On this Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, it’s hard not to think about Tradition. Queue Tevya from Fiddler on the Roof. Traditions and nonfiction go hand in hand. Sharing stories of our ancestors, learning more about our culture, our rules of law and how they differ are all part of nonfiction at its best: the sharing of knowledge and the exchange of ideas.
At my kids summer camp there is a fabulous storyteller named Chuck Stead who for years has kept all of the kids and adults alike riveted with his true stories of his childhood. Chuck’s stories are engaging and funny but they are also based in fact.
This summer of 2008 he told a story about his summer of 1964 in the Ramapo Mountains of New York. He was about 11 or 12 and the Beatles were on American radio for the first time. His sister had her first dance party and a girl whispered in his ear that she liked him. Heads from the very young to the very old were nodding and smiling in recognition. It was a great story we could all relate to and enjoy on some level. The first thing my son said when it was finished was, “Do you think that was really true?” He wanted it to be true; knowing it was, at least at its core, made it that much better.
“For real?” is a common kid/teenager question because they really want to know. They like to know what the rules are and, if possible, why, so they can analyze them for themselves. One of my manuscripts focuses on this idea from the perspective of the American legal system. It’s a funny kid friendly explanation of contract law (believe it or not), how people can make deals and what the rules are to make them legal (still available to any interested editor, by the way). My son is absolutely fascinated by this. It is important to him to understand the rules. He memorized many of the overall points and then used his newfound knowledge to begin brokering solid deals over the school lunch table. Scholar of legal theory or part time hustler? Both have a strong tradition.
Being well read has definitely served my kids when it comes to dealing with their diverse group of friends. They've wanted to understand more about the headdress of their Sikh friends, the strict school their Japanese friends attend all day on Saturday, and just how much curry their Sri Lankan friend thinks is a "not too spicy" amount. Questions and curiosities about other people’s traditions are often more easily answered by turning to nonfiction books. Sometimes questions have seemed too personal to ask, but they felt comfortable reading the books I brought home about religions around the world and the cultures of kids in different countries. At least it's a good start. We've still been known to guess wrong about who will eat the pork dumplings.
So tonight, grab a crispy slice of apple and dip it in some honey. Share a family story—yours, mine, and ours.
Tuesday, September 30, 2008
On this Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, it’s hard not to think about Tradition. Queue Tevya from Fiddler on the Roof. Traditions and nonfiction go hand in hand. Sharing stories of our ancestors, learning more about our culture, our rules of law and how they differ are all part of nonfiction at its best: the sharing of knowledge and the exchange of ideas.
Monday, September 29, 2008
Today, I have to share some exciting news --- Juvenile/MG Graphic Novels now have their own home in two major bookstore chains and my public library! There I was, perusing the Children’s Department of my local chain store and eureka: a beautiful, prominent, entire wall of books labeled “Graphic Novels” located next to the MG novels; not in their normal spot, hidden between rows and rows of chapter and series books. Placing my coffee drink on a shelf, I plopped down on the floor and set to explore.
My love of Graphic Novels started after 9/11 - a moment of reflection for many people. At that time, I decided to put aside my toy design business and delve into my passions: cartooning, middle grade novels, and art and creativity for children. Graphic novels were all my passions in one big happy place. After The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick won the 2008 Caldecott, I blogged excitedly about the news. Many friends commented that they knew that I’d be cheering. Hmmm, guess I’m getting a little reputation. And, yes, I guess I'm stretching the boundries of this blog BUT I like book talking Graphic Novels and, well, they are classified as non fiction, so here it goes...
At the 2007 SCBWI-LA conference, I attended Mac McCool’s Graphic Novel Workshops. If you are at all interested writing in this genre, Mac is an amazing, interesting, inspiring teacher. He just recently penned an article in the 2009 CWIM on Graphic Novels --- the most complete source of current information on the genre. But the most inspiring session I attended that year was on the Graphic Novel market. Many teachers and librarians in the audience gushed and praised how graphic novels are reaching out to reluctant readers and creating book lovers. A fifth- grade, reluctant reader would rather not read than carry a first-grader’s picture book… but, give him a graphic novel at his reading level and he reads… and still looks cool! “They don’t want to have to carry around a ‘baby’ book.” There were a few tears in the session… myself included.
Graphic Novels are considered/shelved in the non fiction category (741 or so). Over the years, I have asked several sources why Graphic Novels are labeled non fiction. General answer has been, "Because they are comic books." Hmmm??? Our local public library recently moved the graphic novels to their own area. I asked the librarian why it was moved (thinking that it was because GNs deserved their respectful area). As it turns out, they were moved out of the 700 area because… parents complained about the certain GNs with more adult material. Yes, I’m a daily reader of YALSA and Child lit listserves and have heard all about those objectable GNs, but my marketing side wants kids of all ages to get their hands on their age appropriate Graphic Novels. (Umm, I don’t know how moving the 741s down two shelves is going to prevent younger readers from accessing these objectable GNs.)
My son’s third grade teacher just finished reading to the class The Invention of Hugo Cabret. (When I heard this, I sent her a ‘woohoo’ note.) My son, who reads way beyond his age, asked me to order a copy for him from the most recent book club selection, so he can read it for himself. Happy mom moment.
Back to my earlier point, I'm rather outspoken about art and creative thinking for kids. Graphic novels add a right-brain element to reading… not to mention another creative medium to tell a story. As I sat on the floor ‘studying’ the current graphic novel offerings, I got a few looks when I moaned “Whoa, cool” after I read the subtitle to Susan Schade and Jon Butler’s The Fog Mound – Travels of Thelonious:
"Part Graphic Novel, Part Traditional Story, It’s an adventure like no other!"
Whoa, cool! Who wouldn’t want to read that?
Note: I was going to post a survey/selection of Graphic Novels but it seems like I got a little carried away on my GN podium/soapbox/rant... guess I'll have to postpone that list to another post. Until later!
Friday, September 26, 2008
Ever since I read an article recently reporting that Vice-Presidential hopeful Sara Palin tried to blacklist the Harry Potter books from libraries in Alaska, I’ve been obsessing about it. (Did she really try to fire a librarian?)I confess not to be an expert on these matters. None of my books on art and artists have ever been put on a censorship list to my knowledge. But, of course, despite my ignorance, I’m filled with opinions on the subject. Actually when I wrote No Dragons to Slay in 1985, a YA novel about a teenaged boy with cancer, the book was banned at several libraries in small towns in the south. Apparently it was because the main character, Thomas Newman, used several four letter words, such as damn and hell, in dialogue. However, if you are a 15 year old boy who loses his hair and is sick from chemotherapy, in your worst, most angry moments, you might say something stronger than “Gosh I’m having a terrible day.” I felt the dialogue was appropriate to the story. I was surprised that the book was censored because it never occurred to me that anything I might write would be seen as controversial. But I know that today’s America has changed, especially from the America I knew in the 60’s when I was coming of age. By the way, it is generally not true that when a book is banned it becomes more popular. The censors really didn’t come after Harry Potter until it became a best seller.
It’s obvious that because of TV, movies, and the internet, young people have access to an enormous amount of visual and verbal material. Media literacy in company with written literacy is vital to our students’ education, as stated in NCTE guidelines. It is our responsibility as teachers and writers to help students sort through this morass of material. Sometimes it means introducing controversial issues into the classrooms. Teachers and librarians select the visual and literary content that is appropriate for their school settings; writers of books for young people have to do the same. It would be unrealistic to think that authors don’t ever practice self-censorship.
Take Action Jackson, the picture book Sandra Jordan and I wrote about Jackson Pollock painting Lavender Mist in his studio on Long Island. What happens if the artist led a messy, controversial life? Infidelities, alcoholism, and so on. What to leave in..what to leave out? Or should we drop the subject and choose another artist to write about? In the case of Jackson Pollock, who is considered America’s most important post WWII artist for his groundbreaking abstract paintings, his life was violent and disturbing. We didn’t want to tackle a full biography. What interested us about Pollock was his creativity –his method of unrolling the unsized canvas on the floor and dancing around it dripping paint. We wanted to examine the creative process by telling a true story about the way he made his innovative paintings. In a short bio in the back we mention briefly his turbulent life and we did extensive footnotes to demonstrate the book was non-fiction. This book is appropriate for ages 6-9. I think the illustrations by Robert Andrew Parker enhance a short and (I hope) lyrical text.
So as writers of books for children, what are we afraid of when it comes to censorship? Number one we hope our books will sell, and so do our publishers. We don’t want the censors leaning down over our shoulders, saying our books contain pornographic, offensive material, unfit for children in the schools. Yet what we fear more is a repressive society that says children have no right to read about anything that has to do with the body or any other sensitive issue from race to incest. We have to fight for intellectual freedom in a battle that never seems to be over and to be fearless in a country where I fear the censor’s fist is going to come down harder than ever.
Wednesday, September 24, 2008
Every year I visit schools nationwide. I have the pleasure of meeting educators who embrace nonfiction picture books as springboards for art, math, science, and writing. Their creativity is inspiring. These master teachers build on "teachable moments" that arise in the classroom. They can take a thread from a book and weave it into a whole unit. Just take a look at what some of them have done with the subject of fish. These projects are linked to my books Trout Are Made of Trees and Trout, Trout, Trout: a Fish Chant.
Stuffed paper fish, created by students in Nappanee, IN, seemed to leap off the walls. Each fish was accompanied by fish poems. See their clever theme: swimming in poetry! Another school I visited used the fish subject as a jumping off point for the subject of fish tales, i.e. tall tales. Each student made up an outrageous story about fish.
The next photo shows fish stories created in cartoon blocks. Kids love creating cartoons. Writing in this way helps students learn about narrative pacing and focus. (In the revision process, some novelists draw their scenes just so they can see what characters and events predominate.) Don't forget that a cartoon narrative can be nonfiction, too.
Knox County, Ohio students not only did three-dimensional fish art, they learned about specific species. You can see an anglerfish in one of the pieces.
Other Ohio students prepared "scaled fish drawings." The scale, chosen by the teacher was 1cm = 10cm. The students were responsible for researching a species of fish and then drawing it to size.
It is clear that nonfiction texts are rich with possibilities for curriculum connections and just plain fun. Is it possible that fiction books often set us to wondering about what was in the mind of the author, but nonfiction books can set us to exploring the entire world beyond?
Reading nonfiction is the traditional literary way to learn things. Illustrators and photographers help writers jazz this up for kids. But we writers have come up with some riffs of our own, to slide that learning in sideways so that kids hardly know what hit them. David Schwartz discussed this in his recent post, “Guessing Games.” Several new books I’ve read demonstrate other ways as well.
It starts young. Susan Goldman Rubin’s board books lead babies into the world of fine art. COUNTING WITH WAYNE THIEBAUD shows us Thiebaud’s luscious paintings of ice cream clowns, birthday cakes, candy apples along with tasty rhymes by Rubin. The reproductions are fine enough to show details of the artist’s brushwork. In MATISSE: DANCE FOR JOY Rubin gives us lyrical lines to accompany Matisse’s stunning paper cutouts. Brightly colored “frames” and pages of text complement the artworks, and uphold Chronicle’s reputation for beautifully-designed books. Lucky are the babies who chew on these goodies.
No one does encyclopedia-type books better than DK. Two of their recent volumes present animals to two different audiences. ANIMAL FAMILIES, meant for the early reader crowd, presents a theme in each double-page spread. Brothers and Sisters, Mealtime, Neat and Tidy, Gone Fishing, Carry Me, Mom and other subjects show and tell how different species live.
The new DK ANIMALS: A VISUAL ENCYCLOPEDIA for older kids is organized by families and species. 300 + pages are packed with photos and facts. Did you know that 4,700 bee hummingbird eggs could fit inside one ostrich egg and that a murmuration of starlings may contain more than a million birds? The latest information about threatened and endangered species status is presented as well. The visuals pack a punch here, but the captions offer surprises too.
PUNK ROCK ETIQUETTE (Rb Flash Point) – sounds oxymoronic to me. But the subtitle, “The ultimate how-to guide to DIY, punk, indie, and underground bands,” describes where the book is going. Aside from the funny bits about how to dress, who to include in your band (the ratio of tortured poets to rock stars to whatevers is crucial) – this is a manual on how to run a small business with solid info on technology, public relations, merchandising, and management – and how to cross an international border in your funky van without getting hassled.
Then there’s THE WORST-CASE SCENARIO EXTREME SURVIVAL HANDBOOK: JUNIOR EDITION (Chronicle) which gives advice to hard-core extremists, and reasons to stay home for the rest of us. How to navigate by the stars seems tame enough. You don’t need a catastrophe to build a snow cave and emergency snowshoes in your own backyard. And ordinary folks might do well knowing how to treat a jellyfish sting. (Don’t pee on it.) But surviving an elephant stampede, escaping from the grip of a python, and stopping a runaway camel? DK’s encyclopedias don’t tell you this. An appendix called The Field Guide to Extreme Foods, answered a life-long question of mine. What does that Scottish delicacy, haggis, taste like? Answer: wet cat food mixed with oatmeal, served in a balloon. It’s good to know that.
Tuesday, September 23, 2008
Lelac Almagor, English 7 Teacher at the KIPP DC: AIM Academy
This entry was chosen as the winner of our Book Blast Give-Away Contest. It was the unanimous choice of our committee and we're extremely happy to be sending our books to contribute to such a fantastic program.
Please read the winning entry below to learn more about this deserving group of kids.
Thanks to everyone who entered and to our I.N.K. committee members for reading all of the entries. Special thanks to Anna M. Lewis and Kathleen Krull for all of their help with the contest.
Happy nonfiction reading everyone!
The winning entry:
1. I confess I had never read the blog before -- but I'm thrilled now that I've found it -- because lots of kids who think they hate reading are actually avid nonfiction lovers. (:
2. Most of our students enter our school reading several years behind grade level. We are committed to doing whatever it takes for them to read passionately and easily, for pleasure, for information, and for power.
For our kids, that means they need to be reading for AT LEAST two hours a day, sometimes more -- individually, with friends, with the whole class, or with a mentor -- in every class, in the hallways, before school, after school, and even during meals. (We have lots of practice cleaning up chocolate milk stains on our books!)
In fifth and sixth grades, our students learn science and history through a special Nonfiction Reading class. Within each unit, they choose topics that interest them and read and research independently to learn more about the world. They have the opportunity to read in much greater depth than the average elementary school student stuck in a class text, and many of them -- especially boys, especially reluctant readers -- prefer their nonfiction "real reading" to any novel during independent reading time.
In seventh and eighth grades, we teach a bit more discipline-specific content -- but the emphasis remains on primary sources, research, and analysis. We believe that reading, say, Susan Bartoletti's book on Hitler Youth, and Anne Frank's diary, and an essay analyzing excerpts from the Nuremberg Laws, plus The Devil's Arithmetic, will leave a student with more-lasting knowledge than any textbook chapter.
Our approach pushes every student to develop real-world thinking skills; it also helps a segment of our students to see themselves as readers even when they aren't fascinated by the typical middle-grades story about a girl who makes a new friend and learns a valuable lesson, or whatever, but would rather read about Malcolm X or great moments in football or how reptiles hunt.
The difficulty, however, is in stocking enough books for our kids. We're on a very limited budget in inner-city Washington, D.C., and for our program to work, we need books about a wide array of topics on every reading level. Your donation would mean the world to our program -- both because of the pleasure of new books and because our children are eager for signs that the larger world is cheering them on, that good things await them in the community of language and literacy.
Thank you so much for reading -- I'm afraid I've gone on a bit! If you'd like to see our kids in action, here they are: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fW_YU5A8Vz0
at 7:31 AM
Sunday, September 21, 2008
If you’re of a certain age, you will remember the one-word career advice given
to an ambitionless Benjamin (Dustin Hoffman) in the opening scene of the immortal 1967 film, The Graduate: “Plastics!” If an aspiring author of children’s non-fiction picture books asked for two words of advice, I might say “Guessing Games!”
Children love to guess. The opportunity to figure out something or to find objects hidden in illustrations, combined with a chance to show off what they have already learned, gets kids jumping (sometimes literally) with knowledge and joy. If an author can present good factual material in an enjoyable format that allows to children to take guesses, the author might have a popular book on his or her hands. It’s happened to me 25 times, with number 26 on its way.
In the late ‘90s, I wrote two dozen science books in the series “Look Once, Look Again.” They came out in two batches of 12 – the first oriented around habitats and the second around anatomical features of animals and plants. The publisher, Creative Teaching Press, predicted they would be in print for five or six years but it’s now been almost a dozen since the first series came out, and the “LOLA” books (as photographer Dwight Kuhn and I fondly call them) are still going strong.
There was nothing special about the idea, other than the interactive possibilities that come from children using both visual and textual clues to identify plants and animals. First they see a close-up photograph of an organism that gives a magnified view of part of its exterior (the plates of a turtle’s carapace, for example, or the kernels of an ear of corn). The text hints at the organism’s identity (“These are plates but you wouldn’t want to eat from them. What animal has hard plates on its back?” or “What has ears but cannot hear?”). And the child is on his or her way. Kids tear through these books and reach for more. With so many colorful covers, I long ago began to call them “book candy.” Unlike mouth candy, this kind of confection allows kids to think and have no-calorie fun at the same time, while expanding their knowledge of the natural world and, in a subtle way, encouraging them think like a naturalist -- in terms of a creature’s characteristics.
As an author who visits schools, I have had the most fun when I've seen class projects derived from mybooks, including class-created books based on “Look Once, Look Again.” Typically, first or second graders have drawn close-ups of animal or plant parts and written clues about the identity, followed by drawings of the complete animal or plant and further explanation. In one school, the students went beyond modeling their work after the LOLA books. They invented fantastical animals that combined characteristics of various real creatures. It reminded me of one of my favoite Dr. Seuss books, On Beyond Zebra, which I first encountered on the shelf of one of my biology professors at Cornell.
Late last year, I published (with co-author Yael Schy, who is also my wife) a book of poems that hint about the identity of well-camouflaged animals found (if you can spot them) in the photographs (also by Dwight Kuhn). The challenge is to find the animal hidden in the picture and identify it from the poem. We adopted a unique design element in which the gate-fold pages open up to reveal another version of the same photo; the difference is that now the background is faded (thanks to the miracle of PhotoShop) to allow the hidden animal to stand out. Then come prose “naturalist notes,” identifying the animal and offering more info about its life history, its use of camouflage, and a few more photos.
Many readers, both young and older, have suggested that Where In the Wild? reminds them of I Spy and Where’s Waldo?. Our book hasn’t yet enjoyed quite the success of those (their illustrations are not limited by the true arrangements of objects in the world), but it has captured the attention of many readers and reviewers (and, I’m pleased to say, award committees–most recently the Animal Behavior Society, which just honored it with its 2008 Outstanding Children’s Book Award). Again, I think the hook is the guessing game format.
With great anticipation, I am waiting to see student projects based on Where In the Wild? Teachers and home schoolers: this is your chance to combine science with poetry. Please show me what you come up with by sending an email to
Friday, September 19, 2008
As the fall conference and school season approacheth, I spent today working on a new conference talk about biographies. While I am better known for my science books, biography has been a cornerstone of my career. Just yesterday, I put the finishing
So, I thought while writing my new talk, what makes a biography work? There are many answers, of course: voice, clarity, accuracy, unique information. For me, a key to writing about a person is to understand what drove that person forward through life. This isn’t always easy to discover. Finding one, though, allows a writer to develop a common theme that helps the entire biography hang together. Choosing the one essential aspect of a person also helps the writer make choic
And a biographer does need to make choices. My “American Heroes” books are only 12-1400 words long. It’s as difficult to choose what to leave out as what to leave in. But getting down to that essential aspect of a person makes it possible—and makes the writing more fun. Working on the biography of George Washington, for instance, I concluded that what drove George forward was a desire to be rich. Wanting to join the landed gentry dictated almost all of his early decisions. What was so impressive about the man is that he grew out of this simple idea of himself and was later able to stand up for ideals that protected the nation’s future.
One of the most fun biographies I’ve worked on recently has been of Jacob Lawrence, one of the first successful black American painters. Lawrence’s parents participated in “The Great Migration”, the mass exodus of rural Southern blacks to urban areas in the North. Even though Lawrence wasn’t born until after his parents moved north, this event influenced every aspect of his life, from his own family’s dislocation to the remarkable culture of Harlem surrounding him as a young man.
This choosing a “key” to a person is a huge part of what makes biographies work—and what makes them so fun to read. Different biographers, after all, seize on different aspects of a person’s life. You can read ten different biographies of the same person and get ten different perspectives. That’s why people will continue reading—and writing—biographies, well, forever.
Thursday, September 18, 2008
Whenever I’m doing a school visit that involves teaching kids about primary sources there is always one aspect of that idea I find more fun to explore with them than any other. I call: it What Happened at Lunch? Here’s how it goes.
I ask the kids to tell me something of note that happened recently in the cafeteria. Was there a disagreement, an accident, did something funny take place? I choose one of the many inevitably raised hands. After hearing that person out, I then ask who was sitting nearest to the event. Then we hear from that person. Then I ask for a few different perspectives—we hear from someone who is a good friend of the person involved in the incident, someone who heard about it from a friend, and maybe even someone who is not so close to the person involved.
After doing this, I then have them orient me to the history of that day and that cafeteria (I don’t put it that way, but that’s what they’re doing). I try to get a sense of who usually sits where, where they were coming from and going to afterwards, if there was any fallout, and so on.
All of this work culminates in an interesting discussion about why someone may have the opinion they do. I ask them to think about how their feelings about the person involved affect the conclusions they draw. How are the whys as important as the whats? Working together, we make the best diplomatic sense of the situation and draw our conclusions of What Happened at Lunch.
This exercise is not unlike holiday conversations kids may frequently witness with their relatives. A group of family members get together for a wedding or Thanksgiving and start to either reminisce about an event or discuss some controversial family issue. Uncle Pete remembers things one way. Aunt Mary is sure if Pete knew the whole story he’d see it differently. Grampa Joe is certain that the others are wrong—he was there and he saw what happened. Cousin Sue knows Grampa Joe hasn’t got it right because she heard it from her mother, who never forgets a thing. Sound familiar?
When writers have the wonderful opportunity to interview the very people we are researching, we often discover unknown details and interesting perspectives on our topic. If we are lucky enough to be able to spend time with multiple subjects on one topic—as I was in the course of meeting eight of the Mercury 13 women whose story I tell in my forthcoming Almost Astronauts—the job gets exponentially trickier—and a whole lot more fun. Kids, like writers, always need to consider the source of their information. Jumping to conclusions is not an option. Neither is drawing conclusions without exhausting the angles and perspectives our sources offer.
What I like best about giving kids a glimpse into this kind of research is how it makes their eyes open wide to consider the real possibility that they don’t know the whole story of how something happened to someone until they are willing to consider a broader picture and ask those crucial whys in addition to the whats.
Wednesday, September 17, 2008
Continued from last month. The first half of this post is here.
Occasionally a notion comes from my own personal reading. If it’s interesting enough for adults to read about, maybe a version for kids could work, too. In general over the years, there has been a move towards introducing many subjects to ever-younger readers. On the other hand, sometimes there’s a good reason a topic hasn’t been done as a picture book because too many complex concepts are involved, it’s not visual enough, it’s too difficult emotionally, and so on. (Some picture book authors do indeed tackle some very tough themes, with varying success.) I try to imagine my 2nd grade self... would I have wanted to hear about this?
Kids provide great clues, too. In addition to observing my young relatives in their natural habitat, I’ve taken quite a few photos of student-made projects hanging on school walls that show what they find interesting and/or funny. Unicorns? Muscle men? Futuristic cars? Lemurs? Kings and queens? There often is a regional flavor... surfers may appear at the coast while young camo-clad hunters roam in rural areas.
I usually have a few potential book ideas brewing at all times, and a fun way to see what has been published recently is to attend ALA, IRA, and other book conferences. Nothing beats browsing through the pages. Wandering from booth to booth, I check out what IS or is NOT being done with my possible book topics. And if a book or two exist already, are they well-designed, entertaining, satisfying? Do they take a similar or a very different approach than what I’m thinking?
Several of my books have been follow-ups to previous books. Not necessarily sequels, they may be more loosely related. Most recently I wanted to do another sayings book like There’s a Frog in My Throat, but didn't want to duplicate the format of 48 pages filled with over four hundred sayings (which took eons to illustrate!) Instead, I focused just one type, creating a surprising tale exclusively with similes in my Fall 2008 book, Crazy Like a Fox: A Simile Story. To get an inside peek, check out this fun musical video trailer. By the way, one of my editors passed along a trend spotted in a college-level early education class: using book trailers as a “reader motivation technique.“ Sounds like an excellent idea to me!
I often do get vague book ideas in the random pop-into-the-head way, but then need to develop them further via brainstorming. A book that I learned several brainstorming techniques from is an oldie but goody, Wishcraft, by Barbara Sher. It’s great for opening up new possibilities, breaking out of a dry period, or organizing a tangle of competing goals. When I first read it shortly after finishing college, it definitely expanded my vision of what I could do with my life. It’s now available for free online here.
One thing I don’t worry too much about is the competition from textbook companies. Just because they have published a topic doesn't mean there isn't room for a fun, creative book from me (or you). If anything, the fact that a textbook company has included a subject probably means there’s a definite interest in it. They all have web sites with an online catalog. For example, on the National Geographic school publishing site, you can search by grade level and subject.
I’m sure other I.N.K. authors have their own favorite ways to find good topics, if anybody cares to chime in! It’s always fun the hear the origin story behind an author’s book.
Tuesday, September 16, 2008
Craig Cary, a biologist at the University of Delaware, was riding the crest of the Extreme project, a small outreach program that had ballooned from 50 Delaware schools to 350,000 students in just four years. Extreme classrooms learned about the hydrothermal vents in the Earth’s crust miles beneath the ocean’s surface, where scientists diving in the little submarine Alvin had discovered gardens of life that were fed on chemicals, and didn’t need light (and photosynthesis) at all.
I called Craig to learn how Alvin navigated, for my book Across the Wide Ocean (Greenwillow, 2007). The call was a godsend to both of us. Craig needed somebody to write a curriculum for Extreme 2003. And I needed a few words about Alvin. I wound up with a whole lot more than a few. And I’m still trying to figure out what to do with them.
In the end, two pages out of eighty in Across the Wide Ocean involved Alvin. It was a book about something else: navigation, not submarines or the deep sea. But my masses of info about Alvin quickly grew to the point where my cup ranneth over. I wrote Extreme 2004 curriculum and printed materials, and, at the last minute before the ship left, I was invited aboard Atlantis. Craig needed someone to go on the month-long cruise to the East Pacific Rise, a site of hydrothermal vents, and to send back daily reports, interviews, and pictures of everything that happened, so kids could follow along. Would I?
You bet! I For four weeks I slept in a berth with two pillows to keep me in (the ship rocks a lot), and spent my days chasing after scientists and crew to chronicle what they did all day. One day I took my own dive to the bottom of the sea.
It was incredibly dramatic. I want to tell the story. I am the only children’s author to have dived in Alvin. And yet, plenty of books have already been written about Alvin dives. They all have photographs, and some scientific-looking diagrams. They’re full of the excitement of adults who do cool things that seem much less accessible than the ones on Mythbusters. And despite the fact that kids are gaga for Alvin, none of them has been a great success. I want to do something different, and I’m trying to figure out how.
I begin with illustrations. When I was at sea one day I drew a big circle that covered a spread of my journal. Almost center (just shy of the ditch) I made a dot, and labeled it Atlantis. We were so far from shore that for four weeks we never saw evidence of humans – no boat, no plane crossed our perfectly round horizon, and no matter where the ship went, we were always at the center of our world. Back on shore, I returned to that picture, knowing that I wanted to convey this kind of sensibility in whatever book I made about my Alvin dive. I wanted to show not only the science, which is great, but also the feelings: the weirdness, the stomach drops, the loneliness, the heartstopping gorgeousness.
I am still struggling with it. Here you can see a sample page from what may eventually be the book. In it, I’m in the little sub at the bottom, with Tony and Craig. We are singing along with the CD player, Craig’s favorite song for the bottom of the sea, U2’s “Where the Streets Have No Name.” At the top of the picture is the New York City skyline, the environment I had abandoned temporarily for this one.
This picture is one side of a spread. The other side will show me as a child, walking to school. My route to school was exactly a mile. There and back, it was two miles: the distance from surface to sea floor, where Alvin dives.
I have workshopped this picture and text a little bit, and the discussion mostly centers on point of view. The voice in this sample is mine – a 44-year-old woman. Problem? Well, most experts would agree that it could be. “Can’t it somehow be a child’s voice?” was one suggestion. But whose? The child of the 44-year-old woman? My mother dove to the bottom of the sea and all I got is this lousy narration job?
I suggested, “What if the voice is Alvin’s?” That’s intriguing, but honestly, I don’t know if I could sustain it. I keep thinking of I Stink, and applying that wonderful garbage truck voice to this high-tech little submersible – the one that discovered the Titanic, the one that has been part of enormous scientific discoveries since the seventies – and hearing its voice as I Sink. And then there’s another issue: the new Alvin being built now to take over the diving duties with a brilliant design that will made nearly all of the ocean floor accessible to exploration. How do I go from old Alvin’s voice to new Alvin’s without some kind of death and resurrection scenario?
In the four years since my Alvin dive, I’ve worked on this slowly and – mainly – been consumed by other business. Not sure whether my book idea was viable, I’ve back-burnered it, focusing on finishing Across the Wide Ocean and the four very different books that are coming out in 2009 – not an ocean science book among them. Meanwhile, I go to schools and show pictures from my book and from my trip, passing around sulphurous rocks from the sea floor, and holding up styrofoam cups shrunk by undersea pressure, like thimbles on my fingers. Children and adults alike are rapt, engaged, enthusiastic.
I have to do something more with this. Unable to contain my own curiosity, I recently went to Woods Hole to learn about the plan for the new Alvin. In an industrial building outside Milwaukee, the titanium hull of the new Alvin has just been magnificently forged. It even made the cover of the New York Times science section.
It’s new, and newsworthy. And I’ve just gotten some other news. Extreme 2008 is ready to go. In November, I’m going back to sea with (good) old Alvin, Atlantis, and my friend Craig Cary. Once again I’ll be gathering information and sending it back to shore. I’ll be considering things from a kids’ point of view, maybe; from Alvin’s point of view, could be; and from my own perspective, taking notes on what I see and think and feel, for now. Will it become a book one day for real? I hope so.
Friday, September 12, 2008
Let's face it--the dirty secret of many a nonfiction writer, and even some fiction writers I know, is that the best part of working on a book is the research. We get to learn all sorts of interesting facts, snoop into the private letters of long-dead people, and stare into the faces of folks from other cultures, wondering what their lives were really like. We get to feel important--only a pencil and loose paper allowed in the archives--we're dealing with valuable materials, no ink marks or pilfering tolerated. And how about those silly white gloves that never fit that you have to wear if your handling something really important?
I'm in Cody, Wyoming, as I write this, doing research as a Resident Fellow at the Cody Institute for Western American Studies--doesn't that sound impressive? I'm writing a book about the relationship through time between Indians and horses and thoroughly enjoying being a total nerd for a couple of weeks. Not only do I get to enjoy ferreting out obscure facts, I get to appreciate the beauty of exquisite objects like this beaded horse blanket in the Plains Indian Museum.
The Harold McCracken Research Library here has an abundance of books and archives relating to all aspects of the history of the Old West as it's part of the Buffalo Bill Historical Center. If you ever need information about Plains Indians, Buffalo Bill, Yellowstone ecology, or western art, this institution should be on your list. In addition to the above, the The Cody Firearms Museum contains the most complete collection of American firearms as well as European examples from as long ago as the sixteenth century. Who would know that a little town tucked into a Wyoming valley would contain such research resources? And where else will you be told, "Turn left at the Gatling gun," when you ask how to find a curator's office?
I was lucky enough to become a Fellow here because a friend alerted me to the opportunity. I wonder how many other institutions around the country offer such residencies to people like us. It's a good idea to check on grants and residencies when you are planning your research.
Book authors aren't the only sticklers for facts. Hugh Fordin includes this story in his book, "Getting to Know Him: A Biography of Oscar Hammerstein II." Hammerstein researched every detail for his lyrics, such as the ingredients in a genuine New England clambake for his song in the musical, "Carousel." For "Oklahoma," he wrote this lyric:
June is bustin' out all over
The sheep aren't sleepin' any more!
All the rams that chase the ewe sheep
Are determined there'll be new sheep
And the ewe sheep aren't even keepin' score!
Alas, a colleague told him, sheep mate in the winter, not in June. But Hammerstein couldn't let go of this clever lyric, so when anyone asked about it, he replied, "What you say about sheep may all be very true in most years, sir, but not in 1873. 1873 is my year and that year, curiously enough, the sheep mated in the spring."
We, however, can't be so loose with the truth in our pursuit of our craft, so research away--after all, that's where so much of the fun resides!
Thursday, September 11, 2008
It was 1996. My first children’s book had just been accepted for publication, and I was headed to East Africa to do research for a second book. Life was good—or so it seemed.
As friends and family heard about my success, I received a flood of phone calls. They congratulated me, of course. But they also asked some unexpected questions.
“So now are you going to write a real book? You know, one for adults.”
“It’s nonfiction? That’s great. But wouldn’t you rather write fiction?”
These questions confused me. They made me wonder and worry. Was I headed down the wrong path? Was writing for children a waste of time? Was nonfiction less important than fiction?
Luckily, my journey halfway around the world gave me the perspective—and the answers—I needed. One night around a campfire at the edge of Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park, Ann Prewitt, an anthropologist and educator from the American Museum of Natural History, said she was fascinated by aha moments—seemingly small experiences that change the course of a person’s life.
She asked the circle of scientists if they could recall such events from their own lives. When my turn came, I described exploring a wooded area in western Massachusetts with my dad and brother when I was around eight years old. As we hiked, my dad asked lots of questions:
“Why do stone walls run through the middle of the woods?”
“Why do sassafras trees have three kinds of leaves?”
“Why don’t chipmunks build their nests in trees like squirrels?”
He wanted us to think about our surroundings, and he knew a guessing game would be more engaging than a lecture. As we reached the top of a hill, my dad stopped and scanned the landscape. Then he asked if we noticed anything unusual about that area of the woods.
My brother and I looked around.
We looked at each other.
We shook our heads.
But then, suddenly, the answer came to me. “All the trees seem kind of small,” I said.
My dad nodded. He explained that there had been a fire in the area about twenty-five years earlier. All the trees had burned and many animals had died, but over time, the forest had recovered.
Why had it been an aha moment? Because I instantly understood the power of nature. I also realized that a field, a forest, any natural place has stories to tell, and I could discover those stories just by looking.
As the firelight flickered across the African savanna and I described my childhood insights, heads nodded all around me. I was among a new group of friends, kindred spirits who understood my fascination with the natural world.
They knew why I didn’t write fiction.
They knew why children were my primary audience.
And suddenly, so did I. It was another aha moment.
Now, twelve years later, I’ve written more than one hundred children’s books about science and nature. Some people still ask me why I’ve never written a book for adults. Others want to know if I’ll ever write a novel. But these questions no longer bother me.
I know that my personal mission, the purpose of my writing, is to give today’s children their own aha moments in the natural world—the same gift my dad gave me on that special walk through the Massachusetts woods.
Visit Melissa on the Web at: www.melissa-stewart.com.
Wednesday, September 10, 2008
One goal of my new book, See How They Run: Campaign Dreams, Election Schemes, and the Race to the White House, is to encourage kids to get involved. In fact, I devote the last part of the book to stories of kids and activism, and ways my readers can make an impact long before they’re old enough to vote.
To get the ball rolling, I created The KIDS SPEAK OUT! Survey on my web site. Here kids from 2nd to 8th grade can anonymously voice their opinions on everything from whether we should all be legally required to vote (83.5% say no) to whether candidates should spend the same amount of money on their campaigns rather than raising as much as they want (47.4% says yes). What do over 677 kids from 28 states (the number of respondents as of today) label as the top problems facing the country? Global warming is clearly #1, followed by the war in Iraq and then health care.
It’s been great to watch these opinions come in over the last several months—one by one when a kid hears about the survey somehow, a glut of 25 or more when a teacher makes it a class exercise. Reading the individual responses gives you an entirely different perspective than the overall results. In this case, the parts are greater than their sum. Armed with only gender, grade level, hometown and state, I try to picture the kid from South Carolina whose parents have never talked to her about the upcoming presidential election, even though both conventions and campaigns have been in the news 24/7. I can only imagine what it must be like to sit in the 5th grade class in Grand Prairie, Texas, where, when asked what message they would like to give to the new president, one student says, “to give liberty to mexicans and thats why they call the united states the land OF THE FREE.” And the message of the person right next to him is “That we dont want no more immigration going on.”
No surprise, the messages these kids want to send to our new president are real showstoppers. They range from cute and funny to poignant or heartbreaking. And then there are the ones that are very wise. One reporter said to me that these messages were a fine way to learn what the kids’ parents were thinking. That’s true in part, but too cynical. Kids have their own concerns and thoughts. Here are just a few:
•ALL PEOPLE SHOULD ABLE TO VOTE & HAVE A JOB EVEN IF THEIR POOR AND HAVE NO WERE TO STAY.
•Dear president, Please try hard to stop global warming.I love animals and when an animal becomes extinct it makes me sad. Thank you.
•don’t do what george bush did dont ever pick a fight with other countries and dont just go to a country and try and beat them up because its not fair to be a bully to the less fortunate
•Please don't pull the troops out. If you do, the terrorists will attack again and again.
•Tell us the truth.
•I hop that you can help are erath (ed. our earth) and try to stop the badness because there has been a lot of killing neer my house and that makes me feel fritend.
•Can we get out from school earlier for vacation?
•To be honest with the American citizens and fix all the problems in our nation and other nations. We are a world power and must do everything for the world.
•Congradulations! I hope you work on the war in iraq mostly and the gas prices. My mom and I are struggling with gas prices so if you could tweak that a little that would be AWSOME! Thanks!
•I want you to do a good job if you don’t then I’ll protest. have a good day.
•have a nice life. If you die we will still remember you.
•Stop the War already!
•Don’t listen to those that are convincing you to do things that are bad. Don’t sign things before you skim through it or read it.
•Don't doubt the power of our pollution to the earth because one day it will all add up and it won't be funny
•Put yourself in the average citizen's shoes and then decide which way you vote on an issue.
•Good luck you’re going to need it.
All I can say is—out of the mouths of babes. And we need to make sure these kids grow up to vote!
Tuesday, September 9, 2008
A couple of weeks ago I was interviewed by Liz Starin, a former JLG editor and reviewer. She’s writing her master’s thesis (Fashion Institute of Technology) on science picture book illustration. She asked some interesting questions, several of which I immediately recognized as promising blog fodder.
Two of her questions:
“You’ve said that you like using collage because, among other things, it allows the viewer to participate, to fill in information. You’ve also said that your sketch process produces distortions or inaccuracies that are necessary to give life to the illustration. So much informational illustration is concerned with precision, and with exercising absolute control over what information it delivers, so I think your technique raises an interesting contradiction. Could you speak a little about that, about the tension between artistry and functionality?”
“A lot of science picture books use photographs. What can illustration accomplish that photography can’t? Or vice versa?”
And here’s something I read somewhere months ago. I was able to find it today in a few seconds with Google (what would we do without it?):
What this riddle has in common with Liz’s questions is a focus on noise. The irrelevant information in the bus driver question distracts most of us enough that we can’t come up with the obvious answer to a deceptively simple question.
To reference Google again, contrasting a satellite view in Google Earth with a map view of the same area in Google maps demonstrates how the high information content of photography can be confusing.
We’re conditioned to think of photography as ‘reality’, when, in fact, it’s a highly stylized abstraction of a particular place and time. For that matter, so are the images presented by our visual perceptual system, but I don’t want to think about that right now.
Unless the photographic environment can be carefully controlled, photos often have a low signal to noise ratio. The illustrator, on the other hand, can selectively emphasize whatever features are most relevant. As long as the illustration is accurate, it is arguably more ‘true’ than a photo of the same subject.
Liz’s question about the tension between artistry and functionality can also be evaluated in terms of signal/noise ratio. The collage medium I work in greatly simplifies the complexity of most subjects. At the same time, because pieces of paper have distinct edges, collage forces me to make specific decisions about where one part of a subject ends and another begins. Where does a shoulder end and a back begin? The decision is a little arbitrary. The introduction of artificial edges and the textures and patterns in the paper I use introduces a certain amount of noise. However, as long as long as the level of this noise stays well below the information content of the illustration (e.g., the shape and coloration of the stonefish) the illustration can function aesthetically and scientifically. The photographic and collage versions of a stonefish illustrate the point.
Google Books: Psychology By Spencer A. Rathus, Thompson Wadsworth, 2005
Monday, September 8, 2008
We don’t get to talk about him much on this blog—his Honorary Wackiness, National Ambassador for Children’s Literature, Silly-Silly Fiction Writer: Jon Scieszka. But now, by way of explaining where he gets his book ideas, he has written his autobiography— Knucklehead: Tall Tales and Almost True Stories of Growing up Scieszka—and that makes him eligible for some I.N.K. loving. Six brothers, Catholic school, the 1960s, a genius sense of humor—some great material here for a future writing career. The text, speckled with photos and scrapbook items, is broken into 38 little essays. Many of them sparkle with the polished wit of a Dave Barry or David Sedaris—especially those essays with nuns, like “I Swear” and “What’s So Funny, Mr. Scieszka?” In the latter piece, young Jon makes the momentous choice to incur the wrath of Sister Margaret Mary by entertaining the rest of the class with a joke—and the rest is history. Aimed squarely at reluctant boy readers (Viking, ages 9-11).
Anyone who saw him play piano at the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony will be fascinated by Lang Lang: Playing with Flying Keys, an autobiography written with Michael French. Search for “Lang Lang” on YouTube, and be intoxicated by this Chinese master of Western classical piano music. No superlative is too super to describe his showy technique and pure emotion—think Chopin, Liszt, Beethoven-- and he’s still only 26. His life is a harrowing mythical journey from being a child without a childhood—a prodigy in a poor family, with a loving if strict-unto-abusive father-- all the way to rock-star-like fame and fortune. Along the way, readers will absorb a considerable amount about China, its history and culture, as well as the power of all kinds of music, particularly classical. A recent New Yorker reports that 40 million children in China are currently studying piano—the “Lang Lang effect” that could easily migrate here (Delacorte, ages 9 and up).
For a jewel of a picture-book biography, dive into the sea with Manfish: A Story of Jacques Cousteau. The famous French oceanographer started out as a little boy pulsating with curiosity—about the qualities of water, the mysterious creatures below, whether a human could ever learn to breathe underwater, how a camera worked, how to make movies. Above all, how could he become a manfish—“to swim through the sea as free as a fish.” The story of how he does just that, creating beautiful films that inspire others to take care of the oceans, is told with poetic economy by Jennifer Berne (in her first book for children!). French artist Éric Puybaret paints wondrous, fluid images to match (Chronicle, ages 4-7).
Wiser minds than mine might have predicted this, but while Fartiste came flying through with some great reviews, my Hillary Rodham Clinton: Dreams Taking Flight is taking a beating. Possible reasons? Lots of free-floating Hillary hysteria going around; the book came out as the same time as books on Obama and McCain, which makes cynics suspect we authors are in some way cashing in; and perhaps it’s possible that I wrote a bad book. Fortunately, Richie Partington likes it. I’m still in awe of Amy June Bates’ uncannily accurate depictions of Hillary in all the stages of her life. And I stand by my statement that the book was written in all sincerity (Simon & Schuster, ages 5-10).
Friday, September 5, 2008
My friend June English once wrote a book about the world’s most dangerous jobs. Not surprising, writer and editor were not on the list. I always figured these were jobs I could do my whole life with no threat of occupational injury, except maybe from my adventures as an intrepid researcher. But lo-and-behold, I had surgery last Friday for a threesome of injuries that were very much the result of my years at the computer: carpal tunnel syndrome, tendonitis, and trigger thumb.
As surgery goes, it wasn’t so bad. Half an hour in the O.R., followed by a few days of fatigue, and 10 days with a bandaged hand that I’m supposed to keep dry and use gingerly. There’s only fleeting pain when I move my hand the wrong way, but hopefully that will disappear once the incisions have healed. Likely to be more long-lasting is my diminished sense of invincibility. Suddenly I’m human just like everyone else. Despite 15 years of steady gym workouts, my 50+-year-old body is beginning to need tune-ups and replacement parts.
My hand really started bothering me in February, after I painted my dining room and spent hours polishing the long-ignored brass light fixture, but I’d been experiencing numbness and weakness in my grip for years. Once the problems were diagnosed, I invited my friend Robyn over to examine my work station. Robyn is an occupational safety and health expert who spends her career educating people about how to avoid work-related injuries. She took one look at me seated at my desk and shook her head. “This is all wrong,” she said. “The keyboard should be lower. The monitor should be higher. When you sit in your desk chair, you should sit up straight with your spine against the back of the chair. You need to change your set-up or the carpal tunnel will come back.”
It was a traumatic visit. I wrote close to a dozen books at my stylish oak and brass desk, but there’s no way it could be fitted with a computer tray and therefore, no way it would be up to Robyn’s standards. So I went shopping. I bought a Herman Miller ergonomic Mirra chair and an L-shaped desk with an articulating keyboard/mouse shelf. The Mirra does encourage me to sit up straight and fits me much better than my previous large, cushioned chair, though I’m almost sure it won’t be as comfortable to fall asleep in. The desk just came yesterday, so I haven’t tested it yet for comfort and functionality. My folks, who helped pick it out, certainly have high hopes. My mom already told me that with such a nice, new, large, expensive desk, I should be able to win a Newbery. (I told her a Sibert might be a more appropriate goal.) In the meantime, I just hope I can continue to write without re-injuring my hand. But just in case my new, ergonomic desk is more practical than inspirational, I’m hanging onto my old desk as well. It sits across the room, relegated to holding my fax machine and copier, a symbol of the reckless days of my youth.
Thursday, September 4, 2008
Wednesday, September 3, 2008
Vicki Cobb is on vacation. As part of our summer repeat series, please enjoy her post on turning kids on to science originally posted last April.
One of the high points of my school visit assembly programs is when I challenge kids to a bet they can’t do. I hold up a ten dollar bill and say, “I’m going to put my money where my mouth is. Who’s my first victim?” A forest of hands shoots up with a pressing forward of small eager bodies. Everyone, it seems, wants the opportunity to fail!
Apparently, a dare is irresistible. I have also noticed, it my travels, that if you tell kids something is easy, they tune out. If you tell them it’s difficult or impossible, they pay attention. After one kid fails to pick up the ten dollar bill from the floor and another, who’s squatting around a broomstick can’t pick up a handkerchief with his teeth, I say, “I don’t give the fun away for nothing. You have to learn the scientific reason why these things can’t be done.
I’m not going to kid you, science is very hard. You have to get ideas in a sequence. If you can’t answer my first question, then my second, and then the third, you’re going to be lost at the payoff. You really have to pay attention” Then I disingenuously say, “ Do you think you can do this?” A chorus of yeses is the response.
The challenge to learn something difficult is also apparently irresistible. I then proceed to a quick, interactive lesson on gravity and the stability of objects. Kathy Darling and I stumbled on this format of presenting challenges and dares to kids in our first book together, Bet You Can’t! Science Impossibilities to Fool You. We assembled a collection of “bar” bets, and quick scientific tricks and presented them as stunts that sounded easy to do but were truly impossible for scientific reasons. A lot of the activities were nothing new, they had been published in many collections of science activities for kids. What was new was our presentation. Much to our surprise, the book was named Best Science Book of the Year by the New York Academy of Sciences. It went on to become a best-seller and a classic.
We wrote four more collections and they are all being published in spring of 2008, revised and updated and augmented in a huge single volume We Dare You! Hundreds of Fun Science Bets, Challenges, and Experiments You Can Do at Home (Skyhorse Publishing).
I have long thought that it would be fun to make a video tape of kids doing these tricks. Over the years I have tried to get various producers interested. Science is a hard sell! But, at long last, technology has made it possible. Why not invite my readers to use the book as a script and have their parents or their schools videotape them having fun with science? I could post them on my website. To get the ball rolling, I began videotaping my own grandchildren. The results are up there for all to see. Take a look: http://www.vickicobb.com/vickisvideos.html
The published results can be used by teachers to motivate students, to introduce topics, to reach the reluctant readers. This is a unique educational opportunity—combining a book with an invitation to participate in a mammoth video project—a "You Tube" with a mission. Everyone wants to be in show business and now, here’s a natural forum to combine being on stage with learning science. I’m betting that if this project takes off, it will turn a lot of kids on to the marvelous intellectual challenge that is behind what makes scientists love science.
at 5:17 AM
Monday, September 1, 2008
We're already seeing color in the trees here in upstate New York. Nights are suddenly cooler. Like many of you, I've got that old "back to school" feeling; for me, it's a tightening in the chest, an urge to sit up straighter, a glance around with renewed vision. What a mess, my thought bubble reads. What have I been doing this summer to produce such chaos?