Thursday, July 31, 2008
On another note, I took my grandchildren, Alexander (age 8) and Coco (age 5) to a concert in Aspen of Billy the Kid by Aaron Copland. Neither child, who live in New York City, knew the words "outlaw," "stagecoach," or even the "Wild West." We went to the Explorer bookstore the next day. Only one new book about the West existed there, but it was for Young Adults, called Cowboy Stories by Barry Moser (forgive me if I have the title wrong..I cannot seem to check it out without losing this blog entirely..Linda needs to give me more blogging lessons). We ambled over to the library. It had a couple of picture books about cowboys and the West. But it seems as if not much has been written recently. We turned on the computer back at my house. Alexander and I searched the web. It was filled with information. But we read nothing that told an enticing story. I think I'll go to the rodeo this weekend. Maybe I'll be inspired. Happy Reading to everyone.
Wednesday, July 30, 2008
There's no reason that poetry has to be relegated to a one-week unit, assuming that the teacher has time to get to it. And this is because there are poems and poetry collections that fit extremely well into existing school curricula.
Studying geography? Try Got Geography!, edited by Lee Bennett Hopkins. Studying the planets? Don't miss Douglas Florians Comets, Stars, the Moon, and Mars. Studying explorers or pioneers? Try Trailblazers: Poems of Discovery by Bobbi Katz.
Studying Civil Rights? Try A Wreath for Emmett Till by Marilyn Nelson, Miss Crandall's School for Young Ladies and Little Misses of Color by Elizabeth Alexander and Marilyn Nelson, Birmingham 1963 by Carole Boston Weatherford.
Studying animals and/or habitat? Try Valerie Worth's Animal Poems, illustrated by I.N.K. blogger Steve Jenkins, The Seldom Ever Shady Glades by Sue Van Wassenhove, If Not for the Cat by Jack Prelutsky, Vulture View by April Pulley Sayre (again illustrated by Steve Jenkins), Feathers by Eileen Spinelli or Mites to Mastodons by Maxine Kumin (or one of many more books on the topic).
Interested in studying biographies? There's Twelve Rounds to Glory: The Story of Muhammad Ali by Charles R. Smith, Jr., Your Own, Sylvia: a verse portrait of Sylvia Plath by Stephanie Hemphill, The Poet Slave of Cuba: A Biography in Poems of Juan Francisco Manzano by Margarite Engle, or Jazz ABZ by Wynton Marsalis (biographies of jazz greats).
The point is that for nearly any area of study, a poetry collection can be found that relates to it. And it should be found, because kids who have a hard time sitting still for prose lectures pay attention really well to poems. I suspect it's because of the use of lots of imagery and active verbs, the rhythm and, when used, rhyme, that grabs and holds the attention of kids who don't or can't always listen to prose.
Tuesday, July 29, 2008
The research for my new book, PAINTING THE WILD FRONTIER: THE ART AND ADVENTURES OF GEORGE CATLIN (Clarion, 2008, ages 10 up), took much longer than I expected. I gave myself a year to do a close reading of the most important of George Catlin's own books, scholarly studies of this pioneering 19th-century artist and explorer, and background books in art history, Native American cultures, and the American West. What I hadn't counted on was the complexity of the subject.
For example, although Catlin wrote copiously about his travels among the Indians of North and South America, he didn't write in a chronological way. He was vague and contradictory about dates--a biographer's nightmare! One art historian I interviewed spent fifteen years trying to trace the routes of his South American journeys in the 1850's--and she has yet to publish a definitive account of his travels. So in trying to write a clear, straightforward biography of Catlin for kids, I was pretty much on my own when it came to describing this period of his life.
Catlin was a complex subject, too, because he traveled so widely. He trekked from Tierra del Fuego to Alaska, painting indigenous peoples from hundreds of different cultures, and he exhibited his "Indian Gallery" throughout eastern North America and Europe. I needed to accurately describe the people and places he visited and painted, whether they were Amazonian tribesmen or French royalty.
His words and pictures took me only so far. Luckily, it's not too hard to find information on North American Indian nations. For starters, almost all of them have official web sites, and even in the New York metropolitan area, where I live, there are 50,000 Native Americans. I could, and did, go to pow-wows, community centers, and museums. But South America was not on my itinerary, and most South American tribes do not yet have web sites! The facts I was hoping to unearth required a bit more digging.
For me, the quiet but intense hunt for informational treasure never ceases to fascinate, as my brain leaps from one discovery to the next. And the reward at the end? The satisfaction of knowing that I've cut and polished another little jewel of information into a form that kids will hopefully find interesting, exciting, thought-provoking, and fun.
Monday, July 28, 2008
Thursday, July 24, 2008
But when Spring arrives, I shed my novel skin and I can't even remember why I wanted to write fiction. Spring wildflowers, hooray! Warblers, hooray! Gardening...why did I ever want to spend time away from nonfiction, the science of life sprouting around me?
That's where I am now. I am busy with caterpillars and flowers and nesting birds. Field guides are my life. A stack of novels to read and write lies unloved. Who needs fiction? I am reading about the origins of fruit and the science of stars. My brain is sponging up documentaries on LINK TV. The overgrowth of life and ideas presses against me, making me wonder how much I will be able to uncover and explore in my life. Nonfiction is my season!
But I warn you. I have another side, and it will arrive...oh, around late November. That's when those winter dreams will sprout fiction. Unless I can find a way to go the tropics, where the green may bring my nonfiction back to life. Perhaps if I lived in Southern California, I would be nonfiction all year long. Or would I? And would that be a good thing? Hmm...
I am guessing some of you other readers/writers out there have a seasonality to your subject matter, too. Let me know if I am right!
By the way I recommend you add another patriotic book to your library. Farmer George Plants A Nation by Peggy Thomas, published by Calkins Creek, an imprint of Boyds Mills Press. I dig this book! And digging is appropriate because it brings forth the life of George Washington as a farmer and scientist. It is so great to see a man, mostly understood as soldier or statesman, in the life that fed him: his trees, gardens, and experiments with agriculture. Apparently, his letters were filled with farm life and farm instructions, even when he was on the battlefield. We all have our roots.
Wednesday, July 23, 2008
APOLOGY: I’m sorry not to show the gorgeous covers of all these books, but I’m still working out how to upload, format, etc etc.
First, I must mention VULTURE VIEW by April Pulley Sayre, illustrated by Steve Jenkins. This is a 2007 book, as evidenced by its shiny Giesel Honor Book sticker, awarded at the aforementioned ALA Conference. This book is exquisite in every way. Word perfect, picture perfect. Who knew vultures could be so poetical and beautiful?
ELIZABETH LEADS THE WAY by Tanya Lee Stone, illustrated by Rebecca Gibbon is a gem – highly polished and dazzling – with a skillful mix of the personal and historical portrayed in words and pictures. Best of all is the author’s voice filled with exuberant passion that perfectly matches the subject and theme of the book.
Don Brown has two forthcoming books, each recounting one memorable day. ALL SYSTEMS DISTRESS! relates the grim horror of the sinking of the Titanic. LET IT BEGIN HERE! sends us back to April 19. 1775: The Day the Revolution Began. Brown gives us an hour by hour, mile by mile account of the Battle of Lexington and Concord filled with dozens of personal details. (I’d never heard the name of Paul Revere’s horse before.) We all know that the Patriots were the good guys, the Brits the baddies. But in this account of a traditionally “heroic” event, we see the brutality of war that infects both sides. A British soldier bayonets an American. An American splits the skull of an injured Englishman. One small ray of light: in the middle of the battle, as the Concord courthouse burns, both sides worked the bucket brigade to put out the flames.
CHRISTO AND JEANNE-CLAUDE: THROUGH THE GATES AND BEYOND by Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan presents some of my favorite artworks and their irresistible creators. The photos, text, and book design are beautifully integrated to tell the story of these artists who make some of the most democratic, joyful, gorgeous art you’ll ever see.
1968 by Michael T. Kaufman travels around the world and into space to tell the exhilarating and sobering story of that tumultuous year. Vietnam, Paris, Prague, Chicago, Mexico City, and Apollo 8 all get chapters. As a New York Times reporter, Kaufman was on the scene for some of it. Photos, headlines, and NYT articles intensify the drama. I was over 21 that year, and even marched in Paris in May 1968. But it takes a book like this to begin to understand what it – we – all meant.
I know, I’m going on a bit, but I can’t stop without mentioning THE NEGRO SPEAKS OF RIVERS, E.B. Lewis’s pictorial homage to Langston Hughes’s poem. [I claim poetry for the nonfiction camp!] I don’t think I’ll ever read the poem again without seeing Lewis’s sublime watercolor close-ups, long shots, landscape, and portraits.
Tuesday, July 22, 2008
Nonfiction is clearly not given the attention it deserves. That's why I created this blog. In terms of public promotion, it's given the nosebleed seats in libraries and the big chain bookstores. On the publishing side, it can be frustratingly difficult to find an agent or editor who is both interested and knowledgeable about nonfiction.
But truly, these are side issues. As writers for children, the most important question ought to be, “Do kids like nonfiction?” The answer is an unequivocal “Yes.” How do I know? As an ace nonfiction writer, I’ve done my research. And as any of us can tell you, the best thing source for information is head straight to a primary source. My information comes from the best source available—kids themselves. I spent part of this year as a substitute teacher in public elementary schools. I asked kids a lot of questions about what they read, observed as much as I could and, of course, took lots of notes. I'm confident my information is reliable and, oftentimes, amusingly quotable.
Here’s a bit of what I learned:
Yes, kids are reading nonfiction. I’ve seen them. They choose to read it in their classrooms and they choose to take it out of their school libraries. I've heard them talking about what they like to read and while everyone loves Harry, a majority also enjoy nonfiction.
When I asked one third grade class how many of them liked nonfiction one girl said, “Wait, is biography nonfiction?” I reassured her it was and many more hands shot up. This speaks to the awkwardness of the word "nonfiction", something we've discussed here before, an additional unnecessary negative on our side.
There are still many painfully boring nonfiction books in schools. This, as they say in the trade, is a fact. I was asked to read a book on dirt to a group of first graders which had all the creativity of a technical manual. I had to threaten to read more of a incredibly boring book on weather to the fourth grade class if they couldn’t keep quiet during our fun activity. Now, I know from personal experience there are many interesting books on nature, weather, and the environment that could captivate children and give them a solid understanding. But this is not the kind of book the teacher left to read to their class. And, as I snooped around a bit, these were not the kind of books that were easy to find an average class library. The over abundance of somewhat standard(ie boring)book club educational market type books in the classroom is yet another topic.
Kids think they are supposed to like everything, no matter the quality. When I was asked to read a biography on Thomas Alva Edison that started, “Thomas was born on (date) to his mother (first name) and father (first name). I mentioned I thought that was a really boring way to start. They were quite taken aback by my statement but then readily agreed. For the rest of the day, two girls kept coming over to me with creative ideas on how Edison’s story could have been told with more pizzazz.
The opportunity for kids to read nonfiction in the classroom is more limited than fiction. Kids were generally allowed to select from certain bins divided into reading levels for their scheduled reading time. There were far more fiction than nonfiction books in said bins.
Kids love to learn about things that really happened. They are constantly asking “Is that real? Is that true? Did that really happen?” When you are reading nonfiction to them and you can answer with an unequivocal “yes” they are truly delighted. In the same vein, they can sniff out a phony. When a teacher left a book about dinosaurs for me to read as part of their nonfiction unit, it didn’t take the kids long to realize that the talking mouse pretty much killed the authenticity factor. Disney has not successfully confused any of them on this issue.
Sometimes I would offer to read fictional books that I felt offered important information. I would always ask them why this story couldn’t be true. By the way, the answer to this question for THE SCRAMBLED STATES OF AMERICA by Laurie Keller is never that states can’t move but always that states don’t have eyeballs.
Many of the nonfiction books kids would choose on their own are not well suited to quiet independent reading time. When I broke the rules (shhhh) and let the kids pick any book in the classroom for reading time, that’s when the nonfiction really broke out. Kids like to huddle together over the nonfiction books, pointing out photographs to each other and reading interesting facts out loud. Several times some one who had not uttered a word all day came over to me to share something they read they thought was interesting (aka "cool" or "awesome").
My overall conclusion? Kids love well-written, creative, thoughtful nonfiction. Now what do we do about the adults?
Monday, July 21, 2008
George Washington 4146
Martha Washington 366
Abraham Lincoln 3162
Abe Lincoln 545
Martin Luther King Jr 2064
Theodore Roosevelt 1204
Teddy Roosevelt 4870
James Madison 794
(Jim Madison actually returned one James Madison book!)
Dolley Madison 224
(My Dolley Madison Saves George Washington (Houghton Mifflin 2008) found a place within both the Washington and Dolley Madison queries.)
Robert E. Lee 796
U.S. Grant 818
The Union Wins again!
Wright Brothers 975
Neil Armstrong 871
Amelia Earhart 833
I’m sorry, but I just don’t get the Earhart obsession.
Muhammad Ali 486
Sitting Bull 624
Charles Darwin 923
Intelligent Design 70
Okay, ID isn't a biography, but I couldn't help myself.
(Brooklyn Bridge Builder) 25
(Forgotten Vanquisher of the Barbary Pirates) 46
(Many of the results referred to Muhammad Ali)
Remember, the results aren't book titles, but books that in some fashion relates to the query.
The results were many times wildly off-subject. For example, the search for Jim Madison yielded a book about Jim Thorpe. Odd.
So, does it say more about Children's biography than it does about Amazon's search algorithms?
Beats me, but it was fun playing….
Friday, July 18, 2008
Okay, I admit it. I was going to write about Dorothy Hinshaw Patent for this piece, but then saw that Dorothy was a guest blogger here. Instead, I wanted to bring up a writer and artist I admit to knowing very little about: Ruth Heller. Ruth died in 2004, so I never got to know her. Shortly before her death, I was signing at a table near where she was also signing, but she looked very tired and I didn’t want to bother her by introducing myself. I’m sorry I didn’t barge in after all, because I would have liked to tell her how inspiring her work has been to me.
The first book I picked up of hers was Plants That Never Ever Bloom, one of her “World of Nature” series that explored overlooked aspects of the natural world. Ruth was foremost an artist, having earned a Fine Arts degree at my alma mater, Berkeley. Yet, flipping through her book, I enjoyed her nonfiction rhyming text. I was even more impressed that she had bothered to write about fungi. What a cool topic! And, of course, her illustrations just popped out at me. Soon afterward, I read her book Chickens Aren’t the Only Ones, about all manner of egg-laying animals. Her choices of topics encouraged me to pursue less mainstream topics—those that kids should be able to learn about, but have not yet reached the publishing radar.
Ruth’s contributions did not stop with nature, however. She is perhaps better known for her “World of Language” series, which explored nouns, verbs, adjectives, and other parts of speech in fun, colorful ways. I believe teachers widely use these books today. She also published a number of wonderful coloring books.
According to Wikipedia, Ruth didn’t sell her first trade book until she was well into her sixties, and I am sad her career couldn’t continue through a longer arc. Still, I am grateful she dived into children’s publishing at all, because I think she helped set high standards of quality, content, and beauty for all of nonfiction writers who work today. I’d also love to hear from anyone who knew more about her, because hers is a memory we should continue to keep alive. And now, I think I’ll read Plants That Never Ever Bloom to my 19-month old!
Thursday, July 17, 2008
While having dinner with one of my best friends, who also happens to be a youth librarian, she asked me how my recent trip to ALA was. I knew she was waiting to see the f&g of my forthcoming Sandy’s Circus, so she was tenderly viewing those pages as she asked. I started to recall for her a few of my favorite moments from the conference. As I did, she pointed out with a gleeful grin that they all had to do with my appreciation of librarians.
“You love us,” she teased, sing-songing the words like Sandra Bullock in Miss Congeniality.
“I do,” I admitted.
I suppose it was not too surprising that my focus honed in on the librarians, given the venue, but there were certainly other glamorous goings-on to compete with in the vicinity (Jon Scieszka in his smoking jacket, Brian Selznick and the Swarovski crystal shirt he made by hand, as well as his stunning Caldecott multi-media acceptance speech, and Mary Louise Parker and Laura San Giacomo in my hotel lobby). Not to mention spending time with editors and writer friends I rarely get to see. But it was the librarians who ruled the roost for me. Quite rightly.
Writing talks to give at meetings like ALA really gives writers a chance to process and reflect upon exactly how we do what we do. The presentation I gave that Monday morning was flush with anecdotes featuring librarian heroes and heroines swooping in to save the day—whether it was a passage one read to me from a book halfway across the country or a visual image scanned and emailed to fill a last-minute hole with a book already in production or a rare issue of an obscure periodical that held a quote that changed my perspective on a topic.
“It’s our job,” my friend said, still grinning with the knowledge that even though her words were technically accurate, they merely scratch the surface. It may be all in a day’s work, but what work it is. After all, librarians are already out there every day championing the field, putting the right books into the right readers’ hands, and caretaking the minds and hearts of young readers. And then some.
Now, the more jaded among us may feel I am simply sucking up to librarians. But I assure you I am of pure intent. Every day, in libraries all over the world, librarians not only help readers—they help writers write the best books we can. And I thank you, each and every one.
Love, Tanya Lee Stone
Wednesday, July 16, 2008
Hmmm... I think any number can become an example of infinity if endless numerals are added to it. And— there can be an infinite number of infinite numbers. In any case, it’s been fun to think more about it, (though after a while my brain starts to melt.) As for the story itself, the thief was trying to string enough numbers together to reach infinity... while it can’t be done, it provided an absurd motivation for him to steal all the numbers.
One of my books was all about definitions, There‘s a Frog in My Throat: 440 Animal Sayings That a Little Bird Told Me (co-authored with Pat Street.) Many of the similes, proverbs, idioms, and other sayings could have more than one meaning. For example, “hot dog” can be an exclamation of appreciation; a show-off; or the act of showing expertise. To avoid protestations that we‘d left out a definition, we put an authors’ note at the beginning to explain that one popular meaning would be shown for each saying, but that the reader may know another one.
My fall 2008 book is Crazy Like a Fox: A Simile Story. I‘ll describe it in a future post, but it did cross my mind that some people might object to the word “crazy” because it can have a derogatory connotation in regards to mental health. It’s too soon to say if anyone will object to that word... my feeling was that it’s ultimately a compliment in the context of this saying, since the confusing actions are intended to mask an intelligent strategy.
I mentioned in a previous post how a change in the definition of planet excluded Pluto from official planetdom and thus had a deleterious effect on my Postcards From Pluto. Usually word meanings come from common usage rather than get decided by a group of experts.
This example isn't within the text of Missing Math itself, but a School Library Journal reviewer's comment about the illustration was a little perplexing: “Imagine a world without numbers. Madly trying to replace them, but to no avail, two-dimensional, wide-eyed, nattily dressed animals cavort on brightly colored pages...” Two-dimensional? Aren’t most illustrations in books two-dimensional? Aside from pop-ups or photographs of real objects such as in the Look-Alikes books by Joan Steiner, I can’t recall ever seeing that aspect of artwork mentioned quite like that. The reviewer may mean that the artwork is not rendered with a 3D look as in the movie Toy Story. With a print review no discussion is possible, but I did wonder about it. It’s like saying the book’s pages are trimmed at 90 degree angles... aren’t they usually?
There have been other instances of questionable meanings over the years, but not an infinite number, thankfully. While some people get upset when others don’t agree with their definitions, I find such discussion to be useful and necessary... how else can people communicate clearly except by fine tuning their understanding of what is meant by a given word? In our family, we run to the dictionary as needed (or use Google in a pinch.) And though there is usually room for debate, we mustn’t go as far as Humpty Dumpty who declared, “When I use a word...it means just what I choose it to mean— neither more nor less.”
Instead, (and with thanks to my husband Andy) it seems fitting to close with Buzz Lightyear’s immortal words:
To Infinity and Beyond!
Tuesday, July 15, 2008
In case you weren't with us from the very beginning, here is Kathleen's first I.N.K. post from back in Februrary.
Fascinating information, distilled into age-appropriate language, fully synthesized by a warm and witty authorial presence, narrated in a compelling voice… illustrated/visualized with flair… labored over by smart editors, copyeditors, fact-checkers, and designers…. Can a children’s nonfiction book be a work of art, a hallmark of civilization, a gem among gems, a---- OK, OK, I’m biased. But is it possible that we live in a golden age for children’s nonfiction books? Or have I gone over the edge? Let’s consider some juicy titles so far in 2008.
Newcomer (to children’s books) Philip Dray tackles the harrowing subject of lynching in Yours for Justice, Ida B. Wells: The Daring Life of a Crusading Journalist. The executions of black citizens, completely outside the law, began almost as soon as the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, reached a peak of one almost every other day, and didn’t end until the 1950s. Sensibly, Dray clothes his topic within a biography of one courageous person, Ida B. Wells. She was born a slave in 1862, started teaching school at 16, and became a noted journalist. Publishing articles, giving speeches, often at great personal risk, she used her fame to shed light on the horrors of lynching, becoming the most effective crusader against it. The reader comes to know Wells in full detail, with six pages of solid information in the back matter for extra value. Stephen Alcorn’s stylized watercolors swirl with Wells’s energy and anger—just look at the cover with page after page radiating from her rising figure. Recent events in the news make this book a must-have for schools (Peachtree Publishers, 2008, ages 10-14).
Former mighty librarian Julie Cummins flexes her mighty research muscles in Women Daredevils: Thrills, Chills, and Frills. Male daredevils are all over the place, ho hum. But have you ever heard of May Wirth (billed as the Greatest Bareback Rider Who Ever Lived), Zazel (known as the Human Cannonball), Annie Edson Taylor (first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel), or Mabel Stark (“the world’s greatest tiger tamer and trainer”)? I haven’t, nor of any of the fourteen action-loving performers in this book. Their feats were all the more astonishing for taking place between 1880 to 1929, an era when women were supposed to sit still and not engage in sports, much less extreme ones. Cummins delves into her daredevils’ exploits, their motives, what they did in their off hours, and what else is known about their lives. A great gift for athletic kids, and a real contribution to women’s history, with Cheryl Harness’s illustrations leaping ecstatically off the page (Dutton, 2008, ages 8-12).
Befitting its rowdy subject, both text and art simply sizzle in What to Do About Alice: How Alice Roosevelt Broke the Rules, Charmed the World, and Drove Her Father Teddy Crazy!. Teddy would be Theodore, who famously moaned, “I can be president of the United States, or I can control Alice. I cannot possibly do both.” Alice liked to call her rambunctious style of living “eating up the world,” and it frequently got her in trouble at a time when proper young ladies had tiny appetites. Besides learning about one unusual woman, history-lovers will appreciate that the reader learns a lot about the President, his election to office in 1901 after Alice turned 17, and how and why she boosted his popularity. Barbara Kerley’s spirited storytelling skills are matched with newcomer Edwin Fotheringham’s ingenious depictions of one of the biggest celebrities of her day. Though we believed her dead since 1980, Alice strikes again! (Scholastic, 2008, ages 4-8).
You want more recommendations? I got plenty. What hot books have YOU noticed so far this year? Finally—and for a book not about a woman and really silly—coming your way is my next book, called Fartiste. It’s a biography of a unique performance artist who had audiences literally fainting with laughter at Paris’s Moulin Rouge in the late 1800s. Joseph Pujol perfected “the art of the fart” by training his, er, muscles to mimic sound effects, tunes, stories. No, I’m not kidding, and yes, it’s all true. If you think this is gross, blame my husband, illustrator Paul Brewer, collector of extremes of information, amidst which he discovered Pujol, little-known now but in his day the most famous performer in the world. We co-wrote the story in verse, passing the manuscript back and forth to tweak the humor to its max. It’s being published by the brave souls at Simon & Schuster this June, with illustrations by Boris Kulikov that somehow quadruple the fun. We think the book will have kids rolling on the floor. But what will the grown-ups say—the reviewers, teachers, librarians? Paul and I are on pins and needles (not the best image to associate with our promo item--whoopee cushions). Have we seriously gone over the edge? Note: The links are to oh-so-convenient Amazon, but for actual purchases your local independent bookstore is the best friend a children’s nonfiction writer could have. I apologize for the lack of graphics, but just getting the links to Amazon in here nearly killed me.
Monday, July 14, 2008
Unlike reading the linear narrative in a children’s nonfiction book, looking at a book of photos can be a free-form experience, allowing us to skip around as one image or another catches our eye. And since it's not an ‘I read, you listen’ scenario, there are lot of opportunities for conversation about the images.
Here are a few a few favorite titles from our bookshelf (or coffee table):
The Extraordinary Creatures of the Abyss
By Claire Nouvian
More than two hundred photos of deep-sea creatures, many of which I guarantee you've never seen before.
by Jean-Baptiste de Panafieu (Author), Patrick Gries (Photographer)
Dramatic black and white photos of animal skeletons ancient and contemporary. The power and beauty of the theory of evolution become apparent as one sees the relationship between the skeletons of modern animals and those of their extinct relatives.
Earth from Above
by Yann Arthus-Bertrand
There is a whole series of these books. All of them include some surprising images. These books can make a fun guessing game, as a child tries to figure out what is being shown — some scenes become quite abstract when viewed from above.
Life - A Journey Through Time
by Frans Lanting (Author), Christine Eckstrom (Editor)
A visual, poetic survey of the evolution of life on earth.
by Frans Lanting (Author), Christine Eckstrom (Editor)
Another gorgeous book by the team that created Life.
These books are expensive, but they’re keepers. Some are available in paperback, or perhaps at the library. This is just a partial list — there are many other large format books of this quality, about a wide range of subjects.
Friday, July 11, 2008
I couldn’t have received higher praise. That’s what I was aiming for, in large part, because my own fifth grade civics experience was mind-numbing. The text I read was delivered in the driest way possible—all the blood, sweat and tears of creating and maintaining our political system desiccated into a Sahara of facts listed for their own sake. Of course, it was the style of the times, but a pretty stupid style if you think about it. When an author presents an idea and illustrates it with a compelling story, a kid will remember that idea. Make it funny and the kid will stick around to read more. Humor can be the spoonful of sugar that keeps kids turning pages.
I’m not saying every book should resemble a comedy routine. Mine don’t. Plenty of subjects don’t lend themselves to humor (unlike our political system!). There are others that are simply no joking matter.
But humor can be very useful. First of all, it’s entertaining, nothing wrong with that. As I’ve said before, it can keep a reader engaged long enough to learn something. It can deal with weighty material as well. Humor allows you to sidle up to a biting truth without being too biting, to take the edge off something that’s just too tragic. Humor lets you make a point without sounding as if you’re preaching or wagging your finger at your readers.
Despite these invaluable attributes, humor isn’t respected much at all. Let me be clear, people like it but if they must go public, humor quickly becomes a guilty pleasure—the beach read, the restful interlude before undertaking something more worthy. While awards aren’t always a measure of timeless excellence, they do indicate what our culture thinks of as quality at the time they are given. How often do comedies win the Oscar for best picture? What proportion of the Newbery winning books were written to amuse? The Sibert? Let’s face it, people often think that humor is literature’s “less than,” an artless country bumpkin compared to Literature with a capital “L.”
I often talk about this issue with my friend David Elliott, who writes wonderfully funny picture books and middle-grade novels among other things. He told me that the Children’s Laureate of Great Britain Michael Rosen has helped create the Roald Dahl Funny Prize open to fiction and nonfiction alike. While I wish that prizes for humorous works weren’t separate (haven’t we all learned by now that separate is never equal?), at least England is acknowledging that humor is worthy of recognition. Let’s hope it doesn’t take too long for us to follow suit.
I would love to hear what other people think about this whole humor issue. Do you agree that it is thought of as one of literature’s second class citizens? How do you think it should it be seen?
Thursday, July 10, 2008
Nature's Art Box: From t-shirts to twig baskets, 65 cool projects for crafty kids to make with natural materials you can find anywhere
Laura C. Martin (author)
David Cain (Illustrator)
Storey Publishing June 2003
Parent's Choice Approved Award-Winner
With a great cover like that, how can you not catch the crafting bug? As Martin says on the second page, 'To craft means to make something with your hands and people have been making crafts since time began.' Throughout the book, Martin adds insight on the history of each craft and material, engaging the reader in the entire creative process. Each project is made with a easy-to-find materials from the environment... it's a natural!
Recycled Crafts Box
Laura C. Martin
Storey Publishing March 2004
Once again, another eye-catching cover!
Most of the projects that I teach in my Art Appreciation Classes and Summer Arts and Crafts classes involve the use of recycled materials. Not only is it politically correct, it is inexpensive -- a perfect combination.
Believe it or not, I learned a few things about recycling that I didn't know. The book is written in a fun, non-preachy way.
This summer, I highly recommend that everyone go see Wall-E at the theaters and after the movie sit down and go through this book; your environment, your karma, and the future will thank you.
Organic Crafts: 75 Earth-Friendly Art Activities
Chicago Review Press March 2007
Fantastic, fun projects that would also be great for classrooms.
Of course, printed on 100% recycled paper!
Summer Crafts: Fun and Creative Summer Projects for the Whole Family
Hylas Publishing June 2005
Two years ago when I saw this book (after reading a wonderful review in the Chicago Tribune), I fell in love. Sadly, the book is no longer in print. In my INK posts, I have tried to review books that are in print, but this book had to be mentioned in today's post. Make sure you check this book out of your library.
Summer Crafts is illustrated in beautiful photographs. My right-brain likes photographs. I like to 'see' the craft and how it is done... and these photographs are creative, artistic and fun! The crafts are some of the best I have seen; simple, unique, using naturally found/recycled materials and, most importantly, involving the family. Our family has made many of the projects.
I hope everyone is having a fun, crafty, earth-friendly summer. Get outside and enjoy the weather and nature.
Wednesday, July 9, 2008
Back to the book with the funny title. There it was, The History of the United States: Told in One Syllable Words by Josephine Pollard. Of course the subtitle itself breaks the book’s promise, but the entire concept seems absurd. A
After doing a bit of research, I learned that McLoughlin published a whole series of “One Syllable Word” books and that the volumes actually used multisyllabic words, but they were shown broken into syllables (for example, Wash-ing-ton). So their claim to fame clearly was a case of false advertising. But it hit a nerve because it implied that a hokey device such as breaking words into syllables could make a book more appropriate for young readers. It caused me to flash back to my early years of writing for Scholastic's magazines, when every article had to be “leveled” with a readability formula. Nothing inhibits creativity more than performing long division on the sentences you’ve just written.
A friend of mine suggested that using those readability formulas might have helped me internalize certain rules about writing for children. Maybe so, but I’ve always believed that any good writing was a matter of rhythm and flow, not numbers. That’s why I felt so liberated when I wrote my first book, A Whole New Ball Game. Although a trade book is a commercial enterprise, I felt unrestrained in every way. There were no word counts, no page counts, no rules about how to present the story I wanted to tell. Sometimes all that freedom can be terrifying, but in this case it was empowering.
So as charming as the McLoughlin Bros. books were, I’m glad I live and write at a time when successful children’s nonfiction is influenced more by inspiration and insight than by syllable counts and the formulas of Spache and Dale-Chall. But if you happen to be in
By the way, that monosyllabic president was James Polk.
Monday, July 7, 2008
Thursday, July 3, 2008
My book to celebrate America is The Roaring 20: The First Cross-Country Air Race for Women by Margaret Whitman Blair (National Geographic, 2006). This account of the 1929 National Women's Air Derby from Santa Monica, California, to Cleveland, Ohio, is a wonderful adventure story, starring Amelia Earhart, Louise Thaden, and a host of other aviation pioneers. It's an exciting read, gripping at times, with triumph and tragedy, telling a story that foreshadows the expanding role of women in our society.
For the fourth of July: I'm torn. I'd pick Independent Dames by Laurie Halse Anderson and the two Statue of Liberty books (Lady Liberty by Doreen Rappaport and Naming Liberty by Jane Yolen)I reviewed in tandem on my blog.
I chose Independent Dames because it spotlights the contributions of women and girls to the American Revolution.
I selected the Statue of Liberty books because they both tell the story of what may be this country's best-known icon, with slightly different foci. The Yolen book has the bonus of including an account of the immigrant experience coming to this country (and we are a country of immigrants, after all).
HENRY HIKES TO FITCHBURG by D.B. Johnson.
It reflects some of the many aspects of American spirit and it has that New England flavor that makes me think of the origins of our nation.
For the July 4th list how about Celebrate the 50 States! It's a picture book that explores the diverse features of all fifty states, plus the District of Columbia and U.S. territories. A trivia question for each one (e.g. What is a Hoosier?) is answered in the back.
For your list to celebrate America - I nominate I HEAR AMERICA SINGING: FOLK SONGS FOR AMERICAN FAMILIES, collected & arranged by me, ill. by Allen Garns. But what better way to celebrate than by singing your head off, that's what I say.
Celebrate American Artists and Poets Books by Jan Greenberg
Heart to Heart: New Poems Inspired by Twentieth Century American Art (YA)
Action Jackson (picture book of Jackson Pollock painting Lavender Mist) (ages 7-10)
Romare Bearden: Collage of Memories (ages 7-10)
Christo and Jeanne Claude: Through The Gates and Beyond (Middle Grade)
One thing that makes a society great is to be able to tell its stories without whitewashing them. So I'll recommend:
The Middle Passage by Tom Feelings that describes the journey of enslaved Africans across the Atlantic in searing detail without a single word.
This Land Was Made for You and Me by Elizabeth Partridge--a fabulous biography of Woody Guthrie that sensitively but unsparingly looks at his greatness and his demons.
See How They Run by Susan E. Goodman, a shameless plug for my new book, which uses humor to tell the real story behind our wonderful but very imperfect government and the people who have led it.
Democracy is best contemplated through the eyes of those who struggle for equality. A Dream of Freedom.The Civil Rights Movement From 1954 to 1968 by Diane McWhorter is my favorite children's book about this important period in American history.
America is very much about a sense of place. To me, nothing beats my hometown. For kids to get a real feel for my city This is New York, a classic written in 1960 by Miroslav Sasek, is still the best.
Come Back, Salmon: How a group of dedicated kids adopted Pigeon Creek and brought it back to life, by Molly Cone; photos by Sidnee Wheelwright, Sierra Club Books for Children, SF 1992. This is an older book but represents everything I love about our country: its land and wildlife, the energy of its people, and its openness to change.
Jeannette Rankin: Political Pionner (Boyds Mills/Calkins Creek: 2007) First Congresswoman, lifelong peace activist, praised and vilified -- indomitable.
The Daily Show with Jon Stewart Presents America (The Book): A Citizen's Guide to Democracy Inaction.It's rude and irreverent (and includes a photo of the nine Supreme Court justices nude) and my kids love it. Interestingly, there's quite a bit of real history and social studies in the book. And the fact that a book like this can be printed (and be a bestseller) says a lot about the country, in a good way.
Anna M. Lewis:
Here are two fun, craft books full of projects to inspire the red, white, and
Millbrook Press (January 2003)
Easy-to-follow, fun projects made from readily available household
materials. Bright, colorful drawings add to the fun.
Celebrate America: Learning About the USA Through Crafts and Activities
Jill Frankel Hauser (author)
Michael Kline (illustrator)
Williamson Publishing Company (April 2004)
Fantastic variety of crafts and projects to aid in educating American
History. A must for teachers and parents. I even learned a few things about
Wednesday, July 2, 2008
What key ingredient in gun powder (essential to fireworks) has a connection to outhouses? What color of fireworks is the most difficult to produce and is a measure of the quality of the fireworks display? Why don’t workers who assemble fireworks wear any synthetic fabrics? Could you identify a chrysanthemum, or silver willow or a hummer if you saw one? If you take my book to your Fourth of July celebration, you and the kids with you just might learn something.
I always make field trips when I research a project and this book was no exception. The payoff was attending a fireworks extravaganza at the South Street Seaport on the East River of Manhattan produced by the Zambelli family, one of America’s premier families of fireworks and a source of many of the photos in the book. We (I got my whole family invited) had VIP seats to see the action coming from a barge on the water. We heard the perfect synchronization between the music and the display, truly a wonder of choreography. It was the best I ever saw! There are some fabulous perks to this writing business! Happy Fourth, everyone!
Tuesday, July 1, 2008
Nonfiction books today are certainly beautiful, with entire pages swathed in beautiful photos or glorious art, barely sullied by the type that tells the stories we relate, the facts we want so passionately to convey. I've agonized over this problem often in recent years, but more important that agonizing is finding ways to deal with the problem. The photographer I usually work with, Bill Muñoz, has done what he can to help by trying to convey as much information in each photo as possible, taking some of the burden from me. But what about when I work with different visual artists?
A few years ago, I wanted to write about tigers, but my editor insisted that was too limited a topic. The book had to cover all big cats in just 32 pages, and not too many words, please. How to do that and include the kind of information kids need for reports? My critique group came to the rescue, suggesting a small box for each species with critical information such as scientific name, size, and weight, and a small map for each showing distribution. The art showed color and other aspects of appearance, so I didn't need to dwell on that either. In this way, I was free to discuss behavior, diet, and other aspects of how big cats live, in my limited text.
My most recent book, "When the Wolves Returned: Restoring Nature's Balance in Yellowstone" presented an even bigger challenge, even though I had 40 pages for this one. Each spread would feature a big photo covering most of the space, with a few smaller photos in a corner. My editor wanted two levels of text, a single sentence for each spread that would tell the outline of my story, for younger children, and a short paragraph or two in the corner expanding on that information for an older audience. I struggled with the challenge of condensing the history of Yellowstone and its wolves into 18 sentences, and I agonized about what information to include in and what to leave out of the expanded text.
I fussed to myself about these limitations, but when the book actually came out, I had to admit that this format was perfect for this subject. The text limitations prevented me from including the details that delighted me but might slow down a reader. Only the truly essential information made it into the book, creating a volume that can be understood by readers of any level.
In this visual age, we word people may feel we're swimming against the tide, but it can help if we remember that old phrase, "A picture is worth a thousand words."