Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Don't Take My Word For It

Don't Take My Word For It

Teaching history to kids is a challenge. First, the events are so distant, so remote in a child's concept of time. Second, the people who helped shape these events are also very remote. In order for history to come alive for kids, it has to seem real. It has to be tangible. As an author, my voice carries some authority. But I don't want kids to just accept what I write, or what they read in other history books. So I decided to change my approach starting with my book World War II for Kids, published back in 2002 by Chicago Review Press.

I thought back to my days as the editor of my college newspaper, and came up with a plan.I interviewed a variety of people who were alive during the war, including homefront heroes, Holocaust survivors, and soldiers. I let them tell me about a particular incident in their own words, and then I included that quote (or a summary of it) in a sidebar in the appropriate chapter of the book. I also included excerpts from actual letters written during the war, to give a contemporaneous perspective on the war. The other aspect of my approach was to ensure representation of people who lived in various countries during the war. I got anecdotes from Japanese, Russian, Italian, German, American, Austrian, and Hungarian war survivors. While I am proud of my narrative about the war, I am the first to admit that the interviews are what brings the book to a new plane.

When it came time to write Our Supreme Court (Chicago Review Press, 2006), a history of the Court and its biggest decisions for kids ages 10 and up, I had modest ambitions. I wanted to use the same approach on to some degree...but what began innocently enough turned into an obsessive quest to interview a wide range of political figures and participants in key cases. Again, with a potentially "dry" subject such as the Supreme Court, I felt this would enliven the text.By the time I was done, I had interviewed more than 35 people, including several former Attorneys General and Solicitors General. I also interviewed participants in some of the landmark cases of the 20th century, including Jane Roe (of Roe v. Wade) and participants in the major flag-salute cases of the 1940s. I was able to interview the lead attorneys on both sides of Bush v. Gore. I felt fortunate and certain the book would be an excellent resource.

Now, with World War II for Kids, the interviews made the book somewhat longer than the publisher bargained for, and I had to cut a bit, though it was still longer than the rest of the books in the series

Not only was it long, it was way too long.

Though I resisted cutting it (I think it rang in at 107,000 words, if I remember correctly, on a book that was supposed to be about 50,000 words), in the end I had to trim it back to about 67,000 words. This was a painful process. Some interviews were trimmed, others eliminated. Between the narrative, the text of the case decisions, the interviews, and the activities (the books are part of a series that includes activities), there was just too much there. I got excited to realize the possibilities of including first-hand material in my Supreme Court book...perhaps a little too excited. I was on a roll, finding one important person after another to interview. I forgot that in publishing, length is always a concern. Cost is a bottom line. The bigger the book, the higher the price, the fewer copies will be sold, the smaller the audience I will reach.

It's all a compromise. In creating something I felt would be exciting and informative, I had to also realize that there can be too much of a good thing. Looking back, I still wish I had been able to include more of Rudy Giuliani's interview, to have Floyd Abrams' take on free speech in the book. But I also realized that maybe I'd gone a bit overboard. Maybe I'd been overzealous and too thorough, too inclusive. The interviews were threatening to become the dominant force in the book. I had to recognize that kids wouldn't want to read a book of interviews alone. They wanted to hear my voice, my summary, my take. I was still the author, and I had to write the book, no matter how many people I interviewed. I still had to weave a narrative. The Supreme Court book came out very nicely in the end, but left me spent. I still have a huge file full of uncut interview transcripts, and looking back I have no idea how I did it all.

Most recently, with Franklin Delano Roosevelt for Kids (Chicago Review Press, 2007), I was able took a more balanced and focused approach. I interviewed about 10 people who had known FDR, who'd met him and spoken with him. But I made sure these stories didn't threaten to overrun the narrative or make the book 30% longer than it should have been; rather, they enhanced and complemented the text. I could have just done straight narrative, especially after the exhausting experience with my Supreme Court book. But I felt I was still onto something; it was important for kids to hear some of these voices tell their Roosevelt memories before they were gone forever. Since it was published, several of the people I interviewed have died, reinforcing the importance of my approach.

During my years of college journalism, I must have written well over 100 articles. I was a journalist first, and only later a writer of history books for kids. Those journalistic instincts apparently never leave. Achieving the right blend of journalism and narrative writing is a goal for which I will continue to strive in my future history books, with the goal of making social studies more appealing to kids.


Mark Herr said...

Talk about "kill your darlings". I can only imagine how tough that editing job must have been. But glad you still have everything. You will get it out there somehow, some way.

Richard Panchyk said...

Mark, it was very tough. I was operating under the delusion that because what I had was seemingly important, it would be included, that content trumped other considerations...even though it was way over the agreed length. Boy, was I wrong!