Tuesday, July 29, 2008


I must confess--I absolutely love research. That's why it takes me so long to write a book. By nature I'm a miner of facts, and it doesn't take much to start me digging. My editor emails a query, and I immediately grab my tools--typed notes, the scholarly sources on my bookshelf, and of course, that ultimate gold mine of information and misinformation, the Internet. Half a day later, I emerge with a shining nugget that may change one phrase of a caption in a 192-page book--or maybe even an entire sentence or paragraph, if I'm lucky.

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.

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