Friday, October 30, 2009

Boo! Celebrate Halloween

If you've been reading our INK blog lately, then you'll know that our theme for October has been using our books in the classroom. I was planning to write about using biographies, focusing on one of my own books, Helen's Eyes, perhaps, or Genius. But a couple of days ago Gretchen Woelfle wrote on this topic, so I thought I'd tackle something else, if I could come up with a new idea. Suddenly I had a craving for chocolate (not unusual), which made me think of Halloween, which reminded me of this past Monday. And then I knew what to write about.

On Monday mornings I teach level 4 ESL (English as a second language) to a class of 20 adults for a wonderful program called "New Neighbors" in Alexandria, Virginia. Most of the students come from Spanish-speaking countries, but Ethiopia, India, and Sudan are also represented in the class. I'm a first-time teacher, and I'm a volunteer, not a professional. Before every class I have to teach myself the subject of the day. This Monday's topic: the present perfect tense. Piece of cake, right? Hah! Thank goodness for the teacher's guide.

Anyway, toward the end of class on Monday, I pulled out a children's book to share with the students. "This book," I told them, "was written by a friend of mine. It's about Halloween, which is coming up on Saturday." As we paged through the book, students peppered me with questions. "What is the pumpkin with light inside it called?" "How do you make a jack-o'-lantern?" A photograph of a dog in a funny costume sparked lots of laughter and comments, including "I have made a rooster costume for my daughter." A picture of a brightly decorated home brought "I have bought pumpkin lights to hang up." (Note the use in both sentences of the present perfect tense!)

It was our best class so far, thanks in great part to this wonderful nonfiction children's book, Celebrate Halloween by Deborah Heiligman. It's part of her Holidays Around the World series. (Full disclosure: Not only is Deborah a friend of mine, I was her editor for several of these terrific books, including this one.) Aimed primarily at younger kids, these books can work with audiences of all ages (as I learned on Monday), thanks to their simple yet satisfying text, fabulous photographs, and extensive back matter.

I can't promise that the Holidays Around the World series will teach your students the present perfect tense, but I can confidently predict that students—whether they hail from India or Indiana—will enjoy these books and learn a lot from them. And remember, Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, and Christmas are just around the corner. Check out our new INK THINK TANK database to find books about these holidays!

Thursday, October 29, 2009

TALKING UP: What Does Age Appropriate Mean Anyway?

In keeping with this month’s theme – using our books in the classroom – I’d like to share experiences about talking up/talking down to kids in publishing and the classroom.

When the question of age appropriateness arose on our new Web site,, I wish I had listed a broader age range. Some of you already have and hats of to ya! Material that is strong and fun and well presented is manna from heaven to a creative teacher. Kids, young and old, are savvy creatures who can handle big vocabulary and big ideas.

Step back: For years I’ve been trying to capture the voices of the participants who rule my subjects. Early on, in a book for young children called When I See My Doctor, I included the words “stethoscope,” “otoscope,” “sphygmomanometer,” and “hemoglobinmeter.” The copy editor wanted these words deleted because they were too difficult for kindergarten-age children. But four-year-old Thomas, the subject of the book, learned them from his doctor and shouted them proudly into my tape recorder.

It was a bit nerve wracking to argue with an editor because I was new to the field, didn’t have kids, and never studied early childhood education. But I trusted Thomas, my subject. Later, at school visits, children called out the words, teachers beamed, and I felt vindicated. Sophisticated language, one teacher said, encouraged the children to be students.

Jump to now: A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of doing a presentation with Marilyn Nelson, the poet whose picture book I recently illustrated. I had invited her to watch me shoot her book, using students from the Dance Theatre of Harlem as my models, but scheduling didn’t quite work out. Now that the book is published, we were asked to appear together in front of a large group of students. I was anxious. How would a classroom filled with both boys and girls react to my gals in tutus? What helped the most was the teacher. She greeted me with an enthusiastic bear hug and a huge – I mean huge – smile. That alleviated trepidations until I saw the kids. The first to arrive were the boys – big, boisterous boys who spread out in the front rows. Gulp! This is a book about ballerinas for goodness sake! Too late now to back out. Besides Marilyn had just arrived looking fabulous. There were more hugs as Marilyn whispered, “How shall we do this?” If she didn’t know we were in deep do-do land.
“You go first.”
“No, you go first.”
“No, you go first.”
Marilyn, the AUTHOR, went first. She described how and why she wrote the poem and revealed a few literary secrets, such as a riff on Yeats. [“Beautiful ballerina, you are the dance.”] She read her poem to a rapt audience and talked a little more.

My turn! Following Marilyn Nelson may have been a mistake. But I have a few secrets of my own, ones that surprisingly complimented her poetic structure. Showing photographs, I pointed out my secrets, historic balletic points of reference. There’s an homage to Swan Lake, to Degas, and to George Balanchine.

[The photograph above is a typical Balanchine shape.] There were no giggles, squirms or snickers from the audience. Instead, there were great questions and a very happy teacher. Oh, did I tell you who made up the audience for our picture book? Students at the University of Connecticut.

What experiences have you had, dear teachers, librarians, and colleagues, breaking the "age appropriate" barrier?

Jete’ to future: The next visit will be with third graders. I will not change one word in my presentation.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Biographies in the Classroon

All month we INKlings have been discussing using our books in the classroom. I’ve been mightily impressed by the ways that our authors, along with teachers and librarians, have brought books to life for students.

I had a lot of fun writing a curriculum guide for Jeannette Rankin: Political Pioneer (see my website: Jeannette’s long life in politics made her a massive subject to write about (she lived over ninety years!) but an easy subject for kids to relate to. Rankin was a women’s suffragist, our first Congresswomen, and lifelong peace activist.

Though women have reached new heights of political office, their presence does not reflect their demographics, i.e. 50% of the population. I ask students to research their city and state. What percentage of their representatives are female? What percentage of female lawmakers belong to each political party? [Math exercises.] Why do you think so few politicians are female? [Debate topic, with social studies angle.]

Research a female lawmaker in your state, including her early life, education, and path to political office. Read her website and see where she stands on various issues. Write her a letter and tell her where you stand. Jeannette Rankin advised high school students to do this back in 1940! Take a poll of your classmates about gender politics and graph the results. [Math again.]

Classroom activities such as these show students that my biography can relate to what is happening right now. The issues that fill the news and affect our lives are not new, and biographies of people like Jeannette Rankin connect us to history and perhaps show us a way forward.

NB: Be careful what you wish for. Besides the activities I suggested, one teacher asked her students to fact-check my book for errors. They thought they had found three. Their further research vindicated me twice, but they were spot on with the third example. Ouch!

Picture book biographies are a booming genre these days. Each publishing season offers more terrific stories of people I’ve never heard of.

The Daring Miss Quimby (Holiday House) by Suzanne George Whitaker, tells the story of the first American woman to receive a pilot’s license (in 1911) and to fly the English Channel (in 1912.) Harriet Quimby was an adventurous soul, pushing against all sorts of boundaries for women. Catherine Stock’s loose watercolor illustrations depict this mood perfectly. A “Women in Aviation Time Line” extends to 1999 and suggests classroom projects: research the many women found in the timeline, bring it up to date, and read Tanya Stone’s Almost Astronauts for a look at the discrimination aviatrixes encountered.

Sky High: The True Story of Maggie Gee (Tricycle Press) by Marissa Moss, illustrated by Carl Angel, describes a Chinese American’s girl’s love of flying. In World War II she joined the highly competitive WASP, Women Airforce Service Pilots. Moss describes Maggie’s career but also weaves in her family’s stories: immigrant grandparents farming in California, parents growing up in traditional China, mother who worked in a World War II defense plant – each generation assimilating more and more. This book can lead to students exploring our immigration history, both politically and personally. How did early Asian immigrants fare in the United States? Where did your family come from and what are their stories?

Biographies can build many bridges in the classroom connecting the historical with the contemporary, the political with the personal. Can you guess that I’m hooked on writing them?

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Starting Off on the Right Foot

I’m taking an education class for people studying to become teachers. Assignment Task #1: bring to class six examples of award winning children’s books based around a theme. If I overlooked the part about the annotated bibliography, using APA format exclusively, and checking the rubric for possible point deductions, I could say this assignment was a no brainer. I headed straight to nonfiction, of course, and chose some of my favorite multicultural biographies without having to think twice.

Of the 22 or so students in the class, I was the only person who had chosen nonfiction books. Almost everyone chose the same themes: animals and family. I’ll admit that these topics are extremely popular with the elementary school crowd. But animals and family without nonfiction? How many times can a kid read about a duck that talks or a pig that flies without wanting some real information?

As any reader of this blog will know, there are a wide variety of quality nonfiction books on all aspects of these topics. But, as Levar Burton would say, don’t take my word for it. Go over to to the INK THINK TANK website to check out the database by subject.

I did notice that everyone in my group really enjoyed my selections. They thought my approach was innovative and they wanted me to present on behalf of our group OK, perhaps they just wanted me to get stuck representing, but at least they were encouraging. After mentioning my selection on MLK, Jr., one student started an interesting conversation on whether schools should be closed for the Martin Luther King day holiday. Another guy asked to borrow my book on the Negro Leagues.

I think I was making some progress. Perhaps even had a convert or two. Teach the teachers well. Even the newbies want to get off on the right foot. The students are sure to follow.

Monday, October 26, 2009

On Googols and Google, Googolplex and Infinity: The Truth About Big Numbers

When I was in high school, I read a book called Infinity: Beyond the Beyond the Beyond. I don’t remember much about it, but I’ll never forget the title. The concept of infinity in its … well, infiniteness… can keep my mind occupied for a long time. And the idea of going “beyond the beyond” — and then beyond that! — provided more delicious food for thought. I sometimes think about that title and the mind-candy of endlessness when I’m speaking at a school, as I was last week in West Chester, PA, and someone asked, “What’s the biggest number?” It’s a question I often hear. The conversation usually goes something like this:

Child: What’s the biggest number in the whole wide world?

David: Do you think there is such a thing as the biggest number?

Audience: half “Yes,” half “No”

David: Will someone please tell me what you think the biggest number is.

Children, variously: billion, trillion, quadrillion, quintillion, googol, googolplex, etc.

David: Hang on. Let’s suppose you think “quintillion” is the biggest number. Then what about “quintillion-and-one”? Isn’t that bigger? And if that's the biggest, what about “quintillion-and-two” — even bigger, right?

This usually leads to a triumphant retort about an enormous number familiar to many children (much less familiar to their parents and teachers):

Child: Googol has to be the biggest!

David: What’s a googol?

Many children know that “googol” is the name for a very large number — a one followed by a hundred zeros. This is an exciting concept. In my book G is for Googol: A Math Alphabet Book, I tell the story of how “googol” got its name from a nine-year old boy. Surely it is tempting to call googol “the biggest number,” but that’s a non-starter.

Me: If you think googol is the biggest number, then what about googol-and-one? Or two googol? Or a googol googol?

Almost inevitably, at this point someone proffers an even bigger number, “googolplex.” It is true that the word “googolplex” was coined to mean a one followed by a googol zeros. It’s way bigger than a measly googol! Googolplex may well designate the largest number named with a single word, but of course that doesn’t make it the biggest number. In a last-ditch effort to hold onto the hope that there is indeed such a thing as the largest number…

Child: Infinity! Nothing is larger than infinity!

True enough, but there is nothing as large as infinity either: infinity is not a number. It denotes endlessness. A number designates a specific amount.

So, finally we get to a consensus: There is no such thing as the largest number. Yet numbers as large as googol or googolplex continue to tantalize, and well they should. To me the most fascinating thing about googol is how incredibly enormous it actually is. Writing those hundred zeros, while tedious, would take only a minute or two, yet the amount represented is, as I stated in G is for Googol, “more than the number of hairs on the head of everyone in the world, more than the number of blades of grass on all the lawns of the world, more than the number of grains of sand on all the beaches of the world — even more than the number of atoms in the universe.”

The estimated number of atoms is a one followed by 72 zeros (ten to the 72nd power, but I can’t do exponents in this blog). Let’s suppose the astrophysicists who estimated the number of atoms are way off. For the moment, let's imagine that the actual (though unknowable) number of atoms is a hundred times as what they claim. So it would be a one followed by 74 zeros —still way, way, way less than a googol.

The number “googol” is, in fact, useless — except as food for a hungry mathematical mind. And it is an especially nourishing numerical treat for young hungry minds. In fact, a child possessing just such a hungry young mind corrected me when I once said, “There isn't a googol of anything, anywhere.” The boy countered, “There are more than a googol numbers. The number of numbers is infinite.” Right he was! Now I modify the statement: “There isn't a googol of any physical object.”

I am less enthusiastic about the point that was made by sixth graders in a class that sent me a stack of letters. All had the same basic theme, reflected by this one:

Dear Mr. Schwartz,

How do you know how many hairs are on the head of every person in the world? You probably haven’t met every person in the world. Even if you have, babies are being born every minute. People are losing hair every day!

No argument there but, unfortunately, this class didn’t seem to have a good understanding of the importance (and legitimacy) of estimation.

Now, with the ascendancy of a certain multi-billion dollar online enterprise, it is necessary for me to include in any discussion of googol the following important inequality, lest there be confusion:

It is interesting to note that the item on the right was the result of a spelling error. When Larry Page and his friends were choosing a name for a start-up company, he attempted to name it after the huge number “googol.” Instead, he committed what is probably the most famous (and lucrative) misspelling in history. Regardless, there is absolutely no doubt that both “googol” and “google” are mighty big.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Mike Venezia Inspiring Art and Creativity

This past week I had the pleasure of meeting Mike Venezia as he spoke at the Art Volunteers In the Classroom Workshop sponsored by the Fox Valley Associates of the Art Institute. I have attended the workshops for eleven years but I was excited to hear what Mike had to say about presenting artists to children. Who hasn't seen or picked up one of his "Getting to Know the World's Greatest Artists" books while researching about an artist? We can all recognize the popular cover graphics and signature Venezia cartoon style.

Mike started the lecture by talking about one of my favorite creativity advocates: Sir Kenneth Robinson. I wrote about and posted the TED talk by Sir Ken Robinson in my blog post last January on Nonfiction for Teens to Ignite a Creative Spark. Again, if you have 20 minutes to watch it, please do.

Mike explained that in second grade he had a sense that art was one of his strengths. A strong influence in his early education was his fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Harris, who made the class create drawings of maps the entire year. Many of Mike's books now contain fun maps to help illustrate information about a person. Mike's high school art teacher, who could see Mike's talents as an artist, talked him into applying to The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. His favorite part of art school was wandering into the Art Institute and studying the artists, which he was able to do three to four times per week. Some of his favorites were Night Hawks by Edward Hopper (a piece in our school's traveling collection this year), American Gothic by Grant Wood, and The Assumption of the Virgin by El Greco.

After art school, Mike worked for Leo Burnett Agency, one of Chicago's largest advertising agencies. Mike's wife, Jeannine, explained to me that she needed Mike's help with her Picture Lady presentations. She volunteered at her children's school to present the Picture Lady artists but she had no art background. With Mike's help, she was able to create a presentation that the kids could relate to. While working at Leo Burnett, Mike wrote and illustrated the Getting to Know the World's Greatest Artists Series on the train or in hotels. The first two books in the series were Picasso and Rembrandt. Mike recently retired after 33 years at Leo Burnett to work on his books and videos full time.

Mike explained that his illustrations and cartoons are not just gratuitous drawings. He makes the drawings approachable for kids and tries to tie the illustration into the artist's life in a fun way. In an illustration for the Georgia O'Keeffe, he showed us that he illustrated a scene from Georgia's childhood where she was so curious about natural things and the earth that she decided to eat dirt. What a fantastic way to show this to children! We all know how natural Georgia O'Keeffe's art is and this an excellent example to for children to relate. Of course, Mike adds wonderful humor with the animals expressing their take on the taste of the dirt.

By showing examples from his Getting to Know the World's Greatest Composers Series, Mike showed how the illustrations were a little harder to tie into the composer's life story. With Duke Ellington, Mike illustrated a humorous take on the sounds within Ellington's apartment building influencing his music. With Peter Tchaikovsky, Mike showed how it "may" have looked if the symphony shot off the canons indoors. And, with Beethoven, Mike placed Beethoven outdoors directing birds. All perfect examples of using fantastic, humorous visuals that kids can relate to and they will hopefully remember

Finally, I have to mention, when I talk to Art Volunteers, I point out that someday a student may win Jeopardy and mention the volunteer's name because of what they have learned in an Art Volunteer in the Classroom presentation.
From this week's Jeopardy:
Double Jeopardy category: Night in the Museum
$1600 Question: In Rousseau's "Sleeping Gypsy", a full moon hangs in the night sky while this animal catches the scent of the title figure
Answer: Lion
(Kevin missed this question and it may have led to his downfall. No one else answered.)
One of the pieces in our school's collection this year is Henri Rousseau's Sleeping Gypsy. At least our students would get that question right.

Remember October is National Arts and Humanities Month!

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Nonfiction Writing As a Way To Learn

Greetings from my favorite haunts, the Jamestown Ferry and Jamestown Island in Virginia. Today I followed warblers, listened to woodpeckers, and was buzzed by vultures and bald eagles. I also spent time elbow-deep in 12 Rubbermaid tubs of genealogical material. With all these piles of photos and documents it's no wonder my mind has turned to how nonfiction writing helps us organize.


It's often said that the best way to learn is to teach. I'd add, "Or write a nonfiction book about the subject." Like teaching, writing involves shaping what you know into digestible pieces of information. You also have to open yourself to questions that might arise. This encourages you to fill the gaps in your own knowledge.

Nonfiction writing can offer students this opportunity to shape information and transmit it to others. Several schools I visited asked their fifth grade students to take my upper grade level books—such as the biome books or Secrets of Sound: Studying the Calls of Whales, Elephants, and Birds—and write and illustrate younger versions for first grade or second grade students. The fifth graders read their books to the younger students. They presented the books and explained how they were made.

The younger students, of course, were enthralled by older students as teachers and role models. (Let's go ahead and admit it; a 5th grader is more fascinating to a first grader than most adult teachers.) In order to write their books, the fifth graders had to analyze the structure and qualities of the original books. The older students were so proud of their accomplishment!

We all learn writing first by modeling our work after something we have seen. That's why choosing great books is so important. Yes, any nonfiction text can give your students some information.

But we INKers hope you'll seek out something more: the highest quality nonfiction—the kind of nonfiction that inspires. It should have in-depth research, creative structure, and lively language. Each nonfiction book a student reads quietly and subtly becomes a model for his or her future writing.

That's why we created the INK THINK TANK database. It launched this month. It makes it easier for you to search for quality nonfiction, correlated with national education standards. You can sign up for free and access it at

Well, I'm back to the Rubbermaid tubs of family history. So far, only the natural history makes sense to me. But it could be that some threads of human history will inspire a book. (Although how could I write something as wonderful as Kay Winters' Colonial Voices: Hear Them Speak, illustrated by Larry Day?)


Thank you to the South Carolina students who allowed me to photograph what they did to analyze nonfiction features and model books after Vulture View.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Raising the standard

It never occurred to me while a student that I could become a scientist. I loved reading about animals especially and always headed for the 636 section when entering a library. But the science education of the time was all about memorizing facts, not in any way emulating the process of discovery that real scientists engage in. Apparently, there still is room for improvement. According to a recent issue of Science (9.18.2009), the current biology curriculum has been widely criticized as having “...a flawed approach to teaching science: too much emphasis on facts and memorization and too little attention to the underlying concepts and how science is actually practiced.”

Fortunately, the Advanced Placement (AP) biology curriculum for high school is being revised and will likely trickle down to all grade levels. Among other changes, the following four “big ideas” in biology that the program will be based on are:

1: The process of evolution drives the diversity and unity of life.

2: Biological systems utilize energy and molecular building blocks to grow, to reproduce, and to maintain homeostasis.

3: Living systems store, retrieve, transmit, and respond to information essential to life processes.

4: Biological systems interact, and these interactions possess complex properties.

A summary and link to the draft copy of the new biology curriculum can be found here.

There are also seven science practices that will be covered, including “The student can use mathematics appropriately” and “The student can plan and implement data collection strategies in relation to a particular scientific question.”

With that in mind, I’d like to mention my picture book that addresses a fundamental pursuit of science, collecting and interpreting data*. Graphs are found in many classrooms, and can be quite creative with just a little extra effort. The scene below from the Great Graph Contest shows a bar graph made from real cookies. As a bonus, it’s always fun to clean up after making food graphs.

*Math Standard: Data Analysis and Probabililty / Formulate Questions That Can Be Addressed With Data and Collect, Organize, and Display Relevant Data to Answer

Graphs can be made to explore virtually any subject, such as:

What birds fly into your yard?

What is your favorite _____? [Shape; number; color; planet; continent...]

What types of food did you eat today? [From Food Pyramid groups]
How many countries have you visited?
What job would you like to have as a grown-up?
What is the most dangerous animal?

Below is a sort of a pie chart that showed how much each grade was contributing for a food drive. It probably inspired some constructive competition.
The graphs that use student-made artwork, photos, or real objects are especially appealing. The ones using computer-generated graphs are a tad dry, though it is a necessary skill to be able to interpret those as well.

Who knows... if hands-on experience to learn how scientists make discoveries had been a part of my educational experience, maybe being a scientist would have entered my mind. On the other hand, it’s also quite fulfilling to spread the word about all sorts of interesting topics as a picture book author-illustrator, so no complaints here! For a project hand-out with ideas for using all of my picture books in the classroom, click here.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Watching a Butterfly Grow and Other Ways We Try to Help Teachers

Back in 1991-92, I sent a list of ideas to an editor at HarperCollins. I desperately wanted to write a book in their Let's Read And Find Out Science series because my sons loved those books. The editors liked one of my ideas, but what they really wanted me to do was to write a book about butterfly metamorphosis. I loved the idea. The first book I checked out of my elementary school library was
What is a Butterfly (as I've written about before). But when it came time to write my own book, I had to search for a way in. I needed to find the story, the narrative thread. I knew I wanted to have a child or children in the book because I witnessed my own sons' wonder at the natural world every day. How great it would be to have the book show that as well as the actual beauty of metamorphosis. I thought of setting it in a backyard, a child watching metamorphosis in nature. But I knew how hard that is real life, and I didn't want to set the kids up for failure.

Then it occurred to me: The year before, in nursery school, my son's class had watched caterpillars turn into Painted Lady butterflies. Not only that, but they had kept a journal. I dug out the journal and realized it was a perfect way in. In my book,
From Caterpillar to Butterfly, a class of kids (age indeterminate because it turns out teachers do this with classes from preschool to third grade) watches the magic of metamorphosis. When I wrote the book this way I was not being savvy or smart, tying the book to the curriculum, giving teachers a way to use a book with a hands-on activity. I was just writing a nonfiction story. But boy did it work. That book is still in print after lo these many years, it was just made into a Big Book, and let's just say if all my books did this well I'd be writing this from a villa in Tuscany.

Why has this book been such a success? Because teachers find it extremely useful to help them teach. Many teachers use it in conjunction with a hands-on butterfly unit. They order the Painted Lady caterpillars and as they watch the process, the book enhances and then reinforces what the children learn. Teachers who don't have the budget or the time (sad, sad) to do the actual project use the book because it's the next best thing. And the children learn about the process of metamorphosis by Being There, even if they're not.

I had no idea back then that I was creating a useful teaching tool. Now, of course, this is the kind of thing we all think about when we write our nonfiction books. How can teachers use them in the classroom? How can we make a teacher's job easier and more fun? How can we help teachers bring the joy of learning to their children? I have tried to do that with every nonfiction book since then-
-from my other science books like Honeybees to my Holidays Around the World series.

I tell children in school visits that whenever they read a book they should know that the author was thinking of them when she wrote the book. I would like to tell teachers the same thing: we think of you, too.

Please let us know what more we can do to help.

Monday, October 19, 2009

You Are There

"What sort of day was it?" A narrator posed this rhetorical question to his unseen audience, curled up on couches or slouched on chairs out in TV Land. "What sort of day was it?" he'd ask, then answer himself: "A day like all days, filled with those events that alter and illuminate our times... and you were there." Between the years 1953, when I turned two, and 1957, the year two English teenagers, John Lennon and Paul McCartney made one another's acquaintance, Walter Cronkite hosted "You Are There" over here, on CBS. Reporters with cameras and microphones would "cover" such events as President LIncoln's Gettysburg Address, 19 Nov. 1863; or the assassination of Julius Caesar, 15 Mar. 44 B.C.E. This long-gone television show (unthinkable in this period of so-called reality programming), this high-tech escapade was a fine example, albeit black-&-white, of what writers of history try to do: take you there. Joy Hakim, in From Colonies to Country: "Let's climb into a time-and-space capsule...We'll cruise over the North American continent. It is early in the 18th century... So dense are the trees and grasses over most of the continent that it is hard to see anything else, except for the birds..." Here's Natalie S. Bober, in her Thomas Jefferson biography, describing dusty Williamsburg, VA in the 1760s: "Students from the college, in their black gowns and tricornered hats, were everywhere... politicians in velvet coats, frontiersmen in their coonskin caps, and judges trailing scarlet robes all made their way to the Capitol" As for me, here's the "Boston Massacre," March 5, 1770, in The Revolutionary John Adams: "Noisy men and boys were throwing snowballs and oyster shells at a British sentry ...The scene exploded with more soldiers, an alarm bell, and a mob of men running from the town and the docks, shouting "Kill 'em! Knock 'em down!" Shots rang out in the frosty air and five Americans fell..." For me, a sense of what the moment was like is what I want and what young readers need in historical nonfiction. Story, snappy description, humanity, and immediacy: these are the sugar that help the medicine, i.e. the need-to-know facts, go down, With these things, You Are There.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Action Jackson in the Classroom

In celebration of our new Ink Think Tank Database, I would like to share a classroom activity for my book Action Jackson (K-4). I hope classroom and art teachers, as well as librarians, will find this teaching guide useful. The section called Responding to Art can be applied to other paintings, as well.
Begin by reading Action Jackson by Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan, illustrated by Robert Andrew Parker. You can read it out loud, have the children take turns reading it aloud, or allow them time to read it to themselves. Then let everyone take good look at the reproduction of Jackson Pollock’s painting, Lavender Mist. Children should also have the chance to look at any work of Pollock’s that you have in your collection.


The Abstract Expressionists abandoned the idea that painting is a picture window looking into the real world. To these artists and others who followed them, three-dimensional effects in painting were sheer illusion. A painting to them was a flat surface with paint on it, an object to be appreciated for its own sake. The subject matter of these paintings is not realistic image, as in a portrait or still life. The subject matter is color or line or shape or texture, or the relationships among these elements. The artists use color or line to translate their emotions on canvas, stressing risk and unpredictability, thus capturing the mood and rhythm of contemporary life.

Born 1912, Cody, Wyoming; died 1956, The Springs, New York.
Studied at the Art Students League, New York. His large paintings, in which he dripped and poured paint on canvas spread on the floor, are considered the most starling and influential paintings of his generation. Drip painting, action painting, and gestural painting are some of the terms that critics have applied to Pollock’s unrestrained creations.

What do you say after you say, “I like this painting” or “I don’t like it?” For a moment, forget how you feel about the painting and think about what feelings the painting expresses. You can figure this out by answering some questions:
1. Do your eyes travel all around the painting, or focus on one spot in the center?
Is there a repeated pattern?
2. What do you see? Is it a house or a tree or a design without a recognizable
3. Sensory words refer to qualities in the painting that appeal to your five senses: sight, touch, smell, sound, or taste. What are some sensory words that describe the elements of color, line, shape, or texture in the painting?
a. Are the colors bright or dull, soft or garish?
b. Are the lines straight or curvy, wavy or angular?
c. Is the paint thick or thin? If you put your hand on the surface would it be flat or bumpy?
d. What kind of shapes do you see?
e. If you were to step inside the canvas, would you move slowly or quickly? Would it feel as if you were walking on a soft cloud, on rocks, or through syrup?
4. What is the mood of the painting as expressed by the colors, lines, shapes, and texture?
5. What kind of music would you choose to go with the painting? Jazz, rock and roll, or classical?
6. Pretend you are holding a paintbrush or a stick. Move your arms following the lines of the painting as if you were a conductor leading an orchestra.

Spread a sheet of brown paper on the floor. Moving around the painting with a paintbrush or stick dipped in black paint, make swooping line from one edge of the surface of the paper to the other. Let the paint dry. Add a new color. Use different arm motions-long and sweeping, short and quick. Notice that the way you use your arm changes the lines on the paper. Walk around the painting, working from all sides. You can let bare patches of brown paper come through. Make a handprint or two in the corner.
Put some music and paint in rhythm to the music. Now you will have an idea of what it felt to be Jackson Pollock working in that quiet barn.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

One book for many grades?

First things first, CONGRATULATIONS to all of the National Book Award Finalists! And huzzah, three out of the five choices were…drum roll, please…nonfiction. A special congratulations goes out to our own INKer Deborah Heiligman for her Charles and Emma!

And now, back to our regular programming.
As Dorothy mentioned yesterday, there is a new component here at INK—namely, our free database that allows teachers and librarians to find our books according to what keywords, topics, or curriculum standards they need. The database also notes the grades for which each book is appropriate. That will be the focus of my post today, as at first blush, some may wonder why certain books are listed as having particularly wide grade ranges. It’s an excellent question that merits discussion and I hope people will weigh in with their opinions.

I must admit that when faced with the task of actually assigning grades to each of my books, it gave me pause. The publishers do that. And of course that’s where I started. But I, like my colleagues, also began to imagine how I put books to use when I'm in a variety of classrooms. How do I present the story differently to different age ranges? And what is the role of the book in the classroom? To be sure, there are books with more limited age-range potential than others due to reading level, mature content, etc… But with nonfiction especially, the opportunities can be vast to use a book as a way to make lasting connections with a great variety of kids. In any of these books there may be words or phrases challenging for little kids and easy for older kids. But it’s not about vocabulary; it’s about a way in—a way to connect their feelings and sensibilities to the topic at hand so that it has particular meaning for them.

The same book may be a perfect tool to use as a jumping-off point for younger kids as well as a gateway into an in-depth discussion for older students. Take Deborah Heiligman’s Charles and Emma, for example, listed as appropriate for grades 5-12 in the INK database. Of course, there is a huge difference in reading and comprehension levels between a 10-year-old and a 17-year-old, but that shouldn’t prevent teachers from being able to use the book to introduce the concept of evolution to 5th graders or launching into a full-on debate about science and religion with high school kids. Likewise, my Almost Astronauts offers a way to highlight the issues of injustice and discrimination in the context of something as kid-friendly as the space program to 5th graders—and just as easily lends itself to high school students gaining insight about the dark side of power play and politics in the 1960s.

There are many books, too, that in younger readers can serve to plant seeds that will later flower. They focus on a topic that we, as educators, hope will become part of their consciousness and further down the road they may be inspired to delve into further. Consider Susanna Reich’s biography, Clara Schumann: Piano Virtuoso. This title is listed for grades 3-12. Susanna says, “I’ve done Clara Schumann school visits for 3rd graders and 8th graders. The eight-year-olds are interested in Clara as a child prodigy and want to play musical games. Fourteen-year-olds like to hear about the love story of Clara and Robert, about Robert’s mental illness, and about Clara’s relationship with Johannes Brahms.” I’m certain these same threads would appeal to the musically minded 12th graders, as well.

Another example of a book one might not expect to go past an often publisher-designated grade level of 4th grade is my picture book about Elizabeth Cady Stanton, which I listed in the database as good for grades 2-8. I have successfully taught Elizabeth Leads the Way to every one of those grades. For the 2nd and 3rd graders, the book whets their appetite. Who was this woman and what did she do that was so important? They understand unfairness on a gut level. They want to take that in and apply it to history, even when that may not be their conscious goal. With 4th and 5th graders, many of them can tell me why voting rights are important, and some have heard of Stanton. This leads to a discussion about suffrage and speaking out for what is right, and even what it meant to be an abolitionist. In 8th grade, it is an introduction to an issue that then takes on a much greater depth in our classroom discussion as they question and examine women’s rights, how long it took to achieve them, and the status of women today.

There are many more examples of books that can be used on multiple grade levels. Take a look at Remember the Ladies, by Cheryl Harness, George vs. George by Rosalyn Schanzer, or Christo and Jeanne-Claude by Jan Greenberg, just for starters. I've only touched on this topic. I'd love to hear what other people think. In what ways could you use one of these books to teach concepts and spark discussions to both elementary and high school students?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Nonfiction Books in the Classroom

All of us here on I.N.K. are excited about our new data base, which we hope will help guide teachers in using our books in the classroom. When I was a child, I loved reading nonfiction, especially books about animals. It's no wonder I became an "official" biologist by receiving a Ph.D. in Zoology. Using that training to help me explain how the natural world functions to children is a great joy in my life. Now I'm hoping that through our data base, more children will be able to enjoy the work of nonfiction trade book authors in their classrooms, not just through reading library books they've brought home.

As many teachers already know, these books can be springboards for so many different topics that children need to learn about.

My book, "The Right Dog for the Job," for example, is the story of how an adorable Golden Retriever puppy named Irah grew up to be a guide dog who made it possible for a piano tuner to do his work. But the book introduces children to many different subjects, such as how dogs grow up, how they are trained, and the kinds of jobs they are capable of doing. It also introduces the subject of "handicaps"--rather a strange word to me, as I'm a practical person, and I appreciate the motto of Don Simmonson, Irah's partner, who says of himself, "Only the eyes don't work." If someone like Don can be given eyes by way of a guide dog, he can do just about anything except drive a car. The book also illustrates how giving children responsibilities such as keeping people from petting a service dog in training can help them grow, and how saying good bye to something they have come to love, such as a dog like Irah, can teach them the joy of giving to another and can help them grow in self esteem.

My most recent book, "When the Wolves Returned: Restoring Nature's Balance in Yellowstone," also handles many subjects, in this case mostly ecological topics, but also touching on our legal system, the National Parks system, and the problems around dealing with political differences, all in the context of a classic story of departure and return, this time of an entire species, the gray wolf, rather than a single fictional animal, like Lassie.

So, if you are a teacher and haven't looked at our data base yet, check out where you can match up our books to your classroom needs, and enjoy the wonderful variety of the INK authors along the way.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

So Much Student Writing....Who Knew?

With one exception, my school visits require that I perform. I do assembly programs designed to turn kids on to science and to motivate them to get involved in reading in general and reading my books in particular. It is this one exception that I want to talk about. This blog is part of our theme this month to share exciting classroom uses for our books, which you can find in our database on our new website, INK Think Tank.

I was invited to
Cummings Elementary School in Alief, Texas back in 1986. Cummings was one of those Eisenhower Award schools. (I’m not certain if the award is still given.) The building was fairly new and the teachers were rightly proud of it since they had had a say in the design. Every classroom opened onto an atrium—the heart of the school— the library. The mission of the school, among other things was and is to encourage independent and creative thinking and to produce life-long learners. The thing that made this gig so different from all others was that I was invited to be an audience of one to view what the students had done from my books (most of them now out of print). They were not hiring me for my performance.

The first graders did the activities from Gobs of Goo. They made glue and mayonnaise and bubbles, among other icky things. The second graders did Lots of Rot. One boy wrote: “A grape grows gray mold. An onion grows black mold. Cake grows rhizopus mold. Cheese grows blue mold. Meat grows green mold. They all smell awful!” The third graders made paper and string from Fuzz Does It! and put on a science fair. The fourth graders did a magic show from Magic…..Naturally!, which they performed for all the other students during the day as I watched and applauded. And the fifth graders did tricks from Bet You Can’t and Bet You Can! with much verve and enthusiasm. (These tricks live on in my new book We Dare You!)

As I walked through that beautiful library and hallways festooned with displays of all the work the kids had done from my books, I was deeply touched and honored. What a validation of my work! This was my dream fulfilled! How do I remember it so well? The school produced a book for me entitled, “Getting Ready for Vicki Cobb.” It’s in my lap right now as I write this.

But the biggest bonus was the surprise lesson the teachers learned from this venture: They had never gotten so much writing out of the kids as they did when they had to write up their science projects! Think about it. Writers, even kids, have two problems. The first is having something to say. The second is finding a way to say it. Obviously you can’t do the second without the first. A science activity is a specific, finite act with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Students can use the way it is written in the book as a model. But they can also put their own spin on it because they have actually experienced the activity. The Cummings faculty decided that they would routinely incorporate hands-on science activities in writing lessons in the future. Can you understand my frustration with schools that say they don’t have time to teach science because they’re too busy teaching reading and writing?

Those kids are all grown up now. I’ll bet they read and write and think quite well.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Teaching Science Through Literature

Let’s face it. Some elementary teachers don’t feel completely comfortable teaching science to their students.

Let’s face it. Many schools have scaled back on science education so they can devote more time to language arts and math, with the goal of improving student scores on assessment tests.

That means many elementary students are receiving limited science instruction, and that’s a shame. But there is a solution, a way to sneak science into your lesson plans. Teach science through literature.

Coupling inquiry-based science and language arts instruction allows educators to prepare students for the critical reading and open response portions of assessment tests without neglecting science education. It’s also a more comfortable approach for teachers who don’t feel adequately prepared to teach science concepts to their students.

I’ve talked about teaching science through literature before on this blog. Take a look here and here. Today I’m going to focus on a third technique for sneaking science into elementary classrooms. I call it Perfect Pairs—pairing fiction and nonfiction titles with a connection to the science topic you’d like to teach.

Different students enjoy different kinds of books and learn in different ways, so Perfect Pairs can be a great way to introduce and reinforce science concepts. Here’s a pair of books that is perfect for discussions of weather, habitats, or animal adaptations. One looks at how people sometimes react to rain and emphasizes cause and effect. The other shows young readers how a variety of animals behave during a rainstorm.

The Rain Came Down by David Shannon will brighten any dreary day. Rollicking text complimented by witty caricatures describes how a rainstorm sets off a chain reaction that catapults an entire neighborhood into a grumpy, quarreling uproar. But then, the rain stops. The air smells fresh and sweet and a rainbow appears. Suddenly, everyone’s mood improves. The neighbors help each other clean up the mess caused by the ruckus, and everyone goes about their daily business.

Using clear, simple language and gentle watercolor illustrations, When Rain Falls by Melissa Stewart offers young readers a lyrical look at how animals living in forests, fields, wetlands, and deserts behave during a rainstorm. The book is sure to tap into your students’ natural curiosity about the natural world.

Discussion Questions
--Ask your students what the two books have in common. [They are about what happens when it rains.]
--How are they different? [One focuses on people living in a neighborhood. The other looks at animals living in a variety of natural habitats.]
--Discuss what makes one book fiction and one nonfiction.

Related Activities
Read students the following poem by Aileen Fisher:

How brave a ladybug must be.
Each drop of rain as big as she.
Can you imagine what you’d do,
if raindrops fell as big as you?

Ask students to write a story that answers the question in the poem.

Have your class to bring raingear to school and take them outside while it is raining. Ask students to use their five senses to observe the rain. They should consider these questions:

—How large are the drops?
—What sounds do the drops make?
—Does rain have a smell? (Rain can be polluted so children shouldn’t taste it.)
—How does rain feel?
—What happens to rain when it hits the pavement, the grass, or the school building?

Discuss the questions when you go back inside.

Do you know another great book that could be paired with the two I’ve discussed today? Can you think of other related activities for students? If so, please add a comment below. This blog is all about sharing ideas.

Friday, October 9, 2009

A Rose is a Rose is a Rose--but not always

It’s good that a book can be about different things to different people. A biography about Lincoln is, of course, a book about Lincoln. But one reader might be captivated by the portrait of a marriage, another by the polarization of nineteenth century America, still another by the amazing triumph of such a melancholy man under unspeakable pressure.

Not long ago, I wrote a blog entry on why I wrote On This Spot, my book that describes a specific place in New York City from present day all the way back through geologic time. If you want, you can read it at In it, I said that the book was inspired by my wanting to convey to kids that things change. That was true, but I also loved intriguing kids with the mind-bending idea that one spot could be home to everything from wooly mammoths to mountain tops to a tropical sea. The book meant both things to me. Someone from New York told me he loved the enduring quality it gave to a spot in lower Manhattan very close to where the World Trade Center once stood. Many kids mention loving the fact that dinosaurs walked on what became Fifth Avenue.

Teachers have told me that they like the book for different reasons too. One used it to teach a math lesson. She had her kids compute the number of years between each event and space themselves on a timeline of correct proportions down the school corridor.

Another teacher had his students use their town as Their Spot and see how far back in time they could go.

I did a workshop at the Children’s Museum of Manhattan where I presented kids with many objects from my cell phone to a rock to Barbie to a pocket watch and had them arrange the items from newest to oldest. If they had been older and in a classroom, I would have brought in more objects and helped them learn to research to determine the right chronological order.

I have assembled some of these ideas and others in a teachers guide for On This Spot. You can access them at Or, you can make one up that speaks to you.

I’d love to hear about it.

Part of a 20-foot scroll in which kids illustrated the book with their own pictures. What a welcome into their school!

Thursday, October 8, 2009

The Value of a Good Photograph

When I was a kid, I loved National Geographic magazine. I won’t pretend I was the kind of precocious child who would actually read the articles. What I loved was the photographs.

I was drawn to their quality—the superb focus and clarity, the amazing composition—and studied them as works of art. I was drawn to their immediacy, how they placed me in a scene as no other photographs ever had.

Most of all, though, I was drawn to the way they let me peek into another way of life in another part of the world. I would pore over the photographs and wonder what it would be like to be that kid in front of me—the one tending cattle in Africa, or walking barefoot through a rainforest, or eating seal blubber in the frozen North.

Long before I ever thought of being a writer, I recognized the value of a good photograph.

Years later, after a stint in the Peace Corps, I began writing children’s books. I wanted to write about kids around the world—kids like the ones I’d seen in those photographs long ago. I was really excited when my first book about global awareness, A Cool Drink of Water, was accepted by National Geographic Children’s Books. I knew the photographs would be superb.

My love-affair with National Geographic photographs came full circle on a school visit in Norman, Oklahoma. The librarian there had asked children to choose a photograph in A Cool Drink of Water and imagine they were that person—collecting rainwater as it dripped from a roof in Nepal, or pulling down on a water pump handle in Thailand, or drinking from a melting glacier in the Canadian Rockies.

The kids in Oklahoma let the photographs take them to another part of the world. They imagined, and they wrote.

One boy imagined being a boy in Nepal, listening to the sound of the water dripping off the roof into his water jug. A girl imagined being a little girl in Thailand, so short she had to jump up to reach the pump handle and pull it down—and how good it would feel to stick her head under the pump and wet her hair on a hot day. A boy imagined hiking through the Rockies in Canada and realizing how precious water is to people around the world.

A good photograph had reached each of those kids—and made their world just a little bit bigger.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Presenting Our Brand-New INK Brainchild!

The I.N.K. bloggers, past and present, are pleased to announce the launch of our new website: INK Think Tank: Nonfiction Authors in Your Classroom. The main feature of this website is a FREE, searchable database of hundreds of in-print books all written by the 22 award-winning I.N.K. authors. Now you can find lists of books for all grade levels covering content mandated by National Education Standards and your state curriculum. Instead of feeding kids material from bland, uninteresting books, we offer a cornucopia of delicious, appetizing titles guaranteed to nourish both reading and learning. No single book can be all things to all students, but the LISTS of books generated by our database will come close. We believe that if kids learn through these high-interest, well-researched books that have been vetted for accuracy, they will perform better on the required assessment tests. We have included, on our new website, a page of references and studies that support our position. Now you can have fun playing with our database. For teachers, it’s designed to give you peace-of-mind that you’re fulfilling the requirements of your school district while you’re rediscovering the joy of teaching. For parents and librarians, it will provide you with a quick reference to pull books from shelves that tie in with children’s interests and classroom content.
We built our database from the ground up. The books were analyzed for it by those who know them best, their authors. Like any new idea in today’s technological world, our database is still a work in progress. We expect it to grow and change, depending on feedback from you, our users. We will be adding books of new author/bloggers to give you increased breadth of subject areas. And, of course, we will be adding our new books as they are published. We want to know how you search so the database can be as user friendly as possible. There are links on our website for you to contact us with your suggestions. You can also email us at:

In addition to our books, we authors are also an under-utilized resource for classrooms. So, through the Ink Think Tank website, we are making ourselves available to teachers. You can see our encapsulated author profiles on our INK Thinkers page. We are an amazing group! There is probably no corner of the globe that one of us hasn’t visited. Without exception, we are all life-long learners. We are not afraid to admit when we don’t know something. Indeed, not-knowing is a welcome opportunity to learn something new. Now we want to inject our enthusiasm for learning into your classroom. We have included our email addresses and links to our websites. Many of us are available for school visits and professional development. We will also answer questions related to our books. (BTW, the word “author” means “source.”)

This month our blogs will be devoted to creative ways our books can be used in classrooms. We want to excite you to the possibilities!

The internet has spawned behemoth websites that seem to require a Ph.D to navigate. There is so much information and so much choice! The INK Think Tank is a boutique. We’re small so the choice is not limitless. The selection is made for you. For many, that may come as a relief! On the other hand, as a group we are quite powerful. We are prepared to work as teams to help you and your district. We offer guidance and professional development unique to the worlds of both publishing and education. The launch of the INK Think Tank: Nonfiction Authors in Your Classroom website is just the beginning. Contact us. Let us help you empower your students so that they love to learn!

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Cover Story - The Art: Part II

Ladies and gentlemen, in my rule book, you CAN tell a book by its cover. In fact, it’s imperative. Covers can grab your attention by acting as their own little posters. The artwork on the best ones obviously looks terrific, both from close up and from far away. But art has other uses too. It can showcase the title....unless you’ve cleverly left your title out and decided to let the art speak for itself. And it gives a tantalizing hint about the story inside.

In my last blog, I set out a whole assortment of ways illustrations work overtime to enhance nonfiction. Today I thought it would be fun to pick a specific nonfiction cover and walk through the thought process behind developing the art. Well, the very first time I wrote a serious book of nonfiction, I wanted to give it my best shot. Hmmm… I always try to give things my best shot. But this book presented a special opportunity for me, and besides, I loved the subject matter. The book in question was How We Crossed the West: The Adventures of Lewis and Clark. Maybe you’d like to follow along and think up your own ideas for this cover.

By my own set of rules, a title should always be prominent and easy to read. That would be pretty easy if my title had been short. But why do anything the easy way? I had somehow managed to come up with a very long title, so to make it stand out, I thought I’d hand letter everything on a banner in the style of the early 1800’s. Here ‘tis. (In those days I didn’t have the greatest camera to shoot the following pictures, but if you click on each shot, you can blow them up a bit.)

Also by my own set of rules, a cover should be simple and powerful enough to be seen from far away. For example, a big close-up of the protagonist’s face can always work well. But far be it from me to do something easy. Besides, a book about Lewis and Clark means that there are two main characters and a supporting cast of all those hearty members of the Corps of Discovery. I decided to include as many of them as possible.

And how could I write this story and leave Sacagawea and York off the cover? You’ll see some more of these folks in a minute.

I also wanted to give a big hint about the tale of adventure inside the book. It occurred to me that just as Lewis and Clark were seeing most of the Indians along their route for the very first time, these same Indians were seeing a set of oddly dressed strangers with white and black skin for the very first time too. So I picked a specific day in the journey, drew the scenery the Corp passed and the boats they used and Indians they saw as accurately as humanly possible, and added them all into the mix. Try making that look like a strong, simple image. Not easy, but my rule does say to keep it simple. Here’s the full wrap-around cover with the back of the book included:

And this is the front cover the way you’d see it on the shelf, assuming the bookstore placed my book face-out and didn’t simply squeeze it onto a shelf with just the spine showing.

Every cover has its own story and they’re all different, so have a blast—take a closer look at some covers one of these days and try to figure out what the artist had in mind for his or her own little poster.

Monday, October 5, 2009

A Moment of Truth

If you had to use one word to describe the traditional approach to writing about the real world it would be “authoritative.” Writing itself has authority. If “it is written” then it must be true. Authoritative language removes the narrator from the narration. Journalists are given style sheets to explicitly eliminate the human element from their reporting. They must write in the third person as the omniscient narrator. They must use formal language and distance themselves from the reader. They are NEVER to use the word “I” but if they have to refer to themselves, perhaps to insert an eyewitness tidbit, they must use the term “this reporter.” If an opinion is called for, they are to use the “editorial we” and not personalize themselves. The “editorial we” is particularly disingenuous, and runs counter to the veracity the author is trying to convey. Here’s what Mark Twain said about that term: Only kings, presidents, editors, and people with tapeworms have the right to use the editorial "we."

As every teacher knows, truth can be conveyed through humor, lyricism, passion, human experience, and one’s own quirky take on the facts. It doesn’t have to be told in dry, unvarnished terms to be credible. The accuracy of factual information has nothing to do with an authoritative delivery. In fact, when a teacher humanizes content with his or her personal spin, the lesson resonates more profoundly with students. At their best, such lessons can be inspiring. In fiction, it is the storyteller’s voice that makes a novel memorable. But it has taken a long time for this concept to filter down to us nonfiction authors. Voice matters. When I found mine, I had to fight for it.

In 1980 I was commissioned to write a book about microbiology for kids but on a macro level. The illustrations were not going to show what you might actually see under a microscope. There was no budget for micrographs. (In those days, publishers skimped on the art for nonfiction. My book was illustrated in two colors and black to save money.) The book was titled Lots of Rot. The lead sentences were: “Want to smell something rotten? Take a deep breath by a garbage can.” The editor sent the manuscript back with the lead sentences rewritten: “Have you ever smelled something rotten? You probably have if you’ve ever taken a deep breath by a garbage can.” Every active verb in the book had been changed to passive voice. Everything that was playful and engaging had been reworded to distance me from the reader and formalize the text. I was told that the first sentence was a sentence fragment and that wouldn’t do for teaching proper English. As I read through the editorial comments I felt as if I had been punched in the stomach. I made an appointment to fight for my book. I bought a new suit, wrote up a brief “In Defense of Lots of Rot,” said my prayers and, with my head high, met with my publisher and editor and made my case. I lost. Three days later they called my agent and said, “If Vicki won’t write the book the way we want it, we won’t publish it.”

Even though I needed the money, I told my agent to pull the book. It was later published as I had written it. Then came the test. I was sitting at my new publisher’s booth at a convention with Lots of Rot on display, hot off the press. A young girl walked by and picked up the book, and started reading. White knuckled, I watched and wondered will she turn the page? She did. Then she turned the next page and settled her chin in her hand to read. Her mother said it was time to go. “Wait,” she said. “I want to finish this.” Validation! My resolve is now steel.

One would think after all these years that my battles would be over. But I still run into editors who don’t “get it” when it comes to “voice” in nonfiction. I still find myself, as Desi Arnaz would say, “splainin’” why I write the way I write. I’m a playful person, still a kid at heart. I have a good sense of humor. I care deeply about my subject matter. I bring these qualities to my writing. In this day and age of too much information, “the facts and nothing but the facts” doesn’t cut it. Only the revealed humanity of an author’s voice creates literature and achieves meaningful and authentic communication with readers. To stifle it with old-fashioned notions about being authoritative and adhering to tradition is counterproductive to both reading and learning. When speaking to children, person to person, an author's voice recognizes and honors their humanity. They get it; connections are made. And that, in my opinion, is the truth.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Jumping Into the Fray

A few weeks ago, I completed one leg of the Trek Triathlon in Long Island, New York. I was the cyclist on a relay team with two friends who were sponsored by Team Survivor, a terrific organization that promotes exercise opportunities for women affected by cancer. We called our squad the Reluctant Racers to commemorate the lunch where we discussed whether we should take part in the event. There was a lot of hemming and hawing until one of us finally said, “I’ll do it if you will” and the others (reluctantly) agreed.

I was thinking back on that race today, remembering the adrenaline rush as I pushed through the four laps of the nine-mile cycling course. I have written several books about other people’s sports achievements, but it’s rare that I’m the one who’s doing the achieving. Four years ago I competed in my first triathlon, doing it all: swimming, cycling, and running. But other than that, I’ve spent the last 35 years or so comfortably watching sports from a spectator’s seat.

I’m not sure if my fellow I.N.K. bloggers will agree, but for me, being an observer is an occupational hazard. I watch, read, listen, and ask questions to gather the information I need to tell the stories of people who do something memorable or significant. I know that writing a book is in itself significant, but my natural inclination, whether learned or developed, is to be a witness. Years ago, I was taught that reporters are not supposed to become part of their stories, and nonfiction authors are basically reporters. To this day, I am more likely to take in a situation than to actively participate in it.

While I don’t want to lose my power of observation, I’ve been thinking lately that jumping into the fray is not such a bad thing. After all, having a variety of different life experiences can only make my writing more vivid and authentic. So I’m trying to participate more. Last Friday night, I actually got up on stage in a bar in Milwaukee and joined some friends singing karaoke. That was definitely a first! (Fortunately, our lead singer was a bona fide professional and the rest of us stayed far in the background.) In consideration of the listening public, though, I’ll concentrate my future efforts in areas where I’m slightly more skilled. For starters, I’m marking my calendar for the next Trek Triathlon in New York, on September 12, 2010. And this time as I approach the starting line, I won’t be reluctant at all.