When Staton Rabin was three years old, her parents offered to buy her a toy typewriter. She insisted on a real one, and has been writing ever since.
Rabin was born in Brooklyn, and grew up in Hastings-on-Hudson, NY. "Hastings is a beautiful, idyllic place," she says. "I always call it 'Brigadoon-on-the-Hudson'." She lived for many years in San Francisco, where she researched and wrote her first novel, BETSY AND THE EMPEROR, despite a brief interruption by the Loma Prieta earthquake. "No one had an internet connection back when I started researching that book," Rabin explains, "and the San Francisco libraries were closed for a while after the earthquake. So I was phoning my father long distance, asking him to read me entire encyclopedia articles over the telephone. My dad is a writer, too, so he has a lot of patience!"
BETSY AND THE EMPEROR, based on real people and events, is about a rebellious teenaged English girl who befriends Napoleon Bonaparte when he's being held prisoner by the British on St. Helena and tries to help him escape from captivity. Rabin spent a long time researching and fact-checking the actual historical events that formed the basis of BETSY AND THE EMPEROR. She read numerous books about Napoleon and his unique friendship with Betsy Balcombe-- the real girl Napoleon met when he was on St. Helena. Ironically, Rabin says, the most useful of these sources was not the real Betsy Balcombe's autobiography, but rather the book written about her and Napoleon by Betsy's grandniece, Dame Mabel Brookes. "I was able to get all the information any novelist could ever need about Betsy Balcombe and her relationship with Napoleon from books written by people who were actually with them on the island and witnessed their interactions. And Betsy's grandniece Mabel Brookes had access to lots of great information about her. To my surprise," Rabin says, "Betsy's own book-- which I intentionally postponed reading till immediately after I had completed my first draft, so I wouldn't be over-influenced by her writing style-- wasn't nearly as interesting and colorful as those written by other witnesses. There was nothing of interest in her book that I didn't already know from reading other sources."
Rabin took volumes of notes on her reading, and collected hundreds of "Napoleon quotes", which she classified by subject matter-- "Napoleon on War", "Napoleon about Women"; etc. "It always amazes people how much of what I wrote about Betsy Balcombe and Napoleon in BETSY AND THE EMPEROR is true," Rabin says. "Shaping a plot takes the 'eye' of an experienced storyteller, and writing great dialogue takes a screenwriters' 'ear'; but a lot of the incidents in my book really happened. My book contains lots of historical notes at the back that talk about the real story of Betsy and Napoleon and separate fact from fiction, so I'm happy to see that BETSY AND THE EMPEROR is being used by teachers and students for English and social studies classes. English teacher Anisha Lakhani and her class at the Dalton School in New York spent a week on this book, and she came up with some great lesson plans for it."
In researching her book, Rabin consulted historians and Napoleon experts all over the world. "For example, I wrote to the British Navy Museum to find out which flags were used on English ships in l8l5," Rabin says. "Tom Vance, a retired lieutenant colonel who is an expert on Napoleon and Betsy, assisted me in my research, too. I even corresponded with people who knew about the coinage in use during that period, and the flora and fauna on the tropical island of St. Helena. When the book was published, I gave a talk about it for The Napoleonic Society of America at their annual conference, and was proud to gain the endorsement of the group's president, Douglas Allan. That meant all my research had paid off."
Rabin's interest in horse racing came in handy when writing the exciting, climactic scene in which Betsy rides the Emperor's horse to victory.
Rabin got her love of history from her very creative social studies teachers in the Hastings-on-Hudson schools. They taught her that learning history should be fun, and it's this passionate enthusiasm for the subject that comes through in her books for children and teens. "Humor is part of life and is also part of history," Rabin explains. "So my books always have a lot of humor in them, even when they have a serious subject."
Rabin has always written short stories and books for children. But she was also trained as a screenwriter at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, so BETSY AND THE EMPEROR started life as a film treatment. She turned this film outline into the manuscript for a novel, and soon after some of the biggest stars in Hollywood came knocking on her door. "First Dustin Hoffman, then Anthony Hopkins-- and now Al Pacino is the one who wants to play Napoleon in the movie version of my book." Rabin quickly found her name in the pages of "Variety" and "The Hollywood Reporter". This was in the days before HARRY POTTER hit it big-- so it was very unusual for a YA novel to attract this kind of attention from the film business. BETSY AND THE EMPEROR was published in late 2004. The movie is going well, she says, but is still in the works and will take a while longer.
"It's been a long but exciting journey," Rabin explains. "Sometimes, when I give talks about my book, I hold up a big photograph of me in a l9th-century hoop skirt-- it was actually one of those novelty photos taken down at Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco when I was about 23-- and I say, 'My film has been in development for so long, that this is what I looked like when it all started. It always gets a laugh.'"
When she's not working on another book, Rabin is a frequent guest speaker at New York University, teaches screenwriting-- most recently aboard Cunard's ship Queen Mary 2-- and writes articles about writing for "scr(i)pt" Magazine. She gives talks for schools, and always has a quick and charmingly evasive answer ready when the kids inevitably ask her: "How old are you?" and "How much money do you make?". She's also a story analyst for screenwriters, novelists and film companies-- which means she evaluates other writers' work to see if it would make a good movie, and makes suggestions for improvements.
Staton Rabin's picture book CASEY OVER THERE (Harcourt; illustrated by Greg Shed), set during World War I, was listed as a Selectors' Choice/Notable Children's Trade Book in the Field of Social Studies by the Children's Book Council and National Council for the Social Studies, was named a "Distinguished Book" by the International Reading Association, and won the Marion Vannett Ridgway Award.
BETSY AND THE EMPEROR, her novel for Simon & Schuster/McElderry Books, was an ABA Book Sense Pick for Winter 2004/2005, was selected for the Chinaberry Books catalog (Summer, 2005), received strong reviews in Kirkus and VOYA, and was named one of the best children's books of the year by children's book specialist Dr. Barbara St. John in "The Toledo Blade". French chef and author Jacques Pepin writes: "This tender tale goes down smoothly, like a cool and fruity glass of Vouvray. BETSY AND THE EMPEROR is fun and witty, with a very human Bonaparte."
Rabin credits her editor, Emma Dryden at McElderry Books, for making her novels the best they can possibly be, "and she's a joy to work with," Rabin adds.
In addition to being published in English in the U.S. and UK, BETSY AND THE EMPEROR will be available in French, Japanese, Polish, Czech, Russian, Spanish, and Dutch. Rabin says: "I'm especially thrilled to know that this book is going to be read by children all over the world."
Rabin has two more YA novels coming from Simon & Schuster/McElderry Books: BLACK POWDER (Fall 2005) and TSAREVICH-- both of which are historical fantasies. "Like BETSY AND THE EMPEROR, my next two novels are a blend of historical fact and fiction. BLACK POWDER, for example, is about an African-American teenaged science whiz from South-Central L.A. whose best friend is killed in a gang fight. Desperate to undo this tragic event, he hijacks his science teacher's time machine-- and after finding it impossible to change recent history, travels back in time to try to prevent the invention of guns. This daring journey leads him to a dangerous contest of wills with England's Dr. Roger Bacon, the stubborn, eccentric l3th-century genius and inventor of the first workable formula for gunpowder, who holds the future of civilization in his hands-- and is determined that nothing will stand in the way of 'progress'. My agents and I are planning to sell the film rights to this one, too."
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