Thursday, February 28, 2008

Friday Fun: Join the Big Sell

There has been the beginnings of an interesting discussion this week on the Children's Writer's and Illustrator's chat board. Apparently the already undersized NF sections in bookstores are shrinking rapidly. Word is, no one is interested in these subjects, least of all those boring ol' historical topics.

I'm convinced we here at I.N.K. have the charm, wit, and good looks to do what has never before been successfully attempted. That's right-- we can recommend the near perfect NF selection for any NF neophyte. Yes, it's the NF blog handsell.

Examples? Yes, of course.

You say you really enjoyed the terrific humor and insights of the recent Newbery honor winner THE WEDNESDAY WARS? Well, let me tell you, if you liked those rats, you'll be blown away by Oh, Rats! The Story of Rats and People by Al Marrin. It's rats through the ages, reproducing and thriving, even in a court of law.

Are you the more sensitive type who usually enjoys a tender tearjerker like Jenny Downham's BEFORE I DIE about a girl's battle with incurable cancer? We NF people do diseases--and lots of them. Why not give ace NF writer James Cross Giblin's When Plague Strikes. The Black Death, Smallpox, AIDS a try? Mr. Giblin does not disappoint in his ability to totally immerse his readers in infection, illness and disease.

Please chime in with your best blog handsell.

Wrestling Nonfiction: the Prickly Crisis

This time of year I am on the road a lot. I speak at conferences and visit libraries and schools. (Check here for a awesome nationwide environmental project/art contest for classrooms K-3 to celebrate my new book TROUT ARE MADE OF TREES. The prize is I come to your school for free.)
Sometimes, I'd rather speak than write. Why? Well, sometimes writing can be doggone difficult.
About four-fifiths of the way through writing long nonfiction books, I have a crisis. I agonize. It's ugly and uncomfortable. Living with me in this state is probably like having a cholla cactus for a wife.
This is the time when I have delved so deeply into the subject that my outline for the book no longer serves. When I begin a project, I organize chapters in a fairly typical fashion. For example. If I were writing a book about seals, the chapters might look like this:
  • Introduction to Seals
  • Biology of seals
  • Seal type A
  • Seal type B
  • Seal type C
  • Conservation issues facing seals
  • Hope for the future
  • Resources
Yes, this organization works just fine for books 5,000-20,000 words. Many a terrific book has worked in this form. But what if it is not the best possible organization for the subject at hand?
From the first chapter to the last, the book needs a pathway. That pathway is dictated by the subject itself. Unfortunately, a writer rarely know this pathway ahead of time. (Unless he or she is an expert on the subject from the beginning.)
By the time I have studied seals and interviewed experts, the book might look more like the following. (Although I confess I have not studied seals. I am just imagining here.)
  • Seeing through a seal's eyes
  • The seal scientist
  • Why flippers make sense
  • Seals that dive
  • Seals that skim
  • Seals that do it all
  • New technologies thanks to seals
  • Resources
I find that if I work too hard on the "hook" for the beginning of book early on, it becomes too cemented in my mind. It is then harder to abandon it. And chances are, I will need to abandon it during the organizational crisis that inevitably comes.
During the crisis, I wrestle. I experiment. I rearrange the text, making huge structural changes. (Hallelujah for word processors.) I may try five or more major ways to organize the book. An awful uncertainly looms.
This is where I am today. An hour ago, I lay down for a nap but as usual did not nap at all. My book was swimming in my mind. Now here I am at the computer. I had to get up. A new possibility for organizing the book came to mind. Maybe it will work. Maybe it won't. But it holds the possibility of solving my prickly crisis. I have to find that flow, the best possible pathway for my book. Or else, it will never feel complete—even if I turn it in.
One of the things students need to know, and teachers need to remember, is that the writing process can be messy. And that is okay. As author Lola Schaefer says, the writing process is recursive. It loops back. You sometimes have to return to the beginning and go through steps again. It is in doing that work that you reach the highest quality in nonfiction writing.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

True Confessions

I love to read nonfiction – history, biography, environmental essays, memoirs, kid’s books, adult books – and I love to write nonfiction. But last fall I hit a wall.

Before I started writing for children back in the early 90s I wrote nonfiction (art reviews and features and travel features mostly.) I wrote scripts (nonfiction) for interactive educational multimedia programs. Since then I’ve written nonfiction for early and middle grades and I've loved it all.

So what happened last fall? I had just returned from six weeks in Italy and France: singing in Italian cathedrals, basking on Lake Como, bicycling from Geneva to Nice, lolling on the Riviera. Now I love my hometown, Los Angeles, and I love my work. So when jet lag had faded I surveyed my hard drive. I saw several works in progress, and one I was especially eager to complete. But, for the first time in my life….. I didn’t want to write. I was afraid even to think the phrase wr***r’s bl*ck. Or maybe I just wanted to go back and sit by the Mediterranean, sipping cappuccino and eating croissants still warm from a French oven.

At first I didn’t worry: I had heaps of business to take care of. I traveled to Washington DC for the National Book Festival where my latest book, Jeannette Rankin: Political Pioneer, was featured at the Montana State booth. Back home again, nothing had changed. I dared to think the words wr***r’s bl**k and felt worse. My editor wanted another biography from me. I had an idea or two, but nothing stirred the heart. I read my works in progress. Yawn. I slogged through a revision or two. Then I panicked. Was I finished as a writer? Was I doomed to return to Italy and eke out my days drinking cappuccino by Lake Como? (Ha!)

Three months into spinning-through-denial-slogging-and-anxiety, I attended a guided meditation. I lightly floated “my work” into the cosmos and got a reply: “Focus.” I knew just what it meant: work on one genre, rather than skipping from picture book fiction to biographies to middle grade novels – as I have done for years. Furthermore I knew where to focus: biography. I did have those drafts, I did have an editor wanting more.

Now, epiphanies are common as dirt – just like story ideas. Less common are completed stories and epiphanies made manifest. But this one worked for me. With “focus” lighting the way, I finished one biography, began a second, found a third subject while researching the second, and stumbled across a fourth subject while on a field trip for the third.

So what was my problem? Why the writer’s block? Back to the meditation evening. Jotting down thoughts of my experience, I dared put into words what I didn’t like to admit: I have been a slave to status. Just as children’s writers are the proles of the literary world – “anyone can do it!” – with literary novelists as reigning monarchs, my feudal world of children’s literature was ruled by Baron and Baroness Novelists, surrounded by picture book author courtiers. Below stairs in the scullery, lived the – wince – nonfiction writers. None of this was rational, mind you. I know nonfiction to be just as gorgeous – and difficult – as fiction. But my neuroses dwell not in reason’s realm. Anyway, coughing up my dirty secret allowed me to see that it was – to misquote Mr. Scrooge -- just "a bit of undigested beef.” (And I’m a vegetarian!)

I’m happy to report that while I still long for croissants warm from a French oven, I am working again, neither scullery maid nor duchess, but a (mostly) contented scribbler – writing biographies, telling the best stories I can.

Besides, I’m off to Paris in April, thanks to a winning raffle ticket. More about that next month.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

A beak for science


What makes a nonfiction picture book come to life?

I've been wondering about that for a while. One thing I do know (or think I know) is this: simplicity works.

Take, for instance, one of my favorite nonfiction picture books of all time.

"Birds have no teeth. No hands. No antlers, horns or spines. But birds have beaks. And beaks are enough." Thus begins Sneed B. Collard III's fascinating book "Beaks!" illustrated by Robin Brickman and published by Charlesbridge. It goes on to describe some of the fascinating uses of beaks, and shows why birds need no teeth, hands, antlers, horns or spines to do all that they need to.

Sneed has also written other books along the same lines – "teeth" and "wings". They are all "just" lists. But what wonderful lists they are.

Lists, which can so easily deteriorate into boring repetition in the hands of a less remarkable writer, are transformed into incredibly interesting work in his hands. You want to turn the pages and find out more, more, more.

Why? Because his prose is evocative, clear, and crisp.

Because each book is packed with wonderful information. They are like mini-encyclopedias in that they contain an amazing trove of knowledge; but the way the information is presented is anything but encyclopedic.

And because the illustrations are superb – scientifically accurate eye-candy.

Those are three reasons that I can think of that make the books as wonderful as they are. But surely, there are other reasons, too.

For those of you who might already be planning ahead for father's day in June, here's an idea for an special father's day gift: "Animal Dads" – another elegant book and a wonderful "list" by Sneed B. Collard III.

Sneed B. Collard is not the only successful nonfiction children's book author to use the "list" format successfully, of course. Visit any bookstore or library and look at nonfiction picture books on scientific topics, and you'll see that many of them are lists.

As an oceanographer-turned author, my "training" was in science and mathematics. In those fields, we were always taught of the importance of a good question. So I'd like to throw out a question that I hope will be good enough to spur discussion: What transforms a nonfiction picture book written using the "list" form into a special, creative, exceptional and exciting work?

Monday, February 25, 2008

The Magic of Books: Wondering Whether the "Facts" are True or Not

Hi Everyone!

I'm thrilled to be here, sharing some thoughts with you. I'm just back from Boston, where I was honored to received an award for my latest book,
Where in the Wild? Camouflaged Creatures Concealed... and Revealed, which I co-authored with my wife, Yael Schy. (Our book was awarded the 2008 SB&F Prize for Excellence in Science Books in the category "Children's Science Picture Book." The award is sponsored by Subaru and the American Association for the Advancement of Science and it was shared between the two authors and photographer Dwight Kuhn.) I was planning to write about the award ceremony and the four books that received the prize in different categories (see www.sbfonline/prizes) but I have decided to save that for another day,
except to give you a glimpse of our book's cover and to share one detail about the ceremony. The sponsors of the SB&F Prize arranged to have several local children present the awards to the winning authors. The kids told the audience (and the authors) what they liked about the books. Some of them spoke with passion about questions the books had raised in their minds. To these readers, a book that raises interesting questions is a good book indeed. Then the young book reviewers shook our hands while handing us our award plaques.

The opinions and questions of children often fascinate and delight me. I get a lot of great letters from children and I would be hard-pressed to pick a favorite, but one letter that stands out in my mind came from a nine-year old girl who wondered about the accuracy of various statements in my first book. I'm going to remove her name and address to protect her privacy, but we can call her by her first name, Lisa. Here is what she wrote. I apologize that the letters are small and a little hard to read. Lisa's message is summarized in the last two sentences:

In my presentations at schools, I often tell children, "Wondering is wonderful." I find it wonderful that Lisa is wondering about the statements in my book and whether or not they are true. These musings give her "mixed up feelings," which may sound uncomfortable, but she quickly goes on to reassure us that she finds these feelings magical. Her letter ends with a sentence I find truly memorable. To Lisa, the magic in books is wondering whether the "facts" are true or not!

I wish readers of my books -- or all books -- would wonder about them the way Lisa does. Active minds read critically, questioning what they read as they blend their own experiences, knowledge and observations with the author's raw ingredients. They create a nourishing stew that is more than a bowl of information.

I have been lucky enough to see see many examples of readers extending or challenging statements in my books. The 2rd and 3rd graders of one class doubted that the average height of elementary school students was truly 4'8", as I reported in the backmatter of
How Much Is a Million? I used that figure to estimate the height of a million children standing on one another's shoulders. To find out if I was right, this class set about measuring every child in their elementary school. They determined the median, the mode and the mean, and they graphed their data. Finally, they declared that the average height was only 4'4".

But they didn't quit there. They proposed several possible explanations for the discrepancy between what I had written and what they had found. For example, their school has grades from K-5. Maybe my school went up to 6th or 8th grade. If so, that could explain the difference between their answer and mine. Or, they speculated, their school might be shorter than normal... or perhaps mine was taller than normal. Or maybe I just measured a single child with a height of 4'8" and I said, "He's normal!" In a scientific paper, this section of their report would have been the "discussion" section.

I'll give just one other example of children wondering about what they have read.

If You Made a Million, I wrote that a million dollars would be equal to "a whale's weight in quarters." A group of schoolkids wondered about that. They looked up the weight of a blue whale (60 tons) and calculated that it is the same as the weight of 10 million quarters, or 2.5 million dollars -- not one million dollars as the book said. When they wrote to me about it, I pointed out that the book did not specify a particular species of whale. And in the backmatter, where I explained the math, I showed that the weight of a million dollars in quarters is about 50,000 pounds, which is "the approximate weight of many kinds of whales, including the sperm whale." Then, as if anticipating their objection, I added that blue whales can be much heavier than that. I thought I had covered my bases and I said so (nicely) in a letter to my challengers, but they were not convinced. Here is a copy of the page that they sent back to me, bearing their comment upon the situation:

Don't you love it? I sure do. I told them they would have to take it up with the illustrator, Steven Kellogg. And I even provided his address!

To me, the point isn't who is right and who is wrong. The point is that they wondered about something they had read in a book ... and they pursued their wonders through research and mathematics. It's magical. As nine year-old Lisa said, "The magic of books is not knowing whether the facts are true or not."

Friday, February 22, 2008

Local Stories

I visited my first school of 2008 yesterday. For my first school of the year, I always try to visit someplace local, in this case a K-8 school in a small logging town near where I live. The school was a delightful experience. The librarian had prepared the kids well and they asked wonderful questions after each presentation. The visit, though, also reminded me of a lesson I’ve learned rather late in my career—the value of local stories.

For most of my writing life, I’ve written about global and exotic topics, topics such as tropical rain forests, the problem of invasive species, animal adaptations, and more recently, famous historical figures. A few years ago, however, I landed the contract to write B is for Big Sky Country: A Montana Alphabet, my state’s entry in Sleeping Bear Press’s fifty-state series of alphabet books. My entry for the letter ‘S’ in that book led to a second book, Shep—Our Most Loyal Dog.

Shep is a true story of a working sheep dog that lived outside the town of Fort Benton, Montana in the 1930s. At one point, his master fell ill and died, and Shep watched as they loaded the coffin onto a train and shipped it back east for burial. For the next five and a half years, Shep met every passenger train that came into the Fort Benton station, waiting for his master to return. Along the way, Shep made new friends and became famous through newspaper and magazine articles published all around the world.

I felt very fortunate to have discovered Shep’s story—and that no one else had written a children’s picture book about him. What I didn’t realize with both B is for Big Sky Country and Shep, however, is what they would do for my career. Even with its local focus, B is for Big Sky Country has become my third bestselling book out of the fifty or so I’ve had published. Shep is off to a slightly slower start, except here in Montana, where it is by far my most popular title.

But the benefits of these local books are not limited to book sales. Their popularity immediately multiplied the number of school visits I get in and around Montana. Shep is up for the state’s readers choice award this year. Perhaps most importantly, I feel like I’ve made a contribution to the awareness and knowledge kids have about their state and its history and culture. Everywhere I go, the books stimulate lively conversations about peoples’ own histories and interests, and I like to think the books have been a catalyst for bringing people together in the state, even in small ways.

All of this points to a valuable lesson: don’t ignore local and regional topics in your writing. Even if the stories are published by smaller presses, a writer can reap significant benefits from them, both professionally and personally. I know I’ve got my ears and eyes wide open, looking for the next Montana story that heads my way.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Kids Clapping for Nonfiction!

For my inaugural post, I was planning on introducing myself and talking a bit about the different approaches the trade vs. educational market nonfiction take, and what that means to writers and readers. But after what happened yesterday, I guess I’ll hold off until March for that. Although I will introduce myself, as I was always taught to do by my dear old Gram.

Briefly, I studied English at Oberlin College and received a Master in Education from Southern CT State University. I was an editor of children’s nonfiction for 13 years before moving away from New York City and starting to write full-time. I’ve been doing that for a bit more than 10 years now. Nice to meet you. So, on to what happened yesterday.

A local school put together a wonderful program called A Day of A Thousand Stars, in which people from all over the community descended upon said school for a marathon read-aloud. Every half-hour, a different visitor was escorted to one of the classrooms by a lovely 4th grade host. The joint was buzzing with visiting readers! The local celeb pediatrician, the youth soccer coach, the high school principal, the high school stars of a recent musical production, the lady with the greyhound therapy dog, and me, local author. Most readers chose from the wonderful selection of picture books in the library, or even brought their own favorites to read to their designated classroom.

I brought nonfiction.

Can you feel their hesitation? I did. But not for long.

First, I hooked them with the notion that they were getting sneak peeks. I had no selection of bound books with me. I opened my bag and took out one f&g, and one stack of color printouts. Books that were not quite books yet. Oh yeah, that got their attention.

Until one child asked, “Wait, are these true stories?” (Think Fred Savage in the Princess Bride saying, "Wait a minute. Is this a kissing book?" Same disdain.)

Yes, I nodded.

Was that disappointment I detected in their eyes? Never fear, I pushed on.

First I read from my f&g of Elizabeth Leads the Way and got them riled up about how unfair it was for women who lived in a time when they had no rights. A time when a girl named Elizabeth Cady got more and more fed up and finally did something about it. That class perked right up! They totally got it. Lots of heads nodding up and down.

Then, I read them Sandy’s Circus and saw them marvel at Boris Kulikov’s paintings. This story had them on the edge of their seats. Who was Calder? Is he still alive? How did you know about him? Where can I see his art? And on and on. It was a serious thrill for me as well, since I had never read this story aloud before. After all, it won’t be a book until September.

They asked questions, they clapped, and they asked when, oh when, would they be able to get their hands on some nonfiction! My day was made. Those are the moments when you thank goodness you had the good sense to truck on over to a local school and participate.

The only thing that came close—and this is for authors everywhere—is when one of the guest readers showed me the book he brought to read. A beloved, ragged copy of a book he has had since kindergarten—and yes, the book was nonfiction!
P.S. A note about the book title links: linking to the specific book pages on my website doesn't seem to be working and the links are defaulting to my home page. You can still get to where you want to be by clicking on Picture Books. Sorry! I'll try to find out why.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Should Humans Go to Mars?

In a decade or two people may set foot on Mars, though there are many technical obstacles to solve first. Actually the title is a trick question, because humans have already been to the Red Planet many times with the help of orbiters, landers, and robotic rovers. My husband Andrew Schuerger and I were inspired to create Messages From Mars by the many scientific discoveries and fantastic photographs taken in the past few years. We sent an international group of kids and a hoverbot on their way… to make their trip quicker and easier, the book is set a hundred years in the future.

There was so much great information we wanted to include that the book kept getting longer and more detailed. After a few debates with the publisher, we finally came to a compromise—instead of the usual 32 pages in most picture books, it has 40 pages.

The lucky students who have won a trip to Mars learn many amazing facts about the planet on the way. For example, it has the largest volcano in the solar system, Olympus Mons. They touch down to visit the historic sites of the Viking, Pathfinder, and the Spirit/Opportunity missions. Along the way they send emails home to share what they’re seeing. Readers who are familiar with my Postcards From Pluto: A Tour of the Solar System may recall its similar approach.

As you can see, the artwork consists of real photographs taken on the surface of Mars, with the characters drawn on top. Andy searched through many NASA, JPL, and ESA (European Space Agency) web sites to find great images to use as settings. There's a list of those web sites at the end of the book. One site that is not listed in the book gives updates about the still-working Spirit and Opportunity rovers. Another fun one is Rock Around the World, which invites kids to mail in rocks to be analyzed using a tool similar to one on the rovers. How cool is that?

By the way, the photographs we used have already been paid for by all of us (the tax-payers, that is) and are generally free for use with proper credit, as detailed in the NASA/JPL image use policy.

Not incidentally, Andy is a scientist who does quite a bit of Mars-related research in his Mars simulation chamber. The chamber is like having a little piece of the Red Planet right inside his lab, which is located at the Kennedy Space Center. In creating this book, it naturally helped tremendously that he is so familiar with the material and knows what he is looking at in the photographs. We ran across several mislabeled images in other books, such as a photograph of Venus mistakenly included in a book about Mars.

An obvious yet often overlooked point is that the facts in nonfiction books should be carefully checked and double-checked. Mistakes can happen in a number of ways… photographs can be difficult to interpret… it’s easy to assume too much… and writers often introduce subtle (or big) mistakes when rewording something. Beware of relying too heavily only on other published books or the Internet. Some sites are very reliable, of course, such as NASA’s. Unless one is very well-informed about a topic, it’s a good idea to enlist an expert to look the project over, if at all possible. Many specialists are happy to help because they want accurate info in circulation about their favorite subject. We showed Messages From Mars to two space scientists to ensure no glitches had crept in.

Speaking of the 4th rock from the sun, did you know another lander is on its way to Mars right now? The Phoenix is scheduled to land in about three months from now, on May 25, 2008. Its mission is to study the soil and ice near the north polar ice cap to find out if the area was ever hospitable to life. While not a rover, it has a built-in camera and weather station as well as microscopes, a gas analyzer and a digging arm to go down as far as one meter. For the latest news on its progress, check here.

Photo credit: Andrew Schuerger
Andy played a part in making the Phoenix photographs as accurate as possible. When it lands, Phoenix will take a picture of special colored “targets” that were photographed on Earth prior to launch. This will allow scientists to match the targets and thus get accurate colors in the Martian landscape images. But the targets need a special treatment to artificially age them before they go to Mars, because its harsh UV environment would change their color. So Andy placed the targets in his simulation chamber and zapped them to stabilize their color. Soon, the targets will be on the surface of Mars! If only we could go, too…

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Fun Art Appreciation Books for Kids (Painting Masterpieces)

What’s a Matisse?
Why is Andy Warhol so famous?
Picasso? How the heck do you explain him to a five year old?

Those were some of the questions I asked myself ten years ago when I signed up at my daughter’s elementary school’s Art Volunteer In the Classroom program. Yes, I earned a BFA. Yes, I passed the required year of Art History classes, BUT the lectures were in a huge, dark auditorium with over a thousand students at 9:00 a.m. while the professor in a monotone voice taught from the book, The History of Art. My biggest challenge in the class was staying awake. I managed to ace the exams but, believe it or not, the information jumped right out of my head after the test. (I wonder why?) So, when I signed up to be an AVIC parent, I had to relearn everything about art history AND make it fun and relatable for elementary students, and for myself.

I still remember in fourth grade when the Picture Lady came to our classroom. Many people ask me, “Do they still have Picture Lady? I remember that.” Of course, and we are still going strong. For the last eight years, I have run the Art Volunteer Program at our school. Always searching for great books that explain art to kids (and the parents), one of my favorite places in the entire world is the Children’s Book section at The Art Institute of Chicago’s Museum Store. This past year I also visited the LA County Museum of Art and the Getty Museum’s Museum Stores, and (of course) the museums, too.

The following are just a few of the most recent books I love that give a fun and kid-friendly GENERAL introduction to Art Appreciation, with an emphasis on Paintings (... and are great for parents, too!)

Looking at Paintings
An Introduction to Fine Art for Young People
Bunker Hill Publishing 2002

What a fun book for kids! Mickey Mouse... need I say more?
I found this book at The Writer's Stop (a bookstore tucked away at Disney World MGM). While my family goes on the rides, I wander the parks. Finding this book was the highlight of my trip!

Tell Me A Picture
Quentin Blake
Frances Lincoln 2006

Fun read for Kindergarten through fifth grade classes.
Asks great questions which lead to discussions about the stories behind paintings.
Quentin's drawings are fun and cool.

Artful Reading
Bob Raczka
Millbrook Press 2007

Combines two of my favorite things: Reading and Paintings!
The paintings are by some of my favorite artists and the captions that match each painting will spark great conversations.
(This is exactly what Bob was refering to in his most recent post on I.N.K. ~~~ "The trick is to write a headline that not only imparts information, but does so in an interesting way.")

Art Up Close
Claire d'Harcourt
Chronicle Books 2006

All age ranges love this book.
This was one of the books that I would read to my little guy before bed.
The layout of the book is a treat from the large paintings and fun graphics to the great historical tie-ins to the key flap-format at the end of the book.

Well, there you have it ~ my inaugural post. I am so proud and honored to be part of an amazing group of writers. I hope you will look forward to many more artsy-fartsy (that one was for Kathleen) posts and an occasional rant about increasing art education in the schools.

Monday, February 18, 2008

3 Books

I came to children’s literature through reading to my two daughters. The Oxcart Man, In the Night Kitchen, Where the Sidewalk Ends, and Owl Moon, among others, thrilled me. But it was the difficulty of finding compelling books about real people who accomplished real things that set me to the task of creating a biographical picture book myself.

I loved history, had read endless volumes of it, and was a professional cartoon illustrator with oodles of experience. Still, I worried that my light illustration style was inappropriate, and that only realistic art could be the handmaiden to non-fiction.

Then I found 3 non-fiction books that simply brushed the problem aside:

The Glorious Flight, Alice and Martin Provensen’s lighter-than-air tale of Louis Bleriot and the first flight across the English Channel in1909, employed cartoon-like illustrations and won the Caldicott.
War Boy by Michael Foreman and October ’45 by Jean Louis Besson. Both are memoirs of growing up during World War Two. Each is illustrated in light cartoon styles, yet the images of Foreman under the German’s bombs in England, and Besson under the German’s thumb in France, are as compelling and poignant as any photograph.

To them, I owe inspiration and a career.

Friday, February 15, 2008

April Rain Song — Poetic I.N.K. on a Poetry Friday

One of the many excellent anthologies that I own is The Oxford Illustrated Book of American Children's Poems, edited by Donald Hall. The book was put out in 1999 by Oxford University Press, and recently they added shiny gold-foil stickers to the cover that say "Edited by the 2006-2007 POET LAUREATE".

Hall's point in assembling this particular collection was to pull poems written for children over the past few centuries "back into light." Hall believes that "[p]oetry for our children began with Native American cradle songs, moved on to a rhymed alphabet, bloomed in the 19th century with 'A Visit from St. Nicholas,' expanded in the 20th, and continues with vigor into the 21st."

The book opens with three Native American cradle songs and quickly progresses through time to the 20th century, where selections include poems from Frost, Sandburg, T.S. Eliot, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Cummings, Nash, Roethke and more, including three poems from Langston Hughes: "Mother to Son", "Hope", and "April Rain Song", which caught my eye for more reasons than its mention of the months.

"April Rain Song" begins in a way that echoes the priestly blessing found in the book of Numbers 6:24-26: "The Lord bless you and keep you; The Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you; The Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace."

April Rain Song
by Langston Hughes

Let the rain kiss you.
Let the rain beat upon your head with silver liquid drops.
Let the rain sing you a lullaby.

The rain makes still pools on the sidewalk.
The rain makes running pools in the gutter.
The rain plays a little sleep-song on our roof at night --

And I love the rain.

Oh how I adore that very last line, the one that breaks the form, the rule of threes that he's established. The one that takes the poem from general to specific, from a benediction to a description to a personal experience. And I love this poem, as do elementary school children.

When I did elementary school visits last year, this poem was a huge hit with kids in all grades from first on up. Usually, I asked the kids if they thought one part of the poem was more important than the rest, and they all agreed that it was the last line, and a lot of them offered reasons they thought so. What follows is my thoughts on why that is:

1. Like the cheese, that last line stands alone. Setting something apart like that gives it emphasis and weight.

2. It is one of the shortest lines in the poem (tied with the very first line at 5 words). Something that is so much shorter than what is around it stands out, and gains extra importance.

3. It is the only line spoken in first person. The first three are in second person, directing the listener. "Let the rain . . ." The second three are in third person, describing what the rain does. That last line is all about the speaker.

4. It is the only line that isn't about the rain at all: it's about how the speaker feels about the rain. It gets extra weight (again) for being singular in its perspective and emotion.

That last reason was the one that the kids grabbed onto immediately, even if they sometimes phrased it a little differently. They heard that line, "And I love the rain," and they knew that all the rest of the poem was there as a justification for that last line; that the last line was the key to the whole poem. The rest of the poem explains why the speaker loves the rain with its gentle imagery of kisses and lullabyes and the playing of sleep-songs. It talks of what the rain does. But that final, singular, first-person line that tells how the speaker feels about the rain is the reason for the poem.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

What Does Advertising Have To Do With Art?

Although I have recently publishedseveral children’s books about art , for the last 20 years I’ve earned a living as an advertising copywriter. As it turns out, writing ads has been great training for writing art books. In fact, you could say that what I’m really doing with my books is advertising art to kids. (If any of you harbor a less-than-charitable opinion of advertising, keep in mind that without advertising, the royalty checks we receive for the books we publish would be a lot smaller!)

The point I’m trying to make is this: Advertising is a way to provide people with information about a specific product, service or cause. Non-fiction writing is a way to provide readers with information about a specific subject. The more creative advertising is, the more attention it gets. The more creative non-fiction writing is…you get the idea.

Take my first children’s art book, NO ONE SAW. There are 18 lines of text in the entire book. Each line is paired up with a famous painting by a different artist. For example, the first line of text reads, “No one saw flowers like Georgia O’Keeffe.” Next to this line is her wonderfully large painting of Calla Lilies. Another line of text reads, “No one saw stars like Vincent van Gogh”, which is paired with his most famous painting, The Starry Night. In essence, each line of text in the book is a headline advertising a particular artist.

The trick is to write a headline that not only imparts information, but does so in an interesting way. We ad writers take pride in getting people to look at things differently, so that whatever we’re advertising will be remembered. The same skill applies to writing non-fiction.

For example, I could have said, “Georgia O’Keeffe became famous for painting really big flowers.” This “headline” is true enough, but it’s also fairly flat-footed and obvious. After all, readers can see from the painting that her flowers are big. But by saying, “No one saw flowers like Georgia O’Keeffe”, I allow readers to come to their own conclusions about how Georgia saw flowers. Not only that, the line makes her vision sound special. It gives her credit for seeing things in her own way, and seeing things in your own way is what the book is really all about.

So if you want your non-fiction to get noticed, consider taking a few pointers from advertising. After all, it has worked pretty well for me

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

In Celebration of Black History Month

Schools are usually closed on Martin Luther King, Jr. day. February is Black History Month but many kids are off for a whole week. Luckily there are some well-written books and related resources to take up the slack. One book can easily lead to another; read about the people who took a stand, scan the photos and artwork to get a feel for what it was like to be there and try to understand the culture of the time.

To more fully understand the Civil Rights movement, it helps to know your rights.

There are an overwhelming number of books on MLK,Jr. Where to start? A handful do a terrific job of giving an overview of the significance and impact of his his life.

Recognize his strength of character as a regular person who relied on a strong set of beliefs and those he admired to guide him in his philosophy of nonviolence.

He was not a lone voice. There were many who came before him
who had fought against discrimination and in support of equal rights for black Americans. And there were many, many others who fought along with him. People you might have heard of, like Rosa Parks, and others whose stories are still being told. Among those who did their part to fight for equality were singers, postmen, baseball players, schoolteachers and future Supreme Court Justices.

Dr. King's path was not an easy one to follow. Those who later practiced nonviolence on Freedom Rides got beaten and bloodied for their efforts.

The struggle was taken up on many fronts, including in the public schools. Read some first person accounts and histories of what it was like for kids who dreamed of freedom and fought to be allowed to go to a decent school.

Part of the difficulty came in simply making their voices heard. Most Americans were just living their ordinary lives. The culture of the 1950s and 60s was alive with people writing books, painting and a new kind of music called rock and roll.

Read the books, look at the art, and listen to the music of the time period. They are an important part of history.

Hear the beauty of Dr. King's oratory and the power of his words.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Science and Censorship

This is my inaugural blog, so I'd like to write something profound and memorable. Instead, I'll probably ramble a bit. But I guess that's what blogs are for . . .

I do have a topic. But I almost got sidetracked by the Blogger profile page I filled out this weekend. One of the questions was about my astrological sign, which struck me as ironic (we're talking about non-fiction, right?). I know, it's all in good fun and I should just lighten up. But still.

If I didn't have the suspicion that more adults in the U.S. can name the signs of the zodiac than the names and order of the planets I'd be more amused. This is pure speculation, unsupported by any data, but we've seen enough depressing surveys about what percentage of people believe the sun orbits the earth or that humans and dinosaurs co-existed — 18% and 63% , respectively, in recent polls — that I believe pessimism about our astronomical knowledge is not unwarranted. Interestingly (and encouragingly?) more children probably get the planet question correct, since they've just made a paper mache model of Saturn. Another poll found that 40% of our citizens believe astrology is scientifically valid. And most astoundingly, 66% (2007 Gallup poll) agree with the statement "God created human beings pretty much in their present form within the last 10,000 years."

This segues into my original topic — censorship. Specifically, self-censorship. Recently, my frequent co-author Robin Page and I made a presentation at a local school. It was part of an all-day workshop in which we talked about making books, research, the writing process, and so on. It was a lovely school. The kids were bright and interested, and the teachers were clearly passionate about education. It's a school with no religious affiliation in one of the most liberal small cities in the country (Boulder, CO), with a mission statement affirming a commitment to high academic standards in language arts and the sciences. As we were discussing (via email) what books the school would have on hand for the parents to buy and Robin and me to sign, one of the administrators mentioned that they'd have all my books from the past few years except for Life on Earth: The Story of Evolution. There was a concern that some parents might take offense. I wrote back expressing surprise and disappointment, and they graciously changed their mind and included the book. I signed quite a few copies, apparently without any drama.

The exchange made me realize, however, how easy it is for all of us who are in the business of teaching kids about the way the world actually works to avoid subjects or language, however accurate, that might make our lives more complicated. I'm not advocating confrontation, since I don't think that helps. It's like yelling at your teenager — once you go there, it's no longer about their behavior, it's about the fact that they are being attacked. Lose lose.

But I think we have to be vigilant about not distorting reality by omission. Outright censorship is easy to recognize and resist — banned books are celebrated, and probably more widely read than they would be otherwise. It's the more subtle forms of censorship that are really insidious. When I watched March of the Penguins a few years ago, I was struck by the complete absence of the word 'evolution,' even though the subject begged for it's inclusion (how did those birds adapt themselves to such an environment?). It was clearly a marketing decision, and probably financially acute, but it was also sad. Such a beautiful example of natural selection, and such a great opportunity to introduce children one of the most elegant (and accurate) theories in all of science.

I'll try to lighten up next time. And, with luck and persistence, maybe I'll figure out how to get images to go where I want them to go (suggestions welcome).

Monday, February 11, 2008

Certain Remarkable Women, and One Fartiste

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.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Rooting--and Writing--for the Underdog

It’s hard to live in the New York area this week without being swept up in the delirium brought about by the victory of the New York Giants over the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII. Anyone who loves an underdog can’t help but be impressed by the team that came away with a victory against the previously undefeated Goliaths of football. And the individual stories of many Giants reinforce their underdog status. Quarterback Eli Manning was the little brother, trying to emulate his champion sibling but being met by doubters all along the way. Plaxico Burress, who caught the winning touchdown pass, played all year despite debilitating ankle and knee injuries. Coach Tom Coughlin barely escaped with his job at the end of last season, when his team racked up an unimpressive record of eight wins and eight losses.

As an author who writes about sports and women’s history, I have a soft spot for underdogs. Indeed, most of the people I write about were underdogs who triumphed, defying expectations and social mores to make their mark in the world. Annie Oakley first came to fame by defeating her future husband in a shooting exhibition she was expected to lose. The women of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL) staked their claim to the American pastime despite an initially skeptical public. Nellie Bly, the subject of one of my next books, broke into New York’s old boy newspaper network despite editors who came right out and told her they wouldn’t trust a woman to cover anything but society events.

Underdogs make good stories, especially when the readers are kids, who often feel disenfranchised themselves. If they can see their struggles reflected in those of the people in my books, the past suddenly seems relevant, and reading about history isn’t a turnoff. And the points of identification don’t have to be obvious. While girls have embraced the female baseball players of the AAGPBL, I often find that boys are more animated and ask more questions when I give talks about the league. Boys who play sports relate to the women as athletes, and love the opportunity to measure their own experiences against those of the Chicks, Peaches, and Daisies.

Fortunately for both authors and readers, history is full of victorious underdogs whose lives and deeds are ripe for examination. Patriots fans can even take heart that in 1781, the ragtag Revolutionary War soldiers who inspired the name of their modern-day football team came away with a clutch victory against the giants of Great Britain. That was definitely an underdog triumph for the ages.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

We Are The Ship by Kadir Nelson

Ever since I read Moses and Henry's Freedom Box, I've been excited about Kadir Nelson's artwork. And ever since I attended the SCBWI conference in LA, I've been looking forward to getting my hands on Kadir Nelson's first solo book project, We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball, ("words and paintings by Kadir Nelson"). The book takes its title from the motto of the Negro National League, taken from a quote from Rube Foster, the League's founder: "We are the ship; all else the sea." About ten days ago, I found the book in my local bookstore. And now that I've read it, I want to shout about it.

From the cover art to the rich brown endpapers to the forward by Hall of Famer Hank Aaron to Nelson's folksy narration of the text to the glorious paintings inside the book (including one amazing double fold-out spread showing the complete lineup for the first Colored World Series), to the author's note to the bibliography to the index, this book is a gem.

Nelson organized the book into ten chapters (nine innings, plus another chapter called "extra innings"). The only thing this book is lacking is (and I hate to be picky, but here it is): a Table of Contents. Just so you get an idea how the book is organized and what the scope is, here's what the annotated Table of Contents would look like:

Foreword by Hank Aaron
p. 1 1st inning: Beginnings Tells of the start of baseball and of the participation of African Americans
p. 17 2nd inning: A Different Brand of Baseball: Negro League Game Play Explains how Negro League play differed from the white leagues with more showmanship and speed, and that stats weren't always kept (and/or weren't always accurate)
p. 23 3rd inning: Life in the Negro Leagues Talks about the traveling conditions, both on the road and off, including discussion of segregation and field conditions
p. 31 4th inning: Racket Ball: Negro League Owners The effect of the depression on baseball and how it was funded (sometimes not quite on the right side of the law), and the development of night games
p. 41 5th inning: The Greatest Baseball Players in the World: Negro League All-Stars Stories about some of the greatest Negro League players, going well beyond household names like Satchel Paige
p. 53 6th inning: Latin America: Baseball in Paradise A discussion of the many Negro League players from Latin America, and of the Negro League tours in Latin America
p. 57 7th inning: Good Exhibition: The Negro Leagues vs. the White Leagues Barnstorming, playing against the House of David, and more
p. 63 8th inning: Wartime Heroes: World War II and the Negro League All-Star Game Some information about African Americans in the service and the upswing of the Negro League All-Star game and the East-West game and how it affected integration.
p. 69 9th inning: Then Came Jackie Robinson Jackie Robinson's decision to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers
p. 77 Extra innings: The End of the Negro Leagues The gradual re-integration of minority players into the major leagues and how it decimated the Negro League.
p. 79 Negro Leaguers Who Made it to the Major Leagues A list of names
p. 79 Negro Leaguers in the National Baseball Hall of Fame A list of names
p. 80 Author's Note How Kadir Nelson got interested in the topic, did his research, created the art, and wrote the book, with a bit of inspiration to boot.
p. 81 Acknowledgements
p. 82 Bibliography & Filmography
p. 83 Endnotes
p. 86 Index

This book is a must-have for (1) all libraries, (2) all baseball fans, (3) all Kadir Nelson fans. That's a lot of categories, but it's true.

We Are The Ship explains what the Negro Leagues were, and what it felt like to be a part of them, including being the brunt of name-calling and being subjected to the thousand cuts of segregation (not all of them being small cuts, by the way). The narrator's matter-of-fact tone and folksy stories is a pleasant companion throughout the text. He tells how the business of the leagues was conducted is examined. He talks about the heroes of the league (many of them in the 5th inning, which features breathtaking pictures). Throughout, the narrator's voice sounds very much like an old Negro League player talking about people he actually knew, good points, bad points, and all.

If you'd like a further look inside the book, Kadir Nelson offers one on his site (it's where I took these images from). But if you're a librarian or a baseball fan or someone who, like me, has a bit of a crush on Kadir Nelson, then you need to BUY THIS BOOK. Now. Before it wins awards next year. Because it's going to win them.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Information Is the Least of It

I don’t write “informational” books although my books certainly contain lots of information. In fact, I dislike the label. In this day and age, with easy access to specific information on the internet on an “as needed” basis, information is the least important component of my work.

Traditionally, the main reason kids read informational books is that they have to do a homework assignment. I want to write books that kids pick up because they are intrigued and can’t put down because their interest is sustained. When I write, I must continually bear in mind who I’m writing for and what other reasons besides a school assignment they might want to know about something. This means that there have to be some big ideas in a book to form a conceptual framework for facts, which are merely decoration for these ideas.

I like to think of my books as “conceptual.” Every book has some underlying theme or thesis that builds the kind of comprehension that makes facts memorable. Let me give you some examples:
The “Imagine Living Here Series” consists of seven books dealing with life in a part of the world that can each be described with one word. This Place is Cold, for example, is about Alaska. The narrative develops around a series of questions my reader might ask. How cold is it? Cold enough to freeze your eyelashes so they break. Why is it cold? The answer brings up a discussion of latitude… which also discusses the ratio of daylight to nighttime. How do animals and plants adapt to this climate? How do people adapt? What kind of culture occurs? How does this show up in their lifestyles and their art? No information is gratuitous—every fact is connected to a big idea.

My “Where’s the Science Here?” series has four books on subjects of intrinsic interest to kids: sneakers, fireworks, junk food, and show business. Sneakers lets me discuss the biomechanics of walking and running, the structure of the foot, the comparison of human locomotion to that of fast animals like the cheetah and the pronghorn antelope, and the engineering of athletic footwear to enhance performance and protect the foot. Fireworks explores the chemistry of fire and the physics of rocketry. Junk Food discusses the gas laws behind popcorn, the packaging of potato chips, the sugar content of regular soda vs. diet soda, the melting point of chocolate and ends with a discussion of the nutritional content of the foods. On Stage describes the theatrical special effects behind fake snow, rain, fire, blood, breaking glass, and flying in the context of the science used to produce them. Simple activities as sidebars illuminate the concepts and give the reader real experience of the science in the books.

The “Science Play” series has four titles. Each explores a very common event in very young child’s life from the point of view of a scientist. This kind of paradigm shift—revisiting the ultra-familiar as a scientist might—lends itself to a series of activities that ultimately lead to a non-intuitive conclusion. I have written an extensive analysis of why I wrote this series in the November 2005 Book Links, (which you can find on my website: here).

I’ve recently had the fun of writing Harry Houdini: A Photographic Story of a Life for DK Books. Telling the story of Harry’s life chronologically like so many other people have done did not appeal to me. After absorbing their work by reading dozens of books it occurred to me that there were recurrent themes running through Houdini’s life as a multifaceted person and I used these themes to organize my book: Harry as a young man, a showman, a self-promoter, a death defier, a scholar and author, a family man, and as a champion of science against spiritualists.

In fiction, characters and plot make up the conceptual framework that drives the story. In nonfiction, facts are not enough. More than ever before, the nonfiction author must find points of view for a narration. The reasoning throughout the work must be inductive—going from the specific to the general (doing the opposite, making general statements and illustrating them with examples is boring) and the specifics must have a compelling fascination for kids to grab their attention. Once you have their attention, the author should be a Pied Piper taking them where she wants them to go. Now that’s a challenge!

Monday, February 4, 2008

Reading Between the Lines, Part 1

A large part of what I do while researching historical documents or images is read between the lines, or draw logical inferences. Making historical information feel immediate and alive to readers means feeling my way into the material. This photograph from the Library of Congress website collection of Civil War photographs provides a good illustration. (Some details may be hard to see on your screen, so just bear with me. ) At first glance this photograph seems rather mute. Most kids seldom look at black and white images, and this picture might say nothing to a contemporary student. But with a little practice we can infer a great deal about the circumstances of this photograph, and paint a more colorful picture.
We can infer, to begin with, that the time of year is not winter -- we see leaves on the trees. Okay. Can we pin it down further? Yes, I think so. You notice how dusty the road looks -- the wheel tracks are deep but dry. I don't think it has rained for several weeks. This suggests late summer, right? And the shadows are crisp and sharp, so it's a bright sunny day, and probably hot. All at once I can bring all of my experience of "hot bright late summer day" to this photograph, and I can hear the cicadas buzzing in the trees, and see the swallows swooping for mosquitoes over the creek, and smell the damp stones in the arches of the bridge. I don't need direct, documentary evidence of the cicadas or the mosquitoes or the swallows; indirect evidence abounds. In doing historical research the writer (of fiction as well as nonfiction) can safely extrapolate a great deal from available evidence.