In The Not-So-Boring Letters of Private Nobody, a trio of 7th graders become best friends as they discover the secrets of a Civil War soldier. I recently got the chance to chat with the book’s author Matthew Landis about history, hobbies and how this book was born. Here’s what he had to say.
What can you tell us about The Not-So-Boring Letters of Private Nobody?
The story centers on Oliver Prichard, a 12-year-old Civil War-nerd and re-enactor who knows more than Wikipedia about the period’s battles, dates, and generals. He’s partnered with Ella Berry, a notorious weirdo herself who’s rumored to be failing 7th grade, for a class project that forces him to rethink his Civil War passion. Even worse, they’re assigned a no-name Union private who not only never saw a real battle but died of an insanely embarrassing disease — dysentery (basically a fancy term for diarrhea).
But Ella turns out to be much more interesting than Oliver expected, and Oliver’s lunch buddy Kevin Kim comes to their project’s rescue as head writing assistant. Things seem to be going smoothly until Oliver digs up some big secrets buried in Private Nobody’s past—and present. He’s knows he can unravel the mystery — but he has to decide if it’s worth blowing up the project and newfound friendships in order to discover the truth.
How did you come up with the idea for the book?
After my first book had sold in 2015, a thriller about the teen descendants of the American Revolution, my agent suggested I write something for the audience I know most about: middle school! Once I’d warmed to the idea, the story just sort of took shape, mixed with bits of my own past plus a bunch of hilarious and awkward students I’ve had in my 10 years of teaching.
It was like this really amazing buffet of situations that make up the reason I love teaching: bringing the past alive, the Civil War, and getting to watch the lives of some incredible kids as they endure the trials of tweenhood.
Are you a big history buff?
I prefer the term history “nerd,” and yes, completely; my honors students lovingly mock me as “King Nerd.” I clarify the difference because “buffs”—and most of them are Civil War buffs—often get lost in the facts, just like my main character, Oliver. I would much rather my students become historical thinkers than diehard buffs, because loving all the facts doesn’t mean you’re able to analyze, interpret, and connect. Put another way, you can love the past and completely miss the point of it.
I was once like Oliver: I loved the generals, battles, and recounting ironical little twists of the war. But as I grew to learn in college and grad school, this lens keeps the past in the past — an issue if we’re going to make it have continued relevance today. Much more important, I argue to my students, is making sense of the past and tracing that scarlet thread to our modern society. That actually matters.
Why pick the Civil War over others?
Americans are obsessed with the Civil War, and that makes sense: It was our defining moment as a country, both politically and morally. It was also our deadliest moment, killing upwards of 800,000 soldiers (email me for some super nerdy updates on the recent scholarship, which has raised this from the long-held 620,000 number). Lincoln said it best at Gettysburg: The war was a grand, horrible gauntlet to see if the Constitution could hold up. It did, at terrible cost.
What are some of your favorite books for kids?
Hands down, no question, my favorite middle grade book of all time is A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness. Beyond incredible. If you haven’t read it, stop reading this and go read that — it’s way better. Sally Creech’s Love That Dog remains my favorite book in verse, just a beautiful story that hits you right in the heart. An old school gem that I fell in love with is Richard Peck’s A Year Down Yonder; nobody transports you to the past like Peck, the man is a master. And I will never forget the first time I read Deathwatch by Robb White. I always recommend that book to my students. I’ll end on a current read that I’m loving: The Someday Bird by Sally J. Pla. Super engaging, surprising, heartfelt — plus, I’m always a sucker for a road trip book.
Have you ever been to a Civil War Reenactment?
I get this a lot — actually people often think I’m a re-enactor. But sadly, just a teacher. Mainly my experience has been seeing small scale demonstrations about camp life. One such event took place at my local library last year, and as I chatted with a couple guys from the regiment, I was impressed at both their knowledge and passion. I mean, imagine the dedication to wear wool pants in the summer heat and driving rain? These men and women love what they do, and it shows. Just go to Gettysburg and you’ll see; that town is essentially one big reenactment year ’round!
What’s the most surprising fact you’ve learned about the Civil War?
The boredom of war has always surprised me, something you only get if you read letters that soldiers send back home. Ken Burns puts it perfectly in his seminal Civil War documentary: The war experience was daily tedium interrupted by brief moments of terror. This reality widened my understanding of a host of other items, like the many activities soldiers did to fill their time—including writing letters.
They also put on plays, gambled, fished, and played baseball. Yes, they played baseball — every day, weather permitting! This cultural aspect of the war was super cool to me, and the reason my students go outside to play an early version of the game during our Civil War unit.