Growing Reader

Tween

Blending Fact and Fiction:
A Q&A with Shelley Pearsall

by the Brightly Editors

Shelley Pearsall is the author of Brightly’s third Book Club for Kids pick The Seventh Most Important Thing. We chatted with Shelley about the importance of grandparents, the process of healing heartache through art, and how fiction serves as “a creative pathway to the past.”

Click here to learn more about Brightly’s Book Club for Kids, discover  activities and tips for discussion inspired by The Seventh Most Important Thing, and join in on the reading fun.

A lot in The Seventh Most Important Thing is true to life, but many of the characters are entirely fictional. What is your approach to blending fact and fiction? How do you remain faithful to history while also preserving the freedom to be as creative as the story requires?

It is a balancing act, but I always believe in putting the story first. It is the way history has been shared for centuries — through stories. In The Seventh Most Important Thing, the story woven by the fictional characters brings meaning to the real sculpture and artist, and helps readers to identify with them. In other words, I like to think of fiction as being a creative pathway to the past — and for readers who want to find out more factual details, I make sure to include an Author’s Note at the end. 

Almost all of the characters in the book are more than what they seem. Was there a time in your life when someone turned out to be quite different from your first impression? Did this influence how you wrote about the people who inhabit The Seventh Most Important Thing?

People have always fascinated me. Even as a young child, I was absorbed in studying the adults around me … maybe this was the result of being the oldest child in the family! From a young age, I realized that people have surprising depth if you take the time to find out about them.  My dad, who worked in a downtown office building, used to know the names and stories of the street people he regularly passed on his way to work, and that made an impression on me, too.

Shelley Pearsall's character brainstorm for "Squeak"
Shelley Pearsall’s character brainstorm for “Squeak”

Arthur has to grow up faster than he should. For a lot of kids, the first time they are expected to take on grown-up responsibilities can be scary and difficult — as it was for Arthur. What advice do you have for young readers who are filling big shoes, perhaps sooner than they expected?

In my school and library visits, I often meet kids who are struggling with adult-sized heartache in their families — death, illness, poverty, addiction … it staggers me sometimes. In fact, The Seventh Most Important Thing grew out of my own struggle to cope with grief over losing my beloved dad to cancer. Writing the book helped me to realize, along with Arthur Owens, that life can be “rebuilt” after loss. I hope the story reaches out to help others in the same way — showing them that art can provide a place for healing … and that they are not alone.

Many friendships in the book cross generational lines. Why do you think it’s important — both for kids and adults — to befriend people outside their own age groups?

I grew up surrounded by adults, and I have so many wonderful memories of times I spent with my grandparents, in particular. I think that’s why my books often cross generational lines. My grandpa Pearsall and I used to work on paintings together. My other grandpa had a great zest for life — and we spent hours fishing and hanging out (even riding motorcycles!). I have a tremendous respect and love for the older generation. My grandparents were, and are, the greatest blessings in my life — and I hope that kids see, through my books and characters, the value of relationships with people of all ages.

From the beginning, this book focuses on redemption. There are also several religious references and symbols throughout. Did religion at all influence your approach to Mr. Hampton’s story, and the way The Seventh Most Important Thing addresses forgiveness?

Scholars who have studied Mr. Hampton’s work believe it probably connects to passages in the Book of Revelation. Some also think the Throne may have been Mr. Hampton’s own attempt to create a “shrine” or religious monument. I didn’t want to ignore the religious aspects of the artwork, but I also didn’t want to make religion the central focus of the story, since readers come to the book from many different backgrounds and beliefs. I think the ideas of redemption and forgiveness are universal ones that many readers can relate to — and even Arthur’s thoughts on heaven and his dad, are ones that many of us who have lost someone, can understand.

Photos of James Hampton's Throne of the Third Heaven
Photos of James Hampton’s Throne of the Third Heaven

Mr. Hampton entrusts Arthur with keeping up his work. You yourself have a background in museum history and preservation. How do those experiences shape how you understand Mr. Hampton’s request of Arthur? And how do they influence the way you use storytelling to keep other people’s legacies alive?

I worry about the declining interest in museums and history among youth — and I think it does motivate me to keep figuring out ways to share history in compelling and creative ways through fiction. I hope my books surprise readers and introduce them to interesting people and objects they might not have discovered on their own … and maybe inspire them to keep following that interest. I try to communicate the message that stories need to be preserved before they are lost — and they are the next generation to do that!

A "throne" created by kids at a library program in Ohio
Children created this “throne” as part of  a library program in Ohio

What other books would you recommend for readers who loved The Seventh Most Important Thing?

For readers interested in reading about another fascinating folk artist, check out A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin by Jen Bryant. Tuck Everlasting, by Natalie Babbitt, is a wonderful classic about what it means to be given the choice to live forever — a thought-provoking title to pair with mine for deep discussions.

 

A former teacher and museum historian, Shelley Pearsall is now a full-time writer. Her first novel, Trouble Don’t Last, won the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction. To learn more about the author and her work, visit ShelleyPearsall.com.