Monday, March 23, 2015

History's Dark Underbelly in Brianna DuMont's 'Famous Phonies'

Looking for a good book to celebrate April Fool's Day? Pick up a fun read from Brianna DuMont called Famous Phonies: Legends, Fakes, and Frauds Who Changed History. This is the first book in a new non-fiction middle-grade series from Sky Pony Press that explores the underbelly of history, questioning whether the most noted figures are actually fakes. From Confucius to Pythagoras, Hiawatha to George Washington, Brianna "debunks many of history's legends, both those who really existed and some who never did," writes School Library Journal. 

Question: What made you want to write about the “scandals, swindles, and closeted skeletons” of history? And why a children’s book?

Brianna DuMont: Honestly, I love history. Even as a kid, I never had to be told that history was fascinating. My favorite vacations when I was little were to Colonial Williamsburg or the castles in Germany. That kind of thing.  But I know that not every kid is like that, so I was looking for a great lens through which I could tell these incredible stories and make history come alive. The sensational, the quirky, the scandalous—they make history fun and they help kids learn. It was a perfect combination. Writing for kids is a no-brainer. They’re discerning readers, so you can’t be pretentious. Which is just the sort of way I like to write.

Q: What was the research like in putting together Famous Phonies? Is your background in history? Or do you just like digging up the past for fun stories?

BD: Yes, my background is definitely history and research based. In college, my degrees were in Art History and Classical Archaeology, and Classics—which is the study of mythologies and dead languages. (I specialized in Attic Greek.) For Famous Phonies, one day of writing has at least a week’s worth of research behind it. Luckily, I live near a university where I have access to all the scholarly books I could ever want.

Q: Can you describe your creative process for Famous Phonies? Once you had some juicy material, how did you decide what went into the book and what should be left out?

BD: Famous Phonies stemmed from my first book idea ever about thieves who changed history. I was reading my mythology book for fun one day (yes, for fun), and I realized how many ancient stories were about thieves. That grew into a non-fiction idea about thieves who changed history, then snowballed into a four-book series. Once I started thinking about quirky things that changed history, the possibilities were endless.

Famous Phonies itself began when I realized a lot of famous ancient people never actually existed—like Homer and Pythagoras. That’s my Classics background coming into play again! Although I love history, I tried to keep each chapter streamlined. I especially didn’t want to bog them down with too many technical details or scholarly debates. It’s a kids’ book after all, not a dissertation.

Q: There is a great spirit of fun to your book. What do you hope kids take away from it? What do you hope to accomplish?

BD: I want to get kids interested in history and research. They’ve had enough of the dry, dusty textbooks that often leave out the interesting bits. If I tell another side of the story in a humorous way, I hope to show kids (and adults) how fun and alive history really is. It’s my favorite subject, and I want to showcase why it’s so fascinating. These were real people (some of them) who lived and breathed and made mistakes while making history. It’d be a disservice to put them so high on a pedestal that we forget the real person beneath the myth.

Q: What are you working on next?

BD: I’m finishing up the second book in the series, Fantastic Fugitives: Criminals, Cutthroats, and Slaves Who Changed History. It’s about 12 fugitives who changed history while on the run. After that, I’ll immediately start my third book, which is the untitled one about thieves who changed history. In between, I like to mull over a middle-grade fantasy and historical fiction, just to keep things interesting.

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