Early this spring children’s book editor and first time author Rebecca Behrens visited the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace National Historic Site. After the house tour she introduced herself and told me about her first novel. When Audrey Met Alice. I read the book recently and enjoyed it a great deal. Here is the first of a two part interview.
The Strawfoot: Your new book, When Audrey Met Alice, tells the story of Audrey Rhodes and her experiences as first daughter. What inspired you to write the novel?
Rebecca Behrens: The White House seems like such a serious, powerful place—but it’s both a historic site and a home, one where first kids can have tea parties, build tree houses, and play hide-and-seek. When I made that connection as a kid, after seeing photographs of the Kennedy children playing in the Oval Office, I became fascinated by the idea of families in the White House. After President Obama was elected in 2008, I wondered how the lives of his daughters would change as they headed to Washington. I imagined that there would be a lot of wonderful and exciting opportunities for them in the coming years—and probably some hardships, too. The idea of a “first daughter” feeling a little isolated and constrained stuck with me, and soon developed into Audrey’s character.
Audrey is thirteen and discovers the fictional diary of the very real Alice Roosevelt in the floorboards of her closet in the Yellow Bedroom. Alice was also a teenage first daughter, or FIDO. How did you research and write the diary?
Much of my research was done the old-fashioned way: heading to the public library and checking out lots and lots of books on Alice Roosevelt and White House life. I used many online resources, including official White House websites, the White House Historical Association, National Parks Service sites, newspaper archives, and unofficial pages that detail White House history. I also read fiction set around Alice’s time to get a feel for how language was used. And I looked up a lot of words in etymology dictionaries to try to figure out if they were ones Alice Roosevelt and her family might have used. To write the diary entries, I started by making a timeline of events and experiences during the real Alice’s life. Then I retold them in the fictional Alice’s voice. Occasionally, I even worked in a real quote from Alice or her father.
Alice was a teenager more than a century ago and yet her experiences were similar to young people’s of every generation, minus the White House bit. What advice do you think she might give to twenty-first century teens?
While researching Alice’s White House years, I was really struck by how universal many of her experiences and concerns were. I wasn’t expecting that! She worried about her looks, her friends, and her future—just like girls who weren’t the daughter of the president, and girls today. What made Alice very unique, though, was her brave (and, at the time, pretty unconventional) commitment to living authentically. She embraced the idea of doing things differently and being true to herself—even if that ruffled some feathers. I think her famous phrase, “eat up the world!” is a great message for teens today.
There were no paparazzi as we know them today during Alice’s time but in many ways she was one of the original modern celebrities. Describe the world she lived in.
There is a great line from one of Alice’s interviews: “Woe betide the girl who emerged from the conservatory at a dance with her hair slightly disheveled. As one’s hair tended to fall down at the best of times it was frightfully difficult trying to keep up appearances.” (Mrs. L: Conversations with Alice Roosevelt Longworth by Michael Teague, p. 66) Girls in her time period were subject to intense scrutiny about their appearances and activities. It’s interesting that while famous people today are subject to invasive paparazzi and a huge amount of attention online, there is much more protection for the first family’s privacy.
The media has an unofficial agreement to not report on the first daughters outside of official events and appearances. Alice, however, had “camera fiends” appearing on the White House doorstep to take her picture. Enormous crowds showed up at her public appearances. Newspapers reported breathlessly about her activities, including her dating life. And they reported a fair number of lies: like false stories about her getting engaged or dancing on a roof in her undergarments.
Tomorrow, part 2