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Interview with Marie Sontag

Marie Sontag enjoys transporting middle grade and young adult readers to various time periods and locations by creating stories that bring the past to life. Her fifteen years of teaching middle school and high school have given her insight into what students find entertaining, and her B.A. in social science and M.A. and Ph.D. in education provide her with a solid background for writing historical fiction.

Born in Wisconsin, she spent most of her life in California, but now lives with her husband in Texas. When not writing, she enjoys romping with her grandkids, playing clarinet and saxophone in a community band, and nibbling red licorice or Tootsie Pops while devouring a good book.
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Your books sound like an interesting way for young people to learn history by experiencing through the characters what it was really like for kids at those times. They were the types of books I chose for my teen students to read when I taught ESL to junior high grades. I hope teachers and parents will discover them. Have you won any awards?
Yes, I just received some terrific news. My 2022 YA historical fiction release, Yosemite Trail Discovered, won first place in the Angel Books Awards for YA novel. It is also on the short list for the Chanticleer Dante Rossetti YA award. The finalists for the Chanticleer awards will be announced after April 29, 2023.

Congratulations! I’m excited for you. Regarding your current publication, Underground Scouts, on your website you have an interview with Halina Butler, who was a scout in the 1944 Polish uprising. Is she a character in Underground Scouts, or did you base one of the fictional characters on her?
I didn’t meet Halina until after I wrote the first version of Underground Scouts, originally titled Rising Hope. I learned she was in the same battalion I wrote about, and I later had tea at her home. We became fast friends. I included a mention of her in this revision of the book that is now coming out as Underground Scouts.

How did you get started writing this story? Was it through meeting some other actual scouts of the time?
The idea for the story struck me when my husband and I visited Warsaw in 2008. We had a sixteen-year-old Polish foreign exchange student, Staś, live with us for a year in 1996-1997. We stayed in touch, and now his children call us Grandma and Grandpa. When we visited Staś in 2008, he took us to the Warsaw Rising Museum. That’s where I heard about the Polish Boy Scouts and Girl Guides’ involvement in the event the Varsovians call “The Rising.” I told my husband, “The middle-school students I teach in the U.S. need to hear how Polish youth were willing to give up their lives to maintain democracy.” The best way I thought to do that was to research the facts, place a fictional teen in the middle of the real action, and add narrative drama to make this amazing past come to life. The result was Underground Scouts.

When writing fiction based on real characters, do you change names and details to keep it strictly fictional, or do you include some real names and facts?
Since I formerly taught social studies for fifteen years, I keep the details, names, and facts as real as possible. I want readers to see history through my fictional character’s eyes so they can draw their own conclusions if they spot current-day applications from what happened in the past. The fictional character gives me enough leverage to add drama, enabling the events to come to life for the reader, helping them to feel what real people felt in those situations. At the end of most of my books I include the names of the real characters and the fictional ones to help the reader make the distinction.

It sounds like Underground Scouts brings alive a very different time and place to American young adults. What message do you hope readers take away from this book?
During WWII, the Polish Boy Scouts and Girl Guides risked their lives in order to preserve their democratic nation and religious freedom. My 89-year-old friend Halina was a 12 -year-old Girl Guide when the Germans invaded, and she was 17 when she joined the Underground Army’s Zoshka Battalion. As she says, “We were not heroes. We only did what we had to do.” Would American youth today be willing to do the same for their country? My hope is that after reading this book, their answer would be yes.

How do you weave faith and hope into the story?
I weave faith and hope into the story through the Scouts’ symbol of the kotwica. This Polish word kotwica means “anchor” in English. You can see it as an “Easter Egg” on the cover. The Scouts combined two Polish words that meant “Fighting Polish” —Polish words that start with a P and a W, to foist psychological warfare on the Germans. They painted this symbol on buildings around Warsaw, risking their lives by going out after curfew. The signs served to put the Germans on notice that Scouts would strike somewhere, somehow, some time, and they wouldn’t see it coming. Halina mentioned she was one of the Scouts who did this.

Two fictional adult sisters in the story code-named Auntie L and Auntie M are Christians who work with the Underground in Warsaw. A few of the fictional Scouts I insert into the drama live with these older ladies as the Scouts carry out their secret acts of resistance and sabotage. The Scouts often see the women reading Scripture together in the morning.

During the third year of the occupation, a seventeen-year-old Scout named Magdalena grows discouraged by the years of deprivation and death. She wonders where God is in all of this.

Auntie L tells her, “Evil men make evil choices, but that doesn’t change who God is. You know that Auntie M and I read a portion of Scripture together every morning, right?”

Magdalena nodded.

“This morning,” Auntie L said, “we read how God’s character is unchangeable. So, we put our hope in the fact that God’s nature of love, mercy, and justice never changes, despite what’s going on around us. The passage we read said, ‘We have this hope as an anchor for the soul.”

For Magdalena, the anchor that had meant “Fighting Polish” now served as a reminder that the Lord was the anchor of her soul. No matter the outcome of the war, and no matter how grim things looked, God was still a God of love and would prevail.

In some parts of the world, young people are even now drawn into fighting for their countries, in various ways. Do you have any plans to write their stories in the future, possibly as contemporary fiction?
No, I don’t plan to write contemporary fiction. I have a passion to touch the hearts and minds of today’s youth by showing them a Christian worldview as I help bring the past to life through historical fiction.

The theme of young people actively involved in real warfare is not a common one for YA. However, there seems to be a lot of speculative fiction published for YA, in which there is some type of struggle going on. What do you think may be some reasons for this?

Youth are discouraged by today’s looming problems. As adults tackle them, the problems seem insurmountable. The daily news serves as an example of how leaders fail to give direction to their countries, parents fail to build vital families, and individuals fail at life, choosing instead to numb or medicate themselves to avoid the pain of their bad choices. Feeling powerless, today’s youth can live vicariously through the lives of speculative, fantasy, or dystopian figures who overcome great obstacles. As Christian writers, we need to let youth experience the triumph of historical people their age—historical counterparts who overcame a sense of helplessness through finding a relationship with the Lord, our all-powerful, all-loving God.

Is there anything you would like to say to other YA authors, particular about writing historical fiction?
I’ve recently helped a few of my local MG and YA authors form a group called “Family-Friendly Fiction Writers.” We’re in the initial stages, but our goal is to “provide middle-grade and young adult readers with adventurous, humorous, and inspiring fiction that touches both their minds and their hearts.” To other YA authors, I’d say find a group of like-minded writers, pray together, encourage each other, then get out there and place your books in the hands of today’s youth, especially historical fiction. Let students see how God works in the real world through your fictional and historical characters. Let them “taste and see that the Lord is good.”
Pearl Fredericksen lives on the beautiful west coast of Canada, where she enjoys photographing the scenery and writing about her favourite places. She also loves to read and post reviews to spread the word about good books. Her little dog, Bear, sits under her desk to keep her feet warm while she writes. He's very cute, and you can see him in quite a few photos at

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