Toni Buzzeo

So well known for her pic­ture books and board books, Toni Buzzeo is an author whose knowl­edge of books as a librar­i­an informs her writ­ing. You may know her for One Cool Friend, the Calde­cott Hon­or book illus­trat­ed by David Small, or Stay Close to Mama, illus­trat­ed by Mike Wohnout­ka, or the board book Cau­tion! Road Signs Ahead, illus­trat­ed by Chi Birmingham. 

Now Toni has turned her con­sid­er­able pow­ers to writ­ing a mid­dle grade nov­el about the elec­tri­fi­ca­tion of south­east­ern Ken­tucky in 1937 from the view­point of the charm­ing Cora Mae Tip­ton who cam­paigns with con­vic­tion for elec­tric­i­ty and her moth­er who just as strong­ly does­n’t want it. Light Comes to Shad­ow Moun­tain is his­tor­i­cal fic­tion and it’s also a cap­ti­vat­ing and heart­felt fam­i­ly sto­ry. We’re for­tu­nate to have Toni answer our ques­tions about the writ­ing of this book.

Toni Buzzeo
Toni Buzzeo
Light Comes to Shadow Mountain
Light Comes to Shad­ow Mountain

With your recent book, Light Comes to Shad­ow Moun­tain, you can now add nov­el­ist to your resume. Many book-lov­ing folk think of you as a pic­ture book author and librar­i­an. When did you first imag­ine your­self writ­ing a novel?

Toni:  Per­haps I am auda­cious, but after first draft­ing ten pic­ture book man­u­scripts that hadn’t yet sold, I decid­ed to write a mid­dle grade time-trav­el nov­el. I wrote and revised that man­u­script twen­ty-sev­en years ago. Today, it is my cur­rent Work in Progress. So, I have held the aspi­ra­tion to pub­lish a nov­el for a very long time!

Did you have doubts about writ­ing some­thing so much longer than you usu­al­ly write?

Toni:   Because my pic­ture book career real­ly took off after I pub­lished The Sea Chest in 2002, often with more than one pic­ture book pub­lished a year, I con­tin­ued to iden­ti­fy as a pic­ture book writer and my nov­el aspi­ra­tions took a back­seat. But I nev­er for­got about the dream and, in fact, draft­ed two oth­er short­er, chap­ter-book length nov­els for younger read­ers in between pic­ture book man­u­scripts. What I had doubts about was not the writ­ing of nov­els but my abil­i­ty to pub­lish them.

How long did the book take from con­cep­tion to completion?

Toni:   Get ready for an aston­ish­ing answer! A mere 12 years and two months from first man­u­script to pub­lished book. I sub­mit­ted the orig­i­nal man­u­script to the very per­son who edit­ed it, Kel­ly Lough­man at Hol­i­day House, in 2011 as a pic­ture book! Kel­ly liked it and said if I was com­mit­ted to the pic­ture book for­mat, she would sup­port me in that but that she real­ly thought it ought to be a mid­dle grade nov­el in which I could expand the con­cept of elec­tric­i­ty com­ing to the moun­tains of East­ern Ken­tucky through the eyes of eleven-year-old Cora Mae Tip­ton. It took me eight more years to real­ize that yes, there was wis­dom in that suggestion.

The book takes place in 1937. What prompt­ed you to reach back in time to this place, this moment in history?

Toni:   My ear­li­est inspi­ra­tion came when I encoun­tered the work of Mary Breck­in­ridge and her Fron­tier Nurs­ing Ser­vice in East­ern Ken­tucky. After read­ing Rose­mary Wells’ mid­dle grade book Mary on Horse­back, I did fur­ther read­ing about Breckinridge’s efforts to bring pro­fes­sion­al med­ical care to a region with­out doc­tors, nurs­es, or hos­pi­tals. A sto­ry began to take shape in my mind about that region. When I learned that there was no elec­tric­i­ty in thse moun­tains, the sto­ry solid­i­fied around that con­cept. Then I encoun­tered the Pack Horse Library Project in the mid­dle grade non­fic­tion book, Down Cut Shin Creek: The Pack Horse Librar­i­ans of Ken­tucky by Kathi Appelt and Can­nel­la Schmitzer. This project oper­at­ed in the same moun­tain­ous region in the very same time peri­od and my librar­i­an heart sang! I had all the mak­ings of a great story.

Mary on Horseback
Mary on Horseback
Down Cut Shin Creek
Down Cut Shin Creek

When you researched the his­to­ry in the book, what resources did you turn to first?

Toni:   I did a great deal of simul­ta­ne­ous research using a vari­ety of sources. Both of the children’s books I men­tioned above were piv­otal in awak­en­ing my curios­i­ty, but of course, I imme­di­ate­ly went far beyond them. Most notably, I read Mary Breckinridge’s mem­oir, Wide Neigh­bor­hoods, and an impor­tant adult book about the elec­tri­fi­ca­tion of rur­al Ken­tucky, Let There Be Light: The Sto­ry of Rur­al Elec­tri­fi­ca­tion in Ken­tucky by David Dick.

Wide Neighborhoods
Wide Neigh­bor­hoods
Let There Be Light
Let There Be Light

What resources helped you dig deeper?

Toni:   As a librar­i­an, research­ing fur­ther was one of the deep plea­sures of the project for me. I read pub­lished his­tor­i­cal stud­ies dat­ing back to the peri­od, aca­d­e­m­ic arti­cles, and many, many books, includ­ing both fic­tion and non­fic­tion books about the region. I also watched so many videos, both orig­i­nal videos from the peri­od, pro­fes­sion­al doc­u­men­taries, and video­taped inter­views of East­ern Ken­tuck­ians. Any ques­tion, small or large, that arose as I wrote and revised sent me off in search of the one addi­tion­al per­fect resource that would sat­is­fy my curios­i­ty and the story’s demands. It was all just so fascinating.

How many drafts do you think you wrote?

Toni:   I hope this doesn’t sound like I am dodg­ing the ques­tion, but the answer is “count­less” or prob­a­bly, more accu­rate­ly, “hun­dreds.” First as a pic­ture book, then as a nov­el, Light Comes to Shad­ow Moun­tain occu­pies quite a bit of hard dri­ve space on my Mac!

In what way would you encour­age an edu­ca­tor to include Light Comes to Shad­ow Moun­tain in the class­room, as a read-aloud or for inde­pen­dent reading?

Toni:   As a for­mer teacher and pub­lic and school librar­i­an, I see such val­ue in shar­ing a book like Light Comes to Shad­ow Moun­tain. In class­rooms, it has so many uses, from the study of Depres­sion Era Amer­i­ca to the tech­no­log­i­cal mod­ern­iza­tion of Amer­i­ca, the region­al dif­fer­ences in nat­ur­al envi­ron­ments, cul­ture, and lan­guage in the Unit­ed States, and even the need for impar­tial­i­ty in jour­nal­ism. A class­room or school news­pa­per might be the per­fect project to build around a read­ing of the book.

As a librar­i­an serv­ing indi­vid­ual read­ers, I’d share this book with chil­dren who love his­to­ry, of course, but also with those we are inter­est­ed in fam­i­ly sto­ries that shine a light on con­flict and how it might be resolved in a way that doesn’t dimin­ish the role and opin­ions of younger members.

When a read­er clos­es your book, what do you believe their lin­ger­ing thoughts will be?

Toni:   While I hope that a read­er, young or old, will have encoun­tered some fas­ci­nat­ing his­to­ry that is new to them, I most fer­vent­ly hope that my young read­ers will learn that the voic­es and opin­ions of chil­dren are impor­tant in any con­ver­sa­tion — that chil­dren, espe­cial­ly tweens and teens, are impor­tant con­trib­u­tors to fam­i­ly deci­sion-mak­ing and com­mu­ni­ty change. Of course, I also hope that young read­ers will see the val­ue in striv­ing to under­stand the under­ly­ing rea­sons for opin­ions that are in oppo­si­tion to their own, as Cora (and Mom­my) came to do by the end of the novel.

Thanks for let­ting us look behind the sto­ry of this mem­o­rable book, Toni. You’ve giv­en us a lot of infor­ma­tion to share with stu­dents and read­ers every­where. More than any­thing, read­ers can be assured that they’re in for a heart­felt sto­ry filled with deli­cious scenes and a mov­ing outcome.

Light Comes to Shad­ow Moun­tain
writ­ten by Toni Buzzeo
pub­lished by Hol­i­day House, 2023

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