This is a lovely historical fantasy for middle-grade or young adult readers and anyone who loves an adventure. A Broadway musical director and avid lifelong reader says, “If you love the fantasy of Harry Potter, the time travel of A Wrinkle in Time, and the history of The Little House on the Prairie, this is for you.” Doesn’t this combination sound fascinating? If so, read on.

Frances Schoonmaker’s The Black Alabaster Box begins her The Last Crystal trilogy. It spans 100 years and two world wars, starting on the Santa Fe Trail in 1856 and ending on the famous Santa Fe Chief train in 1944. The children haven’t heard of the Last Crystal or its life-giving water until they are drawn into a magical quest to save it, facing life-threatening challenges along the way. We got to ask her the age-old question of when, and how, that first inspiration hit and what unfurled afterward to become three books. Read our full review here

Q: Where did you get the inspiration to write this book?

A: It began with a cross-country trip by car and learning that an uncle-in-law in Sacramento and his little brother made the same trek by train every summer to visit grandparents. I kept wondering what mischief two unsupervised boys would get into or would find them on such a trip. My granddaughter encouraged me, listening to countless drafts. My daughter, who has a background in theater, urged me to create the backstory to my original plot in order to understand my characters more deeply. The result was a trilogy that begins on the Santa Fe Trail with The Black Alabaster Box and ends on the Santa Fe Chief train. 

Q: How did your background as an educator influence the type of books you’ve written?

A: As a classroom teacher for over a dozen years, I made time to read aloud to my class every day. We had “free reading,” too, when kids found a comfy spot and read a book of their choice. I read books, too. I recommended books, they recommended books, wonderful books I might have missed otherwise. We didn’t worry about finding the right reading level. They found the book they wanted to read and enjoyed it, helping each other when somebody got stuck. 

The hours spent in the classroom taught me a great deal about children, and that extended the excellent preparation I had for teaching. As a school supervisor and later as a teacher educator, I learned from the many classrooms I visited regularly. So I have a pretty good idea what kids will like.  

Q: How and why did you interject the idea of magic into the central theme? 

A: While grounded in history, the central theme that holds all three books of The Last Crystal Trilogy together is magic. Seven crystals have been set aside for the healing of the earth and entrusted to immortal twins. One twin steals them, using them for her own evil purposes until only one remains. At some point in each of the books the protagonists are pulled into a quest for the last crystal. In The Black Alabaster Box, Grace Willis is off to California with her family, following the Santa Fe Trail, a reluctant traveler at best. The magic is around her, beginning when the dog, Old Shep, appears at her door before the family leaves St. Louis, but she doesn’t recognize it as magic until much later in the book.  

Q: Your characters really come to life. Tell us about Grace and how you developed her character. 

A: I saw Grace as a privileged, protected child whose inner mettle had never been tested. She takes for granted a family with plenty who lovingly takes care of her. Later, deprived of family, she becomes a grace to others. She stubbornly refuses to believe in magic even though she has a great imagination but comes to admit that there is such a thing as magic and there are some things only a child can do. Developing her character was a recursive process in which I had to constantly reexamine her in light of what I needed her to do. For example, when I wanted her to escape abductors, I realized that she didn’t have the skills to escape. I had to rethink her experience and prepare her.  

Q: What was your favorite part of the story to write about?

A: I’m tempted to say all of it, because writing the book was such fun. But I confess that I’m partial to the chapters in which Ruby and Junior Swathmore, the obnoxious twins who made Grace’s life miserable on the Trail, have grown up and become outlaws. They find The Black Alabaster Box and meet Celeste, the immortal twin who stole the crystals. They are either too mean or too dumb to fall under her spell and sell the box to a snake oil salesman. Celeste’s magic goes all wrong: every time people pay the salesman to see the image of the beautiful woman in the box, Celeste gets an unbearable headache.  

Q: This is the first of a trilogy. Tell us a little about how the story progresses from book one.

A: Book Two, The Red Abalone Shell, begins with James on the steps of a church in a small town in rural Oklahoma. He has no idea who he is or how he got there. His only clues are an old map, a red abalone shell, and a dog named Old Shep. The US is on the cusp of entering World War I and James is adopted by a German-American pacifist family. As he struggles to discover his identity, he is drawn into the quest for the crystal.

Book three, The Last Crystal, is set in World War II. The four Harrison children are sent on the famous Santa Fe Chief train from Kansas City to an uncle in LA because their father has been injured in the war. They have encountered a Nazi spy, one of them is kidnapped, and in an attempt to rescue her all four find themselves off the train in a vast wilderness. The only way home is to find the last crystal. All they have to help them is each other and an old map that only the youngest can read.  

Q: What message would you want readers to take away from this book?

A: Two messages: There are some things only a child can do because children have the imagination to see what adults cannot see. Superheroes aren’t going to solve our problems, but kindness and imagination will take us a long way toward solving them.

Visit Frances Schoonmaker’s BookTrib author profile page here.

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Frances Schoonmaker was reared on a farm in Western Oklahoma, not far from where The Black Alabaster Box takes place. Growing up on a farm gave her many opportunities to explore and use our imagination. She learned about hard work, success and failure, and to care for the world around her. Her first published work was a mystery series that appeared as a serial in her high school paper. She taught in elementary school for a dozen-plus years before becoming a professor at Teachers College, Columbia University. Since retiring, she has been writing fiction for the fun of writing. The Last Crystal trilogy, of which The Black Alabaster Box is Book One, is targeted at middle-grade readers and above. She lives in Baltimore.