Melissa L Gill

Children's Books

Author Profile

Melissa L Gill

I graduated with a degree in business from Baylor University and went on to earn my MBA from Baker University. I currently work as a writer and a children's bookseller. I specialize in books for juvenile readers. I am currently writing a series about the American Colonies, beginning with the voyage of the doomed ship, Sea Venture. I live and work in a suburb of Kansas City where I volunteer at the local zoo, and a nearby animal shelter. I also enjoy spending time with my nieces and nephew who give me feedback on my books.

Books

Pepper and Pocahontas

Children's Books

In 1611 Pepper, a small grey kitten is snatched from her parents and taken to live with the Great Chief Powhatan. She soon finds a place with the natural people of Virginia, but only when she sees Pocahontas does she feel truly at home. Pepper and Pocahontas form a bond. When the Indian girl is sent to a neighboring tribe, Pepper fears they will be separated forever. The cat manages to stay with Pocahontas, only to be snatched again, this time by the English. The pair gradually adapt to their new life. Pepper is even reunited with her parents, Salt and Katie. Pocahontas hopes to end the constant fighting between the English and her people by marrying John Rolfe. Then she agrees to represent her people in England. When they sail for England, Pepper is unaware that for her friend Pocahontas, this is a one way trip.

Book Bubbles from Pepper and Pocahontas

Pocahontas in Captivity

A great deal of controversy surrounds the abduction of Pocahontas and her subsequent captivity, conversion to Christianity, and marriage to John Rolfe. Since Pocahontas herself left no written record of that period of her life, we have to base our knowledge on what we know from what English people wrote. It appears that she reluctantly submitted to her captivity, and then gradually began to accept her new position. She fell in love, had a child, and traveled to England. Perhaps this was a case of "Stockholm Syndrome." On the other hand, it was common in Powhatan culture to take female hostages and integrate them into the tribe through marriage, thereby creating a lasting bond. So maybe Pocahontas thought this was an opportunity to forge a peace between her father's tribe and the whites.

The Powhatan Way

One of the best parts about writing Historical Fiction is the chance to learn about other cultures. I learned a great deal about the Powhatan while writing this book. New discoveries at the Werewocomoco archeological sight have provided information previously unavailable to historians. I was happy to be able to share this with a new generation of children.

Gift Exchange

I was intrigued to find the Powhatan people practiced a Gift Based Economy that was the exact opposite of the Market Based Economy the whites used. The Powhatan gave gifts to gain favor with their betters, or impress their peers. The more valuable the gift, the more respect the giver earned. Men in power demonstrated their great wealth and showed favor to their underlings by presenting them with gifts of food, clothing, tools, or weapons. In return, the people lavished the most prized things they could on their Chief. If a man wanted to impress a woman he gave her valuable gifts. Can you imagine what happened when the white European’s came? Chief Powhatan gave them extravagant gifts of food at a time when drought gripped the area. In exchange they gave him cheap beads, scrap copper and small tools. At first he must have thought that this was all the poor whites could afford. But when they demonstrated their ignorance by giving valuable guns to Powhatan’s enemies, he cut them off. Cats are clearly believers in the gift economy. I once had a cat who was a great hunter. A dead bird, mouse, or mole always lay in the path I took to get home from school. He was giving me his prized kills. Yay.

The Cats Mirror Their People

The Powhatan people of 1609 had a rich and successful culture. One of their leaders was Uttamatomakin. He was their spiritual leader and the husband of Matachanna, one of Chief Powhatan's daughters. The historic characters play a role in the Colonial Cats series, but they are mirrored by the cats they share their lives with. Uttamatomakin is Otter's person. Pepper meets Otter in the Powhatan village, and he teaches her the ways of his people.

Powhatan Wants a Cat?

The idea to use cats as the point-of-view characters for the story really took shape while I was doing research for Pepper and Pocahontas. When Otter tells Pepper that Chief Powhatan wants a cat more than anything, he was stating a fact. Helen Rountree, Emeritus Professor of Anthropolgy at Old Dominion University, in her book Pocahontas, Powhatan, Oppechancanough: Three Indian Lives Changed by Jamestown, has a record of Powhatan's request for a cat. Along with iron tools, copper coins, and a grinding stone, Powhatan requested that the English gift him a cat and a dog.

Searching for Pocahontas

Unlike my first book, Salt and the Sea Venture, much has been written about the life of Pocahontas. I wanted to explore other parts of her life, especially the life she led in her native community. Once again, Pepper, a cat makes a perfect story teller. She is able to experience life in both the Powhatan community and the English colonies, without taking sides. Since Pepper wasn't born when John Smith was in Jamestown, that part of the story has been omitted. This allows the focus to be on Pocahontas, not her relationship, such as it was, with John Smith.

Salt and the Sea Venture

Children's Books

The story of the doomed voyage of the Sea Venture, which set sail in 1609 to re-supply the starving Jamestown colony. When a hurricane swamped the newly built ship, it wrecked off the coast of Burmuda, leaving the passengers stranded. To reach their destination, and the desperate colonists in Virginia, the passengers had to build two new ships on the unsettled island of Bermuda. After a ten month delay, they arrived to find that most of the colonists had starved to death. Salt and the Sea Venture is a Middle Grade novel, told from the point of view of a cat onboard the ship.

Book Bubbles from Salt and the Sea Venture

Upstairs/Downstairs

In this chapter, Salt is confronted by Suleyman, who represents a member of the aristocracy in the cat world. Suleyman demands that Salt hunt for him and his family. The Turkish Angora proves to be completely unable to provide for himself. Like many of the aristocrats who joined the early expeditions to Virginia, Suleyman expected to be obeyed without question. What’s even more surprising is that the people from the lower classes did just that. Salt may have scoffed at Suleyman’s inability to hunt for himself, but when it came down to it, he went along with the aristocrat’s demand that he hunt for his family. One of the reasons that the Jamestown colony very nearly failed in the first three years was because they had too few people like Salt who were willing to work to provide food, and too many people like Suleyman who were used to being waited on.

You Want Me to Eat What?

I'm constantly amazed at the hardships people in the 17th Century had to endure. Especially when they chose to leave everything they knew and travel across the Atlantic Ocean, to a hostile and uncharted land. The early sailing ships were not built to accommodate passengers, making the two-month long journeys even more difficult. Nutrition was one of the most difficult things to accommodate for on such a long journey. Passengers had to rely on hard-tack as their primary food source. Hard-tack consists of flour and water with a little salt mixed in. They had to drill holes into the dough before baking it so they could break it apart after it hardened. Then they had to soak it in beer, or water to eat it. The hard bread was usually full of weevils and larvae. I think Salt had the right idea about eating the insects. At least they would have provided a source of protein.

Class Differences

The cats in "Salt and the Sea Venture," represent all levels of society. Salt is one of the many poor residents of London, with little hope for the future, until the opportunity to venture to the New World comes along. But the poor weren't the only ones who took passage on the Sea Venture. There were also artisans from the trade guilds, represented by the Mousingtons, and wealthy aristocrats, like Suleyman. The aristocrats endangered the whole colony. Unaccustomed to the hard work and harsh conditions required to create a new world, their inability to fend for themselves put a strain on the whole colony.

A Cat's Point of View

I knew this would be a fantastic children's story, but I needed a point of view character that kids could identify with. Since there were no children on board the Sea Venture, I chose a cat. Cat's were essential passengers on ships, but were usually overlooked. Just like modern day cats, Salt is a keen observer of the humans around him. What he sees is not pretty. The voyage of the Sea Venture was gruesome to say the least. Salt is able to communicate the horrific conditions in a way that doesn't sink the narrative into a black hole.

Morton and the Mayflwer

Children's Books

In 1621 Morton, Salt's son, joins the Hopkins family and the Pilgrims on the Mayflower. After a sixty-six day journey through stormy weather, they finally reach Cape Cod. Too bad they meant to wind up way farther south. Now the Pilgrims have to figure out who's in charge and where they will live. They have to battle the freezing New England winter, illness, and hostile natives. Those who survive will depend on cats like Morton to help them find their way in the New World.

Book Bubbles from Morton and the Mayflwer

A Long Time on a Small Ship

I was surprized to find that many of the Mayflower passengers spent six months or more on this tiny ship. This was no cruise ship with staterooms, it had originally been built as a cargo ship to transport wine from France and Holland Families like the Hopkins had to cram together with 100 other people. The space was about the size of a one-bedroom apartment.

Myles Standish and Captain Butler

While the cats in my stories are ficticious, I try to draw on real cats whenever possible. The model for Captain Butler (CB) was the first cat I ever had. Just like the CB in the stories, he had a long plumed black tail. The only difference was that he was a rather large cat. In contrast, the CB from the story was somewhat smaller than the average tom. I describe him this way deliberately because he is a reflection of his person, Myles Standish. As CB says, Myles Standish was contracted by the Separatists group to provide military leadership to the new colony. For the most part he was a well respected leader. He was successful at keeping the colony safe. However, he was criticized for acting rashly and being overly harsh. He might also have had a bit of "small man syndrome," since some of his critics nicknamed him "Captain Shrimp." CB provides a mirror for both sides of Standish's character.

Motivations of Stephen Hopkins

In my opinion, one of the most facsinating passengers on the Mayflower was Stephen Hopkins. Although men like William Bradford and Myles Standish seem to get all the attention, this man was a wonder. He was the only Mayflower passenger to have sailed to the New World before. While travelling on the Sea Venture, the ship hit a storm and sank. Everyone onboard expected to go down with the ship. They found Bermuda instead. Then Hopkins was almost hung for mutiny. When they arrived in Jamestown almost everyone had starved to death. What would make a man take his young family across the Atlantic? At least he had his faithful cat Morton to help him out.

Morton and the Mayflower

Children's Books

In 1621 Morton, Salt's son, joins the Hopkins family and the Pilgrims on the Mayflower. After a sixty-six day journey through stormy weather, they finally reach Cape Cod. Too bad they meant to wind up way farther south. Now the Pilgrims have to figure out who's in charge and where they will live. They have to battle the freezing New England winter, illness, and hostile natives. Those who survive will depend on cats like Morton to help them find their way in the New World.

Book Bubbles from Morton and the Mayflower

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