A new novel by Newbery award-winning author Karen Hesse is a cause for celebration. Hesse combines a remarkable storytelling ability with thorough research and the capacity to create fascinating and compelling characters. In her latest book, Brooklyn Bridge, Hesse shines a light on Brooklyn in the summer of 1903.
Ever since his Russian immigrant parents invented the stuffed teddy bear, life is moving fast for 14-year-old Joseph Michtom. But as his boisterous family is busy working to achieve the American dream, Joe begins to wonder if he'll get the chance to realize his own dream: visiting magical Coney Island.
We caught up with Hesse at her home in Vermont to explore how she came to tell this memorable tale, inspired by the real-life figures Rose and Morris Michtom.
Brooklyn Bridge is full of wonderful period details. How did you go about your research?
Where would I be without archived newspapers? Some days I feel like the nursery rhyme character, Jack Horner, who sticks in his thumb and pulls out a plum. The New York Times archives yielded many useful articles, but the newspaper that proved indispensable in this project was The Brooklyn Daily Eagle. I also used Sears, Roebuck catalogs, fiction from the period, nonfiction about the period, and photographs. Music, too. I try to absorb music from the period and play it in my computer's CD drive as I'm writing.
Brooklyn Bridge includes a parallel plot about life under the bridge itself. Were there children and others living under the Brooklyn Bridge in the early 1900s?
When I was reading through those New York Times articles, I found a piece about "the children under the bridge." Immediately, bridge children grew from the damp earth of my imagination. Only after re-reading the article did I realize these were probably children on the Lower East Side living under the "shadow" of the bridge. Too late. I already had my population of homeless children.
Later, while doing more research in Brooklyn, I haunted the underbelly of the bridge and saw that what I had envisioned was entirely possible. By 1903, efforts had begun in NYC to alleviate some of the problems of homelessness but there were still street children . . . still are.
The book is alive with strong female characters, including Joe's colorful aunts and his nose-in-a-book sister, Emily. Did you base your characters on people you know?
The family constellation of three sisters and a brother reflects my mother's experience, though these siblings are nothing like my mother and her sisters and brother. Still, I do borrow from my memories of family gatherings to create the chaos and banter that occurs around Joe's kitchen table. And the longing in each of my aunts, my uncle, my mother, my grandparents and great aunts and uncles to achieve the American dream, this I know intimately.
Did you find out any great tidbits in the real Michtom family's history that you'd like to share with readers?
The Ideal Toy Company was founded by Morris and Rose Michtom as a result of their success with the teddy bear. Some of the many well-known toys, games and dolls produced by the Michtoms include the Magic 8 Ball, Rubik's Cube and the Shirley Temple doll. The Michtoms and their children used their wealth, in part, to support causes that bettered the human condition both in this country and overseas. I learned that the real-life Joseph wanted nothing to do with the toy company. He became a dentist. His sister Emily actively pursued a philanthropic life, and Benjamin took over the family business from his father.
What is your favorite thing to do when you're not writing?
I'm so grateful for every day and how it fills up with these beautiful, painful, surprising, inspiring, moving moments. I love reading. I love film. I love taking photographs. Listening to music. I love hiking. Spending time with family and friends. Being alone. Eating out. Washing dishes. Folding laundry. I just love being. Life is such a gift.
Finally, we have to ask: did you have a teddy bear when you were a girl?
I'm smiling because I did not. My husband, Randy, however, did. His bear, whose name is Brownie, is a tattered, one-eyed, threadbare, roughly patched, much beloved presence on my shelf. Brownie looks nothing like the Michtom bears. Early on in the journey of this book I picked up in my local thrift shop a bear very similar to the original Michtom design. Brownie and my "new" Teddy spend most of their days and nights nuzzled up together on the third floor of my house.