Natalie Kinsey-Warnock descends from a long line of Scottish dairy farmers who settled in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont over 200 years ago. “The Northeast Kingdom is a place apart. We were the last dairy farm in the state to get electricity,” says the 54-yeard old author. In 1966, the bottom floor of her family farmhouse was finally wired for electricity and telephone, but she still remembers carrying a candle upstairs after dark.
“Holidays were 100 people packed in my grandmother’s house. We were all about family stories,” Kinsey-Warnock says. She mines seven generations of family history in her 20-plus picture books and novels. A Laura Ingalls Wilder fan, Kinsey-Warnock feels a kinship with the renowned author because Wilder once said that her family stories were too good to be forgotten. “We’re kindred spirits,” Kinsey-Warnock says, whose books focus on events that occurred in her life or in the lives of her ancestors. Yet, she admits that even in her close-knit clan some stories are lost or forgotten. During school visits, she encourages young readers to unearth amazing stories in their own families by reading old family journals and letters, and studying old photographs.
“I have such an easy time going back to my childhood in my mind,” Kinsey-Warnock says. Haying, sugaring, reveling in a spring bike ride through mud so thick she could hardly pedal. These are some of the memories that inform Kinsey-Warnock’s historical fiction for children. “I want to get kids hooked on history,” she says.
After graduating from college with a double major in art and sports medicine, Kinsey-Warnock coached a variety of sports and played on a national field hockey team. She began writing after her grandmother suffered a stroke. “I adored my grandmother. She was such an influence in my life. I wanted to write a story about a young girl who has a strong connection with her grandmother.” At the time, Kinsey-Warnock did not consciously decide to write a children’s story; she simply began. The Canada Geese Quilt honors her grandmother who made 250 quilts by hand from the age of 65 to the time of her death at 89.
Iris, the main character from As Long As There Are Mountains, is Kinsey-Warnock’s favorite character. “She is based so much on me,” she says. “How I feel about the land and the farm. I poured all of that into her as I was writing.” In 2006, the Vermont Humanities Council selected As Long As There Are Mountains for Vermont Reads, their statewide reading venture. According to Kinsey-Warnock, “Every community in the state reads it and does projects on the book.” As she traveled the state, she saw young readers connect with older readers and begin to have meaningful conversations with one another. “I was a Vermonter writing about this state, and that felt right,” she says.
A few of Kinsey-Warnock’s books did not come from family stories, and she affectionately refers to them as “oddballs.” The Fiddler of the Northern Lights is her version of a Canadian legend she found in an old book on her shelves. In the original legend, the fiddler was the devil and Kinsey-Warnock remembers saying, “No, no, no. That’s not how he would be at all. I have to rewrite this story and make it how I want it to be.”
Winner of the New England Book Award for her body of work, Kinsey-Warnock writes using rich historical details that come from a lifetime of asking questions of her parents, her grandmother, her neighbors. “I ask them stuff all the time,” she says. “I am so not a computer person.” During this telephone interview she confessed to talking on a black rotary phone. She combs records in the town clerk’s office, visits cemeteries, and scours the offerings at used book sales. Research is one of her life’s passions. In fact, Kinsey-Warnock has so many stories and details at her disposal, that she has counted 52 projects currently in the works. Depending on looming deadlines and her appearance schedule, she rises early (a habit ingrained from a lifetime of dairy farming) and generally writes an average of eight hours a day, four to five days a week. But Kinsey-Warnock is an outdoorswoman, and takes frequent breaks to enjoy her animals or one of her many sports.
According to Kinsey-Warnock, a Tulane University study showed that children who know their family stories (warts and all), have higher self-esteem, suffer less from depression, and handle peer pressure better. “You have a better sense of yourself if you know where you’ve been,” she says. For Kinsey-Warnock, her beloved family from the Northeast Kingdom is the taproot from which future children’s books will grow.