Mom’s Choice Awards is excited to announce another post in our interview series where we chat with the inventors, designers, publishers, and others behind some of our favorite family-friendly products.
Greetings, Mom’s Choice readers! We hope this finds you well- thanks for joining us for another installment of our interview series. We were privileged to speak with Mom’s Choice Award-winning Author P.J. HarteNaus, who wrote the MCA award-winning book, Annies Tale along with others in the Belden Boy Series. Keep reading to learn more about P.J. and her inspiration behind creating an award-winning book series!
MCA: Hi P.J.! Thanks for chatting with us today! Can you start by sharing a little bit about yourself with our readers?
P.J.: I taught elementary education for 35 years in the small village of Glen Ellyn, IL. Literacy and History had always been my passion, teaching young minds to know that reading great books could create fantastic writers! I also taught my students that reading and learning about events in history was extremely important. I remember telling my students the story of how I came to be so passionate about history. Many years ago, I read Marie Antoinette’s biography, taking it with me on my first fight overseas to Paris. I settled in for the long flight with book in hand and read for hours, unaware of what I was about to experience. A day later I toured the Concierge in Paris, the prison cell of the Queen of France in the 1700s. I was in awe. I was in the exact same place where Marie Antoinette was imprisoned during the French Revolution, looking out of her little window into the garden, knowing her fate at the guillotine. With just a cot in the cold damp cell, I took out my camera, using an entire roll of film while the tour guide spoke in French to those in our group. I did not notice that the tour had moved on because I was too distracted, replaying what I had just read. After a few moments, I tried to open the cell door but realized it was locked. But it didn’t faze me. I just continued to soak in the history and the experience for those brief moments. I was hooked! History was my interest…my life’s passion. It would soon be the foundation of what was to come in my life. I would become an educator of literacy and history, teaching children that there can be incredible stories within the pages of history. And, yes, I was eventually saved by a very angry French tour guide who had come back to find me and unlock the cell door.
During the years I taught, I received a Masters in Education. One of my last assignments was to create something of educational value for children. I headed out to the Mississippi Valley Tri-State area of Illinois to the historic town of Galena. The area happened to have an 1859 one-room schoolhouse, Belden School. I was asked to try and save the boarded up, old limestone building. So began my new journey of discovering the history of the area. I was given the name of a local farmer who had gone dumpster diving and had the old school journals of Belden School from 1871 and 1923. Big Bob, as he was lovingly called, also had the names of the elderly students who had gone to the little school before it closed to consolidation in 1943. From interviewing the elderly, hunting for artifacts and pouring through the old journals, I gathered information that was fascinating! But what could I create for children? With the help of locals, we restored the one-room school into a living museum five years later, becoming available for educational school visits.
But I went one step further. Reading stories of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Series during my childhood, made me want to create a book for children about bullying in the 1890s. Belden Boy~The Adventures of Peter McDugal was born, winning two awards, then My Sometimes Pal, winning the CLIPPA Award. Both these books are from the perspective of the victim, Peter. The third book, Backwoods Bully, was introduced a few years later and told from the perspective of Franky, the bully, Peter’s pal. It won the Country School Association of America Award and that connection began my travels to their conferences for speaking engagements. Meanwhile, Belden School began and continues to this day to host the Belden Boy Writing Camp, a camp for children ages 8 on up. It is in this one-room school that children learn how to write and illustrate their own hard-covered book in three days under the guidance of literacy teachers. It is also where children make new friends, play stickball like the Belden Boys in the series and picnic together down by the creek. It is an unforgettable experience for children, parents and literacy teachers.
The Belden Boy Series in 2019 created Annie’s Tale, Belden’s Girl. It is from the perspective of the new girl in the Belden School farm community. She is the bystander who helps her new pals, Peter and Franky, look at friendship in a different way, even with the new bully schoolmaster, Mr. Cobb. Annie has her own disabilties she must contend with but it doesn’t keep her down. Her pa says she is ‘mighty strong for a girl’! Annie’s Tale recently won the 2019 MOM’S CHOICE AWARD, the fifth award for the anti-bullying series.
Whistleslick Press was inspired by the Belden Boy Series. Its creation supports all books in this series, along with other books by the author, P.J. HarteNaus, such as Li’l Bob~Journey of a Lost Pup and Canary Song (soon to be released 2020).
The BeldenboyMobile is new to the Belden Boy Series in 2019. Loaded with bales of hay, flowers and pumpkins, and buckets of Whistleslick Press books, this ’53 Chevy Pickup makes its way to farmer’s markets, schools and other events as it spreads the anti-bullying message to families!
MCA: Wow, I love that this all started with a Grad School assignment and to think your legacy will live on forever in that school and with your books! The Belden Boy Writing Camp sounds fun, but I am going to come back to this. Your book, Annie’s Tale and the other books in your series are about anti-bullying. What inspired you to focus on that?
P.J.: I’ve always wanted to write a children’s book. As life unfolded, I realized that I had a book within me from my past experiences. From the moment that the Belden School was saved, remembering the Laura Ingalls Wilder books I read when I was a child, and the bullying that I endured in my elementary school days, I knew I had a story. Connecting with my students and listening to their problems of being bullied on the playground during my 35 years of teaching helped as well. But the final push was discovering the 1859 Belden School in the woods of Galena. I must give credit, as well, to my students who listened to my ideas for each book, encouraging me along the way and reading them once they were published. The third book, Backwoods Bully, was dedicated to my last class before retirement in 2016.
MCA: Oh, I bet they love that. Your series is titled the Belden Boy Series, but your recent book, Annie’s Tale is about a girl. How does she fit in with the series?
P.J.: I knew that I needed a Belden Girl, a fourth book in the series about a strong girl, in spite of her disabilities and her aging Grandpa with his ‘soft in the head’ condition, she changed things around in the Belden School Community. I remember someone asking me along the way to write a book in the series that would have a strong female character in the storyline. I did just that creating a very determined character for girls in my audience. So, Annie Clark was born.
MCA: Well, we love Annie and all that she represents! What kind of response from readers have you received?
P.J.: Being an educator I wanted to tie the books to the Core State Standards for perspective and figurative language so that the books could be used for literacy book clubs within the classroom setting. The response was very favorable and appreciated. I do have a large following of parents, teachers, administrators and, of course, children. I think the Belden Boy Writing Camp inspires readers of the Belden Boy Series to want to come to the camp at the Belden School and experience sitting at the same desks as the characters in the book. The Belden Boy Mobile also has been a wonderful attraction, as well.
MCA: As you mentioned earlier, you offer a Summer writing camp, the Belden Boy Writing Camp. Can you tell us more about this and what it’s like learning at the Belden School?
P.J.: As mentioned above, the Belden Boy Writing Camp is now entering its 7th year. It fills up quickly with children who have attended year after year. It is a very unique one-of-a-kind camp that allows creative writing to the fullest. No noise from other classrooms, intercoms or computers at Belden School. Just the sweet sounds of birds and the stream in the woods. Children are encouraged to sit in a wooden school desk inside the one-room school, sit outside by the woods on a picnic bench, or stone step to write their picture book story with only pencil and paper! How exciting! Spots fill up fast because, as we say,…”It’s only a one-room school!”
MCA: OK, I am hooked, sign me up! Before you go I have one more question, if you could ensure readers of your book walk away with one main lesson, what would it be?
P.J.: I would want my readers to know that even in the 1890s, bullying was the “same story, same pranks, but different time”. It is important, however, to understand all sides of bullying from the perspective of the victim, the bully and even the bystander. There are reasons why a bully bullies. The Belden Boy Series addresses all sides of bullying, lending itself for discussion between child and adult about the seriousness of bullying and its unacceptable consequences.
MCA: Well, we really appreciate you writing about such an important topic. Thank you so much, P.J., for sharing your time, knowledge, and talents with us! We are excited for our readers to learn more about Annie and the rest of the characters in the Belden Boy Series, as they address all sides of bullying! Any final comments before you go?
P.J.: The Belden Boy Series in 2019 gave back a percentage of sales to local no-kill animal shelters. What started as an assignment for my Master’s Class so long ago, has grown into something incredible. My adult children and husband are extremely supportive, enjoying this journey with me. Thank you!