As a curious young reader in Madison’s public schools, Rebecca Behrens became obsessed with one of history’s mysteries that occurred far away, off the coast of North Carolina. In the late 1500s, a group of more than 100 English settlers disappeared with only a few clues. Today, the mystery remains unsolved.
The “Lost Colony” of Roanoke Island inspired Behrens to write her second middle-grade novel, “Summer of Lost and Found,” just released by a Simon & Schuster imprint. In this book, she tells the story of a contemporary girl, Nell, who spends a summer with her botanist mom on Roanoke Island, researching the Lost Colony and the unique grapevine that grows there.
Behrens, who now lives in New York, came on the youth fiction scene with 2014’s “When Audrey Met Alice,” another historical fiction novel for middle-grade readers. That book was a light-hearted look at growing up in the White House through the lens of Alice Roosevelt, Teddy’s oldest daughter, and a fictional contemporary counterpart.
Behrens, 33, will be back in Madison to visit family and promote her new book at Mystery to Me bookstore on June 11.
Q: What inspired you to write “Summer of Lost and Found”?
A: I have very distinct memories of first learning about the Lost Colony in my fifth-grade class at Thoreau Elementary. There was a sidebar in the textbook that briefly talked about it. We were probably learning about Jamestown. I thought it was so interesting that 116 people had come over from England and completely disappeared. Hundreds of years later, no one had really figured out what happened. I was really interested in history as a child, and mysteries, and the combination of the two was so enticing.
When I was trying to think of a new book to write after working on “When Audrey Met Alice,” I went to one of the topics that I found interesting when I was a middle-grade reader myself. I liked the idea of not just setting the book in that time period, but (having) a contemporary kid who finds out about the mystery and gets a chance to be on Roanoke Island and to be able to hunt around for clues.
Q: Did you go there to research?
A: I took a research trip to Roanoke, which fulfilled my lifelong dream to actually see the island myself because I had imagined it so much. It’s a great place to visit because there’s so much natural beauty and there’s also so much history. Not just the Lost Colony, but it was an important site in the Civil War, and it’s adjacent to where the Wright Brothers took their first powered flight. It’s just a really cool place to visit.
Q: Are any characters in your book based on real people?
A: There is one character who is, but I can’t say too much without creating a spoiler. There are some mysterious passages written from the point of view of a young colonist. It’s clear from the beginning that the character is based on a historical person.
Q: Tell us about the scuppernong.
A: The scuppernong is a type of grape, a muscadine, that’s found in North Carolina. The Mother Vine is an actual grapevine on Roanoke Island, which is believed to be older than 400 years. It’s thought to be the oldest cultivated grapevine in North America. It’s pretty cool. I did see it when I was doing research.
Q: What lessons do you hope to impart with this book?
A: First and foremost I’m trying to tell a good story that’s engaging. But there’s so much information that I uncover when I’m researching. I personally find it so fascinating. I hope readers become as interested as I am, or that it will spark an interest in something they’ve read about that they’ll continue to explore and maybe write their own fiction about, especially if they’re young readers. I haven’t consciously tried to write books that mirror my own interest as a person living today who likes to learn about the past, but both of the protagonists I’ve written so far are contemporary girls who encounter a piece of history and then run with it.
Q: What are you working on?
A: I’ll be publishing another book with Simon & Schuster in early 2018. It forms a nice trio with the other two books. It’s another book that deals with a real historical figure or event, in this case Amelia Earhart. There’s an epistolary aspect to it, where letters contribute to a girl exploring her story. The main narrative is set in 1967. The three things I was most interested in from childhood onward were probably the White House, The Lost Colony of Roanoke and Amelia Earhart.
Q: Any final thoughts?
A: I think I was lucky to grow up in a community that has such a culture of literacy. Not just in my education in Madison public schools, but the events at the library. I was able as a young reader to see my favorite author, Sharon Creech, speak at the university, and that had a huge effect on me, to see a person who’s actually creating books and see that it’s a career I could pursue. I definitely think that Madison has a lot to do with why I became an author. The curiosity that I have about culture and history — there were so many things growing up in Madison that were available to me that sparked my interest.