Friday, July 31, 2009

Ask the Author

Thank YOU to all the I.N.K. readers who have submitted questions. They are terrific. Isn’t it so interesting to see how different authors answer the same question?

Today we have a long question from Michael Ayers. It has been edited slightly below. Gretchen Woelfle has bravely agreed to answer it:

I recently completed a 40-month, 86-thousand kilometer bicycle tour of the southern hemisphere. Many people have said to me: "You should write a book," but I never thought much of that idea because: a) there are plenty of travel books available already, and, b) everything I want to say is available on my Web site.

However, I would like to produce some sort of educational content for schools, or school-age children. I’d like to relate my travel experiences to some of my favorite topics: geography/geology/natural history/environment/sustainable cultures, etc. I would not think this would be anything like a textbook, but rather, more like the types of works listed on this blog.

My questions are: What age group would you think such topics would be of interest to? Would I be likely to get a good response from educational publishers, or would the trade market be more appropriate? Do schools still use this sort of thing?

Gretchen responds:
When I wander far from home I also get the comment, “You should write a book about this.”

My answer: “I will, if I can come up with a good story.”

I haven’t done much writing for educational publishers, but I have done travel journalism, and I found that advance research was crucial. In other words, I already had the outline of a “good story” before I left home. When I got to where I was going, I filled in details, anecdotes, and unexpected surprises. But I knew what to look for.

You’ll want to supply your own photos, which is another reason to know your story in advance. You’ll need a few long shots and lots of close-ups. Architectural details, clothing details, street signs, shop signs, market stall close-ups, plates of food, familiar things, exotic things, etc.

In writing books you should do further advance research. Go to the children’s section of a large urban library and see what’s already out there in series and single titles. Look on Amazon too. They have the best “card catalog” in the world, including new books which impoverished libraries —and they all are these days—might not own. When you know what’s out there, you can better decide if you want to write for the school and library market or the trade market.

Make sure your books are tied to school curricula. For example, kids study world history in sixth grade, so you might want to write a book, say, about the Inca Empire at that level.
http://www.education-world.com/standards/national/index.shtml will give you national and state curriculum standards. You also might ask a school librarian about what kids and teachers check out most often.

Children’s Writer’ and Illustrator’s Market lists all publishers and what they are looking for. Your library probably has a copy. Earthquakes are occurring weekly in the publishing industry, and since CWIM is published each January, the 2009 edition may already be out of date. When you locate a publisher that seems promising, check their website to see that they are still in business and accepting submissions.

Good luck!

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Ask The Author

Here are two answers to a great question from Linda Zajac. Thanks, Linda. I hope you find these responses useful.

How do you folks orchestrate working on multiple books for multiple publishers and meeting deadlines? Is there some kind of courtesy given by one editor to another if you're currently working on a project or are the deadlines roomier than they are for magazine articles or do you set your own deadlines?

Loreen Leedy says:
I always have multiple books in progress but at different stages and try to keep the ball rolling on each one. In my experience, trade book editors propose the upcoming deadlines within their production cycle then I gauge which one is realistic given my outstanding commitments.

The agreed-upon deadline might be a year or more in the future. Some publishers put a clause into the contract that requires working on that particular book "next" as opposed to signing a contract for Book A then signing another for Book B (with a different publisher) and working on Book B.If necessary, my editors are generally willing to push deadlines to the next cycle (making it a Spring instead of a Fall book, or vice versa), That may be in part because I'm both the author and the illustrator so there's no contractual issue where an author contract spells out that the book must be published within X number of months.

In my case, any delay is usually due to the uncertainties of design and illustration, which often seem to take much longer than one optimistically estimates. A missed deadline may also happen if the editor is unsatisfied with a manuscript, dummy, or artwork, which means the work has to be redone. Changing deadlines depends on the priorities of the publisher; some may not be willing or able to be so flexible.There are many factors... it takes time to do a quality job and trying to force someone to rush may be counterproductive... the advance money in many cases does not compensate the author and/or illustrator for the time spent working on the book, so they may take a paying job to stay afloat... publishers naturally don't want tons of cash tied up in advances... publishers need to have a book in hand to sell it... et cetera!


Karen Romano Young says:
It seems to me that there are really two questions here: how do you manage multiple editors, and how do you manage multiple books?

I'll take the multiple editors question first. I think of it as any supplier with a customer: Make the one you're working with feel that he or she is the most important. Meet your deadlines and your quality goals, do your work well, and don't mention or comment on the demands other customers place on you. But these are editors, so there are a couple of other issues here. Built into these issues is how to get into this multiple editor fix to begin with!

One, be careful to reserve your genre for one editor. For instance, if you have two novels available, selling them to different editors isn't such a hot idea. You also have a choice to make if your editor turns down one of your novels. Will you submit it elsewhere?

If you work in two genres, you may wind up having one editor for everything, or a different editor for each. Different age groups, too.

Even within one genre or age group you might work with two houses. You might succeed in selling, say, your ocean book to one editor, and your insect book to another, as happened in my case. The key is to figure out what that first editor who took your work wants in the future: does she want to see EVERYTHING? Then make sure she does—and that she knows that if she turns something down, you'll be taking it elsewhere.

Second, be open with your editors about your multiple books. While I don't think you should talk about every book you're working on while you're doing it, I believe it's important to be up front about publishing schedules.

There are lots of issues around publishing different books with different houses in the same season—just as there are issues with publishing two books at once anytime, even if they're for the same house. Some people think that reviewers and buyers will sometimes choose between one book and another in terms of space in their journals or stores. There's some controversy around this, so it's best to keep your various editors informed of the dates, genres, age levels, topics, etc., of your books. The fact is that the market may respond to one of your books more than another, and that this can affect each different title.

Now to the multiple books question. How to juggle multiple books is really up to the individual's multitasking capabilities—just as you decide for yourself how you're going to get dinner, walk the dog, go to graduate school, and write the next Newbery-winning novel.

Some people really don't seem to be able to go back and forth between two books, but I do. I need to. I rarely work on one book at a time. I like best to be working on something fictional or very creative at the same time as working on nonfiction, whether I'm researching or writing. Now that I've added illustration to my resume it's interesting to figure out the mindset I need to be in to work on that as well. And I'm not even getting into freelance writing projects, mentor teaching, and keeping up with Facebook. Here are the highpoints, for me:

1. I make my own deadlines. Right now I'm struggling to finish the revision of a proposal for a new nonfiction book, a painting, and a dummy for an illustrated book. None of this has to be done. Nobody is waiting for any of it. And if I miss the deadline (most likely the painting will take too long) nothing will happen. I don't know why I can do this. And I have just as much trouble finishing things as anyone.

2. I use my energy. I have a lot of energy, but not a long attention span. I want to work all day, but can't focus long enough on one thing. So I'll pick two or three things to work on during the course of the day, break it up additionally by walking dogs and doing the laundry, and more gets done than if I try to park my rear for hours and hours to do only one thing. Fatigue hits, and I can't do anything, and that gets stressful. That said, I can get obsessive about things and just stay with them at the expense of all else; but I never start out by assuming I'll be able to do that.

3. I do the thing that's calling to me. Is it the laundry? Is it the novel? Is it the internet research? It's not that I don't require heavy disciplining; I do. But over time, for the most part, I find that I get to everything.

This is THE KEY to my ability to work on multiple novels: when you work on two, then each of them becomes a vacation from the other. When I'm tired of writing fiction, research seems simple and black-and-white; when organizing information is tying me up in knots (I'm not a linear thinker) then working on a story of my own imagining feels like such a pleasure. And, although the freelance work can seem like a drag, I've learned that I like working with other people occasionally; at least it forces me to get dressed.

I have to admit that there are days when the yardwork or housework or dogs or kids get me carried away and the work goes along the wayside. I tell myself that I need time to process the work; sometimes I can even focus on doing so while up to my elbows in something physical. And I know that the next day, when I sit down to write again that the place will be organized and that writing will feel like a rest.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Ask the Author

You have questions. We have answers. Here’s what Sue Macy and Cheryl Harness had to say about this question from fellow blogger Loreen Leedy:

What are your main reasons for choosing a topic to write about?

Sue Macy said:
My first criterion for choosing a topic is my own curiosity. I have to want to explore the topic myself. Writing a nonfiction book requires months, sometimes years, of research, and without a personal interest in the content, I probably wouldn’t be motivated to continue.

My first book, A Whole New Ball Game, about the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL), was fueled by my love of baseball and my experience of studying women’s history in college. When I first found out about the league (it was mentioned in a book about “firsts” in women’s history), I was astonished that I’d never known about it.

I started doing research to satisfy my own curiosity, and I continued because the stories I was learning about the league and the women who played in it ignited my memories of growing up wanting to play baseball at a time when girls were not allowed in Little League or, like today, in the major leagues.

No matter how enticing a subject is, however, there’s another criterion that must be applied: marketability. If a book won’t sell, publishers (usually) won’t publish it, so I need to prove its marketability to them and to myself.

A Whole New Ball Game had the advantage of being the true story of the league portrayed in the movie A League of Their Own, so the publisher knew there would be popular recognition of the topic. (My book came out the year after the movie, but the publisher bought it knowing that the movie was in the works)

Also, since the league started during World War II, it related somewhat to the U.S. history curriculum, so a book about it was likely to appeal to the school library market. Indeed, the book is still in print some 16 years after its initial publication, at least in part because students every year do History Day projects about the AAGPBL.

When I do a book proposal, the inclusion of a page on the marketability of the book is crucial. Highlighting any upcoming events, anniversaries, and curriculum or media tie-ins helps a publisher see the book’s sales potential.

When I’m in the process of researching and writing a book, I am consumed by my interest in the subject, but I’ve found that the best way to sell a publisher on the concept is to communicate both my passion about the topic and the reasons why publishing it is a good business decision.

Cheryl Harness said:
1. Is there an expressed need for a book about a certain subject? Ask a knowledgeable bookseller. Ask librarians, students, teachers, and parents. In her column, Needed Subjects, in the most recent Bulletin of the Society of Children's Book Writers & Illustrators,
www.scbwi.org, Libby Nelson reports a desire for, among other things, books about feathers, time-telling, and Nellie Tayloe Ross, the first woman elected governor in the U.S.

2. When I look at what's occupying the shelves at my nearest library and book store, do I see a need for a book that's not there, but ought to be and would be if I ruled the world? Regularly studying what's out there is a sensible habit to form and you know what Frances E. Willard, long-gone-dead head of the Women's Christian Temperance Union,
www.wctu.org, said about habits? "Sow an act & you reap a habit; sow a habit & you reap a character; sow a character & you reap a destiny." Which brings me to the business of a. dead people and b. falling in love with them.

3. Deborah Heiligman wrote about this in her July 21 posting and wonderfully, too. I could fall in love with old Frances E. Willard, even though she'd be turning 170 this coming Sept. 28. I mean, just read her telling about how she learned to ride a bicycle
http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/5038/ when she was 53, five years before her untimely death in 1898. (Yikes: 58!) I could at least develop a cerebral sort of crush on her. That's what I've done with all of my subjects over the years - of course, I'm pretty impressionable.

Your passionate fascination for your subject will fuel your initial studies. You'll need that fizzy enthusiasm/info combo if you're ever going to seduce some editor into doing what’s necessary to get her or his colleagues to sign off on a contract. If your book is ever to see the light of day, you must talk a publisher into gambling their money.
4. Will some editor who's managed to remain employed actually BUY my take on this or any subject? Will people--make that lots of people--out there exchange some of their discretionary income for a book about the subject I've chosen? Somewhere, someone will ask me about my subject's selling points. It'd be good to have an answer. I ought to know about comparable books, how they've done in the marketplace, and the subject's real-world relevance. I wish I'd had all this at my fingertips 20 years ago when I was telling a guy on the phone why a biography on Andrew Jackson would be a far out proposition. Impossible, he told me, bookbiz-wise.

Why?

Too obscure.

Well, there's a perverse pleasure in rolling one's eyes heavenward behind the back of a callow editor, knowing for sure that the world's going to hell in a hand basket, but having a knowledgeable pitch is more useful.

5. Can you link the subject to an approaching anniversary, the bigger the better? We're coming up on a century since the Titanic went down. Two centuries since the War of 1812 in which Andy Jackson got famous at the Battle of New Orleans - ha!

And 2012 will mark 600 years since Joan of Arc was born. (Oh baby!) The best book for finding such nuggets is Bernard Grun's The Timetables of History: A Horizontal Linkage of People and Events. (4th revised ed. Touchstone).

6. Do you have insider, up-close information on or experience with the subject? Pictures? Interview opportunity?

7. Have you been struck by a deep curiosity to learn all you can about pigs or the world's rivers or Stephen Foster, American composer?

8. For an excellent repository of nifty things to write about, let me recommend this book put out by the Core Knowledge Foundation,
www.coreknowledge.org. The Core Knowledge Sequence: Content Guidelines for Grades K-8. (ISBN 1-890517-12-7). It's loaded with lists of concepts, events, creatures, eras, and individuals, all so vivid & interesting & genuine that you gotta wonder how these subjects are routinely lumped under the label nonfiction, indicating what they're not. Ah well. Another subject for another day.

In the end, I'm thinking that settling on what to learn about and write about is a proposition of heart and mind. Be led by the one; dig in deep with the other. Or, I should say, choose your path, follow where it leads & keep your balance--like riding a bike.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Heroic Research

At my last meeting with my writer buddy, all too long ago now, we began an interesting discussing on the nature and meaning of the hero in American society. She was exploring the idea through the endearing superhero loving main character of her middle grade novel. I was trying to understand why every time I started research on a new subject, I found heroic qualities in the most unexpected places.

Sports heroism is easy enough to relate to. It’s not difficult to admire the guy who scores the winning basket at the buzzer, hits the home run in the bottom of the ninth, or sends the champion down for the count with a swift left hook. Yet once you’ve spent some time getting to know these people, you quickly realize it’s their more human qualities that make them so appealing. Joe Louis was a dominating heavyweight boxer, but he was a champ to me for looking beyond the media’s portrayal of his opponent, Max Schmeling, as a symbol of Nazism and seeing a decent, hardworking athlete and friend. Hank Greenberg hit many amazing home runs for the Detroit Tigers but it was his willingness to stand proudly as a Jewish ballplayer in the 1940s that made him such a powerful guy.

Still, hero should not be confused with fabulous all around person who you’d like as a family member. It turns out a fair share of American heroes are some of the worst fathers you’d ever want to meet. Joe Louis was once at an event and didn’t even recognize his own son. One of Hank Greenberg’s sons stopped talking to him altogether after years of a strained, distant relationship. Even Jackie Robinson had such a difficult relationship with his son that he blamed himself for his drug addiction and early death in a car accident.

After researching all of these sports heroes, I turned to more historical figures. From what I already new, I wasn’t convinced I’d be interested in their heroic qualities. But then I remembered the common weakness I had found in so many strong men and I decided to start there. Thus my greatest discovery while researching became uncovering a popular, war-loving, powerful man of the 20th century who turned out to be one of the most loving father’s I’ve ever read about.

His name was Teddy Roosevelt. I read hundreds of the many thousands of letters he wrote to his children. His letters to his “bunnies” as he called his six children were sweet, funny, and endearingly personal. This was a man who knew his children and enjoyed being with them. Teddy was not the best athlete ever but he was an ace at pillow fighting and hide and go seek. Yes, he also happened to be the President of the United States but as Teddy himself once said, “compared to this home life, everything else was of very small importance from the standpoint of happiness.”

I had discovered a side to a man that kids had undoubtedly never read about. And I felt confident I could show them a fundamentally important reason to admire this famous hero. Research mission complete. Until the next subject.

Monday, July 27, 2009

A "Super" Find


Way back a few centuries ago in the mid-1980s, long before anyone had ever heard the word “internet,” I was assigned to write an article for Smithsonian magazine on the decline of a once-loved American institution, the drug store soda fountain. The research for my story led me to seek newspaper and magazine articles from the heyday of soda fountains in the early- and mid-20th century.

If you are of a certain age, you will understand what I mean when I say that this endeavor resulted in my spending many hours in a public library squinting through a gargantuan, eye-straining machine known as a microfilm reader. If you are younger than that, herewith a brief explanation: to make back issues of certain magazines and newspapers accessible for years to come, a few companies were in the business of photographing the publications, page by page, and printing them onto acetate film in a much reduced size.

The film was called microfilm and in order to actually read it, a researcher could put the film into a machine called a microfilm reader and turn a cranking device (later replaced by an electric motor) in order to scroll to the section being sought. Lenses magnified the film onto a screen. Needless to say, it was no easy feat to find the right section and you had to watch unwanted pages whiz by, often zipping past the part you wanted. It was a pain in the . . . eyes. But who knew that such things as personal computers and internet browsers and search engines and digital archives would make the job a lot easier if only we were willing to wait a few decades?

Despite the trials of research by microfilm (and, slightly later, microfiche, a close cousin of microfilm that used flat sheets of film instead of rolls, thus avoiding the need for scrolling), it had some advantages. When you looked for an article in the New York Times about an especially popular soda fountain in Queens, as I did, you didn’t just get that article in isolation, but you got a glimpse into the world of 1951, as captured on the pages of the Times. There were other articles on the politics and culture and society and sporting events of the day, and there were advertisements that presented the tenor of the times as well as anything a journalist could have written. (In the course of reading about that Queens soda fountain, for example, I learned that big shiny luxury cars were selling for under $2,000. I reached for my credit card but then remembered that there were no credit cards back then.)

In the course of my research on soda fountains, conducted on the microfilm reader at the Wallingford (CT) Public Library, I stumbled upon a very short article, a space-filler, positioned on a back page of the New York Times of July 8, 1951. It briefly told the story of a 66-year old Swedish grandfather named Gustaf Håkansson who had just completed a 1,000-mile bicycle race despite having been barred from the race on account of his age. (How laughable that is in the context of a modern era in which athletes ten or fifteen years older than Gustaf routinely complete grueling races of many kinds -- but this was the early 1950s). Hakansson had, in fact, started his personal race well ahead of the other racers and, 158 hours 20 minutes later, he finished to the rapturous cheers of thousands of fans who had turned out just to see him — the official racers weren’t due in for another day!

Gustaf’s story enchanted me, a lifelong bicycle lover, and I decided it needed to be told in its stereotype-bashing entirety. First, of course, I had to find out the story in its entirety.

Using The Reader’s Guide to Periodic Literature, an index that was then a staple on the reference shelves of libraries, I was able to find a more lengthy article about Gustaf in a long-defunct magazine called Lifetime Living. The article filled in some of the details, but I thought I’d need even more if I wanted to get into the mind of Gustaf and the psyche of his adoring fans. I hoped to see why he is, even to this day, remembered as a hero in Sweden.

Luckily, I had a Swedish friend living in the States who was getting ready to visit her family over the holidays. She offered to look in old Swedish newspapers for articles on the bushy-bearded bicyclist. She found several good ones and actually translated them into English for me. Another friend, studying at the University of Lund in Sweden, did further research with the help of a librarian friend.

The result was my picture book Supergrandpa, illustrated by Bert Dodson, later republished as Super Grandpa (with an audio CD of me reading the story with Swedish fiddle music in the background). In telling Gustaf’s story, I decided to “embroider” the actual facts to add to the dramatic tension, but in a page of back matter, I explained what actually happened.

To me, the most provocative lesson of this story is not about a bicycle ride in Sweden more than half a century ago. It is about differences in research methods between the internet era and the microfilm era. I’ll take the enormous power of the internet over the squinting inefficiency of microfilm readers any day. But let us not forget that sometimes the forgotten ways had their own power. Had I not been seduced by the charm of an old newspaper, the story of Gustaf Håkansson would probably still be buried in the back pages of a paper published on July 8th, 1951, and hardly noticed after July 9th.


Friday, July 24, 2009

Artist Discoveries

And, one more post on July's theme of "great discoveries while researching"...

"The artist is a receptacle for emotions that come from all over the place: from the sky, from the earth, from a scrap of paper, from a passing shape, from a spider's web." Pablo Picasso

"An artist is someone who produces things that people don't need
to have but that he - for some reason - thinks would be a good idea to give them." Andy Warhol

"Every good artist paints what he is." Jackson Pollock


When researching a new artist, I always find myself asking the same question: "Why the heck did _____ make this?" And, then, after every class discussion, I'm giddy with new found knowledge about the passion of the artist.
Here's the truth: Yes, I took art history in college. For my entire Freshman year, three days a week, five hundred students stumbled into a darkened auditorium. For the next two hours, the instructor in a monotone voice explained slides of pictures from Janson's History of Art. Those chairs were cozy. And, the room was always toasty warm. Perfect sleeping conditions. If you weren't fast asleep, you spent the entire time fighting the natural response of nodding off.
I think I did well in the class only because the exams were multiple choice questions, straight from the book.

Now, while checking which artist I assigned for my own class, I ask, "What the heck was _______ thinking when he created this?" By the way, the benefit of running the program is that I purposely assign artists/artwork instead of letting the volunteers pick out what they want to present. Personally, I'd never make up my mind, but this system challenges me to find something that I (and the students) can relate to.

For example, panic struck when I realized Andy Warhol was the artist who I assigned to my son's Kindergarten class. Yes, several cool Warhol t-shirts were already in my closet, but how to explain Warhol to six-year-olds? What would interest them to sit still and listen for at least 10 minutes?

  • Andy Warhol had 25 cats all named Sam in his house.

Uncle Andy's: A Faabbbulous Visit With Andy Warhol
James Warhola
Putnam 2003

And, I have to mention that I so agree with Betsy Bird's comment about this book in a March 2009 School Library Journal Librarian Preview: I've always felt that Uncle Andy's is one of the more underrated picture books out there. Betsy also listed Warhola's new picture book, Uncle Andy's Cats as: Book I Am Most Looking Forward To In The Coming Season.


  • Pablo Picasso had cats in his studio and his paintings were very reflective of his emotions.

Picasso and Minou
P. I. Maltbie author
Pau Estrada illustrator
Charlesbridge 2008






  • Jackson Pollock was influenced by his childhood growing up in the vastness of Wyoming and the west. He had a tame crow named Caw Caw.
Action Jackson
Jan Greenberg author
Sandra Jordan author
Robert Andrew Parker illustrator
Roaring Brook Press 2007




All three of the above books are perfect reading material to incorporate into an art appreciation presentation to elementary students.
Now, if only I had read a few children's books in college. Then, maybe, I would have appreciated artists and art more back then!

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Writing Across the Species Divide

After Gretchen's terrific post on writing across cultural divides, I can't resist a few thoughts on another divide: human vs. nonhuman. Because that's where I like to dance as a writer of both expository and narrative nonfiction.

When I studied biology at Duke University, I was well trained in scientific thought and making sure not to ascribe human emotions to non-human animals. I avoid anthropomorphism. Yes, a bee can be hungry. A bee can search. But can it want to be a butterfly? Can it be disappointed? I can't say that, so I didn't put that in THE BUMBLEBEE QUEEN.

Yet in the years since I graduated, knowledge of nonhuman animal consciousness has increased dramatically. If anything, I feel pushed to study the current literature so I can include more plausible animal reactions and emotions in what I write. It's evident from recent studies that many animals make plans and remember individuals. Birds can count. Snails may experience pain. Dogs have a sense of fairness. The new studies in animal consciousness blur line after line we have tried to draw between ourselves and other animals.


Crabs Feel Pain and Remember Being Hurt


Chimpanzees plan to attack visitors shows evidence of premeditated thought.

Dogs have a sense of fairness


Chimpanzees having premeditated thought? I could have told them that. I would swear the woodchuck is having premeditated thoughts right now about the tomatoes in our garden. But I can't prove that. It's just a feeling, so strong a feeling that I just ran out to make sure it had not enacted said plan.

Personal, daily animal observation lets me know that we know so much less than we think we do. Catbirds, squirrels, crows, grouper, angelfish, and barracuda all vary tremendously in their behavior as individuals, not just as a species. It is hard to resist calling those differences "personalities."

Yet in books, I do resist that temptation. I stick with the facts. That's nonfiction. All my observations of sloths, squirrels, toucans, and sharks are not controlled studies. They are anecdotal evidence, boosted by my own imagination.

It's easy to be conservative in portraying animals as emotionless. That isn't controversial. But soon, we may all need to stretch a bit farther to be realistic in our portrayal of animal consciousness. I can hardly wait to see what the next round of studies reveals.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Cultural Sensitivity: A Humbling Experience

What with Sonia Sotomayor’s recent grilling by certain senators about her “wise Latina” statements and INK’s Ask the Author question about writing outside your culture (see June 29 post,) I’ve been reminded of a wonderful workshop I attended with Ellen Levine during a Vermont College residency some years back. Since it was a while ago, I can only report my memory of it and I’m sorry, Ellen, if I leave something out or don’t get it all right.

In my response to Ask the Author, I said that I thought authors could write about anything if they got it right: facts accurate, writing skillful, and sensitivity proper to subject matter and readers. Ellen’s workshop showed me just how difficult and subtle achieving this sensitivity can be. None of us are racist or sexist or homophobic, but sensitivity goes far beyond non-hostility toward a particular group.

Ellen began by asking us each to list all the groups we were part of. I scribbled down about a dozen: white, woman, mother, writer, and a few more. Then we went around the room and read our lists. As others read, I realize what I had left out. I didn’t put “straight” on the list. But the lesbians certainly listed “gay.” I didn’t put “sighted” on the list, though a blind participant would certainly have listed that. An immigrant would have included that group, but I didn’t think to add “native-born citizen” as one of mine.

As we went around the table, I realized that to be in the “dominant” group – and here I’m defining dominant in terms of numbers and power – means that the minority/subordinate groups are often invisible, or not considered – unless they take to the streets, or you’ve got one for a friend or neighbor or work colleague. I realized that I’ve got all sorts of blind spots I didn’t know I had.

Some groups today face discrimination from institutions and individuals. With gays and lesbians it may be as blatant as marriage and job benefits for partners. Or it may be as subtle as that expressed by a friend of mine. He said that no matter how long he lives with his partner, people don’t view them as a family and their families don’t see the partner as a relative. This sort of sensitivity is hard to perceive from outside a group.

Back to the workshop. After the participants had named their “groups,” we talked about children’s books that deal with minority cultures. We talked about a picture book in which an immigrant girl named Maria is called Mary at school. (Sorry, here is where memory fails me. I can’t remember the title or author, or if the teacher or the girl makes the choice to change her name.) Two Hispanic participants took opposing views on this story. One was deeply offended – seeing it as the dominant culture erasing the girl’s subordinate culture. Another loved it – seeing it as a realistic and positive way for the girl to begin to interact with her new culture.

An author outside the culture writing about the process of assimilation had better learn many, many facets of the process – from social to linguistic to generational and more. And even then there are no guarantees you won’t alienate some readers.

One of my colleagues spent a lot of time researching Native American history and folktales from her region. In the end she decided not to pursue publication. Instead she returned to her own culture – Irish American – which she knew from birth.
Others, including Ellen Levine, have chosen to write about worlds outside their own, and children’s literature is the richer for it. As I cautiously enter the field of African American history, I’m grateful for Ellen’s workshop that showed me that it takes more than passion and goodwill toward the subject matter for an author to get it right.

This is a huge subject and I’d love to hear others’ experiences/mistakes/successes.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Finding My Next Big Love

I’ve written on I.N.K. about falling in love with dead people. It’s a great thing to do. But once you’ve fallen in love and written the book, then what? You have to fall in love again—with someone or something else. But how do you find your next subject? Why do we choose what we choose to write about? It is, at base, a mysterious process. But I will try to answer it here for you, as I also try to answer it for myself.

When I talk at schools, the most frequently asked question is: “Which of your books is your favorite?” I don’t like that question much, because, even if I had a favorite, I would not want to influence my readers. Usually I make some jokes about parents not having favorite children and my books are like my children, and then say that each of my books is my favorite, for different reasons. It’s actually the truth, because with each book I’ve either been in love from the beginning or fallen in love with my subject—be it honeybees, Diwali, JFK, butterflies, or Darwin.

When I talk to teachers or writers or other grown-ups, one of the most frequently asked questions is “Where do you get your ideas?” In front of an audience I have all the right answers… and I think I make it sound easy. You look in magazines, newspapers, books, and on the internet. You ask friends—both adults and kids--to suggest topics to you. (Second graders are the best—“You should write a book about my collie, Miranda!”) You keep your ears and eyes open everywhere you go—museums, concerts, on the street, at schools, in the airport. But most of all, when it comes down to it, you write about what you want to spend lots of time with. You write about what you want to learn about. But what is it you want to learn about? You think you have so many ideas and then… when it is time… your mind is one big blank.

Where is the IDEA FAIRY when you need her?

It's over a year since I finished writing CHARLES AND EMMA and I still don’t have the Next Big Love. For a while that was because I was still way too involved with the Darwins, still too in love with them. Whenever someone said, hey what are you writing about now? I felt I was being disloyal. The body wasn’t even cold yet, for goodness sake.

But now, I’m itching.. I need to find something, someone… I wish it were as easy as I make it sound when I’m talking to an auditorium full of people.

O.K. Sometimes it IS easy. Such as when an editor asks me to write a book (which has happened roughly half a dozen times), or even a series (which happened once). If the topic resonates (John F. Kennedy—easy! How to do research—sure. The Titanic—maybe, o.k., yeah.), you throw yourself into it, fall in love, and write a book.

But what if the world is open to you? What if no one is asking, but you need to write something new or else… or else the counters will be scrubbed into an inch of their lives and the treadmill will give out from too much use and your children and husband will run screaming to the hills from too much unwanted advice?

How do you find your next topic?

You can try to be practical. You can ask, what are the curriculum areas for grades 1-3, or 4-6? What history/science/social studies subjects are taught countrywide in middle and high school? You can look at the calendar and see what big anniversaries are being celebrated in the next few years. You can look at what adult books have been successful lately and steal the idea. (A friend just wrote on Facebook, where I posted that I was working on this blog: “Amateurs borrow, professionals steal. That’s what my old creative writing teacher used to say.”) O.K. I’ll steal something. But it has to be the right something.

The right something? Even if you're being practical, how do you find the right something? Suppose you do find some great curriculum/anniversary tie-ins, or a topic written about for adults that sold well, whatever it is, it has to speak to you. You have to want to write about it, to spend hours, days, weeks, maybe years learning about it. How will you know when you’ve hit it? In my book about doing research (somewhat out of date because of this pesky thing called the internet, THE NYPL KIDS' GUIDE TO RESEARCH) I say that choosing a topic is like buying a pair of shoes. You never really know how they’re going to feel until you walk around in them for a while.

So you try things on for size, for comfort, for appeal, for feel. And pretty soon you know. It's either a fit or it's not.

(O.K., Deb, think of something really silly, something no one would ever write a whole book about… huh… is that a rogue eyebrow hair I see in my mirror… let me get my…)

O.K. so let's say it’s the 4050th anniversary of tweezers. And that fits into the science curriculum under inventions. And perhaps technology. It’s a stretch, but it might be a good tie-in with history, too. Nah, probably not. But let's just say that it's a good, practical idea and you pursue tweezers and so you start to read about tweezers and

Huh.

Did you know that there are magnetic tweezers and electric tweezers and optical tweezers? Optical tweezers. Really? That use light to manipulate atoms and such? Wow. I wonder if it’s really true that the first tweezers were actually two sticks of wood used to pinch another stick or object over a fire, back when fire was first discovered. I know that birds use tools… I wonder if they use tweezers. I wonder if other animals use tweezers…

O.K., I’m sorry. I have to go now.

Sing it, Marlene!

Monday, July 20, 2009

The Inconstant Moon

So, have I discovered anything particularly amazing in the course of researching nonfiction? The first thing that comes to mind is the story of Mrs. Hopkins. I found out about her in 1986, when I was painting the cover for a new paperback edition of Patricia Clapp’s well-researched work of historic fiction: Constance: A Story of Early Plymouth (originally published by Lothrop, Lee, & Shepard, 1968). Reading it led to my first historical picture book: Three Young Pilgrims (Macmillan: 1992) and my Adventurous Life of MYLES STANDISH and the Amazing-But-True Survival Story of PLYMOUTH COLONY. (Nat’l Geographic, 2006). The genuine, flesh & blood Constance was about 14 when her stepmother, Elizabeth Hopkins, gave birth to a child in the early autumn of 1620, in the course of an already pretty dashed uncomfortable voyage. It was not a story I’d heard in school.

Nor had I heard of Tisquantum’s saga, a.k.a. Squanto’s Amazing Adventures. The Patuxet tribesman had been taken to England long before he astonished the Mayflower “Pilgrims” with his knowledge of English, and even before he’d translated for Captain John Smith in 1614. It was after that stint that Squanto was kidnapped. The greedy and dastardly Thomas Hunt, one of Smith's comrades, sailed off with him and 26 other Natives. Hunt took his captives to the Spanish port city of Malaga and sold them at the slave market there!

Those terrified, despairing captives had to look up at the moon and know for sure they'd never see its light shining on their homes ever again. Some were dragged off to North Africa. Squanto ended up with Spanish monks, thence to London and back across the Atlantic to Newfoundland. The governor there hooked him up with Thomas Dermer, another English sea captain in need of a translator. Back to England Squanto went with Captain Dermer, who was preparing to explore Cape Cod Bay. So it was that, in 1619, Squanto finally got back to what the captain termed "my savage's native country."

No one was home. While he was away from his home village of Accomack, smallpox killed everyone he’d ever known. When a boatload of bedraggled English folks arrived, including Mrs. Hopkins and the new baby, they established their new colony where Squanto's people once lived. As far as William Bradford was concerned, Squanto had survived to become "a special instrument of God:" He’d saved Bradford and many a Plymouth Pilgrim from starving to death. It’s a tragic tale and, yes, maybe I'm amazed (thanks Paul McCartney).

George Little amazed me. After his cold, exhausted horse gave out, this teenaged Pony Express rider cut open his saddlebags, stuffed the mail into his shirt, then wallowed, slid, and tramped through a mountain snowstorm the rest of the way into Salt Lake City. (They’re Off! The Story of the Pony Express. 1996)

I was knocked out by the idea of an army of workers laboring away by the light of a harvest moon, busting to finish work on New York’s glorious ditch. If not exactly amazed I was certainly enchanted by the notion of all sorts of quaintly-dressed people firing cannon, lighting bonfires, waving flags, and playing fanfares on their drums and cornets when the "Amazing, Impossible Erie Canal" (1994) finally opened for business, October 26, 1825.

Studying for The Remarkable Benjamin Franklin (Nat’l Geographic, 2005), I first read about this endlessly curious, philosophizing scientist & author from the colonies, stopping on his bumptious journey across the Salisbury Plain and getting out of his stagecoach to see Stonehenge. Wow. It’s July 1757. B.F. is 51 years old. Here I am, 252 summers later, still mildly thrilled at the notion of that canny old bird wiping his brow, pondering those stones and whomever cut, hauled, and set them – all for what? The holy calculation of the circling heavens? There they stood, upon many a solstice, singing? Dancing? Pondering the rising of the moon, the same moon that silvered the sails of the Mayflower, captives upturned faces, and mountain peaks poking through the clouds. The constant, inconstant moon that Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin walked upon forty years ago today. Amazing.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Both Sides of the Story?

Not too long ago a librarian friend asked me a question about my latest book, Earth in the Hot Seat: Bulletins from a Warming World (National Geographic, 2009). She said that a parent at the elementary school where she works was upset that global warming was presented in some nonfiction material as fact rather than theory. She added, “I had no idea that global warming was a controversial issue. Or am I just naive? Did you address a controversy in your book?”

It was a question I’d been anticipating—OK, dreading—ever since I began researching the book. I was pretty sure it was one I would encounter in school visits, and I'd already been giving it some thought, in part because of my brother-in-law. He’s a global warming skeptic, and ever since I took on this project he'd been asking if I planned to present what he calls "both sides of the story."

Now, most everyone agrees that our planet is getting warmer. Scientists have determined this from historical records and decades of careful observations and precise measurements around the globe. Melting ice in polar regions, rising seas, earlier blooming times and ripening times for plants, earlier hatching times for insects, and earlier migration times for birds are a few of the unmistakable signs that Earth is heating up. Computer models have helped confirm these observations. "Warming of the climate system is unequivocal," stated the IPCC, a panel of hundreds of the world's leading scientists, in their 2007 report.

The controversy centers around what’s causing Earth to heat up. A few, very vocal skeptics continue to argue that the current climate change has nothing to do with human activity, that's it all due to natural causes, such as sun cycles and changes in the shape of Earth's orbit and the tilt of its axis. Most scientists, however, agree that the current warming trend can't be explained by natural cycles alone. The 2007 IPCC report declared that it was more than 90 percent certain that human activities, in particular the burning of fossil fuels, have caused most of the increase in average global temperatures since the mid-20th century. Ninety percent: That’s about as certain as science gets.

As I researched Earth in the Hot Seat, I did come across some material--much of it on the internet--describing global warming as mere theory and a bad one at that, one linked to nefarious political and economic agendas. I reviewed it but did not find it convincing. My editor and I discussed whether I should at least give a nod to the arguments of skeptics in this book, and we decided not to. To us--and to the National Geographic Society, which has long been in the forefront of reporting on climate change--the evidence that humans are responsible for the current buildup of greenhouse gases and that this is contributing to the current warming is overwhelming. If I had included the skeptics' argument in my book, I would have felt obligated to refute it, so it seemed best to leave it out altogether.

I worked hard, however, to avoid global warming hysteria. There are some activists who are ready to blame practically everything on global warming. So when I talked about the impact of climate change on animals and plants, I first made sure to note that habitat loss, pollution, overhunting, and overfishing already threaten much of Earth's wildlife.

More controversy arises when you get to the question of what humankind can do to limit the impact of global warming. I tried very hard--and think I succeeded--to stay away from politics here, i.e., no mention of carbon taxes, etc., or government intervention. Instead I focused on promising technologies, and positive steps kids can take, in particular by making smart choices about how they use energy.

Eventually a kid is bound to tell me that her mom or dad thinks global warming is a hoax. My response will be to share what I have learned, but to encourage the student to move beyond my book, to undertake their own research, and draw their own conclusions.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

When Reptiles Had Whiskers

More on the theme of “great discoveries while researching…”

If you read the I.N.K. blog, you’re undoubtedly better-informed than most, but did you know…

No dinosaurs swam in the sea or flew in the air because true dinosaurs lived only on land.

I’ve always enjoyed learning about prehistoric creatures, but research for a current book project has improved my often out-of-date knowledge base. Those soaring pterosaurs and frightening marine monsters such as ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs were reptiles, but not dinosaurs. Of course, it’s widely accepted that birds evolved from dinosaurs, so at least their descendants flew. And recent findings suggest that many or perhaps most dinosaurs had feathers. Many readers aren’t aware of even basic facts about prehistoric life, but prehistory has much to teach us.

Petroleum was derived from marine plants and animals, not dinosaurs.
Coal was formed primarily from land plants. However, according to data from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft,
Saturn's orange moon Titan has hundreds of times more liquid hydrocarbons than all the known oil and natural gas reserves on Earth. The hydrocarbons rain from the sky, collecting in vast deposits that form lakes and dunes. Hmmm, either Titan has life or there are other geological factors at work. But anyway…

A barrel of oil = 42 U.S. gallons.
The unit is a holdover from the early days of oil drilling when oil was actually transported in wooden barrels. These days, other chemicals and food are often transported in 55 gallon barrels, which leads to some confusion. More importantly…


One barrel of oil = 25,000 hours of human labor(?)
I’ve asked many friends and random passersby to guessimate how many hours of manual human labor is replaced by one barrel of oil. Most people don’t begin to guess as high as 25,000 hours. While estimates vary and it’s hard to pin the number down exactly, the point is that fossil fuels are a remarkably concentrated source of energy, very difficult to find substitutes for. Since fossil fuels are not renewable, replace them we must or we’ll return to the Stone Age. It must be added that living in the middle of a very risky experiment to add vast quantities of extra carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases to the air from burning substances that had been underground for millions of years is at the very least, unsettling.

As of 2005, one third of American homes had no personal computer, while 22 percent had two or more refrigerators and 43 percent had three or more televisions.
At a neighborhood party the other night, one gal told me she had three refrigerators. That seems excessive for a couple with no children in residence, doesn’t it? Another neighbor has two stand-alone freezers, again for two people. While working on a picture book about energy, I’ve become alert to such anecdotes that help reveal why our use of energy has become such an enormous and intractable
problem. Another statistic that you may have suspected when seeing new housing developments with their gargantuan single-family houses…

The median size of new homes has increased from about 1,500 square feet in 1970 to over 2,200 s.f. in 2005.
The 1.6 million homes built in 2005 have one trillion extra square feet that must be heated and cooled compared to 1970-sized houses. (700 s.f. X 1.6 million new homes.) One fifth of those new homes had garage space for 3 or more cars. Such increases require much more energy to build and maintain for years and years to come. Though the current recession has slowed things down somewhat, the prevailing “wisdom” and policy objectives seem to be to try and rev it all up again to recreate the model of year upon year growth in GDP. Hasn’t anyone heard about the limitations of exponential growth? Remember that fable about doubling rice on a chess board? No problem, we’ll just move to another planet. Which brings me to…


The Permian Extinction resulted in the loss of 95 percent of marine life and the death of the 70 to 80 percent of land animals.
The cause(s) of that devastating mass extinction 250 million years ago are still being debated, but it’s just one of many extinction events that have taken place in Earth’s history. Asteroids, changes in ocean currents, toxic gases, volcanoes, climate change, loss of habitat… all have been factors at various times in the past and may be again. The famous quotation by George Santanyana comes to mind:

Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.


The story of life on Earth can be told in terms of how each individual strives to capture energy, whether directly from the sun or indirectly from plants or other animals. It was a fundamental issue for prehistoric life and it remains one today.
On the brighter side, every one of us is descended from the first primitive life forms that wriggled around, found food, and whose progeny somehow managed to survive it all until today, so there’s still room for optimism!

About that whisker-faced prehistoric critter…Thrinaxodon is its name and it was an intermediate form between reptiles and mammals. The cat-sized animal was an egg-layer but had pits in its skull that indicate the presence of whiskers and thus fur, since whiskers are specialized hairs. Who knew that whiskers went so far back?

Monday, July 13, 2009

“Lots of kids who think they hate reading are actually avid nonfiction lovers”

**A Summer Repeat from Kathleen Krull**



First of all, can we all get t-shirts made with the above quote? Credit for it, along with the prize in our INK contest, goes to Lelac Almagor, the inspirational English teacher at the KIPP DC: AIM Academy of inner-city Washington, D.C. Every day that my package to her procrastinated on my desk, I added another book for the amazing KIPPsters.





It’s surely the nonfiction event of the year—David Macaulay’s The Way We Work: Getting to Know the Amazing Human Body. No wonder he won a “genius grant” from the MacArthur Foundation, which in part allowed him to complete this 336-page event, I mean book. Really, all you can say is “wow”—at the structural magnificence that is the human body and at Macaulay’s dramatic, clear drawings conveying every detail. Like a 21st-century Leonardo da Vinci, though presumably without the real corpses, he gets inside us and dissects like mad, and not for his own edification (like Leo), but ours. This tome has tremendous amounts of info, boiled down to its essence, and obviously thoroughly vetted by experts. Kids who persist with the somewhat textbook-y text, co-written with Richard Walker, will learn how we pick up an apple, breathe, think, blink, digest, reproduce, and everything else the body does. To me the most interesting of the seven chapters was “Battle Stations,” about the way we try to fight off flu and other threats. I would think this book would be of special interest to kids who have had anything go wrong with their bodies, but it's also a gift for budding biologists, and anyone who likes to browse (Walter Lorraine/Houghton Mifflin, ages 10 and up).





I love everything about this next book except the title: Hip Hop Speaks to Children: A Celebration of Poetry with a Beat. Edited by distinguished poet Nikki Giovanni, stylishly illustrated by various artists, and with a genuinely collectible CD of great poets reading their own poetry, this is another nonfiction Event. Alas, the title seems clunky, I don’t know what it means, and as Kelly Fineman points out, not all of the 51 selections have much to do with hip hop. Most of all, the title misses the boat in trumpeting what a rare jewel this is—a treasury and history of African-American rhythms. The anthology honors poets of the past (W. E. B. DuBois, Gwendolyn Brooks), more current voices (Maya Angelou, Langston Hughes, Martin Luther King, Jr.), and up-to-the-minute stars like Queen Latifah, Lauryn Hill, Kanye West, and Tupac Shakur. A teeming treasure that has something for everyone and will get any kid dancing—and rhyming (Sourcebooks, ages 7 and up).





A third book for browsing around in is The Raucous Royals. After delighting us with her first book, Who Put the B in Ballyhoo?, Carlyn Beccia here collects a motley crew of famous historical figures suspected of weirdness. Was Prince Vlad Dracula really a vampire? Was Napoleon all that short? Did King George III indeed go mad? Did Marie Antoinette actually say, “Let them eat cake”? Plus a big bunch of rumors swirling around Henry VIII and his relatives. A book with wickedly appealing art and layout, little quizzes, juicy historical tidbits. It even attempts a moral, with specific tips about how to play “history detective” and sort out fact from rumor. But really this is a frothy book for fun, educational fun, all about one of my favorite things—gossip (Houghton Mifflin, ages 8 and up).





And who is this kindly gent glowing against this startlingly green background? Except for excelling as a husband and dad, he pretty much failed at everything until the age of 44. His mother-in-law threw up her hands—but also prodded him to write down those unusual tales he spun for his four beloved sons each night. So was born The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, the Harry-Potter-like sensation of 1900. And here is the author’s little-known story in my newest book, The Road to Oz: Twists, Turns, Bumps, and Triumphs in the Life of L. Frank Baum. The beautiful paintings are by Kevin Hawkes, and do look for a piece of his original art at the Society of Illustrators show, opening this week in NYC (Knopf, ages 6-10).

Friday, July 10, 2009

How Amazing is That?

Continuing on the theme of “great discoveries while researching…”

I have found so many weirdly wonderful facts while researching that I don’t even know where to start. Some are hilarious; some are profound. Some are both. Think about this one, which I discovered while writing The Truth About Poop: When they are upset, chimps who have been taught sign language (but not in this context) indicate their frustration by making the sign for poop.

But perhaps the most amazing thing I’ve discovered while researching kids books and magazine articles from my previous career is that just about everything is interesting. Everything, as long as I can understand it. There have been many times when I started a project (especially assigned ones) thinking ho, hum. But once I started looking around, asking questions, sinking into that world—it was fascinating.

Iris breeders not only know all about genetics and beauty, they also have a microcosm as complete as any society with the conservatives and the radicals and the innovators and the ideologues and all the feelings that past between them. Allowing hunters to cull herds of bison or elk might actually be the most humane thing people can do to prevent disease and starvation. A bunch of guys got together in Philadelphia a few hundred years ago and, by cherrypicking an idea here from Rome and there from France, managed to create the principles of a nation. We all know how hard it is to research an idea and come up with a decent book. How did they pull that off?

Once you look at something, really look at it, it is fascinating. No matter how big or how small, the whole world is in it.

How incredible is that?

Thursday, July 9, 2009

An Unexpected Hero



Continuing the theme of “great discoveries while researching…”

One of my enduring memories of college is sitting in a big lounge chair in a t-shirt and cut-offs, reading Walt Whitman’s poetry instead of doing my homework.

Unlike some other poets who seemed to live in a rarified world instead of the real world, Walt was right there in the thick of things: milling around with the other passengers on the ferry boat and tramping down the road in his great big boots.

There was something so elemental and relatable in his imagery and language; I could feel the person behind the poem.

It’s not surprising, then, when I began to write picture book biographies years later, that I would return to Walt Whitman as a long lost friend. But while I’d read and loved his poetry, I’d never actually read much about his life. I came to the research for Walt Whitman: Words for America expecting to write a book about a rambling man, hungry for new experiences, living his life with vigor and making myriad friends along the way.

I did not expect to discover that he was also a true hero.

For several years during the American Civil War, Walt tirelessly volunteered in the Civil War hospitals of Washington D.C. He was not trained as a medical professional, and yet his sheer presence brought comfort and cheer to thousands of wounded soldiers.

Walt kept notebooks filled with reminders of “little gifts” he could bring to ease the soldiers’ long days:

David S. Giles—Company F 28th New Jersey Volunteers—wants an apple
Janus Mafield—7th Virginia Volunteers—2 oranges
Henry D. Boardman—Company B 27th Connecticut Volunteers—wants a rice pudding, not very sweet

He read to soldiers. He wrote letters home for them. Sometimes he simply sat quietly with a dying soldier so he would not have to die alone.

Walt called this experience “the greatest privilege and satisfaction” of his life, and yet the effort took at permanent toll on his health—by war’s end, he was exhausted and never regained the health and vigor he had enjoyed before the war.

A picture book biographer, constrained by the physical limitations of the genre (these books are short!), looks for a theme to carry the book, a simple concept to give focus and clarity to a complex life. Walt’s wartime experience—displaying his generosity of spirit, his care for others, and his love of country—did just that.

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.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

A PINCH OF SALT

Continuing July's theme of "amazing discoveries made while researching our books"

Whenever I write nonfiction, I always use the Meat and Salt Method. The Meat is what sticks to your ribs and raises kids' SAT scores. It includes the very most important facts in a book; names of major players, pivotal events, and the dates and places where the action is. But I ask you...what good is Meat without any Salt? Salt lets me sprinkle in all the spicy little surprises that flavor a story and vault its characters to life. While digging up research material, I'm regularly blown away by Salty bits that no one seems to know yet. Here are a few favorite examples:

TWO FASHION STATEMENTS AND SOME MOSQUITOES
During his exploration of the American West, Meriwether Lewis wrote that the Chinook Indians flattened their infants' heads so much that they measured only 2 inches from front to back and were even thinner at the top. (Head flattening didn't lower the babies' intelligence one bit....but don't try this at home.)

Grownups had to look good too. Chinook women made their legs look fashionably fat by tying cords so tightly around their ankles that the circulation was cut off and their legs swelled right up.

And Lewis's co-captain William Clark may have been a brilliant explorer, but he was a terrible speller. I counted 17 different ways he spelled the word "mosquito" in his journal, and sometimes he spelled it 2 or 3 different ways on the same page.

FIREWORKS FOR FUN AND PROFIT
The fireworks you saw this weekend aren't just for 4th of July celebrations. Back in 1601, they helped John Smith become a Captain. Way before he ever sailed to Colonial Jamestown, he was a young soldier in a small outmanned Austrian army. To beat the huge Turkish army, he set off a long string of fireworks atop a ridge. This noisy trick lit up the skies and fooled the Turks into thinking that thousands of Austrian soldiers were firing guns at them. They charged the fireworks by mistakes and John Smith's army ambushed them from behind. For thinking up this winning maneuver, John Smith was made the captain of 250 horsemen.


WHAT A GUY!
Ben Franklin never patented his inventions because he wanted everyone to use them for free. One time his house was struck by a tremendous bolt of lightning, but it didn't catch on fire. His greatest free invention, the lightning rod, had saved his family's bacon, and nobody even knew it until years later when Ben was having some work done on his roof and discovered that the nine inch copper point on the rod had melted almost entirely away.

SALTY STORIES ABOUT WATER
Charles Darwin found that flamingos in South America actually thrive by drinking saltwater, and he discovered toads in the middle of a desert that can "drink" dew through their skin.

As gold seekers headed to California during the great Gold Rush of 1849, they ran into plenty more problems with drinking water. A woman sailing from New York via a shortcut through Nicaragua joked that "The water was of the very poorest kind. We called it 'Alligator Soup.' " I've mentioned this when commenting on an INK blog before, but after another passenger's ship rounded Cape Horn, the water had become so bad that he had to find a way of killing the bugs before drinking them. And when all food and water ran out as folks herded cows across Death Valley, another woman reported that "The old man traveling with us had a straw mattress. A small portion was dealt out to the cattle to keep the poor things from starving.

Speaking of cattle, when there was way too much water, cowboys on the Old Chisholm Trail used to cross muddy rivers by running on their cows' backs.


NOT A BLITHERING IDIOT
Proper patriots certainly didn't agree that God gave King George III the divine right to rule America. But the guy was never the stupid insane tyrant that my teachers and the Declaration of Independence said he'd been during the American Revolution. That's pure propaganda. Fact is, G III was the most well educated male ruler England had ever had! My research also revealed that he gave an enormous amount of his own money to charities, disguised himself as a peasant farmer so that he could secretly hand out gold coins to the poor, and worked to improve their education to boot. He opened his excellent free library to scholars, had a powerful telescope built, practiced cutting-edge scientific farming, and set up a Royal Academy of the Arts. Even though he usually agreed with them, it was the British Parliament, not King George, that made the laws and levied the taxes Americans hated. And although George had inherited a rare disease called porphyria that would rob him of his sanity in his old age, his mind was basically just fine during the Revolutionary War. Like his one-time enemy George Washington, G III was even admired by his countrymen as "the Father of the People."

See what I mean? It's all about the Salt.



Monday, July 6, 2009

I.N.K. News for July

From Sue Macy: I will be speaking on "Intimate Portrait: The All-American Girls Professional Baseball League" at the Morris Museum in Morristown, NJ, on Saturday, July 18 at 1 p.m. Besides looking at the triumphs and challenges of the pioneers who played in the league, I will talk about the long-awaited recognition they enjoyed in the 1980s and 1990s, as well as their hopes for the future of women's baseball. The talk is in conjunction with an exhibit, "Linedrives & Lipstick: The Untold Story of Women’s Baseball" that will be at the museum through August 9.



From Tanya Stone: The 2009 Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards for Excellence in Children's Literature were recently announced. Tanya Lee Stone's ALMOST ASTRONAUTS: 13 WOMEN WHO DARED TO DREAM is one of two Honor titles in the nonfiction category! There will be an awards ceremony at the Boston Athenaeum on October 2nd. The other Honor title is The Way We Work by David Macauley. The Award title is The Lincolns by Candace Fleming.
In other news, Tanya Lee Stone's picture book about Elizabeth Cady Stanton, ELIZABETH LEADS THE WAY, was just named a Minnesota Comstock Award Honor Book. Stickers!



Barbara Kerley's latest National Geographic title, One World, One Day, was selected by Indie Booksellers for the Summer 2009 Kids' List.



Deborah Heiligman has a number of speaking engagements this fall, including: the Princeton Children's Book Festival, September 12, 2009, where she will be talking about CHARLES AND EMMA: THE DARWINS' LEAP OF FAITH, and signing books.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Finding Relna




Continuing the theme of “great discoveries while researching,” started yesterday by Vicki Cobb….


I’m not sure which was the more amazing discovery: finding Relna Brewer’s pictures or meeting her in person. I found her pictures in 1995, when I was doing photo research for my book, Winning Ways: A Photohistory of American Women in Sports. In those days, one could rummage around in the backroom of the Bettmann Archive in New York City for long-forgotten news photographs. I spent an afternoon looking through banks of file cabinets, opening every folder whose label had anything to do with sports. In one file—I forget which—I found two exquisite black-and-white photographs of a bathing beauty flexing her biceps for the camera. I immediately put them in my pile of photos to be copied.



Besides the Bettmann I.D. number, there was only the sketchiest of information on the backs of the photos: “Strongwoman Relna Brewer, Venice, Ca 11/22/37.” In the days that followed, I searched high and low for more information on Relna, to no avail. (This was three years before Google was invented. Searching for information was a much more time-consuming and frustrating process back then.) Meanwhile, my publisher suggested that we colorize the photos and use them on the front and back covers of the book. I agreed. I thought they represented a breakthrough in the image of American women, co-opting the traditional “bathing beauty” pose to emphasize the appeal of a female athlete’s muscles and strength.



When the book was published in 1996, I still had not found Relna. But then fate intervened. Author and book reviewer Kathleen Krull (now a fellow I.N.K. blogger) received a copy of Winning Ways to review for the Los Angeles Times, and she was surprised to see her husband’s aunt on the cover. Kathleen contacted my publisher, informing them that our cover model, now Relna Brewer McRae, was alive and well and living near San Diego. We sent her an autographed book and a few months later I traveled to San Diego, where we spent a few days together and did a joint book signing.


Meeting Relna was such a thrill. I spent so many hours staring at those photos, imagining her story, but her life turned out to be infinitely more interesting than I envisioned. At the time the pictures were taken, she was one of the pioneers at Muscle Beach, the plot of sand in Santa Monica, California, famous for launching the careers of bodybuilders, gymnasts, acrobats, stuntpeople, and at least a few Olympic athletes. Relna’s brother, Paul Brewer, was one of the men who staked out the beach in the early 1930s, and Relna was the first girl to perform there. But that was just the beginning. She later became a weightlifter, a trapeze artist, a swimmer, and a skater with the Ice Follies. She also did stunt work in the movies and even served as a decoy for Marilyn Monroe, helping the actress slip away from the omnipresent news media.


Today, Relna is still alive and well, just a few months shy of her 90th birthday. She is the mother of three and grandmother of four, and this weekend, she will be the newest inductee in the Muscle Beach Hall of Fame in Venice, California. According to its Web site, the hall recognizes “individuals who have inspired, informed, entertained and advanced the art, sport and the science of bodybuilding and physical culture.” On Saturday she will join the ranks of other Muscle Beach immortals, including fitness guru Jack LaLanne and Joe Gold, founder of Gold’s Gym. It's a long way from the backroom of the Bettmann Archive and a fitting honor for a genteel woman who newspapers once labeled "Pretty as a Picture and Stronger Than Most Men."