Ready for summer reading? Hey, if you’re planning to vacation at North Carolina’s Outer Banks, or if you love historical fiction or war stories, pick up Sink or Swim by Steve Watkins. The story opens in the waters off North Carolina’s Ocracoke Island. It’s an especially good summer selection for middle-grade kids who claim they don’t like to read. This one is sure to bring them around.
And you could win your very own copy of Sink or Swim! Just fill out the form at the end of this post. Deadline to enter: 11:59 PM, June 11, 2018. (Multiple entries welcome! You can enter once a day from now ’til then.)
Steve has published nine novels for young readers and is working on his tenth. Formerly a professor at the University of Mary Washington and currently a yoga instructor while writing fiction, he lives in Fredericksburg, VA. He and I have spoken on author panels and run into each other at school librarian conferences, and today I’m happy to feature him and his books on my blog.
A.B. Westrick: Welcome, Steve!
Steve Watkins: Good to be here!
ABW: I loved Sink or Swim. The story hooked me right away, so let’s talk about your first chapter. Openings are always tricky, and yours is pitch-perfect. It’s 1942 and German U-Boats are picking off American vessels up and down the Eastern Seaboard. Twelve-year old Colton and his older brother Danny are fishing in small boats near Ocracoke Island when a U-Boat surfaces, catching Danny’s nets, entangling his boat, and throwing Danny overboard. As Colton struggles to rescue Danny, the Germans laugh at the boys’ distress. (I hated those Germans from the get-go.) It’s a great scene.
Was that always your first chapter? How did you decide to begin the novel there?
SW: Yes, it was always the first. I read a number of accounts of fishermen on the Outer Banks encountering submarines, or, more often and tragically, the bodies of victims of sub attacks on passenger and cargo ships going up and down the East Coast. Once I decided to begin the story off the Outer Banks of North Carolina, the scene crystallized for me right away.
ABW: The bodies of victims? Ouch. I’ve read a lot about WWII but have to admit that before reading Sink or Swim, I didn’t realize how close the Germans came to our shores.
In the book, Colton joins the Navy, and in your Author’s Note you mention the true WWII story of a boy named Calvin Graham who enlisted in the Navy when he was only 12. Was Graham’s story the spark for this novel? Or did you imagine Colton’s story first, then launch into research for assurance that such things did, indeed, happen (that underage boys managed to enlist)? Which came first—your imagination or reading Graham’s story?
SW: While exploring another topic, I came across the story of Calvin Graham and quickly went down the rabbit hole of research about him. My first proposal to Scholastic was to write a fictional memoir or diary—kept by the real Calvin Graham. But for complicated legal reasons, Scholastic wanted me to fictionalize the whole story. So instead of a boy from small-town Texas, I had Colton living on Ocracoke Island. Instead of him serving in the South Pacific on a battleship, I had him serving in the North Atlantic on a subchaser. But like Calvin Graham, Colton is only 12 when he enlists, and 13 when he serves. By some estimates there were more than 30,000 underage boys who served in the U.S. military during World War II, though most were sixteen and seventeen. Only one (that we know of) was 12.
Although some moments in Sink or Swim were sad, you included a lot of humor. For example, I laughed at “fart sacks” and Colton saying, “at least the cooks quit serving us beans.” You have a good balance of tough stuff and comic relief, and I’m wondering which moments you find easier to write—serious or funny? Did you consciously decide to insert light moments, or was the dry humor simply a part of the protagonist’s personality? How much of Colton’s sense of what’s funny is Steve Watkins’ sense of what’s funny?
SW: Funny is definitely the hardest to write, and I labored over those passages—even the seemingly small ones—a lot. That mix of serious and funny—especially the darker elements of humor—came naturally with the territory and with the character (and characters). Not sure how much of Colton’s humor is my own, but I’ll readily admit to being a total dork when it comes to humor (and just about anything and everything else). My kids groan all the time at my bad puns—or what they consider to be bad puns. But of course, as those of us who are devoted practitioners of the craft know, there are no such things as bad puns. Or, as we like to say: the louder the groan, the better.
ABW: Hahaha. True!
I want to mention your Ghosts of War series here. Clearly, you’re fascinated by stories set in times of war (Vietnam, Civil War, WWI, WWII). What is it about war stories that captivates you? When you were growing up, did you enjoy reading war books?
SW: I did. I was a big fan of historical fiction growing up (and science fiction, and mysteries, and just about anything and everything, though I did draw the line at Nancy Drew, even after I’d read every Hardy Boy book in the library—twice, at least).
Historical fiction tends to focus on the terrible conflicts of the times. I came of age during the Vietnam War and faced the draft at that time. I protested the war, along with many of my generation. When I taught college, which I did for nearly 30 years before retiring to write full time, my favorite class was one I designed on Literature of the Vietnam War. That continues to be an area of deep interest. My next book is about the Tet Offensive and the so-called Ho Chi Minh Trail (2018 is the 50th anniversary of the Tet Offensive, by the way). It’s called On Blood Road and will be released by Scholastic this November.
ABW: The 50th anniversary already? Whoa. I remember that time, but not well. (I was in junior high.) Of the Vietnam-era books I’ve read, one that moved me to tears was Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. It’s too much for middle-grade readers, but I’d recommend it for high school.
Back to Sink or Swim: Colton’s scenes at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center brought to mind stories I’d heard from my father. He served in the Navy in WWII (he’s now 93), and when I finished your book, I told him about it. Dad’s memories flooded back! His stories of boot camp line up with Colton’s account (except that Dad was 19, not 12). He said the drill instructors thought small-town boys (like himself and Colton) “had to be toughened up.” As you’ve researched various wars, have you found boot camp to be pretty much the same from one war to the next? Or do you think we now have a “kinder, gentler” training program?
SW: I’m not sure if today’s boot camps are any kinder or gentler than they were in years and wars past. My nephew, who serves in the Army in Special Operations out of Fort Campbell, sure goes through some very brutal training even now, after he’s been in the service for more than ten years. I spent a lot of time researching the Great Lakes Naval Training Center, and watched several old training films from there shot during World War II. Wonder if your dad was in any of them? Wouldn’t that have been something!
ABW: Oh, man. Ha! I’ll have to ask him if he recalls any movies being filmed while he was there.
In this blog post, I’ve included the cover art for a few of your novels. You’ve mentioned that On Blood Road is coming out in November (this link goes to the Amazon Kindle pre-order page; it’s great that the pre-order is already up). What are you working on next?
SW: I’m working on a book for Scholastic, scheduled for publication in fall 2019. The working title is Night and Fog (Nacht und Nebel). It’s a novel about teenagers who fought in the French Resistance and later were captured and sent to concentration camps. It’s based on actual stories from that time.
ABW: Tough times. Really tough. I look forward to reading both of your upcoming releases. Thank you so much for chatting with me today, Steve!
SW: Thanks for doing the interview.
Readers: if you want to know more about Steve Watkins and his books, you can find him on Facebook, visit his website, or go to a Scholastic Book Fair. Steve isn’t on Twitter, but if you are, search “author Steve Watkins” to scroll through photos that librarians have tweeted during Steve’s many school visits. (On Twitter you’ll also encounter a Steve Watkins who’s written the book Pilgrim Strong, but that Steve Watkins is not this Steve Watkins.)