I've been friends with Little Rock writer William B. Jones for more than 25 years. That said, someone needed to write about his new book, Petit Jean: A Wilderness Adventure, published Sept. 1 by Little Rock's Plum Street Publishers and illustrated by artist and historian Gary Zaboly. (The book sells for $24.95 in hardcover and $14.95 in paperback.)
This depiction of Arkansas Post is from William B. Jones’ book, Petit Jean: A Wilderness Adventure. Gary Zaboly, who specializes in art for books on the Colonial period and the Western frontier, created the illustration.
Little Rock writer William B. Jones is the author of a historical novella for young readers, Petit Jean: A Wilderness Adventure.
The book is a re-imagining of the enduring legend of Petit Jean, a young French woman who, in the 18th century, disguised herself as a cabin boy in order to follow her sweetheart to the New World. Her fellow sailors called her "Petit Jean" ("Little John") because of her small stature, and she is said to be buried atop the Arkansas mountain.
I talked with Jones, author of Classics Illustrated: A Cultural History and editor of Robert Louis Stevenson Reconsidered, about his book.
Q. You've written more than 100 introductions for the revived Classics Illustrated comic book series, but those introductions were aimed at adult readers, a lot of whom were looking back fondly on recovered artifacts from their youth. But this book is classified as juvenile fiction. What is it like to write for a younger audience? I understand that Liz Russell -- editor-in-chief at Plum Street -- is very particular about the text being grade level and age appropriate.
A. I've wanted to write a historical novella for younger readers for years. As a fifth-grader, I scribbled little illustrated story booklets that were my attempts at homage to [Jules] Verne, [Alexandre] Dumas, Stevenson and G.A. Henty. When my sons were little, I made up a long-running cycle of bedtime stories about a time-traveling penguin.
So the desire to write for children has been constant. In my earlier work on Classics Illustrated, I learned valuable lessons about pacing and pitching to a particular age level from CI scriptwriters and editors Helene Lecar, Eleanor Lidofsky and Al Sundel. Ms. Lecar taught me to imagine what an engaged 12-year-old would want to read and to tell that story honestly.
More recently, Liz Russell has been an ideal guide to the intricate balancing act of telling the story you want to tell while bearing in mind the realities of comprehension and interest. Petit Jean: A Wilderness Adventure began as a longer narrative with a fair number of French phrases for atmosphere. The reading level was initially pegged at 10th grade or higher.
Through a series of word-count reductions and word-choice bargains, we finally arrived at a sixth-grade level without, I hope, sacrificing historical content or thematic resonance. What I discovered through the editing process with Liz was that simpler was almost always better because it served the folk-tale tone I was hoping to establish. She's as good as they come, exacting but sympathetic.
Q. How did working with an illustrator change -- or not change -- the dynamic? I'm thinking in a way of all those comic book covers that over-promised on the story inside -- you know, like when Batman holds a dead Robin in his arms, but we know that's not really going to happen in the book. Did you directly collaborate with Gary Zaboly or was it a "here's the text, do what you will" situation?
A. Like mounting a theater production, building a book is a collaborative effort. From the very beginning of this project -- the first emails date to September 2014, finding the right illustrator was critical. I wanted the reader to have a vivid sense of a specific time and specific places -- not just some sort of vaguely generalized 18th century, but the early 1730s.
After Liz and I considered various candidates, there seemed to be only one real choice: Gary Zaboly of New York City, a historical artist who specializes in well-researched illustrations for books on the Colonial and Western frontier. He doesn't romanticize his subjects and takes painstaking care with historical detail. I was a fan of his work on [Major Robert Rogers and the Alamo], and, as it happened, he was an admirer of my work on Classics Illustrated, some of whose artists, such as John Severin and Norman Nodel, were early influences on his style.
Gary threw himself into the world of French Colonial Louisiana and Arkansas with amazing energy. He has his own reference library and can draw "Compagnies Franches" marines (who constituted the French military presence throughout New France) in his sleep. I provided photos of Petit Jean Mountain, images of certain historical figures and a view of New Orleans as it appeared in 1732. Liz, Gary and I had email equivalents of conference calls throughout the process. But I wrote the text first, from May to July 2015, and then sent it to Gary. There were a couple of key scenes that Liz and I thought should be represented and I described hair color, but otherwise the illustration choices and characters' features were his realm.
The most exciting part of the creative collaboration was finding an email from Gary a couple of times a week with a new illustration attached. His work was finished by January. As the artwork grew, book designer Liz Lester of Fayetteville began offering ideas for fonts and layout. We all agreed that Petit Jean should have an 18th-century look for the title, chapter headings, and initial caps. I think she succeeded wonderfully in pulling all the textual and illustrative elements together.
Q. The book is beautiful and I love how it is conceptualized -- not as a picture book exactly, but it recalls certain books I remember from my childhood. I imagine you can think of specific works it compares to and may have influenced it.
A. What all of us -- writer, artist, editor, designer -- wanted to evoke was exactly what you mention: illustrated books from one's childhood. In my case that would have been the midcentury Grosset & Dunlap Illustrated Junior Library series of classics illustrated by such artists as Lynd Ward and Norman Price, or the Random House Landmark Books series of American and world history illustrated by Donald McKay and others.
I sought to pay tribute to three authors in particular and have scattered allusions to their works throughout the novella: Robert Louis Stevenson (Treasure Island and especially The Black Arrow with its disguised heroine); James Fenimore Cooper (The Last of the Mohicans and The Prairie); and Alexandre Dumas (The Conspirators). In the case of Dumas, I imported the hero and heroine of his first novel, The Conspirators, and show them in action 14 years later.
Q. There are several versions of the legend of Petit Jean. How did you weave your narrative from them?
A. I was very much aware at all times that this legend -- specifically the disguised-heroine version -- means so much to so many people in this state. Almost every Arkansan, it seems, has an emotional investment in the young French woman who sacrificed "all for love" and in the mountain supposedly named for her. She is, as I mention in the afterword, the Arkansas equivalent of Louisiana's Evangeline.
As part of my preparation, I read Dr. T.W. Hardison's accounts of the different possible place-name origins, as well as Judge Morris S. Arnold's account of a male French hunter nicknamed "Petit Jean" who was killed by Indians in the 1730s. I was also acquainted with Marguerite Turner's 1955 book Petit Jean: A Girl, A Mountain, A Community, as it forms the narrative basis for signs at the state park and in the article in the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas.
But that book's setting in the late-18th-century period of the French Revolution, which would have been during the Spanish domination of Arkansas, didn't make much historical sense to me. So I decided to move the time period back to 1732-33, which would correspond with Judge Arnold's account of the historical -- and male -- death of Petit Jean.
I immersed myself in earlier variants of the legend and then did my best to honor them (I renamed my heroine "Marguerite" as a nod and bow to Ms. Turner) while telling what I believed would be a more historically plausible tale that would embrace not only Arkansas but also, to the extent possible, the sweep of Louis XV's colonial enterprise in the New World and the epic experience of a journey up the Mississippi and Arkansas rivers.
From Versailles, Paris and Le Havre, I sent my expanded cast of characters to Saint-Domingue (now Haiti), La Balize (at the mouth of the Mississippi), New Orleans, Arkansas Post, the Three Villages of the Quapaws and, finally, that fateful mountain. I wanted to represent the cosmopolitan world of New France. In addition to legendary and historical figures, I included as a major character a fictional Quapaw guide and named him Wasa (Bear). I also added another fictional character, Joseph Marron, a biracial young man from Saint-Domingue with a connection to the heroine.
Q. Do you see the book as an educational text?
A. The book includes two pages of sources for readers to explore. Plum Street will feature on its website educational material related to the novella. It's our hope teachers in Arkansas and Louisiana will find it a useful supplement to middle-school state history courses. The primary purpose of Andre Chauvet's voyage is historical (though Chauvet himself is not); he's ordered by Louis XV to deal with a political situation in New Orleans that actually transpired in 1732. Several chapters are set in New Orleans, which is re-created in text and image as it was at the time. Chauvet and his party arrive at Arkansas Post less than a year after Commandant de Coulange, a historical figure and character in the book, re-established the outpost.
I give detailed descriptions of the place, based on Morris Arnold's books, and set one chapter in the Quapaw village of Kappa, where a tribal adoption ceremony occurs, derived from an account by an 18th-century French explorer, Jean-Bernard Bossu. I even massaged the timeline so that Marguerite (Petit Jean) would be present in September 1732 for the birth of Coulange's daughter, Francoise-Marie, the first French child born in what is now Arkansas. One of the main points of the "historical fiction," of course, is to remind readers that this popular legend exists in the context of a larger world as complex as ours.
Q. I think we should mention that the book has been selected for the National Book Festival. How did that come about?
A. The selection of Petit Jean as the representative Arkansas book came as a complete surprise to both Liz Russell and me. It was a sort of "Are you seated?" moment when Liz gave me the news she had received from the Arkansas Center for the Book. As she explained it, each year, the State Library's Center for the Book submits a new Arkansas book to the Library of Congress for inclusion in the National Book Festival's "Great Reads About Great Places" brochure, which features titles from all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. territories. This list is distributed at the festival, and the Library of Congress will have all of the 2016 state selections on sale at the festival. Copies of each of those books will be added to the special collection in the Young Readers Center at the [Library of Congress]. Plum Street Publishers had made no formal submission for consideration. I felt incredibly honored and overwhelmed.
Q. Do you have any follow-ups planned?
A. There are a couple of possibilities, one growing directly from Petit Jean involving Quapaw folktales, and the other a fictional narrative set in Little Rock in 1835 at the time of Davy Crockett's brief stay in the city. At some point I'd like to expand the Petit Jean story and explore what might have happened with the three remaining principal characters who represent three different groups in New France -- French, Quapaw, Caribbean.
William B. Jones will discuss Petit Jean: A Wilderness Adventure at noon Wednesday at the Legacies & Lunch program at the Darragh Center, Main Library, 100 Rock St., Little Rock. Info: butlercenter.org
Style on 09/04/2016
Print Headline: Petit Jean tale targets young readers