An Interview with Tom Durwood – Author of “The Illustrated Colonials” Series

An Interview with Tom Durwood – Author of “The Illustrated Colonials” Series 175 263 Reader Views Kids

Tom Durwood is a teacher, writer and editor with an interest in history. Tom most recently taught English Composition and Empire and Literature at Valley Forge Military College, where he won the Teacher of the Year Award five times. Tom has taught Public Speaking and Basic Communications as guest lecturer for the Naval Special Warfare Development Group at the Dam’s Neck Annex of the Naval War College.

Tom’s ebook Empire and Literature matches global works of film and fiction to specific quadrants of empire, finding surprising parallels. Literature, film, art and architecture are viewed against the rise and fall of empire. In a foreword to Empire and Literature, postcolonial scholar Dipesh Chakrabarty of the University of Chicago calls it “imaginative and innovative.” Prof. Chakrabarty writes that “Durwood has given us a thought-provoking introduction to the humanities.” His subsequent book “Kid Lit: An Introduction to Literary Criticism” has been well-reviewed. “My favorite nonfiction book of the year,” writes The Literary Apothecary (Goodreads).

Early reader response to Tom’s historical fiction adventures has been promising. “A true pleasure … the richness of the layers of Tom’s novel is compelling,” writes Fatima Sharrafedine in her foreword to “The Illustrated Boatman’s Daughter.” The Midwest Book Review calls that same adventure “uniformly gripping and educational … pairing action and adventure with social issues.” Adds Prairie Review, “A deeply intriguing, ambitious historical fiction series.”

Tom briefly ran his own children’s book imprint, Calico Books (Contemporary Books, Chicago). Tom’s newspaper column “Shelter” appeared in the North County Times for seven years. Tom earned a Masters in English Literature in San Diego, where he also served as Executive Director of San Diego Habitat for Humanity.

Hi Tom. Welcome to Reader Views Kids! Tell us about “The Illustrated Colonials” series.

Six rich kids from around the globe join the Bostonian cause, finding love and treachery along the path to liberty. A new perspective on one of history’s most fascinating moments. They went into 1776 looking for a fight. Little did they know how much it would cost them …

What inspired the idea behind telling the story of the American Revolution from a global perspective?

It grew out of a study unit on the American Revolution that I was preparing for my students at Valley Forge Military College. The idea was to look through a global lens, starting at first with Lafayette and von Steuben and the Hessians.

Telling a trans-national adventure of the War of Independence seemed natural. Johnny Tremain was one of my favorite books growing up, and I saw mine as a sort if insanely expanded version of Esther Forbes. Looking back, it seems absurdly ambitious.

The idea just got out of hand, and the story expanded, and at a certain point the scenes demanded to be illustrated…   

So, who are the six global heroes in the story and what motivates them? (Briefly tell us about each).

Jiayi Yei Ming… headstrong daughter of China’s Yunhe, the family which runs the Grand Canal. She is booted out of China only to discover the new wave of colonial ideals at an unusual boarding school in Alsace.

Will O.… smart and sickly, he is also cast out by his family of merchant shippers. Will returns to Amsterdam to innovate a new system of global trade routes and leveraged financing that proves invaluable to the young American cause.   

Shay … the farm girl from the Volga Basin develops deep convictions about  bringing colonial-style liberty to the world. It is Sheyndil who spurs the dramatic (and tragic) events of “The Illustrated Colonials” third act.

Leo… a Baron-to-be, this dyslexic German boy likes weapons more than books.  

Mahmoud… this ‘roly poly’ Ottoman prince loses everything and sets out for the New World. The story’s second part revolves around him.

Gilbert… a moody, aristocratic youth who is lost until he meets this brotherhood, especially Jiayi Mei Ying, who motivates Gilbert to live up to his fate.       

How did you decide which countries to represent?

The national choices grew out of the new crop of histories that take different perspectives than ‘the American gaze.’ One book in particular, The American Revolution: A World War edited by an historian named Larry Ferreiro (among others) mapped it out for me. I left out India because I could not fit in a seventh protagonist.  

Which hero/country was the most intriguing to write about? 

China!! The Grand Canal is such a good fit for my recurring Navigators — I am planning a story for Jiayi and her the family, who run the Canal.         

Who was your favorite character and why?

Will was the portal to the economics, which fascinates me. He was the key to the merchant shipping which would (in my version) help convince France to join the Americans against Britain. I already had a Dutch clerk character from a previous story, “The Caliph’s Gift,” a character who reminds me of my son. Will O. in “the Illustrated Colonials” is basically the same character.

Jiayi Yei Ming was a surprise. She has done as she pleases.

Leo more or less walked out of the narrative line I had planned for him – I am now completing the African adventure with him and the Benin girl architect.

The entire epic revolves around Mahmoud’s transformation, so he is a favorite.     

I could write about Sheyndil, the Russian girl, all day  

You’ve written several books for adults and young adults. What is the most challenging aspect of writing for a young audience?

Honesty. The characters have to stand on their own. All of the dialogue needs to be emotionally correct. Genuinely surprising events need to unfold for deeper reasons than serving the plot.  

How do you make history fun?

Stories like these only work if the characters are authentic.  The history has to seep through the characters and their dialogue. All of the foundational and background information has to emerge naturally from the story.

If you can create characters who have histories, and needs, and goals, and who engage the reader, then readers will follow you wherever you go. If not, nothing matters.

How does your teaching career influence your writing?

Great question!! Yes, for sure, teaching has changed my writing. My cadets were always sleepy but always game for a critical-thinking challenge–but only if I could explain myself super-clearly and vividly. My writing has much more outreach or reader-friendly aspect to it than it ever did. It needs to be more so, also for sure.

What is the most important message you hope young readers take away from reading The Illustrated Colonials series?

The project’s value is first and foremost as a good story. I’ve worked hard to make it an engaging adventure, with memorable characters. 

The secondary value or message might be that history is global, and that understanding these remarkable past event s gives us endless rewards. We are all directly connected to those people who lived through the American awakening, nationalities aside.

What kind of feedback have you received on The Illustrated Colonials series?  

Very rewarding. Several early readers were booksellers who saw right away where I’m going. One or two early readers commented on the jumping-around in Book One, so we added maps and flags to give clear signposts about where the action is taking place.                

Ray Raphael’s Foreword is an important piece of the project. He is a well-respected historian who shares many of my ideas about bringing diverse stories to traditional narratives.

I hoped the illustrations would earn a reader’s patience with my story’s global sprawl, and a number of reviewers seem to appreciate the art.

Tell us about the illustrations. (How did you find your team? What was it like working together to bring your story to life? Why include illustrations, etc.)

I looked through hundreds of online portfolios to old-fashioned, evocative styles along the lines of N.C. Wyeth, Howard Pyle, Dean Cornwell. I am very lucky to have found this group of illustrators.

Timothee Mathon established a traditional, oil-painting look. Jessica Taylor’s drawings of the Chinese girl really stand out, as do Mai Nguyen’s compositions. Colorized woodcuts lend a nice gravity to the books, I think.  

I was careful not to give the artists too much direction, so they could make their own interpretation of the characters and settings. Their work really lets the story breathe.

Once we made the decision to go full-color, we had to live up to it–color every third or fourth page. As to the decision to illustrate, that was just the way I imagined it–the illustrations were needed to open up my story, to draw readers into my not-always-easy-reading prose.

I feel that, with the artwork, Ray Raphael’s Foreword and the online material, I am providing real value for my readers.

What do you like to read? Do you have any favorites in the teen/YA genre?

S. E. Hinton, Robert E. Howard and Louis L’Amour are authors I always like reading. Houghton Mifflin has a series of ‘Best Nature Writing’ and ‘Best Science Writing’ of the year, and those collections are highly motivating. Great writing. 

Which writers have inspired your own work as an author?

Writers like John Green and Nicholas Sparks have that page-turning quality that mine lacks, so I refer to them often. I am constantly reading Rachel Carson and Helen Macdonald’s “H is for Hawk” for the clarity of their writing.    

What do you enjoy outside of writing?

My perfect day would involve a long walk, a strong cup of coffee, a turkey sandwich, writing an authentic paragraph, and contact of any kind with my kids.  Fun would be watching one of those dark, compelling cable tv series (Mare of Eastown, currently).

So, what’s next? Do you have another story in the works?

Yes!! Many. “The Illustrated King James’ Seventh Company” is next. This is an adventure set against the creation of the King James Bible, London in 1609, with a backstory set in (of course) biblical times. A less-conventional story set at the turn of the 20th century follows that.

I am not sure I’ll be able to include full-color art with these, it drives the price too high for my readers.


Illustrated Colonials Website

KidLit Website with resources for teachers

Tom’s other works:

The Illustrated Boatman Website

The Illustrated USG in China and Other Stories Website

Empire Studies Magazine

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