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Ilona Holland book

Illustrations from "The Great Explosion: A Powder Mill Chronicle"

Illustration: Judy Love

Q&A: Ilona Holland, Ed.M.’85, Ed.D.’91

An alum's picture books inspire children's interest in history

As an educator and now author, Ilona Holland, Ed.M.’85, Ed.D.’91, has inspired children across the country to gain an interest in history through her historical fiction books. After graduating from the Ed School and teaching there for 14 years, she shifted gears to children’s book writing. Her most recent book, The Great Explosion: A Powder Mill Chronicle, released in 2020, tells the story of the Du Pont family and their escape to safety when the Eleutherian Mills in Delaware exploded in 1818. Based on a true story, the book features a “fact from fiction” section that encourages children to read more into what happened at the gun powder mills and about the real Du Pont children. Holland spoke with Ed. to talk about the inspiration behind the book, the publishing process, and paying attention to letters.

Why did you start writing children’s books?
Ilona HollandI was on faculty at the Harvard School of Education for 14 years and I taught two different classes, one was formative evaluation and one was program evaluation. I loved my work and I loved my time at Harvard, the students were terrific, and the faculty was great. However, I always knew I wanted to write for kids and there came a point that I found it virtually impossible to do both. Teaching is demanding and I didn’t have the time, so I decided that I really wanted to give being a children’s author a try. So, I reluctantly retired and turned my attention to writing.

What inspired you to write The Great Explosion?
I was at Hagley Museum and library in Wilmington, Delaware. I loved the place. It was fascinating. It’s an historical site, where the mills and the house where the Du Pont family lived, are located. I had gone to see all of that because I was interested, but then I went to the gift shop and didn’t see a children's book about it. So I made an appointment with the (then) executive director, David Cole, who turns out had been at Harvard at the same time I was and neither of us knew it. I showed him my other books and said I wanted to write one for Hagley Museum. He then showed it to his board, and that’s how The Great Explosion was born.

What was your favorite part of the writing process?
I was extraordinarily lucky to have access to archival primary source materials to write this book. Obviously that is really interesting and compelling, but I think my favorite part was discovering things, as well as getting to know the children individually by reading about them in secondary sources. For example, there’s a book written about Sophie, and to read about her nature, what she did, and how she went about life was all so interesting. I was so fortunate to be able to spend hours and hours in the archives. I remember there was a point where the illustrator, Judy Love, asked if I knew what color Sophie’s hair was, and I didn’t. So I called [Hagley historian] Lucas Clawson, who told me that there was an actual lock of Sophie’s hair in the archives. That’s how rich the archives are as a resource for a writer and anyone who is interested.

What do your grandkids think about the book? How did they play a role in the writing process?
I had my 10-year-old granddaughter read the book out loud and I could see where she would stumble over words. Then I would know I needed to rewrite that sentence because it didn’t flow for her. Her voice was very important to me. My 13-year-old granddaughter read it more for the back matter, like if the story was interesting and clear. They were very helpful and have been a part of all three of my books. I’m definitely influenced by my granddaughters getting older and seeing what they like to read. However, I definitely found my sweet spot, which is writing for third- and fourth-graders.

Since it was released during a pandemic, what was different about this release from your others?
The release of The Great Explosion has been a tricky time because it came out in November 2020, the middle of the pandemic. I usually do school visits, and I was able to do a virtual visit for one of my other books, The Lost Locket, for about 90 third-graders and that was great fun. For this book, I did a smaller visit with some homeschool children. However, I haven’t really had a chance to take it out into the field. Nonetheless, I’ve gotten some great emails and reviews that have been fantastic. Also, the illustration aspect was different than expected because Judy had plane tickets to go see the setting. But on March 12, 2020, everything stopped and she couldn’t go. So Lucas, a curator, and I went there and FaceTimed her to show her around. I can’t wait until she can visit and see how accurate her illustrations were.

What do you want children to take away from the book?
I hope that kids take away the theme, which is courage. You don’t have to know exactly what to do in life but you do need to try to do your best and to be courageous. Sophie, in the book, was courageous in trying to take care of her little brother. Also, I very much want kids to be more involved historically. In the back of the book, I talk about letters. I tried to think of something that was very germane to the book but would also be relatable for children. For kids today, they don’t see letters too often. So when they do, they should stop and pay attention because maybe it was a letter written by someone in their family. It shares some part of that person and they should realize that is history, that is part of their history. Kids should know that everyone has a story and that that story is important.

— Julia DaSilva-Novotny is a writer. This is her first piece for Ed.