An imaginative child, Delia Ray made up her own mythology in elementary school. (photo by Cheryl Fusco Johnson)
While growing up in Tidewater, Virginia, author Delia Ray, her sister, and a visiting cousin invented the Brave Girl Club. The trio dared each other to attempt scary feats, like swimming through an algae-covered, snake-infested pond or scaling a scorching tin barn roof in August. The Ray family’s 150-acre farm stood near a historic, deserted settlement, and sometimes the girls challenged each other to sneak—solo—into abandoned houses and shops. Each girl had to bring back crumbling newspapers or fading letters, something tangible to prove she had explored the rooms inside. Together, the Brave Girls studied these artifacts.
During a recent visit to Fairfield, Delia explained, “We tried to figure out who the people might have been who lived in those old houses. We put together stories about them.”
One day, Delia’s mom surprised the girls with a metal detector.
“We would spend our summers in the woods with this metal detector looking for things that had been left behind,” Delia said.
They discovered silverware, hinges, padlocks, and big, old-fashioned keys.
“Any little thing that we found made us really excited. We made our own little museum there,” Delia added.
These childhood adventures imbued Delia with a fascination for people of the past and historical events. After graduating from the Radcliffe Publishing Course and the University of Virginia, Delia edited books for a small publishing company in Seattle while writing two of her own. Both are acclaimed nonfiction books for young people. The New York Public Library honored Delia’s book Behind the Blue and the Gray: The Soldier’s Life in the Civil War with its Books for the Teen Age Award. Her book A Nation Torn: The Story of How the Civil War Began earned the Bank Street College Children’s Book of the Year Award. A starred review in School Library Journal predicted that A Nation Torn would become “a well-used resource in any library” and reported that Delia put “the confusing events of 1860 and 1861 into clear focus” while using primary source material to add “a human perspective.”
Delia followed up on these successes by mastering a different genre, historical fiction. Set in the Blue Ridge Mountains during the Depression, her 2003 novel Ghost Girl was nominated to the final master lists for Children’s Choice awards in six states. April Sloane, the 11-year-old main character, never attended school but longs to do so after President Herbert Hoover and his wife build a one-room schoolhouse near her home. The Hoovers hire Miss Vest as the new teacher.
Delia based this inspiring coming-of-age story on letters exchanged between the real-life Miss Vest and the White House. In a starred review, Kirkus lauded Delia’s “loving attention to setting, character, and detail.” Ghost Girl won the 2004 Society of School Librarians International Award.
Closer to home, Delia found another story to tell. Set in the South in 1948, her novel Singing Hands fictionalizes colorful tales her mother told her about growing up as a hearing child born to deaf parents. (Delia’s deaf grandfather was an energetic leader of the Southern deaf community.) Horn Book found Delia’s portrayal of a signing household “natural and convincing.”
In her latest book, Here Lies Linc, Delia masterfully explores yet another genre, contemporary novels for middle-grade readers. Managing to be both funny and poignant, this book, a Junior Library Guild Selection, details 12-year-old Lincoln Crenshaw’s attempts to come to terms with a dead father, an eccentric mother, and his misfit status after transferring from private to public school.
Delia slipped historical events and real people from the past into this contemporary novel by setting it in Iowa City’s Oakland Cemetery. That’s where Linc’s father’s ashes reside and where his family’s secrets unravel. In real life, Oakland Cemetery is home to a bronze nine-and-a-half-foot-tall statue called the Black Angel. Meticulous research and good luck enabled Delia to craft an “Author’s Note” that dispels myths and reveals facts about the statue.
Writing about the Black Angel on her website (deliaray.com), Delia explained, “The more secrets I uncovered, the more I began to realize that the true stories behind graveyards and ‘haunted’ sites like the Black Angel are often much more interesting than the ghost stories that surround them.”
Each chapter of Here Lies Linc opens with a pithy epitaph from an actual headstone. Delia feels epitaphs “capture the vast range of emotions and experience represented in our graveyards. Sadness, but also humor and joy.” For Delia, wandering through an old cemetery is like browsing through a good book, “waiting for the hidden stories to come alive.”
Bringing hidden stories to life is a snap for Brave Girls who love finding artifacts in slightly scary places, puzzling over their meanings, and sharing stories of people who lived long ago. n
© 2011 Cheryl Fusco Johnson