In his post entitled, History: What's the Point? Don Brown points out that many kids are bored when they study history in school because, basically, the presentation stinks. The world of children's nonfiction still has a long way to go in figuring out how to write and present information in a way that truly appeals to kids.
There are some bright spots to be sure. A couple of weeks ago I had the giddy- with- excitement treat of hearing a talk at the New York Public Library with two writers who are rock stars at making history interesting for kids.
Their names: James Cross Giblin and Russell Freedman.
That's Mr. Giblin on the left, Mr. Freedman on the right.
They don't look like rock stars at first glance? Well, apparently they've been friends since 1960 (they described each other as their oldest publishing friend) so they must have learned how to go incognito by now.
I thought I'd share some of what they talked about with the hope that we can all better understand how it is possible-- albeit time consuming, strenuous, and far from straightforward-- to make history a great read that can appeal to a wide variety of kids.
Here’s a bit of what they had to say. Questions were posed by John Peters of the Donnell Library Center of the New York Public Library.
How did you come to write about history?
JCG: When he started writing, he was already an editor. This gave him the luxury to write what he was interested in. He was a child of WWII and became interested in history that way.
RF: He was a history buff as a kid and read two books that taught him how interesting history could be.(The Story of Mankind by Hendrik Van Loon and This Believing World by Louis Browne). They both showed him the possibility of language and how well a nonfiction book could be written. He learned that it was impossible to tell the story without getting into the mind of characters (the beginning of his interest in biography). In addition, he learned that history lends itself to a narrative thread.
How do you approach biography?
JCG: He believes it always starts with character: getting to know them, what they did, etc. Out of that comes the narrative line. Then you find the character’s action line, in a similar way to a playwright.
RF: His philosophy: writing biography is like being married. He usually spends a year or longer on a book. He consciously chooses not to live with someone he thinks is despicable so he likes all the people he writes about.
JCG: He doesn’t mind writing about people he doesn’t like (for example, Adolph Hitler). He finds these kind of people complicated, sometimes contradictory, and thus good subjects for biography.
How do you approach your writing?
JCG: To begin researching, he reads as much as he can. He outlines a lot, overall and then chapter by chapter. He’s a very slow writer. Every sentence and paragraph must sound right before he goes on. Usually this produces one major draft,then touch ups, and then he's finished.
RF: He spends 3 or 4 months reading and researching before attempting to start writing. His first draft includes everything he can think of. He usually writes six or seven drafts. He feels a book is never really finished. He never achieves the ideal image of the book he had in mind when he started.
How did you become involved with photo biography?
JCG: RF claims JCG first mentioned the term to him years ago. RF then said the first subject should be Lincoln because he was the first President to be photographed. RF: He believes photos are an enhancement. The language must evoke the world and the person or else you are lost.
Best rock star advice in a nutshell for writers of history for kids:
When asked how they make their writing appropriate for children, RF responded, "You don't simplify, you distill."
A few examples of their work that has led to their well deserved rock star status:
James Cross Giblin:
The Life and Death of Adolph Hitler
Good Brother, Bad Brother.The Story of Edwin Booth and John Wilkes Booth
The Many Rides of Paul Revere
Lincoln: A Photobiography
Who Was First? Discovering the Americas
Tuesday, April 29, 2008
In his post entitled, History: What's the Point? Don Brown points out that many kids are bored when they study history in school because, basically, the presentation stinks. The world of children's nonfiction still has a long way to go in figuring out how to write and present information in a way that truly appeals to kids.
Monday, April 28, 2008
I want to preface my remarks with a dedication, as if this were a book.
To all the children who have had the courage to ask me a question of any kind, whether in writing or in person. I have learned much from you and I thank you.
Soon after the publication of my first book, How Much Is a Million?, I started to receive fan mail replete with questions. A short time later, I began visiting schools for author presentations and I heard many more questions. I began to realize that I could benefit by listening closely to the questions and thinking about what was behind them. I also realized that children could benefit from learning what makes a good question!
Students are over-assessed these days, but it is always their answers that get assessed. I think questions are at least as important as answers, yet only rarely have I seen a teacher provide guidance in the art of asking questions. The ability to ask good questions is a skill of paramount importance in many human endeavors and it opens the mind to countless wonders. In this post I am going to turn the tables and “grade” (well, comment upon) the questions that kids ask.
In the 15 years that I have been visiting about 50 schools per year, three top questions have emerged.
1) How old are you?
2) How much money do you make?
3) Where do you get your ideas?
Teachers are aghast when their students ask 1) or 2), but I answer both. After joshing “Less than a million” in response to the first question, I simply tell them how old I am. (Actually, I tell kids in the intermediate grades that I was born in 1951 and let them do the math – which sometimes results in my being over a hundred years old!) For the second question, I tell them how much (i.e., how little) money I make on the sale of a single book, and everyone is shocked.
Before I get to the third question, let me assess the first two. I think the age question is natural for children to wonder about, but if they had done research in their school library, they probably would have found my date of birth in a reference book such as Something About the Author. That’s OK—I don’t really expect everyone to do a research project before I get there, but I believe that well-prepared students (who have done research on the author and his/her books) make the best audience and ask the best questions. The other thing that makes this a mediocre question is that it doesn’t go anywhere. It doesn’t lead to follow-up questions, which are usually the best ones, or teach them anything that can propel them to further learning. What can they say after learning my age (other than, “Oh my God, he’s older than my grandfather!”) Perhaps a rule of thumb is that if a question is bound to be answered with one word, it’s probably not the world’s best question.
Despite teacher objections, I actually think the question about how much money an author makes could lead to an interesting answer, but for it to be meaningful I would have to spend a long time putting it in perspective by discussing how much various authors earn, and how those earnings compare with typical salaries in other careers (and the huge incomes of well-known celebrities). This discussion could go in many directions – for instance, why do a very few authors rake in enormous sums while the majority earn so much less? How is an author’s income determined? Here’s a “math guy” direction: given that a picture book author (who is not also the illustrator) usually earns a royalty of about 5% on a hardcover book, calculate the income on one book and determine how many books would have to be sold for the author to make a million dollars.
The third of the “Top Three” questions always gets the Teacher Seal of Approval, and for good reason. It can lead to discussions and thought-processes likely to go in many directions. The author’s answer can be applied to students’ own experiences and the students might be able to use the answer to improve their own writing. In most cases, the answer is not one that can be looked up in a reference book.
My answer to that question usually begins like this: “Ideas are everywhere. If you keep your eyes open, your ears open and your mind open you’ll find lots of good ideas. If you also wonder about the world, you’ll find lots of great ideas.” And then I talk about where the ideas for specific books of mine came from. Very often my books go back to when I was the age of the questioners. I tell them how, as a child, I wondered about things that came in big numbers. “How many hairs do I have on top of my head?” “How many blades of grass are on the baseball field?” “How many grains of sand are on the beach?” I drove my teachers crazy, but years later I turned those musings into How Much Is a Million?
When a child queried the origin of a machine that fills an entire school with popcorn in On Beyond a Million, I explained that I sometimes get ideas from other books. “My favorite book in third grade was Homer Price by Robert McCloskey. In that book, a donut machine goes out of control and fills a lunchroom with donuts. Well, I took the out-of-control donut machine and morphed it into a popcorn machine. The two books are completely different but I wouldn’t have thought of the popcorn machine if I hadn’t remembered the donut machine from Homer Price.” And then I try to bring it home: “You can do the same thing,” I tell the children. “Take something you have read, change it so it becomes your own idea, then use it in your stories.”
Look at all the mileage I got out of one simple question!
A few other things for the proactive teacher to think about in a class devoted to questioning.
* Children often ask questions that are way too vague. “What’s it like to be an author?” is a classic. How about reshaping it to, “What’s the most enjoyable (or frustrating) aspect of being an author?”
* Some questions are overly specific and basically trivial. I particularly dislike “favorites”: “What’s your favorite food/color/number?” I realize the kids are trying to get to know me as a person, and I like that, but does it matter that my favorite color is purple? Sometimes it’s blue. And I also like red! The truth is, I don’t have favorites. How about hobbies? I don’t mind being asked about my pastimes, but a good way to give it some importance might be to reshape the boring old “What are your hobbies?” question into “Do your hobbies relate to the books you write? How?”
“What was your first book?” and “How many books have you written?” are popular questions after my assemblies but they are absolutely terrible questions. Why? Because I have already answered both of them in the assembly! Perhaps the questioners weren’t listening. Perhaps they composed their questions before the assembly. Possibly both.
Which leads to my plea to teachers: Don’t encourage children to write out questions before the author comes to school. It locks the children into their questions, and they will mentally rehearse asking them instead of listening to the author and composing a question based on what has been said. Instead, practice asking meaningful questions as a response to something you tell them or read to them.
I will close with my all-time favorite question, which was asked by a second grader years ago. “Do you regret anything you’ve ever written?” What a fascinating question. I’ve always wondered what possessed her to ask it.
I told the audience I regretted a mathematical mistake I had made in my second book, If You Made a Million. Four hundred eyes riveted onto me. “What’s the mistake?”
“See if you can find it,” I replied.
I then realized that the silver lining in the cloud of the mistake is that kids get to do great math to find the error of my ways. And when they find it, they are triumphant. “Feels good to know we did right,” wrote a pair of students who found it together, “and the book has a boo-boo.”
Friday, April 25, 2008
by Jan Greenberg
Once at a literary meeting, I heard someone ask Pulitzer Prize winning author John Cheever why he wrote. He replied without hesitation, “To try and make sense of my life.” What a great answer..
“The life we all live is amateurish and accidental,” the novelist Wallace Stegner said. “It begins in accident and proceeds by trial and error toward dubious ends. That is the law of nature. But writers will not accept what nature hands us. We have to tinker with it , trying to give it direction and meaning. At the guts of any significant fiction or memoir lies the question ‘How do we find order in an uncertain world.?’”
The poet John Ashbury, when asked, “Why do you write?” said, “Because I want to.” Flannery O’Conner said, “Because I’m good at it.”
I might add to that by answering, "Aside from the fact that I'm probably unemployable, when my writing is going well, I experience some of the most satisfying moments of my life. "
When people ask me if I had a message or a lesson to teach in my novels, I have to say no. I’m a storyteller first. Yes, I wanted my characters to walk out of a snowstorm at the end of a novel, rather than into one. But I wasn’t interested in pushing my value system onto kids. In fact, occasionally, I’m cornered at a party by someone who tells me that he has a great idea for a book, one that will teach manners or moral standards or some other worthy lesson. Right away I know that book will never make it. What young person (or older one, for that matter) wants to curl up with a book that lectures and cajoles? However in the books I write with Sandra Jordan about art, especially contemporary art, we do have a mission, and that is to open our readers up to fresh ideas, to introduce them to art of their own time, and to give them ways to enter a dialogue with new and bewildering art. At the same time, when we do a biography of an artisat, we ARE telling a story, one told through dialogue, action and sensory images, but it is based on facts, not our imaginations. We write about the choices artists, such as Christo and Jeanne-Claude or Jackson Pollock, had to make to do their work. We talk about their sometimes messy lives. Their values are revealed through their stories. It doesn’t mean we share those values. But we wouldn’t choose to write about an artist if we didn’t admire his or her art.
Lately I’ve begun to think about writing my own stories again. I miss the process that requires the writer to enter an imaginary world and metaphorically to not leave the room. It’s been fifteen years since I’ve published a novel. I’ve learned a great deal by writing biographies, by going deeply into the lives of others. Sometimes I think it’s helped me understand my own life better; at other times I think perhaps it’s helped me avoid thinking too deeply about my life. Wordsworth said good poetry is “emotion recollected in tranquility.” Experiences from long ago that might be exaggerated into fiction are no longer simmering in the back of my mind, like a pot ready to boil over. But this rich stew of memories has been seasoned with time. So while I’m in a quoting mood, let me end my thoughts for today on the subject of going back to fiction by quoting Winnie the Pooh. I think “I’ll give it a little think.”
Thursday, April 24, 2008
Susan E. Goodman's recent post A Rose By Any Other Name and the comments that followed brought up terrific points about the term "nonfiction." I proudly use the term "nonfiction." But I do agree that Marc Aronsen's suggested term, "knowledge Books" has a nice sound to it. Informational books sounds just plain dreary.
"Faction," as in a combination of fiction and facts, is not a good option. First of all, lots of fiction books incorporate terrific backstory...factual details and people, places, and things. Many fiction writers do tremendous research for their settings. So if you go down the road of "faction" then you'll have to start thinking about percentages of fact and fiction!
When I talk about nonfiction with kids and adults, I use not only the term nonfiction, but also its subcategories: expository nonfiction and narrative nonfiction. I write both these kinds of books. My book, Stars Beneath Your Bed: the Surprising Story of Dust would qualify as expository nonfiction. It explains what dust is made of and how it influences the colors of the sunrise and sunsets. Trout Are Made of Trees does the same. Either of these books, if you wrote out the text without pictures, would seem like an essay, an explanation, an exploration of a concept.
Many of my other books, such as Vulture View, Dig, Wait, Listen: a Desert Toads Tale, and The Bumblebee Queen , are narrative nonfiction. Another good example is the book Arrowhawk by Lola Schaefer. These books use narrative techniques to bring nonfiction to life. Suspense, pacing, plot, character...all these are narrative techniques. They are not unique to fiction People use these very same techniques to make their own "true" life stories dramatic. What I like about the term "narrative" is that it does not assume that these techniques belong to fiction and are somehow being co-opted by nonfiction writers. No...they are the elements of stories, both true and false.
Tuesday, April 22, 2008
Highlight of the month for me: My novel, Climbing the Stairs, received a lovely review in Kirkus, a starred review in the April 15th issue of Booklist and is a May Booksense Notable pick. All the reviews pointed to the intricate details that make the story vivid. Which got me thinking about the importance of detail in any work – whether fiction or nonfiction.
The most important thing about detail, in my opinion, is deciding what and how much to include. This is especially hard in nonfiction, because there’s no fictional storyline to act as a “guide” to tell you what to throw out and what to keep in. And, of course, if you’re anything like I am, even if you’re about to write a nonfiction picture book that’s well under 1000 words, you probably read 100 reference books on that topic. At least.
SO how do I choose what to include and what not to when I write nonfiction? First, I sort the information I’ve gathered into little heaps (or group the references in some way – putting the books in different piles, for example).
Then, I list what got me excited about the topic. A few lines on why I like that area of nonfiction enough to want to write a book about it. That sometimes helps me understand the new angle that I see or what I want the book to do that’s different from others on the same topic that are already out there.
And that also helps me to see what I want to be just “background” material, versus what I want to focus on and emphasize. Usually all this is pretty clear when I conceive the project, but by the time I finish my research, it can get pretty muddled. Or, on rare occasions, the focus shifts and I have an even better idea that cropped up when I was doing research which I decide to focus on. Whatever the case may be, it helps me to clearly state my focus and my goal and what I love best about the topic on paper. If there are many things I love about the topic, I write them all down and then pick what I love best.
That means, of course, there will be a huge chunk of material I won’t be able to use. But leaving out the right stuff is just as important as what you leave in!
Once I have the first draft together (and it’s usually 5 times longer than the length I have in my mind as a target), I use my focus/goal paragraph to pick out the details I need to keep in. And I keep asking myself, what’s the main question this book is trying to answer? Anything l that’s not directly part of the answer I start to take out.
Then, I stare hard and once again take a look with the main theme in mind. The theme is the part that needs the greatest detail. Everything else is superfluous. I prune and prune and prune.( Which, by the way, is extremely hard for me to do. I hate pruning our potted plants – my husband does that because I just don’t like to chop the poor things.)
Pruning my writing is equally hard. There are so many interesting facts I have to toss out. But one thing that helps me is to remember that a good book has a focal point, just as a good painting does. The composition of a painting helps to train the eye to the part the artist wants us to see, and a well composed book uses facts to augment a central idea, theme, or argument.
Another tool I sometimes use is my “wheel of ideas”. In the center of a blank sheet of paper, I write the word or set of words that’s most important to me – what best describes what the book is about. Then, radiating out from the center, I write adjectives or themes that relate to the book – and link them to one another, or sometimes make a chain that radiates outward. It’s usually a pretty tangled web, but it helps me pick out the thread or threads I want to use to embroider with in detail.
Here’s a quote I use when I teach nonfiction writing. “The fool collects facts; the wise man selects them.” Powell, president of AAS, 1888. That about sums it up.
Now, for my question of the month – how do you pick what details you’re going to include in a nonfiction work?
Monday, April 21, 2008
I love history, always have, and I’m astonished that other people–most others!–don’t.
History is life and death, war and peace, courage and betrayal, sex and violence…a lot of sex and violence!
What’s not to like?
But dislike it they do, and from that distaste ignorance has grown.
“We are raising a generation of young Americans who are by-and-large historically illiterate,” popular historian David McCullough has warned.
Evidence of that illiteracy is rampant…and hilarious.
Dr. Anders Henriksson, a history professor, has collected college students’ history bloopers in a book, Non Campus Mentis. Among many other hysterical things, you will find that some students think:
Joan of Arc was Noah's wife.
Gothic cathedrals were held up by flying buttocks.
At the end of World War Two, Hitler had his wife Evita put to sleep, and then shot himself in the bonker.
Yet another professor, Sam Wineburg, insists we shouldn’t be too, surprised or upset. Testing that dates back to 1917 has show American students have always had a tenuous grasp of history. He further notes that “ when historians trained at Stanford, Berkeley and Harvard answered questions from a leading high school textbook, they scored a mere 35 percent – in some cases lower than a comparison group of high school students taking Advanced Placement U.S. History.”
Geez, Prof, that’s supposed to make me feel better?
Most disturbingly, though, is a study in which people “were asked to "pick one word or phrase to describe your experience with history classes in elementary or high school.”
"Boring" was the most frequent answer.
David McCullough is not surprised, saying, “The textbooks are dreary, they’re done by committee, they’re often hilariously politically correct and they’re not doing any good.”
But there is a solution and it comes from famed historian Barbara Tuchman: “Tell stories.”
“That’s what history is: a story,” McCullough explains. A story “calls for empathy on the part of the teller…and of the reader or listener to the story…. (Children) should not have to read anything that we, you and I, wouldn’t want to read ourselves. And there are wonderful books, past and present. There is literature in history.”
For a writer of history, they’re not bad words to hang a career on.
Friday, April 18, 2008
Nonfiction and Nonfiction Authors in Schools
School visits play an indispensable role in the lives of many professional authors. I began doing school visits when my first book came out fifteen years ago and, honestly, I wouldn’t have a career without the many schools around the country that value bringing in authors every year. When I began doing visits, however, I was one of the few nonfiction authors active on the circuit. Not surprising. Schools viewed nonfiction as an aberration or specialty, to be featured as something different from their usual fiction fare.
For many schools, this is still true today. Especially in the past four or five years, however, I’ve seen a wonderful evolution in attitudes toward nonfiction. Teachers and librarians are beginning to recognize that nonfiction is not a special case of literature—it is the main case. After all, what are kids going to spend most of their lives reading and writing? Nonfiction, of course, whether it is in the form newspapers, company reports, business letters, or email messages. Thanks to the dedicated efforts of a few far-sighted university professors, librarians, and teachers, the message is starting to sink in. With ever-increasing frequency, I am meeting educators who are both passionate and knowledgeable about a huge variety of nonfiction books and authors.
To point out how the role of nonfiction is changing, I’d like to share my current experiences at schools in Buffalo, New York. Four schools got together to bring me in for a week, and I’ve been blown away by the preparation of librarians, teachers, and students. Every single school has “done” its author visit right. What do I mean? Well, many schools raise money to bring in an author and then use her/him for entertainment. Sure, the actual visit goes fine, but that’s the end of it. Smart schools, however, use their author to springboard into extensive learning before and after the visit.
At these Buffalo schools, librarians got my books months ahead of time. The teachers grabbed them up and began developing all kinds of projects around them: poetry, art, music, essays, book-writing. In one of my favorite projects, a teacher went to the local grocery and got it to donate about twenty-five plastic cake boxes. The kids turned each cake box into an aquarium mirroring an ecosystem from my book Our Wet World or other aquatic titles. The kids made little reproductions of fish, jellies, algae, and other organisms and set them up inside. Then, they wrote detailed descriptions of each ecosystem and its organisms.
One of my favorite projects was when kids wrote reviews of my books. A humbling experience—but also extremely clever. These teachers used books to get their kids to think critically and write their own nonfiction. One class even commandeered an empty closet and created a whole deep-sea world complete with bioluminescent organisms! All of these projects proved that I was only a spark for learning—which is exactly what my role should be. The main show was the kids and teachers themselves, and I left each school satisfied that enthusiastic learning about science will continue long after I am gone.
I hope that other teachers and librarians who bring in authors take note. For an author visit to be worthwhile, the entire school needs to be engaged through the entire planning process. I find that author visits which most often fail are those planned by principals or outside groups. In these visits, the teachers and librarians are not invested in the visit and it shows by the dearth of preparation. Whenever I visit a school like this, I think “They should have spent this money on books for the library.” Fortunately, many schools do plan ahead. For those who don’t, I hope my Buffalo experiences might demonstrate how to get more bang for your author buck. Perhaps some other authors on the blog could share some of their favorite “author exercises” they’ve observed in schools?
Thursday, April 17, 2008
My goal this morning is to investigate what others think about one of my nonfiction pet peeves and hear your thoughts on the matter. This past weekend I co-taught a two-part workshop called Noteworthy Nonfiction with Charlesbridge editor Yolanda LeRoy. One of the issues that came up was invented dialogue. I happen to feel strongly that invented dialogue—by which I mean conversations based on research, however brief—has no place in nonfiction for kids, but there were those who disagreed.
Arguments in favor of invented dialogue included the idea that rooting something in conversation makes it come alive for the reader. After all, isn’t that what we’re trying to do? Make nonfiction more stimulating so kids will be enticed and excited to read it? With that, I could agree. And if the essence of what happened is based on careful research, and the words a writer puts in someone else’s mouth ring true, then what does it matter if the actual words were not actually spoken? Some nodded in agreement. I was not one of them.
It matters a tremendous amount if the words were not actually spoken. My first and gut reaction is that this is simply wrong. I wouldn’t want anyone putting posthumous words in my mouth, after all, even if they reflected the truth of something I might have said. But my indignation was not met with as much agreeable nodding as I expected. Or, as I had hoped. I was prodded to elaborate. Why does invented dialogue bother me so much?
The answer is this. If we’re talking about nonfiction for kids, it bothers me because they are amassing knowledge as they read. They are soaking things up, collecting information for the long haul, putting together the pieces of our world. The truths they read in their early years of nonfiction will be the truths upon which later insights and truths are built. And if some of those truths are indeed falsehoods, they will be planted right alongside the rest and become a permanent part of what they know to be true. How many adults have had to relearn incorrect pieces of history due to quoted material that was actually never spoken? Or have you still not yet been told that George Washington never did chop down that cherry tree?
And no, I am not against plays or movies that “bring history alive.” I am watching the John Adams series on HBO along with the rest of the country and am finding it quite fascinating. But the intention there is much different than slipping invented dialogue into otherwise factually accurate nonfiction for kids—and the intended audience is aware of those differences. So, challenge me; make me challenge myself. What are your thoughts, pro or con?
Wednesday, April 16, 2008
Since I think art is indeed useful, the title I created is Look at My Book: How Kids Can Write and Illustrate Terrific Books. It follows three characters from brainstorming to rough drafts, revising, lettering, and binding as they create an adventure story, a nonfiction bird book, and an autobiography (age 5-9).
Inspired by an I.N.K. post by Anna K. Lewis (Books to Ignite a Creative Spark), I‘ve compiled several titles that help kids put their own ideas into book format. For my purposes, a book is defined as a sequence of words and/or pictures that tells a story or conveys information. It may be as simple as a folded piece of paper that provides four pages to fill, a ready-made journal, an accordion book, and so on.
Over the years many people have asked me for a book about how students could write their own books. Not once did anyone request info about how kids can learn to illustrate, i.e. combine artwork with words. Perhaps that‘s because “art” isn’t prominent in standardized tests? Yet this world is jam-packed with images and surely it‘s an important skill for children to be able to analyze and work with images, is it not?
There are quite a few children's books about writing and/or drawing… for this post I tried to focus on some that are likely to inspire a child to create a book project, rather than just enjoyable stories with a writing theme or directions about how to draw cats, dogs, etc. The recommended age levels are included as a guide, but kids often defy such labels, of course. Please add your favorite titles in a comment!
Books for kids:
Max finds out his collection of words can be arranged to create stories, with amazing results. An inspiring introduction to the power of words, as well as wonderful illustrations.
You Have to Write
Janet S. Wong, Teresa Flavin (illustrator) (age 8-12)
This picture book speaks directly to kids about common fears they may have about “what to write about” and other dilemmas.
How to Write Your Life Story
Ralph Fletcher (age 9-12)
In addition to this title, Fletcher has written numerous books to help kids develop as authors, including A Writer’s Notebook: Unlocking the Writer Within You; Boy Writers: Reclaiming Their Voices; and Poetry Matters: Writing a Poem from the Inside Out.
In Print! 40 Cool Publishing Projects for Kids
Joe Rhatigan (age 9-12)
Innovative ways to showcase writing and illustration projects, some book-like and some not.
Another Book About Design: Complicated Doesn’t Make it Bad
Mark Gonyea (age 9-12)
The sequel to A Book About Design: Complicated Doesn’t Make it Good, one of very few resources about design directed to children.
Art for Kids: Comic Strips: Create Your Own Comic Strips from Start to Finish
Art Roche (age 9-12)
Children love comics and this gives them a guide to making their own. For older students, Making Comics by Scott McCloud is a comprehensive how-to presented in a comics format.
Books for Teachers:
Nonfiction Matters: Reading, Writing, and Research in Grades 3-8
One of the few books to concentrate on teaching nonfiction writing (also next entry.)
Nonfiction Craft Lessons: Teaching Information Writing K-8
Joann Portalupi and Ralph Fletcher
Notebook Know-How: Strategies For The Writer's Notebook
Personally, I never once made a book while attending elementary and secondary school in the late 60s and 70s, Lots of paragraphs, reports, a poem or two, but that was about it. The first book I made was as an adult, a dummy to try and get my first book published. Once I began visiting schools in the 1980s, it was so nice to see that writing by very young children seemed to be everywhere. Many schools sponsor Young Author events to showcase the students’ writing and illustration in book form, and some even put those books in the library to be checked out. I would have loved a supportive atmosphere like that.
For students who want to try to get published, the Kids Are Authors contest sponsored by Scholastic is a wonderful impetus for the creation of thousands of books every year.
Tuesday, April 15, 2008
Before I became a kids’ book author, I wrote magazine articles including an interview with Judith Martin, aka Miss Manners. Among other things, I asked her if she had ever been stumped by a question of etiquette. Only one, she replied, finding a good way to refer to the person someone lives with but is not married to. Partner seems like a business relationship. Boyfriend is frankly weird after 30 years of cohabitation or if that “boy” is gray or bald. Lover much the same. POSSLQ or "Persons of Opposite Sex Sharing Living Quarters," a term coined in the late 1970s by the Census Bureau? Please.
As we all know, words matter. So what about the one that describes our genre of writing: nonfiction. I used to feel just fine about it, but now I have a slight twinge. After all, it does have a negative point of reference. The “I’m not fiction” instead of the “I am something” kind of writing. Hmmm.
When I started doing school visits years ago, I heard educators using the term informational writing. Frankly I hate that even more. It sounds like we write instructions for assembling bookshelves. Yes, nonfiction transmits information, but while doing so it can also convey the magic and wonder of the world in words funny or beautiful.
Creative nonfiction, which could accurately describe many of our books? Not horrible, despite the basic “un-fiction” problem mentioned earlier. At least it acknowledges that we use the same arsenal of literary tools as the fiction folks: story, setting, characters, conflict, dialogue (or quotations in our case). And most importantly, imagination. But I’ve learned that creative nonfiction does not refer to the Michael Pollans or Susan Orleans in the adult world and the Jennifer Armstrongs and Elizabeth Partridges in ours. Instead it most often means memoirs, which makes a lot of sense if you think about it.
So, what are we to do? Ask Miss Manners? Come up with a new word? Ms. made it into our language, although POSSLQ died a warranted death. Or, should we remember 7-Up’s old ad campaign where it celebrated itself as the Uncola—the break from the ordinary, the un and only—and wear the nonfiction name with pride.
Monday, April 14, 2008
Quick, can you name a nonfiction book on the BookSense “Children’s Interest” bestseller list? Oddly enough, there have been several of them over the past few weeks, but the big sensation is a memoir called Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines, a true story as lived and told by Nic Sheff. How low can he sink? Think as low as you can go. Not exactly the nicey-nice topics we usually blab about in our field, and this is definitely YA, not for children. Plus, in its explicit and accurate (I asked around) depiction of how crystal meth and heroin will wreck your life, this has flaws. Repetitious (way TMI), self-indulgent, writing that is raw and not "tight" (in either the literary or the kid-slang sense), and most of all a dearth of insight: despite the title, there's not much upward motion here. Some experts say that mental development ceases when a person becomes an addict, in which case Sheff-- who started at age 11-- may be stuck at an age earlier than his biological one (early twenties). Still, some kids will find this hard to put down—it’s, er, addictive—and if it leads any of them to think twice about making disastrous choices, the book is worthy of its bestsellerdom (Simon & Schuster, 2008, definitely ages 12 and up.)
For bad choices considerably easier to talk about, The Book of Time Outs is a diabolically clever concept book. Author/artist Deb Lucke suavely subtitles it A Mostly True History of the World's Biggest Troublemakers. Wry text and expressive portraits feature those who were greedy (Napoleon), untruthful (Columbus), unwashed (Queen Isabella), awful to their siblings (Cleopatra), and ten more guys and gals with flaws. A unique way of looking at world history, an empathetic gift for a child who's just misbehaved (with messages like "you're not the first to have a time out," "you're not the worst," and "actions have consequences"), and irresistible to just about anyone (Simon & Schuster, 2008, ages 4-8).
Lots o’ green books sprouting all of a sudden. One of the most interesting is How We Know What We Know About Our Changing Climate. This is actually a children's version of a university-press tome by photojournalist Gary Braasch, Earth Under Fire: How Global Warming Is Changing the World. Now it has a text by Lynne Cherry (well-known for The Great Kapok Tree and other environmental books), and it's subtitled Scientists and Kids Explore Global Warming. What are butterflies, birds, flowers--not to mention a lot of super-smart people--trying to tell us? The world is starting to sizzle, and the clues are literally everywhere. In motivating readers (especially budding scientists) to save the planet, Cherry goes into substantial detail on the latest data, how researchers work, and what kids can do, with an unusually thorough section on further resources. Braasch contributes his stunning photos, wisely including kids in scenes as often as possible. Worthy of bestsellerdom, the ultimate in the recent trend of taking adult projects and distilling them for younger readers (Dawn Publications, 2008, ages 10-14).
You don’t even have to like animals to find Sisters & Brothers: Sibling Relationships in the Animal World a treat. Heck, you don't have to be a kid. This is one juicy topic. I mean, painless intro to zoology. Which creatures have stepsiblings? (Catfish.) Which ones have only sisters? (New Mexico whiptail lizards.) Which ones eat each other? (Black widow spiders.) Which brothers' fights escalate so terribly that one them simply has to leave? (Grizzly bears.) Sorry, it's hard to stop with the examples, and all of them are well-grounded here in simple scientific language, with pages of animal facts at the end. Score a winner for Robin Page and I.N.K.’s own Steve Jenkins, with his distinctive cut-paper collages, amusingly captioned, set against oceans of white space (Houghton Mifflin, 2008, ages 4-8).
You might think Imagine a Dragon would be collection of fluffy poems going nowhere special, but you’d be wrong. Instead, esteemed science writer Laurence Pringle has compiled a treasury of true stuff about this beast, illustrious but wholly imaginary. Starting with the earliest rumors in China, Egypt, and present-day Iraq, a dragon worked nicely as an explanation for natural disasters, scientific phenomena, anything that seemed scary. Pringle zooms around the globe to glean the primo dragon facts and legends, while lush paintings in acrylic by Eujin Kim Neilan make the pages swirl. Good example of a handsome nonfiction picture book, and an appealing choice for kids shifting out of fairy tales (Boyds Mills, 2008, ages 7-9).
No Fartistic news this time… come back next month. Meanwhile, hope to see you at TLA or IRA.
Friday, April 11, 2008
Most of the RT scripts available online and in print are based on fictional stories, but many creative nonfiction picture books with science themes can easily be adapted into RT scripts. It’s the perfect way to integrate learning and literacy.
Just imagine students taking on the roles of the sun, the moon, and the planets or pretending to be cells inside the human body. Children are especially excited about playing animal characters, so books that focus on animal behaviors or describe how animals survive in a particular habitat work well. In a recent I.N.K. post, Sneed Collard called these kinds of titles “list books.”
While pretending to be a slithering snake or a little ladybug, students suddenly see the world from that animal’s point of view. As a result, they gain a deeper understanding of animal behaviors and lifestyles. Students also learn how living things interact, and they become more aware of the roles plants and animals play in their environment. What could be better than that?
To find books that can easily be converted into RT scripts, take a trip to your library’s J570 and J591 sections. Look for titles with lyrical language, repeated phrases, and sound effects. Books with two sections of text—shorter, simpler text that conveys a general idea and a longer section with more details—can work especially well.
Here are some good choices:
Animals Asleep and Leaving Home by Sneed Collard
If you look at the published book, you will see that in creating the script, I ignored the text on pages 3, 4, and 5. It didn’t work for RT.
When rain falls in a forest…
… scurrying squirrels suddenly stop. They pull their long, bushy tails over their heads like umbrellas.
A hawk puffs out its feathers to keep water out and warmth in.
Chickadees stay warm and dry inside their tree hole homes.
A doe and fawn take cover under a leafy tree canopy.
A red fox family nestles in a warm, cozy den.
Readers Theater Script
Narrator: A scurrying squirrel suddenly stops.
Squirrel: Tsst! Tsst! Tsst! I pull my tail over my head. It makes a great umbrella.
Narrator: Higher up, there’s a hawk.
Hawk: I puff out my feathers to stay warm and dry. Ker-ree, ker-ree.
Narrator: What does a chickadee do?
Chickadee: Dee-dee, dee-dee. I hide inside my tree hole home.
Narrator: A deer takes cover under a leafy tree canopy.
Deer: All the leaves and branches block the rain.
Fox 1: I could use a nap.
Fox 2: Me too. [Big yawn.]
As you create a Readers Theater script, don’t be afraid to modify or rearrange the author’s text to meet your needs. Cut information that seems too advanced. Focus on animals that live in your area or that you think will resonate most with your students. Your ultimate goal is to create lively, engaging scripts that your students can’t resist reading over and over.
Thursday, April 10, 2008
Where do ideas come from? In the case of my upcoming book, tentatively titled THE VERMEER INTERVIEWS, the idea came from reading WAYS OF TELLING by Leonard Marcus, a book which I highly recommend to all children's authors and illustrators.
“Welcome to Delft, Holland. I was born here in 1632 and painted this portrait of the city in 1660 when I was 28 years old. See the gleaming white tower in the distance? That’s the tower of the Nieuwe Kerk, or New Church, near where I grew up. And to the right, behind the two large boats, sits the Rotterdam Gate, one of several gates which allowed boats in and out of the city’s busy canals. See how the sun shines on the rooftops in the distance as it emerges from the morning clouds? I loved to paint light. It was one of my specialties. You see, I was an artist. My name is Jan Vermeer. And although I died in 1675, I can still speak to you through my paintings. Come, let me show you around.”
I thought it sort of worked, but it sounded a bit like a series of monologues, and I had no good explanation for how Vermeer was able to speak to us from the grave.
Wednesday, April 9, 2008
Tuesday, April 8, 2008
A few months ago I attended a seminar given by Edward Tufte on the visual presentation of data and information. Tufte is a Yale professor who has written (and designed) a number of books on presenting and analyzing information graphically. Here’s a link to his site:
PowerPoint is one of Tufte’s pet peeves. He makes the case that people who rely on this presentation software begin to see the world in PowerPoint slide terms: a headline and a few bullet-points per concept. Not all information can be forced into this template without distortion or omission, a point he makes elegantly (if not succinctly) in his analysis of how PP presentations were, to some degree, contributing factors in the Columbia shuttle disaster. Here’s a link to that essay, for anyone interested in reading further: http://www.edwardtufte.com/bboard/q-and-a-fetch-msg?msg_id=0001yB&topic_id=1
His books are brilliant — I recommend them.
For writers, illustrators and designers of picture books, especially non-fiction books (without a plot-driven narrative to lead one from spread to spread) thinking in terms of individual spreads is both a gift and a trap. Like the PowerPoint slide, the spread allows us to present information in a very controlled context. We can choose words and images and define their relationship to the pages themselves to make create a compelling experience for the reader. Their can be a temptation, however, is to think of a book’s contents too much as a series of discrete chunks. Sometimes a single idea — one that might make the most sense presented all at once — won’t fit on two pages and has to be broken into a series of spreads. If the book's format dictates a head on each spread, this single concept may get awkwardly broken into pieces.
In making books I am always trying to find the balance between using the spread as a self-contained ‘unit’ of information and presenting a single, larger, cohesive story that works at the level of the entire book.
It’s interesting to look at some of the ways that what I —somewhat hysterically — called the ‘tyranny of the spread’ can be subverted.
In the book Move! (written with Robin Page, designed by Robin) a series of animals is shown, each moving in two different ways. The repetition of the animals, the anticipation of the second example (which requires a page turn) — even the use of ellipses in the text — all tend to blur the boundaries of a particular spread. The book was conceived as a kind of 32-page filmstrip.
In another collaboration with Robin (Sisters &Brothers) we use an even simpler technique, letting an image run off one spread and onto the next.
Robin Page's Count One to Ten is based on a traditional handmade Japanese folded paper book. It subverts the limitations of the spread by working as both a book and, when pulled open, as a series of panels that are visible simultaneously.
Lois Ehlert, in Color Zoo, and Laura Vaccaro Seeger, in First the Egg, ingeniously punch holes through the pages so that we see into the next spread. These books work in both directions — we can also look into the previous spread to see where we have been. In The Three Pigs, David Weisner makes the physical format of the book part of the story, so the reader becomes aware of the stucture of the book.
I’m sure there are many other examples and other ways of working within and around the limitations of the roughly 15 spreads in a typical picture book.
Monday, April 7, 2008
Here I will give another example from my book, Photo by Brady: A Picture of the Civil War. In doing research with photographs and other primary sources, one must always consider the source. This famous photograph (in the National Archives) is entitled "Brady Under Fire." On your screen it may be hard to make him out, but the celebrity photographer, Mathew B. Brady, is indeed in this picture, standing by the wheel of an artillery piece, wearing his distinctive straw boater. "Wow," the viewer exclaims. "That Brady risked life and limb to get his pictures of the war."
Friday, April 4, 2008
Anyone who’s written for young people long enough eventually comes up against the question, “Why write for kids?” After all, we are adults, usually with college educations and our fair share of adult life experiences. So why do we spend our time interpreting the world for humans who weren’t even born when Bill Clinton became president?
My answer is probably similar to that of the other authors on this blog. Kids are naturally curious about the world around them, and they often embrace our books with an urgency and passion that adults rarely have. When a subject interests them, kids look to an expert to explain it to them in terms they can understand. It’s a humbling experience to try and fill that role.
When tackling a topic, I use the same standards for research that I would use in writing for adults, and while the writing itself may be characterized by fewer sophisticated words and shorter sentences, it is in no way “dumbed down.” I hate that term. The most important quality I bring to my writing is respect—for both my subject and my readers. I never lose sight of the readers when I write because as a kid, I was far from a bookworm. I much preferred the quicker pace of the daily newspaper. Now I work hard to ensure that the rhythm and pace of my writing are as engaging as the subject matter.
Writing for kids also gives me the chance to satisfy my curiosity. When I tackle a subject, I explore it from all different angles, draw my own conclusions, and share them with an audience. I’m currently working on a picture book about the first women’s intercollegiate basketball game, between Stanford and UC Berkeley in 1896. I’ve written about the game before, in an article for the New York Times on its 100th anniversary. While that article placed the 1896 contest in historical context and related it to the later evolution of the women’s game, my research for the picture book has focused more on the stories of the individual players. On a trip to
Thursday, April 3, 2008
Monday and Tuesday, in our nation's capital, the 21st Annual Arts Advocacy Day was held. Dan Pink, A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future, had the honor of being the guest speaker for the Nancy Hanks Lecture in the Concert Hall of The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. What an honor!
I reviewed A Whole New Mind on my blog last November and finally met Dan and heard him speak here in Chicago last month. If you ever get a chance, do not hesitate to attend one of his lectures. If you are not already, you will become a strong supporter of Art Education in the schools... it all makes sense.
Here's a quote from the book:
"The future belongs to a very different kind of person with a very different kind of mind---creators and empathizers, pattern recognizers, and meaning makers. These people--artists, inventors, designers, storytellers, caregivers, consolers, big picture thinkers---will now reap society's richest rewards and share its greatest joys." (p.1)
Combining reading (left-brain) and art (right-brain) is a perfect pairing.
Did you know that there is research that proves kids start to lose their creativity in the fourth grade?
How about some books to ignite even a small creative spark in a child?
How about some books to get those right-brain muscles energized?
Here are just of few of my favorites:
Exercise For the Brain
How Bright Is Your Brain?
Amazing Games to Play With Your Mind
Michael DiSpezio (author)
Catherine Leary (illustrator)
Everything you would want to know about the brain, nerves, and senses are in this book. It's fun, entertaining, and well-organized with bright graphics and a layout that my right-brain loved. There are even sections on Breaking Rules In Creativity, Finding Creativity, and Dreams.
Did you know that Beethoven, before he sat down to write music, dumped ice water on his head? How cool is that?
The Imagineering Way: Ideas to Ignite Your Creativity
Disney Editions 2003
The Imagineering Workout: Exercises to Shape Your Creative Muscles
Disney Editions 2005
I found the first book of this series at The Writer's Stop (a bookstore tucked away at Disney World MGM). Yes, the same trip that I found Looking at Paintings, from my first I.N.K. post. While my family goes on the rides, I wander the parks. Finding that amazing coffee shop and those books were the highlight of my trip.
The imagination at Disney is legendary and these two books, told through short essays by 50 or so team members, are even creative in how they address and foster their creativity! Each story is fun, different, and enlightening. Elementary students to adults will come away thinking in a whole new way.
KidChat Gone Wild!: 202 Creative Questions to
Unleash the Imagination
Roaring Brook Press 2007
KidChat is a fabulous series of books for parents, teachers, and kids with questions to spark some very imaginative discussions. Two more books in the series are coming out in May 2008.
Reading about inventors and inventions show students their ideas matter. Below are two very well-written general nonfiction books to get kids thinking. I will leave for another post some other fantastic books on ideas and inventors. (And, there are several great books on women inventors and toy inventing, which I hope to blog about in the future.)
So You Want To Be An Inventor?
Judith St. George (Author)
David Small (Illustrator)
"If you want to be an inventor, find a need and fill it."
"If you want to be an inventor, be a dreamer."
"If you want to be an inventor, keep your eyes open."
"If you want to be an inventor, you have to be as stubborn as a bulldog."
And my personal favorite very sage advice,
"Inventors aren't all men!" (Their exclamation point, not mine.)
Power to all kids to be creative!
Kids Inventing! A Handbook for Young Inventors
Written for a slightly older child, this book not only introduces kids to kid inventors but shows them how to come up with ideas and develop them.
Every step of the idea creation and development process is explained, adding encouragement along the way.
Just to clarify, I'm both left and right-handed so I didn't intentionally set out to alienate the left-brained, right-handed community.
And, in my other life, I'm a toy inventor with several patents and awards, so I truly enjoy reading these books. I hope you will, too.