Monday, May 30, 2011
Friday, May 27, 2011
As I write this, I have candy on the brain. Today was spent wandering the aisles and aisles of treats at the Sweet and Snack Expo at McCormick Center in Chicago. So, going to have to make this short and sweet.
A few months ago, as I am wont to do, I had to check out what has been recently published for kids on the subject of candy. Here’s another category of nonfiction books for kids to get them to read more nonfiction. I mean, who wouldn’t want to read about candy?
By Meghan McCarthy (Author, Illustrator)
Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books May 2010
by Joanne Mattern
Checkerboard Library Jan 2011
by Michael O.Tunnell
By Steve Almond
Harvest Books April 2005
One of my favorite books. A perfect YA nonfiction read.
By Ann Love
Tundra Books 2007
I feel that many reading this are coveting their swag from Book Expo in New York this week, but check out my sweet sweet haul from the Sweet and Snack Expo.
Wednesday, May 25, 2011
Sidebar: In the past I used a textbook – Anatasia Suen’s terrific Picture Writing, which is now, sadly, out of print. It is the only one I’ve found that gives equal time to writing fiction and nonfiction. (Most textbooks give one chapter to nonfiction). Suen relates every topic and genre – plot, character, picture books, middle grade, etc – to both f and nf. Now I don’t use a textbook, but rely on my lectures and web essays, including some from INK. Even though nearly all of my students write fiction, I still discuss nf when talking about each genre (pb, early readers, middle grade, etc.)
Rather than the obligatory one class, I devote two weeks just to nonfiction, including one on biography. Students choose a person and read three biographies of him or her – picture book, middle grade, and YA – then discuss how authors, illustrators, and book designers treat the subject differently.
Prompted by two new picture book biographies on Jane Goodal, I decided to do this assignment myself. She is a perfect subject for children: pioneering woman scientist, animal lover, environmental activist. The LA Public Library lists fifteen children’s biographies of Goodall going back to 1976, but no picture book biographies.
Me…Jane, written and illustrated by Patrick McDonnell (Little, Brown: 2011) is for younger children and beginning readers. It describes Jane as a child, bonded to Jubliee (a toy chimpanzee,) observing squirrels and spiders, drawing animals, (the author shows Goodall’s actual drawings), climbing a favorite tree and reading Tarzan of the Apes. We see Jane sitting in a chicken coop for hours, to see a hen lay an egg. I confess a bias for picture books with very few words – and this one is a stunner, with 228 words. The ending, stretched over six double page spreads, is superb:
Jane dreamed of a life in Africa, too…
A life living with, and helping, all animals.
At night Jane would tuck Jubilee into bed, say her prayers,
and fall asleep
to awake one day…
to her dream come true. [photo of grownup Goodall and chimp in the forest.]
Jeanette Winter’s The Watcher: Jane Goodall’s Life with the Chimps (Schwartz & Wade:
2011)begins with the chicken coop incident to establish Jane as a “watcher.” We see her favorite tree, her reading, then follow Goodall to Africa where “She knew she was Home.” Many pages show her working with chimps, watching, waiting, and taking notes. We learn of deforestation, the killing and kidnapping of chimps, and Jane’s work to save the land and the animals. Winter ends the book with a return visit years later, by Goodall to her beloved forest where she “opened a window for us/ to the world of the chimpanzees.” Most of Winter’s story takes place in the forest with Goodall as an adult. The stylized colorful paintings portray the lushness, density, and color of the landscape and the charm of the chimpanzees. This book, though it has more information than McDonnell’s, can be read by young readers who will find Jane’s and the chimps’ lives equally compelling.
Jane Goodall: Legendary Primatologist, by Brenda Haugen (Compass point Books: 2006) is part of their solid Signature Lives series for middle grade readers. Here we read about Goodall’s English childhood, and the Alligator Club she started with three friends to study nature. We hear of her various jobs before travelling to Africa at age twenty-three. Winter’s book shows Goodall alone in the forest. Haugen’s tells us that she was accompanied at first by her mother, a cook, and two game scouts. We learn about her PhD studies at Cambridge, her two marriages and her son. We hear about human and animal epidemics, about her unsavory discoveries – she saw chimps make war on and eat each other. We learn details of environmental destruction, a horrible (human) kidnapping incident, her non-profit foundation, and her Roots & Shoots children’s organization. We get a full picture of her accomplishments and her difficulties in the bush and in the world at large. Many quotes from Goodall’s writings, black and white photos, and sidebars enhance the text.
The Chimpanzees I Love: Saving Their World and Ours by Jane Goodall (Scholastic: 2001) is a
first hand account of her work, written for young adults. While not a full-blown biography, the first chapter describes her life, including the anecdote of four-year-old Jane in the chicken coop. We learn that her mother had called to police to report her missing! We also learn that her mother was the only person who never laughed at her childhood dream of Africa. This large-format book, filled with color illustrations of chimps describes her work in Africa, as well as her efforts to improve the lives of chimps in zoos and science laboratories. Her passion shines in describing setting up chimp sanctuaries in Africa and humane conditions beyond. Back matter includes facts and resources about chimps, Goodall’s books, and her work.
Goodall’s life and achievements are well-served by the new picture books and the more comprehensive books for older students. As a biographer, I found this assignment enlightening, showing several different ways to tell a life. I look forward to seeing what my students come up with next week.
Tuesday, May 24, 2011
I can still see her walking over to the library desk, half the size that she is now, with her weekly stack of Seymour Simon books. If space is your thing when you’re a kid, Seymour is the man. He’s written a book on every planet and then some, with great information well beyond the usual elementary level of standard science fair basic styroform model stuff. She was happy to read and soak up as much as this prolific writer could tell her.
One particular book was so important to her that she mentioned it in one of her college essays. It’s called Voyager to the Planets by Necia Apfel and it describes the travels of Voyager 1 and 2 with amazing accompanying photographs. The story of spacecraft and planets enthralled her immediately and was her first real introduction to astronomy.
When I first started this blog, one of the first people I asked to join, based on my kids level of interest in their books, was David Schwartz. Science and math go hand in hand and David’s books, G is for Googol and Q is for Quark succeed in showing how interesting they both can be. These are the books that make scientific and mathematical concepts readily accessible to the elementary set well beyond what the average educator usually believes a child is prepared to understand. Alphabet books, indeed!
Another book my daughter loved because it focused on the fun and delight of an intellectual challenge is Ivan Moscovich’s 1000 Play Thinks. Puzzles, Paradoxes, Illusions & Games. This book has chapters on everything from numbers to logic to topology as well as perception and solutions. A book to promote the fun of thinking. Who would have thunk it.
There are quite a few more. This might necessitate a Part II. A kid can appreciate a lot of good books in eighteen years. She’s already wondering how many bookshelves she’ll have in her dorm room. Some gems just can’t be left behind in childhood.
Monday, May 23, 2011
It’s Sunday, May 22nd, and as far as I can tell from looking out the window, the world and its human inhabitants are still here and going strong. Yesterday was supposed to have been the end, or the beginning of the end. This prophecy emanated from Family Radio Worldwide, a Christian broadcasting company headquartered on a grungy street of my home city, Oakland. Head prophesizer Harold Camping must have messed up his math again. He issued a false alarm a few years ago but later retracted it after the apocalypse failed to materialize and the Earth failed to dematerialize. The math was quite complex, he explained, and he had simply miscalculated. Well, even Einstein had problems with his math, by his own admission, so Camping's faux pas is understandable, although dignifying his bizarre numerology by calling it “math” is a little like calling astrology “astrophysics.”
This leads me to education. Providers of professional development for teachers are supposed to draw upon research-based teaching practices. But does it matter when the audience (teachers) must answer to higher authorities (administrators, school board, parents) who bring so many biases to the decision-making table? Does it matter that Denmark and other Scandinavian countries where schoolchildren begin school reading programs at age seven, not before, are the countries with the world’s highest literacy rates? You might think that it would inform those who want to push high-stakes reading tests on seven year old American kids, but don't kid yourself! (Nor should you let Denmark’s top rating in a survey of the “world’s happiest people” fool you into inferring a cause-and-effect relationship between the age at which reading is first taught in school and later happiness. Instead the Danes attribute their contentment to Carlsberg beer.)
Yet very few U.S. school districts have tried to adopt successful Asian techniques that often don’t “feel” right to American sensibilities. Perhaps we can be encouraged by the small number that have given it a try. (See “Making Math Lessons as Easy as 1, Pause, 2, Pause…” in the New York Times, Sept. 30, 2010.) We can hope that their success will foster wider acceptance — if teachers get adequate training and parental support. Those are pretty big “ifs” these days.
Someone just handed me this message, printed on a slip of paper:
“WARNING! As of Friday, Facebook will automatically start dragging the Earth into the Sun. To change this option, go to Settings > Planetary Settings > Trajectory > then UNCLICK the box that says ‘Apocalypse.’”
Friday, May 20, 2011
We nonfiction writers tend to live more in the real world than in the world of the imagination. I know I feel very grounded in place, wherever I am, and I’m experiencing what goes on around me—the sun, or not; the breeze, or the heavy dense air; the soft forest path under my feet or the hard concrete sidewalk. Roz Schanzer expressed this feeling very well in her recent blog about her Costa Rican photo safari. At times, like during a drab, hard winter, our way of being so intimately in touch can be perhaps more difficult than for those who can escape into their heads with flights of fancy.
But when spring finally does break, as it did just a week ago at my home in Montana, the natural perception and appreciation of the real becomes an energizing joy. With a bedroom window open, my house soaks up the amazing smell of spring—of growth, life, fruit trees in bloom, whatever goes into that heady concoction that proclaims, “Spring is here!”
I haven’t discussed this idea with my fiction-writing friends, and maybe I’m wrong; maybe they find a gray, cold winter just as oppressive as I do. It depresses my creative juices, and nonfiction writing is a creative art, as we nonfiction writers struggle to recreate the real world through words invented by humans. We struggle especially hard to describe sensations like smell and taste, for which our language has few useful words. And when I see the amazing variety of color and size and shape in natural beings like these flowers in the garden of my friend, I’m overwhelmed by the idea that I might even try to express their beauty and variety in mere words. Then I remember that doing is not only my job, it’s my passion and my great challenge.
Thursday, May 19, 2011
One by one, each attendee experiences something similar. The reactions to this question include wiggling, giggling, saying “Ummm” a lot, or “I don’t know,” or “Pretty good, I guess.” People talk about the notes they missed or the lyrics they forgot. The teacher presses on. “No,” he says, “I’m not talking about that. I want to know if you feel you expressed yourself fully.”
After moving past the initial discomfort, you start to answer truthfully. “I think I expressed some of what I wanted to, but not all of it.” Great. Then the questions get harder. They have to do with why you chose the song you did, what drew you to it, what is going on right now in your life that you can draw on to express what you really want to express. Is it pain, anger, sadness, joy, abandonment?
Sounds like character work, right? Some people answer “she feels this” or “he feels that,” referring to the character singing the song from whatever musical or show the song hails. No. “I’m not interested in what the character is feeling,” the teacher says, “I’m interested in what YOU are feeling.”
Well, that’s harder, now isn’t it? And what I have found is that this pertains to my writing—both fiction and nonfiction. The first, second, third steps, and so on, are learning as much about my character as I can, of course. But the gem I’ve taken from these acting/singing workshops is that if I can then extend the thought process to include discovering similarities between what the person has gone through and something I can relate it to for myself, I might be able to put myself in their shoes that much more. It can deepen my awareness of that person and understand somewhat more about their motivations.
Give it a try—the results can be illuminating!
Wednesday, May 18, 2011
As one or two of my recent posts reveal, I’m very interested in the creative possibilities of digital books and along with a group of authors have been investigating ways to make them myself. Book apps are intriguing because they can take advantage of the touch interface available on tablets and smart phones. While most of the book apps available so far appear to have been made by a separate-from-the-author team of developers, that doesn't especially grab me. Personally, I’d rather be hands-on, figuring out the content and interactivity on the fly. Having a developer create an app from my ideas feels like having an artist ghost-illustrate my books. Or like trying drawing with a pencil on a broomstick. It can be done, but I’d rather not.
Which is not to say that I’m in a hurry to learn how to do this:
|From the Complete Idiot’s Guide to iPad and iPhone App Development|
Fortunately, several developer groups are working on the digital book-making software that I hope to soon add to my regulars...Photoshop, InDesign, Scrivener (an awesome word processor/novel-writing/research organizing program), Illustrator, et al. Check out this quote about Push Pop Press from a Wired article:
That certainly sounds promising. I am already looking at software still in development from a couple of other sources... it’s too soon to say which system(s) will work for me. What I am sure of is that fairly soon it will be possible for non-developers to make interactive books with not just words and images but also motion, audio, video, animation, and who knows what else...
I can hardly wait!
Tuesday, May 17, 2011
Monday, May 16, 2011
Friday, May 13, 2011
As a result of this new freedom, many books now include multiple illustrations per spread and make clever use of white space. Examples include Ballet for Martha: Making Appalachian Spring by Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan, An Egg is Quiet by Dianna Aston, and Born to Be Giants: How Baby Dinosaurs Grew to Rule the World by Lita Judge.
One of the true masters of nonfiction book design is Steve Jenkins, who often works with his wife Robin Page. Books like How Many Ways Can You Catch a Fly?, Never Smile at a Monkey, What Do You Do with a Tail Like This, and Move! are all about animal adaptations. The fun, innovative design of these books couple with the brief, clear text is irresistible. Jenkins does a remarkable job of selecting animals with unique adaptations and organizing them into clever categories to create books with a game-like feel.
A current trend in science-themed titles for the picture book crowd is layered text. Books like Beaks by Sneed B. Collard III, When the Wolves Returned: Restoring Nature’s Balance in Yellowstone by Dorothy Hinshaw Patent, Meet the Howlers by April Pulley Sayre, and my own book A Place for Butterflies feature two kinds of text that serve different purposes and that is distinguished visually by size and font.
For the most part, a larger, simpler text provides general information and can stand on its own. The smaller text presented in sidebars provides additional details to round out the presentation. These books are perfect for the Reading Buddy programs popular in many schools, and they also work well as family read alouds.
Can you think of other nonfiction books with innovative, eye-catching designs? I’d love to hear your recommendations.
Thursday, May 12, 2011
We’re doing all those little repairs that one never seems to get around to for oneself (as in sheesh, why didn’t we fix that while we were living here to enjoy it???); we’re collecting boxes; the movers are scheduled.
Even though we culled through our belongings 1½ years ago, when we first moved from California to Oregon, and got rid of tons, I am still looking around now to see what we are holding onto that we really don’t want/need anymore.
Some stuff is easy to get rid of. A book I read and don’t plan to read again? Sure, no problem. Off it goes to the Friends of the Library booksale. Other stuff is harder to let go of, however: a gorgeous sweater that I have only worn a few times because it is too fussy to clean easily? Hmmm. I think it will be making the move with me.
Trying to decide what to get rid of and what to hang onto has even leaked into my writing life—literally. I have multiple files of partially-explored book ideas. And I’ve been going through them all, asking myself: keep or let go?
It’s been interesting to look back over these ideas, some that were generated over fifteen years ago, at the start of my career. I can recall the enthusiasm with which I dove right in, reading and collecting information. But for each of these projects, at some point, I hit a roadblock. And I set the idea aside, to think. And then didn’t pick it back up. These are the ideas that have accumulated in my drawer full of files.
The roadblock, in most cases, is whether the idea works as a picture book—the genre I’ve been exploring for most of my writing career.
For some ideas in my files, I’ve come to understand, there’s not enough there there to warrant a 32-page book. These ideas could successfully be turned into nonfiction articles, however, which often run as tight as 400 words and are enhanced by perhaps two or three illustrations.
Conversely, for other ideas in my files, I now see that there is too much there to cram into a picture book. These topics are too complex, too nuanced, too layered to be told in a 32-page illustrated book. And, most likely, they are not ideas that would interest the six-year-old who would pick the book up. These ideas would be better served in a middle-grade or young-adult nonfiction format, with multiple chapters to explore the idea in depth.
And finally, even for the ideas with just the right amount of there, there is still the issue of illustration potential. The lovely beginning-middle-end structure that works so well for the picture book format still needs a story that can be enhanced by a variety of compelling visual images—and for some of my fledgling ideas, that variety it lacking. They may be stories that could be told, but not necessarily stories that can truly be illustrated.
A drawer full of stalled ideas might seem like a failure of sorts, but I see it as an accomplishment. By exploring these ideas and trying to write them as picture books, I’ve learned a lot about what works for that genre, and what doesn’t. Learning how a dozen (or more!) ideas don’t work has helped me shape the ones that do.
So what am I keeping? The ideas that, after all these years, still speak to me. I do write articles on occasion, so the modest ones may still find a home; and I might one day decide to tackle a longer work.
And what am I letting go? The ideas for which I no longer have any passion. They deserve—and will be better served—by authors who do. And letting them go allows me to move, focused and energized, into my new office—looking full-steam ahead.
Wednesday, May 11, 2011
My husband and I just took a nonfiction trip to Costa Rica. We were doing a photo shoot in places where everything was real—no virtual high tech made up stuff or computer games for us! The toucans and macaws and magnificent quetzals and anhingas and hummingbirds were all real. The strawberry poison dart frogs and red-eyed tree frogs were real and the bright yellow poisonous eyelash vipers were real and the caimans’ sharp pointy teeth were very real and the white-faced Capuchin monkey that stole all the sugar packets at a lodge where we stayed and ate them one at a time was real and the slovenly sloths and the huge rhinoceros beetles and the blue morpho butterflies were real and the hot steamy jungle was real too. Even the spider bite on my leg was real. I know this for a fact. It’s still there.
Guess what. In case nobody has been outside for a long time, there’s a whole nonfiction world out there waiting to be explored in real time. You can see everything in 3-D and living color and surround sound. You can smell its wonderful and terrible perfumes. It is so incredibly real that we had to read a lot of paperback fiction to bring us down from our nonfiction high.
Most of the time we were able to photograph the wildlife from mere inches away, but sometimes we had to stalk it patiently for hours at a time like hunters on the prowl. We do photo shoots like this all the time, but they never cease to amaze me. When we go to other countries, I like to follow in the footsteps of some of the people I write books about by writing my own journals (think Lewis and Clark or Charles Darwin or even the gold seekers who flocked to California during the 1840’s). Of course I get to use all of these photos and journals as research to enhance and enliven my books. But I love photography for its own sake too. I love it big time.
So go outside, people. Take a gander at nature while it’s still there to see and touch and smell and taste. Trust me—all that biodiversity is fading fast, so let's get a move on before it’s too late.
Tuesday, May 10, 2011
The request made me sit up straight in my chair in panic. I had already begun writing the first project, which meant that I'd done the research, interviewed experts, thought about the structure of the text, played with themes and second guessed every decision I'd made several times over. And I'd gotten into the text enough that I felt I'd almost (but not quite) found the zone, that place where I feel I've finally worked out the right voice and writing rhythm. If I stopped now (I didn't think I could work on both projects simultaneously and meet the proposed deadline) I worried that I might lose emotional energy and have to go back to the very beginning and puzzle out the problems all over again.*
And then there was the problem of pushing the second project forward at (for me) what would have to be break neck speed. I wanted, for instance, to search out as many as twenty individuals for indepth interviews and follow up questions, a task I'd calculated could take a year to accomplish. To stay on schedule I'd now have to do this in less than six months. Which did not include the time it would take to write and rewrite the text or gather together images. My head was spinning a little as I imagined all sorts of other disasters that would delay or undermine the project.*
And then there was the simple matter that I felt the first project was much more likely to be done by someone else because it had begun to appearing recently in numerous newspaper and magazine articles. Why abandon a project that was just gaining momentum and launch into another that had more questions associated with it then answers?*
So I called Dinah and told her my concerns. She listened and then she worked her magic. Don't worry about the first project, she told me. There's no rush about getting it done so you'll have plenty of time to solve any new issues that arise. And what's more, she didn't think anyone would beat us to the first topic. As for the new project I asked if she had heard of anyone else working on or even considering the subject; no, she answered. She just had a feeling that we needed to move the second project ahead of the first.*
I know what you're thinking: this doesn't sound altogether reassuring. It didn't come with a guarantee of any sort; it was a hunch, pure and simple. But then I thought back to the many years I've known and worked with Dinah -- the way she made thoughtful and strong comments and suggestions about my texts, but never tried to force her opinions on me, the way she guided each project through its many phases and resolved one knotty problem after another with seeming ease, even the way she celebrated whenever a book received a nice review or got some other sort of positive notice. Book making has always been a partnership with writer, agent (yes, my agent does more than just pushing contracts through), editor, designer, production and marketing departments all working toward a common goal. But with Dinah I've always felt another deeper level of energy and committment -- first, to helping me do the best job possible, and, second, to making sure the book has every chance to succeed. *
When I write I let my instincts lead me down many paths, most of which don't turn out to be deadends. And I had a feeling that Dinah was doing much the same thing here. For some combination of reasons she felt the newer project should be done before the older one. In a way she was saying "Trust me." And I, relying on my writer instinct, did. It will be an interesting (to say the least!) journey and I'll report on it at some future date. Wish me well.
Monday, May 9, 2011
Evidently Freud was both fascinated and puzzled by artistic invention. The program notes said creativity was “a mystery he admired, and likely envied as well. Freud wrote that poets had always known what psychoanalysis had discovered, and that it just fell to him to systematize and theorize it.”
And theorize it he did in this essary that searched for its underpinnings. As best as I could tell, Freud believed that creativity's roots lay in childhood (Duh. Where else did he ever look?). Specifically in childhood play. The child constructs a fantasy world in which the elements of the real world are reordered to please him, in part by defusing or dealing with unsatisfactory realities. And since the child is the father of the man, the adult writer continues on the same path.
Here’s the problem, Sigmund. This hypothesis—right or wrong—addresses the poet, novelist and playwright. What about the writer of creative nonfiction? Our job is to deal with, often even embrace the realities of life, not avoid them. And to do it creatively. Take the facts and make something new of them—or why bother?
So do we get our own developmental theory?
Is the creative nonfiction writer born as the kid who is just burning to know? Maybe she watches the first snowfall and wonders what happens to the butterflies. She asks her father who changes the subject because he doesn’t know and induces trauma by answering NO questions. Then she gets sent to a shrink who asks the little girl TOO many questions instead of answering any. Then she asks a librarian who hands her a copy of Under the Snow by Melissa Stewart. Just like Goldilocks, everything is finally just right. Anxiety over. That feeling of relief and its cause is imprinted upon her psyche and determines her future.
Or maybe he started on the Freudian track, building a world filled with purple dragons. Then he discovered that once the world was home to animals called dinosaurs. Everything changed. Yes, yes, he’d say dismissively, I know dragons can fly. Pterosaurs can too—and hey, did you know that a T Rex had teeth the size of bananas? The idea that dinosaurs once walked the Earth, that his wildest fantasies could be REAL, is what fueled his creativity.
Maybe one of these children grows up and asks another question. This time she can search for the answer herself, talk to people who’ve spent their lives wondering about the same thing. She asks enough and they know enough so she can know enough too. And she finds the way the world works so beautiful that when she explains it, she makes music.
Or when he seeks the truth, he finds a sliver of a story that manages to tell the whole thing. His creativity is to hone in. His tale uncovers the core and it echoes and reaches so far that questions his readers don’t even know they have get answered.
Perhaps they even answer yours, Dr. Freud.
Friday, May 6, 2011
As we approach Mother’s Day this weekend, I’m thinking of one thing: food. The most immediate reason is a practical one. I invited my mom over for brunch on Sunday, and I haven’t yet decided what to make. (If anyone out there has a recipe for a killer brunch item, please share.) But I’ve also been ruminating about the place of food in women’s history generally and in our family’s history in particular.
Food is a commodity that interests everybody on one level or another, but a chance encounter last week inspired me to look at it from a less personal and more global viewpoint. The encounter was with Professor Maria Trumpler, who teaches a course titled “Women, Food, and Culture” at Yale. The course is an interdisciplinary exploration of food production, preparation, and consumption, covering everything from the history of dieting in the United States, to home economics as a feminist pursuit, to the evolution of kitchen design. It’s just one sign that the field of food studies is booming as our current eating habits and food supply are subject to new scrutiny and concern. Food studies is a subject you can really sink your teeth into, pun regrettably intended. In the last year alone, academic books have been published on the development of the grocery store in the 20th century, African-American women who served as cooks in the South from 1865 to 1960, and how women today are helping to shape the sustainable food industry, among other topics. Later this year, Berg Publishers, which already publishes the journal, Food, Culture & Society, will come out with A Cultural History of Food, a six-volume compendium.
Our memories of food are at the core of who we are. Familiar tastes and smells can be powerful reminders of a distant place or a time gone by and help us remember people who are no longer with us. I’m looking forward to figuring out how to bring my enthusiasm for the topic to the printed page. In the meantime, Happy Mother's Day to my mom and all the other moms out there. Bon appétit!
Thursday, May 5, 2011
Voice, Verse, Veracity
After years of trying to find a way to write my mother’s story of living as a Jewish girl in Nazi Germany in the 1930s, the universe gave me a gift: the discovery of Mom’s poesiealbum from 1938. A poesiealbum (po-eh-ZEE album) is like an autograph book or friendship book. Poesiealbums were popular among European pre-teens and teenagers in the mid-20th century.
This wasn’t one of these up-in-the-dusty-attic discoveries. No, my mother herself brought the poesiealbum out of her bedside table when she got together with six of her childhood friends from Germany for the first time in 62 years in 2000. (You can read about how that reunion came to be here.) I was there, too. Without even knowing what the poesiealbum entries meant—they’re mostly in German and Polish—I was moved by this beat-up little book full of handwritten poems and proverbs from my mother’s friends and relatives that she brought across the Atlantic Ocean when she left Germany at the end of 1938.
I had the album translated (some entries more than once), studied it, and laid out photocopies of the pages on the floor. What I found was that each entry contained a truth or sentiment that related directly to the goings-on around my mother, from January through November of 1938. And so, nearly every chapter in The Year of Goodbyes (Disney-Hyperion 2010) opens with a poesiealbum entry. Arranged chronologically, these poesies give shape to that one fateful year in Nazi Germany and in my mother’s life.
Now here comes, from the I.N.K. perspective, the interesting part: I wrote the book in my mother’s 11- and 12-year-old voice, narrating the last year of her life in Germany. In this, I was fortunate to have my mother—who has an outstanding memory—and I have her still, as a living resource behind the book. And I wrote the book in free verse. An introduction explains the book’s “voice” and structure. Back matter tells what happened to those who make an appearance in the poesiealbum, includes a timeline, photographs, and other historical information, and discusses my research.
What with the free verse and the first person and the poesiealbum excerpts, the book has been categorized in a variety of ways. It’s been called “historical fiction” by some, including the good people who gave it a Parent’s Choice Award. It’s been called a “verse novel” by some reviewers. It was nominated in the “poetry” category by the ALSC Notable Children’s Books Committee. But Kirkus included it on its list of best children’s “nonfiction” books of 2011, and many others also refer to it as nonfiction.
I, too, say it’s nonfiction. The book tells a true story, based on scrupulous and redundant research. (I believe in redundancy in airplane safety systems and in research.) This is not simply my mother’s memoir channeled through me. The events, interactions, people, places, and documents are not made up or dramatically enhanced. But I’m not distressed by the variety of labels attached to The Year of Goodbyes—so long as readers understand that the book depicts actual events, and is not an invention “based on,” “inspired by,” or “adapted from” them.
Recently, I’ve read thoughtful articles here on I.N.K. and elsewhere sparked by the Horn Book’s March/April 2011 issue, “Fact, Fiction, and In Between.” I’ve read about “new” and “old” nonfiction,” “speculative,” “straight,” and “creative” nonfiction. What resonates most for me in this debate is Tanya Lee Stone’s description in her Horn Book article of the work of nonfiction writers:
“We balance the role of historian and storyteller by making sure we don’t interject tension or emotion or events without thorough knowledge. We do it by employing fiction techniques without ever making a single thing up.”
By writing The Year of Goodbyes in the first person, I intended to make the reader feel as close as possible to the tension, emotions, and events experienced by my mother as a pre-teen. I wanted the reader to experience this real-life person as someone with a young person’s voice. I think this is consistent with nonfiction. I’m not sure I would have felt comfortable doing this if I had not worked in close collaboration with my mother. But I was lucky enough to have her at my side.
As for the technique I employed—writing in verse—this was a way of mirroring and honoring the poesiealbum entries. I also think that free verse excels at capturing something essential about the way we think and react, especially under stressful conditions. And I think that verse is perfectly compatible with telling a true story in which nothing is made up.
I didn’t write The Year of Goodbyes the way I did for the sake of novelty. I just tried to find the most immediate and accurate way to depict my mother’s last year under the Nazi regime, which in turn, I hoped, would illuminate the shared experience of others who have been persecuted.
Fellow nonfiction writer Cathy Reef recently shared with me this wonderful pithy quotation from V.S. Naipaul:
“Great subjects are illuminated best by small dramas.”
Some of those dramas will be nonfiction. Some will be fiction. And we writers will keep on parsing the two forms because of a shared commitment to bring our readers truth (as we understand it) as well as also art.