Published August 1996
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For Karleen Bradford, landing every few years in a strange and new environment as a foreign-service wife has been great training for becoming a children’s writer. Moving with her family from England to Germany to Brazil – with occasional welcome stints home in Canada – the settings of her books have also shifted, from Tudor England to the Holy Roman Empire to an island off Cape Breton in the post-industrial present. And in each new world she makes herself and her young readers at home.
Such forays have resulted in an impressive tally of 13 books over two decades. And while Bradford may not have as high a CanKidLit profile as, say, Tim Wynne-Jones, Janet Lunn, Kevin Major, or Brian Doyle, she is quietly well established as an award-winning writer for young people. Most of her books, many published by Scholastic Canada and distributed through clubs and fairs, remain in print. Her very first,
There are now whole generations of kids for whom history is as alien and exotic as the far reaches of television’s Deep Space Nine. And even when Bradford takes on a distant epoch, third-century Britain perhaps, or 11th-century Europe, her themes are ones young readers can connect with. Her feisty protagonists struggle for autonomy, fiercely opposing those who try to exploit them, and are horrified, even disgusted, by those who have capitulated. “Like all young people, they think they’re in full control of their lives – and then events take over,” says Bradford. How they meet the crisis is at the heart of her stories, whatever the era.
Her second Crusade book, Shadows on a Sword, published this June by HarperCollins, is the story of two young knights en route to the Holy Land. It follows up from Bradford’s 1992 novel, There Will Be Wolves, which focused on a young woman healer on the disastrous People’s Crusade. This series is a departure for Bradford: never in her writing career has she stayed in one place for so long, even if that landscape stretches across three centuries and many countries. It may parallel the milestone of her husband James’s retirement, and the end of their peripatetic existence. Now in Ottawa, their three children grown, they plan to settle in Owen Sound, Ontario. That doesn’t, however, rule out a research trip to Acre, in Israel near the Lebanese border.
Karleen Bradford’s life was always nomadic. Born in Toronto, raised in Buenos Aires, she came back to Canada to the University of Toronto. After a first career in social work (appropriately, for one who now has so many fictional characters in her care), she married and began a life of overseas postings. “In those days foreign-service wives weren’t permitted to work,” she says. She took a course in writing for children. “I sent my first story to the Christian Science Monitor and they published it for $15.” Her next print appearance was a short poem published in England: “They paid in shillings ... it worked out to about 60 cents.” She wrote stories for the ages her children were: “Donald was six and Kathy was four. As the kids grew older, the stories did too.”
Her first full-length children’s book, the “partly autobiographical” Wrong Again, Robbie, appeared in 1977. She’s said that if she’d followed the advice “write about what you know,” it might have been her last. Instead came The Other Elizabeth, set in Upper Canada in 1813, a time and place she knew nothing about. Though she recalls her mother mentioning Loyalists in the family, it hadn’t meant a thing to her. But at Upper Canada Village, alone in the old schoolhouse on a hot day, she had “such a feeling of the presence of all the children who had been in that room over the years, learning to read and write. And I thought, ‘What if a child on a school trip should have a similar experience in one of these buildings....’” In the library at Upper Canada Village she found old newspapers and maps that brought the period to life.
When her editor asked for more detail for her next book, The Stone in the Meadow, she found a whole section on druids in the British Museum. It was the start of a self-confessed addiction to research: her Ottawa study is full of loose-leaf binders of her gleanings. “I read everything until I get a feeling of how things were, how things could have been,” she says. “I’m in another world. I don’t think of anything else.” She laughs – she has a dazzling smile: “Well, I do, but I’m back there in my mind, which can be very annoying for a husband or children.”
These days her head is full of romantic names and places like Saladin and Constantinople. She has a Canada Council B grant to finish the third Crusade book, about Richard the Lion Heart’s young scribe. The final book will be about the Children’s Crusade. “All of them ended up murdered or enslaved …. Holy wars are wars, and it was as immoral as wars are – obscene. Obviously I’m a pacifist,” she adds.
She began There Will Be Wolves in Bonn, after learning of the Crusaders in Cologne, only 20 minutes away. She and James actually drove the route of the first Crusade to Civetot outside Istanbul. “The first few drafts had a hard, cynical edge,” she says. “Then we moved to Puerto Rico and the Gulf War broke out. I was glued to CNN: it was the first time I’d watched real war as it happened. It was real – it wasn’t a movie. I felt such an incredible sense of sympathy at how people’s lives are taken out of their hands by the people on top. And the whole tone of the book changed – it became much more compassionate.
“I haven’t written a book where I didn’t have something I felt deeply about that I wanted to explore,” she says. “My books take a long time to write – There Will Be Wolves took five years – so it has to be an idea that’s important enough to sustain me.”