequent trips back to see family.

On her way to becoming a writer of children’s books, Blackford earned a master’s degree in technical writing at the  University of Minnesota, wrote scripts for The Oregon Trail and manuals for scientific instruments.

But writing children’s stories was her passion. She enrolled in writing classes at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis, where she met other writers and found support for her writing. She now has several books published.

“The one thing I wish I’d done sooner is write for children,” Blackford says. “I have no idea why I waited so long because writing children’s stories for me now is like breathing.”

The Gypsy life

Through her research on Gypsies — who today are commonly referred to as Romani or Travellers — Blackford got in touch with Maggie Smith-Bendell, a Romani born in 1941 who lived a classic Gypsy life when she was young and wrote stories about it. Smith-Bendell read Blackford’s draft and advised her on the accuracy of the Gypsy parts of her story. When Blackford went to England last summer to see her parents, she visited Smith-Bendell and her Gypsy community, saw their horses and colorful wagons and learned how Smith-Bendell is still a fervent advocate for her community.

“I hope that my readers will see the Gypsy/Roma/Traveller culture for the rich culture that it is and think about the pluses and minuses of a life spent on the road moving from job to job,” Blackford says.

“The work that Gypsies performed (fruit picking, hop picking, general farm work) is mostly mechanized now and their traditional stopping places are denied them by regulations. Despite that, they maintain their culture, keeping their traditional horses and wagons and still showing them off at the traditional fairs,” she says.

“Lizzie and the Lost Baby” is an engaging story, and children reading it will quickly be caught up in Lizzie’s dilemmas and how she solves them. They will learn how people dealt with issues of war and the Traveller lifestyle.

Recently, Blackford’s picture book, “Hungry Coyote,” for ages 4 to 8, received the 2015 Moonbeam Children’s Book Award for best picture book. Blackford has also written non-fiction for children.