Friday, June 26, 2009


Letters to Leonardo
by Dee White published by Walkers Books Australia
Release date: 1 July, 2009

On his fifteenth birthday, Matt Hudson receives a card from his dead mother – she isn't dead!
A powerful story told by Matt himself as he learns to deal with his mother's mental illness by writing letters to Leonardo da Vinci.

This morning, as promised, I have Dee White with me to talk some more about her intriguing YA novel: Letters to Leonardo, published by Walker Books Australia and being released this coming week on July 1.

Today we focus on the research process. ... Enough from me.

Welcome Dee. It is a delight to have you here.

I'm so pleased to be catching up with you again Mabel. Last time we met it was to talk about your wonderful picture book Connie and the Pigeons.
As you know, I've been so excited about Letters to Leonardo coming out, and it's such fun flitting through cyber space and visiting people to talk about my book.

Dee, you indicated 'Letters to Leonardo' has been a long time (10 years) in the making. Can you remember/explain the germ idea/s that set this story in motion. Did it start with a general topic, a specific idea or with the character whose story you wanted to explore?

The idea came from a friend of mine who told me about a man she worked with who got a letter on his 21st birthday from his supposedly 'dead' mother. I thought what an amazing story that would be. So I guess it was the idea that started me off, and from that came my main character Matt. He sort of took off and started telling his story. As I wrote, his character developed and he started choosing his own direction - and luckily for me, he allowed me to follow him and write down everything he 'said'.

Once you had established that the story focussed on an isolated and troubled boy with an absent mother and a disinterested father - where did you go from there?

I had to develop a background story - and answer a lot of questions. Why had his mother been absent? What was his father apparently disinterested? I think also in the back of my mind this title had popped into my head, "Letters to Leonardo" and it seemed to fit this story - and Leonardo da Vinci seemed just the person for artistic and sensitive Matt to write o - plus I'd always been interested in Leonardo da Vinci myself.

What were the main areas of your research?

I had to do a lot of research on the life and works of Leonardo da Vinci, and like Matt, the more I discovered about Leonardo the more obsessesed I became with him - even to the point of having a little statuette of him sitting on my desk watching over me while I write.

Leonardo da Vinci seemed like the ideal mentor figure for my main character Matt. Like Matt, Leonardo was artistic and a seeker of truth.

I also did a lot of research on bipolar and on the mental health system.

Which areas were most research intensive?

The research for all three areas was very intensive.
Leonardo da Vinci seemed like the ideal mentor figure for my main character Matt.
Like Matt, Leonardo was artistic and a seeker of truth. Once I'd decided to use Leonardo da Vinci, I read several biographies and did lots of internet research to find out as many similarities as I could between him and Matt. I wanted Leonardo's inclusion to add depth to the story, but I also wanted it to be relevant.

Next I looked at how I could incorporate Leonardo's works into the story. That's when I studied each of his paintings to try and understand what was behind them, and how they could be related to what was happening to Matt.

Many of Leonardo's works had been lost so I had to focus on the ones that hadn't been. I found some amazing books on the internet including Discovering the Life of Leonardo da Vinci by Serge Bramly, I Leonardo by Ralph Steadman, Leonardo da Vinci The Complete Paintings by Pietro C Marani and Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of His Childhood by Sigmund Freud.

I also did a lot of research on bipolar because I wanted to have a deeper understanding of how it felt to have bipolar and how it affected the way you lived.

Research into the mental health system was important too because I wanted to be as accurate as I could with how Matt's mother was treated within the system. I actually had to do the research twice because ways in which patients were treated and cared for changed so much over the decade it took me to write the book. In that time, mental health facilities were closed down, and patients were then treated in psychiatric facilities attached to hospitals.

Tell me about the research process. Where does research begin for you? In your head? Talking with friends? Reading books on allied themes? Library and/or internet search?

Research for me is so exciting - like going on an adventure. It's amazing what the most innocuous book or article can reveal.

I suppose the first thing for me is working out what I want to find out and then I interview people, read books, visit libraries, go on the internet - go wherever my research takes me. It's very easy for me to get side tracked I'm afraid.

How did you deal with conflicting reports or evidence?

I find that books are still the most reliable forms of research because information on the internet can be taken from someone else's internet post, and so the information can be innacurate all the way along the line.I try to verify my information from at least 3 reliable sources, but this isn't always possible.

Can you describe how you came to make the connection between Matt and Leonardo? What were the main elements?

The more I reseached Leonardo da Vinci, the more I discovered that he and Matt had a lot in common. They were both taken away from their mothers when they were young and essentialy grew up without them. They were both artistic, sensitive and seekers of truth. And they both had strong father figures who controlled their lives to a certain extent - particularly when they were younger.

At what point did you realise/decide this story would work better as a journal than a narrative - and why?

Right from the start, I wanted to write the story as letters. I felt this would bring readers closer to my character - really allow them to know him and understand what he was going through. Originally the story was all letters, but now it's a mixture of both letters and narrative and I think this works really well because it allows you to see Matt's day-to-day life and then see what's really going on in his head through the letters.

Research can be such an addictive process. How did you know when it was time to stop? Did you have difficulty sorting what to omit/what to include? If so, what was the hardest to let go?

That's a really good question Mabel. I think I mentioned earlier that it's really easy to get side-tracked by research, but I think that's okay because your brain stores the extra information up for later use. I suppose I stopped researching when the book was written.

I must admit that Sue Whiting, my editor at Walker was fantastic in helping me incorporate Leonardo's works seamlessly into the text. Otherwise, I think I would have included ALL Leonardo's works if I could have-and full colour photos too:-)

What did you learn about the research process?

I learned that research is always full of surprises and that you shouldn't be afraid of letting it take you in a different direction because this can add dimension to your story.

Well Dee, that is my last question. Thank you so much for being here and sharing more of your writing journey with me and my readers. I wish you all the best on the rest of your tour and particularly for your cyber launch on July 1.

Thanks for having me Mabel. It has been great catching up with you and Connie again. Must fly as I have a cyber plane to catch to my next destination,

* * * * *
To follow Dee's blog tour with her book: Letters to Leonardo visit the sites listed below

23/06/2009 Dee introduces her tour at
24/06/2009 Sally Murphy at
25/06/2009 Sally Odgers at
26/06/2009 Susan Stephenson at
27/06/2009 Mabel Kaplan at [YOU ARE HERE]
28/06/2009 Vanessa Barneveld at
29/06/2009 Dale Harcombe at
30/06/2009 Claire Saxby at

01/07/2009 CYBER BOOK LAUNCHat with a cross to Robyn Opie at

02/07/2009 Adele Walsh at
03/07/2009 Brenton Cullen at
04/07/2009 Sandy Fussell at
05/07/2009 Dee White at
06/07/2009 Dee White at
07/07/2009 Overseas stopover



Letters to Leonardo is available from major bookshops and online from:

Wednesday, June 17, 2009


On Saturday June 27, I will be interviewing Dee White about the research process behind her soon to be released YA book: Letters to Leonardo, published by Walker Books. [Release date July 1, 2009].
My interview with Dee is only part of her sixteen day blog tour with Letters to Leonardo. I hope you will follow her tour and gain further insights into the various aspects of the amazing journey that writing this book has entailed.

Blog Tour Schedule: Letters to Leonardo
23/06/2009 An intro to the tour by Dee White at
24/06/2009 Sally Murphy at
25/06/2009 Sally Odgers at
26t/06/2009 Susan Stephenson at
27/06/2009 Mabel Kaplan at
28/06/2009 Vanessa Barneveld at
29/06/2009 Dale Harcombe at
30/06/2009 Claire Saxby at
01/06/2009 Robyn Opie at
02/07/2009 Adele Walsh at
03/07/2009 Brenton Cullen at
04/07/2009 Sandy Fussell at
05/07/2009 Dee White at
06/07/2009 Dee White at
07/07/2009 Overseas stopover

The research process has always both intrigued and excited me. Some years ago I wrote a number articles on Joseph Jacobs, best known in Australia (at least) as an English folklorist. These were subsequently published in various magazines. The research process led me down some fascinating roads - and I used my work on Jacobs by way of example as the basis for a follow-up article: In Search of Joseph Jacobs printed in a 2004 edition of The Swag of Yarns: Australia’s National Storytelling Magazine (now defunct) - and which I now reproduce here.

In Search of Joseph Jacobs: The Research Process
by Mabel Kaplan (c) 2004

Until January, 2003 I had known of Joseph Jacobs only as an English Folklorist and through a smattering of children’s folktales from his collections. I assumed he was English - born and bred somewhere in the British Isles.

An entry from the website: set me off on a search for the boy and the man: 'Joseph Jacobs was born in Sydney in 1854, but soon emigrated to England and USA. He was a preminent scholar and literay critic, and published many books on Jewish history and tradition, but nowadays he is best remembered for his contribution to children's literature.'

I was intrigued ... and so began my search. I found information rather thin on the ground ... from the internet ... just the barest facts emerged. I use the word ‘facts’ here somewhat loosely as the deeper I looked the more I came to realise that material on the internet is far from reliable.

Jacobs, the boy, still eluded me. If he was born in Australia, who were his parents, did he go to school in Australia, did his parents accompany him to England, how old was he when he left Australia? So many questions!

During several days spent at the Alexander and Battye Libraries (Perth, Western Australia) I found the gem of information I needed, hidden away in Dorson’s 1968 book: The British Folklorists: A History, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London
'Of all the versatile scholars ... none proved more committed that Joseph Jacobs (1854-1916). Born in Sydney, Australia, he was educated at Sydney University, at St John’s College in Cambridge University, and at the University of Berlin.'

As I mulled over where to go from here, it struck me that if Jacobs attended Sydney University it was reasonable to assume that he went to a secondary school somewhere in Sydney at around ages 12-16. So my next question became: What secondary schools existed in Sydney between 1866-1870.

Some further research threw up two: Fort Street and Sydney Grammar.
It took some courage to go out on a limb to contact someone who didn’t know me from a tin can and ask an impossible question. After some hesitation I wrote to both schools to enquire whether Joseph Jacobs had been a student there. And BINGO! Back came a reply from Sydney Grammar dated 25/02/2003

Dear Ms Kaplan
Joseph Jacobs attended Sydney Grammar School from April 1867 - December 1871. His parent/guardian is listed as J. Jacobs, Post Office Hotel, Sydney.when at school he won the Senior Knox Prize 1870-1871; and was Captain of the School 1871. Although he was well known for his folk stories he is listed here as "historian".
Regards, Anne Jarman, Archives

With this information as a starting point, I formulated my next questions:
1. Is there any significance to only one parent/guardian being named on his enrolment? I mean, does it suggest he may have had only one parent?
2. Would the school record show any details of his birth?
3. Did Sydney Grammar have a year book during the period of JJ's enrolment there; and, if so did Joseph get a mention in them or even write something for them? Would there be any other school records e.g. school reports that offer any further insights such as subjects taken and teachers' comments?
4. Would there be any record of what schools he may have attended prior to coming to Sydney Grammar?

In response to my followup questions, I received another message from Anne Jarman of Sydney Grammar to say that she had some photocopied material of interest.

On 14 March, 2003 the eagerly awaited package arrived. In it were two cover pages of articles on Jacobs: one by Graham Seal (ironically a Western Australian academic, whom I had met) and, the other by Mary Shaner in Writers for Children. (a name that had also been included as an end reference elsewhere) Each of these contained significant information regarding Jacobs’ life and family background. But the greatest prize of all was a copy of a letter written by Jacobs (and published in the school’s magazine, Sydneian (1910), March 10, pp.15-16) to his old headmaster at Sydney Grammar, Mr Weigall to congratulate him on being named in the King's Honours List.

Bouyed by the success of contacting Sydney Grammar, I decided to try the same strategy with Sydney University and St John’s College Cambridge.

Win some, lose some! I never did hear back from Sydney University but after a little ‘to’ing and ‘fro’ing with St John’s College Cambridge, I was put in touch with a retired academic Professor John Stewig who had previously undertaken some research into the work of Joseph Jacobs. Through his secretary, he sent me two articles of considerable interest. While not all of the material related to my current project it was certainly of value for some future research into the actual processes by which tales enter into folklore.

Friends, acquaintances, former colleagues were also rich sources of information about where to look for material. Several, when they could help in no other way, were able to access journals etc on my behalf that would have been difficult for me to obtain directly.

Those readers of ‘Swag’ who are familiar with the Storytell* a listserv discussion about storytelling set up by theTexas Woman's University in Denton, Texas will also be familiar with names that regularly appear - Tim Sheppard (UK), Vicky Dworkin (University of Hawaii), Karen Chase, Lois Sprengnether, Kathy Pierce and Doug Lipman (all of USA). These people not only proved a great resource by bringing references to useful materials to my attention but for the encouragement they gave to keep me on the trail. At one point Doug Lipman wrote: “Gosh, I had no idea it was so hard to find out about Jacobs ... I find nothing easily available. ... Sorry I can't help more at the moment.”

One of my early searches had led me to the Oxford Companion to Fairytales ... ... ... Was I disappointed? On first reading it appeared to tell me nothing about what I wanted to know; told me nothing about the man -just ...

Jewish historian and folklorist. Educated and long resident in England, he was from 1900 an American citizen. His earliest writings were on Jewish anthropological studies; this led to a general interest in folklore. From 1889 to 1900 he edited the British journal Folk-Lore.

BUT it did! The penny dropped ... Jewish historian. Of course! The places I should be looking for information included the Australian Jewish Historical Society. And folklorist ... what about the Folklore societies?

But there was more. The Companion provided me with a list of what turned out to be very useful sources. An end reference to an article by Mary Shaner on ‘Joseph Jacobs’ in Writers for Children (1987) edited by Jane Bingham led me to Jacob’s daughter, May, and an article she had written about her father. It provided a rare glimpse of the man.

The Australian Jewish Historical Society and the Sydney Jewish Museum provided valuable materials. The1949 volume of the Journal of the Australian Historical Society (Vol.111, Part 11, December 1949, pp.72-91) included the article: Joseph Jacobs by David J Benjamin.

The death certificate of John Jacobs, Joseph’s father, dated 8 February, 1885 yielded a list of five of Joseph’s siblings still living in Australia. (This prompted me to place an advertisement in a Sydney newspaper - the Daily Telegraph - seeking descendents of Sydney Jacobs. I received no replies ... but then, not being a Sydney-sider, I may well have placed the advert in the ‘wrong’ newspaper to reach my intended target audience). But the greatest insights into Jacobs, the man, were to be found in obituaries posted in The American Hebrew following his death in 1916 ... nine pages in all. From these, I was able to gather snippets of information about his life and something of the regard in which he was held, as much for his character and personality as for his work.

My strongest impressions of Jacobs are of a man who from his school days never lost his intellectual fervour. His energy pursuit of knowledge was indefatigable. He was also an intensely private man who never spoke publicly of his personal life, his family or his apparent financial struggles.

Shaner alludes to his lack of financial security and his need to earn extra income from translations and reviews. Gary Alan Fine (1987) in his article “Joseph Jacobs: A Sociological Folklorist” in Folklore 98:2,183-193 also suggested that “until he moved to America , he had no teaching position, and probaby lived off his earnings.”

From the obituaries I learned much about his pleasant temperament, his wit, compassion and generosity of spirit. I learned too, of his constant battle with health, and of his being stranded in Germany at outbreak of WWI- an event from which he never really recovered

But of all the references I sought, the hardest to find was the one by his daughter:Hays, May Bradshaw (1952) Memories of my Father, Joseph Jacobs in The Horn Book Magazine, December, 1952 pp.385-392 .

Three times I searched for it in the Alexander and Battye Libraries. Three times I was told it was not in the librarys’ collections. But each time I returned I kept the reference on my list ... just in case. In the meanwhile, I enlisted the aid of one of my American ‘Storytell’ friends. She found it in a local library in Phillipsburg, New Jersey, photocopied it and posted it to me on June21, 2003.

The following week, back at the Alexander Library, what did I find but the whole collection of Horn Books shelved in an unexpected section of the library? Just goes to show even librarians don’t always get it right! Though, of course, most times they do.

What a breath of fresh air it was to discover the article by Jacobs’ daughter, May Bradshaw Hays, written in 1952. She painted a delightful picture of a fun-loving father who took time to enjoy his children, his books and his friends.

1. Be cautious of information gleaned from the internet. In the absence of other external collaboration much of what is found there is suspect. Many accounts, through well-intentioned, contained inaccuracies and (a great deal of supposition). Hypothesis written as fact!!! True also of some of the articles I read

2. Research needs imagination - divergent and lateral thinking - and above all persistence.

3. Research needs context e.g. Brief history of Australian Jewry provided feeling/immersion in topic.

4. Research requires meticulous recording of documents and referencing as you go along.

5. Research can be greatly aided by others in the field

6. Research uncovers much more than can be used. Importance of being able to focus on specific aspect/s

7. Never underestimate the value of an entry in an encyclopedia/year book or an article or essay that doesn’t seem to cover the ground you are seeking. You may find the ‘gem’ you want hidden in the list of sources at the end.

8. Not all the rides are free! For some of the materials, the institution holding them required payment for research, photocopying and postage. On several occasions I discovered after the event that I would have been wise to either have sent a list of what I already had to the institution from which I was seeking material or asked them to specify what they had so I could be more selective in what I wished to receive. In any event, on occasion I ended up paying twice.
* Website to find out about ‘Storytell’:

Postscript: A few months ago I had an email from a writer living in Israel who had come upon one of my original articles on Jacobs and wanted further information. When I checked on the internet I discovered information not available to me at the time I did my research - but the greatest treasure of all was the photo I discovered of Joseph Jacobs' father's grave in the Jewish Rookwoord Jewish Cemetry in New South Wales, setting Joseph's roots firmly back in Australia.

So I learned the research never ends!