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How Frieda Wishinsky Found Avis Dolphin

On finding the story inside history, and bringing it alive for kids. 

Book Cover Avis Dolphin

It is because truth is stranger than fiction that it turns out Avis Dolphin was the name of an actual person before she was the subject of Frieda Wishinksy's latest book. Avis Dolphin is her story, about a young girl's journey from Canada to England on the ill-fated Lusitania during WW1. Avis is lonely and afraid until she meets a kindly professor whose stories of a magical island help her face an uncertain future. And when the Lusitania is attacked, Avis must draw on all her newfound strength to cope with the confusion, terror, and despair.

How can she survive the sudden devastation of the ship? Will the people she cares about, especially the professor, live through the horror and danger? Wishinsky's story is complemented by the art of Willow Dawson, graphic novel illustrations depicting the stories the Professor tells to Avis. 

In this guest post, Frieda Wishinsky explains how she learned about making stories from history come to life. 


I "found" Avis Dolphin while researching shipwrecks for a non-fiction book. As soon as I read about this 12-year-old who survived the torpedoing of the ocean liner Lusitania on May 7, 1915, I was intrigued. Her story was even more engaging than her name but I had many questions that the facts and official accounts didn’t answer.

How did she feel leaving her home in St. Thomas, Ontario, while World War One raged on in Europe? Why did her mother let her go? What was the trip like across the Atlantic with rumors swirling around that German U-boats were sinking ships in the Atlantic? How did she survive the destruction of the Lusitania when so many others died? How did her friendship with writer, teacher, and storyteller Professor Ian Holbourn impact her journey and her life?

The historical accounts I read about Avis only revealed the outline of what happened to her. I wanted to fill in the gaps and craft a story that told more. I wanted to answer the questions that made her come alive for me. I hoped readers would relate to Avis and imagine what it was like for her to live through such tumultuous, life-changing times. I thought the best way to do that was by writing historical fiction, a genre I’d always loved, through books, movies, and via my friend Sidney.

Unfortunately primary school didn’t inspire my love of history. It was too focused on facts, dates, and dry accounts of events. But luckily from grades 4–6 I sat near Sidney. He was a skinny kid with a lopsided grin and a gifted graphic artist before it was cool to be one. He’d pencil captions, drawings, and comments into our boring old textbook. He’d transform a static drawing or old photo into a humorous and irreverent statement about the people and times.

He commented on everything and everybody—gladiators, explorers, queens, kings, serfs, popes, and presidents. Sometimes he’d insert new actors or animals into the drama. No subject was sacred or off-limits. He appreciated the strange twists and quirky characters in history. Most of all he saw the story beneath the facts and understood that history is about real people coping with situations often beyond their control.

Sidney was also a terrific collaborator. He often incorporated my ideas into his art and words. The only problem was keeping a straight face during class.  

I missed Sidney, his jokes, and his historical analyses when we went to different high schools but luckily movies and books continued to inspire me, too.

Every Saturday afternoon I watched Million Dollar Movie on our small black-and-white TV. Many of my favorite flicks had historical themes. I loved their stories of passion, danger, or heroism, embellished with period costumes and furniture. I loved being lost in the lives of famous people like Chopin, Marie Curie, or Napoleon and fictional characters like Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, based on Harper Lee’s novel about the segregated American South, or Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities, based on Dickens' tale of the French Revolution. After each movie I raced to my World Book Encyclopedia and read more about the subject and times.

That childhood passion led me to study history in university and eventually to write about history for kids. Over the last 20 years, I’ve written narrative non-fiction and historical fiction for kids of all ages. I’m always on the look-out for compelling stories. When I read about Avis, I immediately knew that I wanted to write about her. I was drawn to her story and what she experienced on that ill-fated ship 100 years ago. Like Avis, friendship and stories have been key in my life. They’ve helped me cope in difficult times. They helped Avis survive her horrific ordeal.

I hope readers will rush to read other books or to Google and learn more about the times in which Avis lived. I hope they will identify with Avis and imagine how they would have felt if they sailed on the Lusitania. I hope history will come alive for them, as it still does for me when I read a story. 

Frieda recommends more historical fiction books and series for kids: 

Book Cover Beware Pirates

The Canadian Flyer Adventures, by Frieda Wishinsky

In this 17-book series about best friends Emily and Matt readers are taken on a fantastic adventure through Canadian history. The stories take place across Canada and range from the time of the dinosaurs until the twentieth century.


Book Cover A Sea of Sorrows

A Sea of Sorrows, by Norah McClintock

Part of the popular "Dear Canada" series this story vividly describes one girl’s experiences as she journeys to Canada during Ireland’s 1848 potato famine. All the books in the series are written in diary format.


Book Cover Clara's War

Clara’s War, by Kathy Kacer

Inspired by real events during World War Two, this book focuses on a young Jewish girl’s experiences as she lives through Nazi cruelty and occupation. 


Book Cover Parvana's Journey

Parvana’s Journey, by Deborah Ellis

In this compassionate book we meet Parvana and the difficulties and heartbreak she faces in Afghanistan.

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