Daniel James Brown is the author of Brightly’s fourth Book Club for Kids pick, The Boys in the Boat (Young Readers Adaptation). In the following interview (which appears in the paperback edition of the book) Daniel discusses how he went about researching and writing this inspiring story about nine young men who bonded amidst a historic travesty, the perils of adapting a grown-up read for young readers, and more.
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How did you originally decide you wanted to write this book?
I knew I wanted to write this book the day I met Joe Rantz. Joe was in the last couple of months of his life, living under hospice care at his daughter’s house. She invited me down to meet him, and almost from the moment I first sat down next to him and began to listen to his life story I was hooked. The story he told about his experience on the Washington crew was extraordinary, of course, ending as it did with an Olympic gold medal race against a German boat in Nazi Germany, with Hitler looking on. But it was much more than his Olympic experience that drew me in. It was really Joe’s character. The things he had overcome in life, the way he had conducted himself in hard times, the way he had developed relationships with his coaches and crewmates were all so astonishing, and all so very admirable, that I knew right away that this was a story that needed to be told.
Once you decided you wanted to tell this story, how did you go about researching and writing it?
The research for this book took about four years. I had a great deal to learn — about the lives of each of the young men in the boat, about life in America during the Great Depression, about the rise of the Nazis in Germany, about rowing, about boat building, and so on. Some of the research was old-fashioned library work, poring over books on related topics and searching through thousands of newspaper articles from the 1930s. But probably the most valuable thing I did was to spend many hours with the family members of all nine of the boys in the boat. All nine families were very eager to have the story told, and it was through talking to them that I was really able to get to know each of the boys as individuals. Many of the families had saved diaries and letters and photographs that were also invaluable. So it took a long time, but eventually I had a sense not only of who these guys were but also of what was most important in the story. Once that was in place I simply began to tell the story, writing short chunks I think of as “scenes” and stringing them together into a coherent narrative. Later, of course, there was a good deal of rewriting and revising, adding new scenes and deleting scenes that weren’t pulling their weight until I finally had a manuscript that I thought was good enough to send off to my editor.
How do you make such deeply emotional subject matter accessible to young readers?
In adapting the book for young readers I tried to keep in mind that ultimately The Boys in the Boat is a story about young people — about their dreams and their fears, their hopes and their disappointments. Joe Rantz’s story, in particular, is really about coming of age. Many of the things that Joe wrestled with on a personal level — his family troubles, his relationship with his girlfriend, his insecurities, his drive to become something better, his struggle to fit in — are things that most young people are just beginning to confront as they move out of childhood and into adolescence. So while on one level the story is about an amazing athletic accomplishment, it’s really also about growing up. With that in mind, in writing the adaptation, we cut back a good deal on topics or details that adults might find more interesting — the politics of Germany in the 1930s, the agricultural practices leading to the Dust Bowl, the economic forces at work in the Great Depression, etc. — to keep the focus on the human drama at the heart of the story. I should add, though, that at the same time, we made sure to at least touch on all those topics and others like them, because I believe that part of what a book like this should do is broaden the young reader’s world, expose him or her to the fundamentals of history that have shaped the modern world.
What did you enjoy most about writing this adaptation?
You know, for the last two years as I’ve been traveling around the country talking about the adult edition of the book, I’ve been overwhelmed by the number of people who have come up to me and said, “This is a story that all young Americans should know.” I think there is a huge hunger out there among parents and grandparents for books they can give their children or grandchildren — books that bring history to life, remind us of our fundamental values, teach lessons of perseverance and humility, and generally inspire young people to reach for something beyond themselves and their immediate desires. So there is great pleasure for me in knowing that soon some of those parents and grandparents will be able to share this story with the young people in their lives and perhaps have conversations about some of the values the book encompasses and some of the history it introduces.
What about The Boys in the Boat sets it apart from other stories of an unlikely hero beating the odds?
I think the thing that most sets it apart is that the story is really a metaphor for something much larger than boat racing. On one level it is indeed about an unlikely hero — Joe Rantz — overcoming great odds. But even more than that, it’s about how nine goodhearted young men climbed into a boat and learned to pull together powerfully and beautifully. They opened their hearts up to one another, built powerful bonds of trust and affection, worked incredibly hard, and believed in themselves. And I think that central theme — climbing into a boat and learning to pull together — is a great metaphor for what that whole generation of Americans did during the Great Depression. They learned to pull together and get great things done—things like building the Grand Coulee Dam, winning World War II, and building the most prosperous era in our nation’s history after the war. Pulling together — I think it’s what so many Americans hanker for today, and this story simply illustrates how it can be done.
Daniel James Brown is the author of two previous nonfiction books, The Indifferent Stars Above and Under a Flaming Sky, which was a finalist for a Barnes & Noble Discover Award. He has taught writing at San Jose State University and Stanford University. He lives outside Seattle.