Digging into old New York with students at Trinity School

Once on This River

Art by a Trinity student inspired by “Once on This River.”

Historical Fiction: Digging into old New York with students at Trinity School

I love history! But names, places, dates and facts become most relevant to me when they’re attached to the lives of human beings. My desire to know how people lived in other times, and what their world was like, is what led me to write historical fiction.

Writing my novel Once on This River, I found myself digging into the world of New York City in 1760. Monday de Groot, the novel’s main character, is a girl that I imagined. Yet Monday de Groot became a real person to me!

Monday and her mother are “free people of color.” At the start of the novel, they set sail from Madagascar to New York. In the course of the story, Monday discovers that she wasn’t always a free person. In fact, she was born into a life of slavery, which she only escaped through a courageous and cunning act on the part of her mother. There are other secrets in the novel as well! To learn those, you’ll have to read it!

This year at Trinity School in New York City, I was invited to talk about the process of writing Once on This River. I shared my research and writing drafts with fourth grade students, their teachers, librarians and Principals. I also told them why it was so important to me to write this particular novel. But what I enjoyed most, was hearing the responses students had to the story and answering their questions.

At the end of my visit, I also received a number of precious gifts.  Each of the fourth grade classes who read my book had compiled a book of their own, inspired by Once on This River. The bound copies of their poems and essays have a place of pride in my writing study. And I will always remember the impressive work displayed on their classroom bulletin boards—poems, art, letter writing, songs and even videos–all inspired by Monday de Groot’s story and the times that she lived in.

Once on This River was published in 1998. Some people might think that’s also ancient history! But the book continues to live on with its readers. As I continue to write my new book of historical fiction, I keep in mind this year’s very special visit to Trinity School in New York City.


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