Dr. Ellen K. Rudolph Blog An Interview With Dr. Ellen About Her Children’s Book – Dr. Ellen's Blog

An Interview With Dr. Ellen About Her Children’s Book

Posted on February 4, 2012 By

A New York book club interviewed Dr. Ellen about her children’s book – WILLI GETS A HISTORY LESSON  – and about the thinking that went into its design and construction.

Read her book online HERE


Question: Dr. Ellen, how did you come to write your illustrated children’s book?

I lived in Virginia’s Historic Triangle region for a great many years, and also photographed it professionally for most of those years. I wanted children to have a way to experience the region even if they were not able to visit it in person.

Elementary school-aged children (to whom the book is geared) study Virginia’s role in the birth of our nation, but rarely with photo-driven books like the WILLI book which uses more than 70 photo illustrations. Each illustration is worth more than a thousand words as the saying goes.

I selected photos that would resonate with children while building a heart-warming story of friendship around them.

But, photo illustrated books are expensive to publish which is why you don’t see too many of them. But I wanted to do this kind of book anyway because I know the power of images to evoke learning.

I did the illustrations myself using my graphics skills to import the dog, WILLI, into my professional photographs of the region. That forced me to THINK LIKE A CHILD – which I found important in actually writing the book!

Question: So your book is a history book, then?

It is classified as juvenile fiction because it is about a small dog that gets lost in the Historic Triangle region and embarks on a search to find her owner. Along the way the dog, Willi, encounters many Virginia animals and historic figures who come to her assistance, and help direct her eventually to the Yorktown Battlefields where she reunites with her owner – but not before many exciting adventures occur, some of which lead the reader to worry that she will never find her owner!

Because the story is set in a very historic region, the photographic plates have great educational value in exposing the child reader to many historically significant sites in Virginia’s history.

The dog’s journey starts in Jamestown, VA and continues through Williamsburg and Colonial Williamsburg, as well as the College of William and Mary campus, and it ends in Yorktown where the war for Independence was won. A very historic Byway – the Colonial Parkway – connects all three areas. The dog, Willi, learns in passing about the wildlife that inhabit the parkway and the two major river systems that embrace it (the mighty James and York Rivers).

In addition, the book includes a 23-page appendix of reference material to help parents and teachers answer all those questions that children love to ask! Many adults, including local residents, have told me that they learned things by reading the appendix that they had not known before.

Older children can conduct their own historical research using the appendix.

The book’s heroine, Willi, is owned by a friend of mine who also happens to be Willi’s owner in the story, Mr. V. David Hazzard of Williamsburg is now retired from his role as a Virginia archaeologist and Director of Virginia’s Threatened Sites Program. This fact gave me liberal access to the dog for photographic purposes, which was important because I had to posture the dog in so many different ways to make the story believable to kids. That alone was great fun! Not long ago I brought Mr. V and Willi with me to the Rawls Byrd Elementary School in Williamsburg to talk with the kids about the book and their reactions to it – two other characters from the book also joined us there; Colonial Williamsburg’s Thomas Jefferson and also the leader of CW’s famous Fifes and Drum Corps, Mr. Lance Pedigo. They came in their colonial-era clothing which totally thrilled the kids.

Also, the opportunity to touch and talk with major characters in the book helped bring the story home to the children who were equally thrilled to be able to meet the dog, WILLI, in person.

That visit was filmed for the school and also for my use as a book promotional tool, and it is available for viewing on YouTube.

Question: Can you elaborate on the significance of Virginia’s Historic Triangle for our listeners?

Yes, of course! For starters:

(1) The Historic Triangle gave birth to the United States, how’s that for significance?!

(2) Ideas of REVOLUTION were fanned at Williamsburg.

(3) Our independence was won in the final victory at Yorktown.

(4) Our Representative form of government has its origins in the Historic Triangle – Virginia colonists convened at Jamestown in 1619 in the first representative assembly ever held in the New World (a long, long time before, according to historian Martha McCartney, Williamsburg was even a twinkle in anyone’s eye!)

(5) Had the revolutionaries in Williamsburg been less intent – or if the French had won at Yorktown – what kind of nation might we have become instead?

These are engaging questions for eager young minds – 400 years later we are still trying to deal with the struggles between Europeans, American Indians, and Africans as they played out in the Historic Triangle.

When the early English settlers landed at Jamestown in 1607 they were expecting to easily subdue “this land of plenty” and found, instead, harrowing conditions that nearly did them in.

These things raise even more questions for inquiring young minds: how did that first representative assembly at Jamestown work? How does it compare to what we have today?

The seeds of representative government spring from events that happened in Virginia’s Historic Triangle – so it is not just a pretty place to visit – it is history that is critical to our current day experience as Americans.

I worry that children are not getting a sufficient grounding in early American history. In thinking back to my own school days, about all I can (really) remember about history are all the names and dates that I had to memorize, along with those preamble statements to various Liberty documents. You know, things like…”Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, upon this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

While memorizing that preamble may be important at some level, it is still an approach to history that fails to cultivate a sense of excitement and interest in our early American origins. It doesn’t transport us there emotionally. As an author I wanted to be part of any movement that highlights interest in the lessons learned in Virginia’s Historic Triangle.

For example, we are still learning a lot about those days at Jamestown through the work of Dr. Bill Kelso and his archeological colleagues in the Jamestown Rediscovery project. Willi learns a bit about this project in my book but there is so much more to learn!

The lesson for all of us is that we cannot make good political decisions without knowing what came before us in history. A collective ignorance about the past allows patterns to repeat without our even questioning them, which is something that is happening more and more in our society.

I have asked whole auditoriums filled with kids what subjects they like best in school — and least — and history is clearly in the ‘least liked’ category. We need to fix that.

I wasn’t too keen about history myself until I took a freshman class at the University of Minnesota from a professor who really made history come alive for me. You would have thought those historic figures were right there in that classroom with us. I loved that class!

Question: I guess you are a fan of history in your own life?

I am, indeed. I find that it is ever more important for me to know what actually happened in our Republic’s past as I read about challenge after challenge to our most precious form of self-government of the people, by the people and for the people.

We face many challenges today to our most basic freedoms and our sense of self-reliance as citizens.

Our founding fathers promoted the notion that less government is the ideal in a free society, not more government. I want young children today to learn about that, and about why it is such an important concept in our evolution as a Republic and political force for Democracy in the world.

What I have found in my own research – and I suspect this plays out in the very textbooks that our children read – is that textbook writers themselves are sometimes seriously biased in their approach. They often leave out important things that don’t ‘fit’ well with the particular political case they are making in their textbooks or, if not that, they seriously distort history by virtue of focusing on some things more than other things. Sometimes this is a deliberate process, sometimes it is a mindless thing that simply goes unnoticed…

But we need to know our true history, warts and all. Indeed, I think it is rather shocking that a Board of Education somewhere can scratch this or that fact from a major textbook, just for political reasons!

Question: This leads me to your notion of ‘character education’ that you speak of on your blog and elsewhere. Can you tell us more about that?

One of the most important things we can do for our children is to give them experiences in character building. There is no doubt about it, people with good character are the best models we have in our world.

I am an expert in the Bowen Theory of family emotional functioning. Because of that, an over-riding preoccupation of mine as a writer of children’s books is to evoke awareness in my child readers of the natural history of the Historic Triangle region, right along with the regional and human history.

This is the STUFF of character building! Character building promotes an upbeat attitude about life. It fosters good will between people. It fosters a nurturing environment where – as in my Willi book – getting lost is not necessarily the end of the world. Character building fosters a reverence for all living things.

So the Willi story is not just about an endearing little dog, or even just about exposure to good early American history. It is about the evolution of thinking in children that encourages discovery and interactivity with others in a respectful way.

That said, character education is sorely lacking in this era of SOL’s (Standards of Learning) and NO CHILD LEFT BEHIND legislation. Such curriculum mandates do not leave much time for character building or for the analysis of what constitutes character building, let alone why it is even important to think about it.

A child’s wider-community models many things, some of them good like character building experiences, and some of them not so good; like disconnectedness and cutoffness, family and marital discord, fraudulent and violent behavior – to name but a few problematic things.

Adults who model strong character to their children in turn raise children who grow up to have strong character themselves. Things do intervene to change this but for the most part this is how familial dynamics work.

Question: So what are the core ethical values that make up character building, Dr. Ellen?

Core ethical values of caring, honesty, fairness, a sense of self-responsibility, and a respect for others – these are the fruits of true character building experiences. They form the basis of good character development and affirm our human dignity and promote the development of (and the welfare of) the individual.

Individual self-direction and self-fullness, if you will – these are the things that keep us from being engulfed by the forces of anxious fuision that are so prevalent around us.

Children with solid character-building experiences go out into the world with potent tools at their disposal. With these tools they can fight off the hapless forces that only want to drag them down, if possible, or lead them astray. A self-directed child who has learned how to evaluate the world around them in these terms knows clearly who possesses self-respect and who does not – who harbors good-will towards others and who does not. And that alone is vital, self-preserving information!

Children grow to understand core values by studying them and through an ongoing discussion of such values, and also by observing good models and successfully resolving problems involving these values.

Willi’s experience of being lost and then found helps promote this kind of understanding.

It’s all about empathy and a sense of community, and about forming caring relationships that do not degrade SELF in the process. Many relationships in life unfortunately do serve to degrade self.

Everything that goes on in the life of a child affects his or her character. But it always interests me that schools have (a) academic curriculums and also (b) extra-curricular activities – yet there is also a more hidden curriculum that affects character development that schools routinely ignore:

-the existence of natural consequences (good and bad) for ones behavior
-repercussions for anti-social behavior
-ostracism, rejection, or banishment from a group’s activities
-unfairness in dealings with others
-political correctness (whatever that is)
-corruption and its insidious effects

We need to be spending more time on such things and on open and frank analysis of what goes wrong in our Society that allows such things to occur. This effort, though, takes time, thoughtfulness, introspection, thinking out loud – things that fast-paced curriculums and SOL’s simply do not allow for.

Children have strong needs for safety, belonging, and for the experience of contributing to society. [Willi’s friends all come to her aid, even some historical figures]. We also know that children learn by doing. And by so doing they see how cooperating with others works and why that might be important in the grand scheme of things.

But the experience of character building (like any good children’s book) has to be inherently interesting and meaningful to children. Boring stories do not work — boring, endless strings of unintelligible paragraphs do not work — nor do boring lectures work — dictatorial, coercive teaching methods do not work — even curriculum dictums do not work.

Character building evolves over time as opportunities for dialogue and character analysis arise in a child’s life with adults who are important to them.

Question: How does this apply to reading your WILLI book?

Well, parents and teachers interested in character development will surely discuss Willi’s lost and found experiences in this regard, and they will reflect on the dog’s owner, Mr. V, who initially leaves the dog in a parked car on a hot summer day while visiting a living museum in Jamestown. They will also discuss, though, how Mr. V. redeemed himself later on by doing everything in his power to find his dog, no matter what it took.

‘Character’ is often described as doing the right thing when no one is looking.

For example, a person with character will not run a red light because it is the right thing to do to stop at the red light, not only out of self-preservation but in respect for others around them. A person with character will not pocket the $100 bill found on the street, but will first try to find its owner if possible – they may even turn the $100 bill into the local police department with information about where it was found, etc.

A person with character will pocket his or her trash rather than dumping it indiscriminately on the ground. Adults will vote in political elections because they see it as their civic responsibility to do so. Students will take classes in school and study for them in a way that will help them learn the material, not just to get a passing grade on a test.

There are many examples of what constitutes ‘character’ – but in all of them you see a self-responsible person acting on their own accord after thinking through a dilemma and then responding appropriately to it.

You can see some of this as our heroine, Willi, walks along the Colonial Parkway expressing lonely feelings of abandonment and moments of self-doubt. It is not that self-doubt is problematic, but a person with strong character can ultimately rise above such feelings and go on.

These kinds of moments occur in everyone’s life, and they offer invaluable opportunities for children to evaluate and analyze how they might respond under similar circumstances.

Using the dog, WILLI, to evoke such discussions in very helpful. It is not so anxiety-provoking as using examples from a child’s own life until they, themselves, are ready to do so.

Question: In other words, children benefit from adult reflections on moral matters, even in books like yours.

Exactly! Parents and teachers should be asking what children can gain from Willi’s historic adventures in the way of character development. They should be thinking out loud with the children, wondering along with them what is going on and why as Willi travels through history.

Does Willi respond appropriately? What other things might have happened to her in her lost state? How do they feel about Willi’s animal friends?

Whether we are mindful of it or not, a child’s wider-community experiences offer up countless experiences that are potentially character-building if only we know how to draw the child’s attention to them.

We all know that some communities – and some families – make us feel more a part of the community than others. Some don’t allow for community building in any sense of the word; in fact, they work against community-building efforts. We also know that those communities and families that do not promote character development end up creating unhappy and often unhealthy children who grow up to be unhappy and chronically unhealthy adults.

About the best we can do is point the child in the direction of good models and be there for them when they have questions.

Question: Can you offer some summary throughts about all of this, Dr. Ellen?

Most importantly, I would say without question that helping kids learn HOW TO THINK – rather than teaching them WHAT TO THINK – builds character and gives them experience in analyzing the things that go on in their world and then – hopefully – deciding how to properly respond to them.

I would rather we dispense with rote memorization in our schools and focus, instead, on giving our children expansive opportunities to learn from doing, and to learn by talking out loud with each other about the puzzles we sometimes face.

I also encourage other authors to combine history learning with character development experiences in their children’s books so that their young readers will walk away with a renewed sense of who they are. THAT is a story that will stick with them!

See what your child thinks about WILLI’s adventures. They may just floor you with their insights!


Enjoy this VIDEO of Dr. Ellen’s visit to the Rawls Byrd Elementary School in Williamsburg, Virginia to hear what students had to say about her book…


Enjoy these PHOTOS of Willi surrounded by very enthusiastic Rawls Byrd School children.


DOWNLOAD a 92-page pdf version of the book to your desktop – for FREE!