Friday, January 28, 2011

Art Curriculum in the Classroom

This week, I received a call from another elementary school looking for Art Appreciation Presentation material.  I recommended that they look at my Art In the Classroom blog and the many links on the sidebar. After hanging up the phone, it occurred to me that I should probably hop over to the blog and check to make sure all the links were working. (Sad to say, the blog is in need of some much needed lovin’. Admittedly, if I could spend all day writing on the blog, I would.) All the links worked and it appears some have been updated since I first added the links. An amazing abundance of Art Appreciation curriculum is available for teachers and educators to use in the classroom – many created by world-class art museums.

Here are a few of the resources available:

This afternoon, after teaching my after-school art class, I had a wonderful discussion with the school principal. The conversation started because I mentioned that, in the twelve years of my teaching art appreciation classes, every class has been filled with insightful, enthusiastic, amazing students. Then, she told me the students didn’t have art at the school – as part of their regular day. What? No art in the school? It was my understanding that Illinois had a state mandate of half an hour per week - shocking in itself and why I started teaching art appreciation. She said that the teachers try to add art lessons that, more often than not, tend to be craft projects. With that being said, the above art curriculum links are a necessity in the schools.

And, of course, here are some new interesting nonfiction books to add to the classroom:

Laban Carrick Hill (Author)
Bryan Collier (Illustrator)
Little, Brown Books for Young Readers (September 2010)
2011 Caldecott Honor Book

Linda L. Osmundson
Pelican Publishing (January 2011)

Don Brown
Houghton Mifflin Books for Children (October 2007)
I love the Portraits of the Presidents at the National Portrait Gallery.

I have to show off the beautiful drawing that one of my students made for me after she finished the class assignment.    ♥

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Narrative Truth

I really thought I could get away with it. You know—taking all that I loved and observed about this animal—and making that into a book. Last week, after 13 months of persistent nibbling away at the text, it was finally down from 5,000 words of rambling observations to 400 words. Yesterday it reached 198 words. Oh, beautiful tight rhymes, bouncy images, joy!

But it was flat as a pancake—and not a good pancake, with native Missouri pecans or Michigan blueberries. It was more of a Bisquick pancake without even milk or a loving Papa to make it. I had failed with all my warm-hearted might.

I had strenuously avoided, only poetically hinted, at the central fact of this particular little animal’s life.

The ugly truth? This creature is snack food. Bite-sized for just about everything that roams its region. It is munched, crunched, and lunched on, left and right.

Oh, endearing animal! I tried, for your sake. But for the manuscript’s sake, we’re going to have to incorporate TRAJECTORY. Yup, this celebration of cuteness has got to go somewhere. Drama. Suspense. Wait and worry. Curiosity. Completion. Narrative needs it.

It’s not going to be fun, little one. I apologize. But this is life. Okay, so maybe it is assembled life, but it is made to represent you in nature.

So sorry; hope you’re ready to dash.

Will yours be a fate similar to that of Arlene in Chris Raschka’s Arlene Sardine?

I hope not. But, sometimes, that is what the truth, even constructed narrative truth, demands.

[At least all the animals in my upcoming fiction, If You're Hoppy! (Greenwillow, Feb 22, 2011) get to hop, flap, and leap away in the end . . .]

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Marketing 2.0

As we begin the second decade of our century, I’m still back in the first decade, technologically speaking.

I did enter the blog world several years ago thanks to this esteemed blog. And I’m making progress: on my recent author trip to Africa I finally abandoned my old acetate overheads for powerpoint. I now trust the software and hardware not to fail, and they didn’t.

But my publisher wants more for my new book, due out April 1. [Full disclosure: it’s middle grade fiction: All the Worlds’ a Stage: A Novel in Five Acts (Holiday House.)] Their Author Appearance Questionnaire asks for the old-fashioned contact information, like email and websites, but also wants my facebook, twitter, and personal blog addresses. Their Note About Social Networking is actually a whole page of information about things like book trailers and linking all the abovementioned data to all those accounts, both mine and the publishers’.

I signed up for facebook a while ago but have ignored it. Until now. I don’t have a personal blog. And I don’t tweet. But I do have a film editor friend who has offered to help me create a book trailer as an upcoming birthday present.

So here’s where I stop telling you stuff, and ask questions to you authors, editors, librarians, teachers, and general readers. I would love to know your habits and preferences for using social networking to find out about children’s books and authors.

• Where do you look first to get information about authors and their books – their websites or facebook pages?

• Do you friend authors to find out more about their books?

• Do you prefer to look at an author’s general facebook page, or would you prefer a page dedicated to each of his/her books?

• Do you use twitter to give and receive information about books?

• Do you look at book trailers and do they influence what books you will read?

• Do you read more group blogs or individual blogs?

End of quiz.


This month I traveled to ALA in San Diego where I attended a Holiday House reception, and roamed the exhibits, meeting and greeting editors and authors, and filling a wheelie suitcase with ARCs (advance reading copies.) In the evening I met fellow INK blogger Sue Macy (see left) and we talked shop, until Nancy Feresten, VP of Children's Books at National Geographic, showed up whereupon we shouted shop over salsa and chips in a noisy Mexican restaurant.

The following weekend I attended an SCBWI writing retreat at the Santa Barbara Mission. Four grateful editors from the frozen north talked more shop for two days in the warm California sunshine. I spent a day in workshops with Brenda Murray, Senior Nonfiction Editor at Scholastic, and her message to every writer was the same. And it was the message I had gotten the night before from Nancy Feresten at Nat Geo.

To sell these days, nonfiction books must be tied to curricula. So check the state curriculum standards, (e.g. and be sure your content is written for the appropriate level. Perhaps things will ease up in the future, and we can write whatever we like for whatever level we like, but the economy dictates the boundaries these days.

Now, please take my quiz (above) and leave comments, not on facebook or twitter, but right here.


Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Flush the Format

When it comes to the joy of browsing, adults have it a lot easier. You know what I mean. Those precious times during the day you squeeze in reading what you want to, not what you have to: scanning the newspaper over the morning cup of coffee, perusing the school newsletter while waiting to pick up the kids, even checking out a months old ragged copy of People magazine while waiting in the dentist’s office (although I certainly wouldn’t know this from personal experience).

Kids, on the other hand, are told what to read. “Half an hour a night from your leveled reader. Yes, it must be that book. Yes, you must write post it notes to summarize what you read.” Read from the assigned book? Annotate? Yuck. All right then, do your assigned reading and then read for pleasure. Given how overscheduled kids are these days, not likely.

But kids love to browse. It’s a big reason they love nonfiction. Flip through a NF book and just enjoy looking at the photographs, quickly scan the captions, and then check out the box of interesting stuff next to it.

That’s a big part of what has made world record books, almanacs, fun encyclopedias, and books of lists among others, so popular in recent years. Read the parts you like, skip what you don’t. Seek out what interests you and turn a few pages. Start in the middle and work backwards—it’s all good.

Recently, more typical narrative nonfiction has been experimenting with changing up the standard format to tremendous success. Scrapbook designs like Candace Fleming’s The Lincolns. A Scrapbook Look at Abraham and Mary appeals to the browser in all of us.

Although it definitely has a chronological narrative throughout, the scrapbook style layout of information encourages reading the pieces that appeal to the reader. When the reader feels the freedom to pick and choose, the heft of the 156 pages no longer seems so overwhelming. A young reader is likely to not only enjoy this kind of read but retain certain bits of information that might have otherwise been lost.

So let's flush the format. Let's boldly allow kids to read what they want to. Let's actually let them choose. And publishers, lets change things up a bit and stop worrying about how one defines the parts of a picture book and look instead to what makes an interesting book. But you’d better start pre-ordering. Nonfiction will be in demand as never before.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Sleeping with Marian the Librarian's Cat or The Worst School Visits Ever

January, 2011. With the New Year comes reflection, some nostalgia, and a few “If I’d only known.” Since my calendar is sprinkled with school visits, I’m reminded of some early experiences from my checkered past on the road.

When my first novel A Season In-Between came out in 1979, I was invited to a school that shall remain nameless in Southern Missouri. There was no way to get there other than driving from St. Louis for three hours. But I’d been promised a book signing, lodging, and a $100 honorarium. I arrived at the Day’s End Motel around 7 PM, as promised, to join some of the faculty for dinner. There I was met by the Marian the librarian (not her real name. Actually the real Marian the librarian is wonderful!!), who informed me that the restaurant there was closed, but she had soup and a sandwich for me at her house and “wouldn’t it be fun to spend the night?” The guest room was waiting. No heat. I woke up freezing and sneezing in the middle of the night with her cat sleeping on my head. The next day on the way to the school, she handed me my schedule. Eight presentations and an after school meeting with the local library association. Sorry, no books to sign, except the one copy in the library. I did not get home until after midnight.

It was a good lesson in setting up the next school visits. But somehow even with damage control, there is always the unexpected. Once a few years and books ago, when I arrived at a school, I was informed that the middle graders had gone on a field trip to a pumpkin farm. The receptionist had no idea who I was or why I was there. A group of first graders was hastily assembled. The little girl in the front row told me I looked more like a lawyer than a real writer. ( Note to myself: Don’t wear a gray pants suit to make school visits.) No one, including the baffled teachers, had read or even heard of my books. I did manage to temporarily stop the squirming with a knock knock joke and a clapping game. Thank goodness for small children at home.

And last and definitely least….Some years ago I went for a week to a state that shall remain nameless to speak at five middle schools. My novel No Dragons to Slay had made the state list that year. When I arrived at the first school, I was told that, at the request of a parent, who objected to several four letter words, they had removed the book from the shelves. The novel tells the story of a teenager battling bone cancer. His hair had fallen out and chemo made him nauseous. Might he have said something stronger than “Gosh, it’s been a bad day”? Out of respect for the very apologetic librarian, I spoke about my other books, rather cheerfully, considering No Dragons To Slay, the only book they’d ordered, had been shipped back.
I spent the night at the guest house on a nearby college campus. In the middle of the night, I felt strange tickling sensations. An infestation of ladybugs! At least they weren’t bedbugs.

There are more stories, many shared with me by other writers. But lest you think I’m a whiner and complainer, I will say that I’ve been to dozens of schools where I’ve had great times and met librarians and teachers who are friends for life.

Here is my a list of do’s (instead of don’ts) for school visits. I’m sure all of you can add to the list. Either have a written contract with the school or send them a note/ e mail ahead of time with requests and expectations. Nothing outrageous like one of our fellow writers who insists on suites at hotels, first class airfare, and a driver/escort at all times. We all know about shrinking budgets and the difficulties many schools have being able to afford author visits. In St. Louis, I often volunteer to visit schools, especially in low income areas. My favorite presentations include a writing workshop. I will even provide paper and pencils.

a. Your own nonsmoking room (if you don’t smoke) at a motel/hotel, especially if you are a light sleeper or snorer.
b. Three presentations a day for 50 minutes unless special arrangements are made with the school ahead of time.
c. Meals should be provided or available at appropriate times. Coffee or water, please.
d. Transportation to the school/schools or, at the very least, a detailed map.
e. Students should be familiar with your books and the books should be available at the library (or for sale) before your arrival.
f. Send promotional materials to the school before the visit. Now my website and other publication info are on line.
g. Information from the school ahead of time about the availability of power point or slide machines.
h. If possible, the honorarium should be given to the visiting author at the end of the visit.

It has been a long time since I’ve had an unpleasant school visit. Now that my daughters are grown up and grandchildren live far away, I love having a chance to meet my readers Up Close!!! I treasure the e mail messages and letters I receive afterwards (at least most of them).

Many thanks to those of you who sent such supportive messages about Ballet for Martha: Making Appalachian Spring’s Sibert Honor at ALA and the Orbis Pictus Award for Excellence in Non-fiction for children from NCTE. Sandra Jordan, Brian Floca, and I are deeply grateful for the wonderful response our book has received. By the way did you know that the name Orbis Pictus, commemorates the work of Johannes Amos Comenius, Orbis Pictus—The World in Pictures (1657), considered to be the first book actually planned for children.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Are We There Yet?

A neighbor asked me how far along I am on my latest book. It is an excellent question to ask, but a difficult one to answer. I used to think—long, long ago—that books were written in a linear fashion, especially books that would seemingly follow a chronology of events—a person’s life or an episode in history. I have learned that it is not the case.

It would be nice and neat, and cause me many fewer headaches if books could be written in a linear fashion, but it just isn’t possible. Why? There are many reasons. I think the biggest one, though, is that the more understanding I gain on a topic, the more complex I understand it to actually be. And those complexities generally reveal themselves as I am moving forward, which makes me realize I have to stop and go back to further clarify and revise; do more research and revise; read something else and revise. Translation: throughout the entire process of writing a book I continuously and simultaneously move forwards and backwards, which means I never really know how far along I am until I am done.

One might wonder if I could avoid this if I did enough homework before beginning to write. To me, this is one of the most interesting parts of being a writer, because the answer is no. The preparation doesn’t end when the writing begins.

There is a huge cognitive difference between understanding something enough to, say, carry on a conversation about it at a dinner party and making that understanding solidified and concrete enough to stand up to the page. Once your understanding begins to take the shape of an actual thesis in black and white you must analyze and evaluate your statements in a more objective way. Now that they are staring back at you—nay, challenging you—you must ask yourself—have I got it right? Have I captured the nuances of this issue and presented it with clarity? Have I been fair and accurate? Is it compelling?

So, dear neighbor, how far along am I on my next book? About 70%, give or take about 30%.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Authors & ebooks: 11 points to ponder

Ebook developments can be difficult to keep up with because of the continual software and hardware changes. Since digital book sales appear to be increasing in a steep curve, authors and their readers can’t help but wonder how the book biz will change and how quickly. Some of my colleagues are dipping a toe in the waters or diving headfirst into the pool, so soon it may be sink-or-swim time for all of us. After digging around online, emailing with other authors, and reading a lot of blogs over the last few months (not books or magazines, interestingly,) here are the issues that seem most relevant.

#1 Definition

What is an ebook, anyway? A PDF; a Kindle book; an iPad story app; an iBook; an EPUB; et al. If a book is in digital form, it can reasonably be called an ebook. However, the wide diversity in formats often requires clarification. For example, do you know the difference between an iBook and a story app for the iPad? (An iBook is usually a fairly straightforward conversion of a traditional book while a story app can have extra interactivity from changeable illustrations to simulated 3D pop-ups.) The terminology, the acronyms, even the spelling (e-book or ebook?) can be a problem.

#2 Production costs

Digital books require no paper, no ink, no binding, no warehousing, no packing, no shipping, and generally speaking, can’t be returned by customers. If this isn’t a fundamental change in publishing, I don’t know what is. Books in the form of story apps require new (to publishing) skill sets such as writing software code, which may be costly depending on what’s involved. However, porting an existing title with few changes over to a digital format shouldn’t be too pricey.

#3 Reader expectations

...for ebooks may be quite different versus paper books. For example, readers may demand to pay less due to the perceived lower production costs and the intangibility of books in electronic form. Maybe much less, if the sheer number of complaints on the Internet about overpriced ebooks are any indication.

#4 Devices

Ereaders are proliferating but there are two main types. Some are optimized for reading text (e.g. black and white “e ink” types such as the Kindle). The tablet-types can show full color images, generally have touchscreens, and can do much more in addition to displaying ebooks. Surprisingly (to me), many people read on their phones or other smallish devices. You don’t necessarily need a separate device, though (see #5).

#5 Different Formats

The most popular ereaders have non-interchangeable file formats, which is a production headache, obviously. For example, an iBook can’t be read on a Kindle, as far as I know. However, it's good (if a tad confusing) that you can read Kindle and NOOK books on the iPad, PC, Mac, Blackberry, iPod, and so on with a free download (click for Kindle reader apps, or NOOK reader apps).

#6 Images

Picture books, graphic novels, and many (most?) nonfiction titles need images. Authors and illustrators need to know which device/format will support what kind of image. For example, most people know that Kindles are only black and white thus far, including any images. However, did you know that if the Kindle book is on a computer or other color device using a Kindle reader app, images will be in full color? (That is, assuming the original image was full color.) Another issue with the various devices/formats is whether the artwork can be “full bleed,” meaning the image fills the screen rather than having a white border around each page.

#7 Interactive or not?

A big factor in ebooks for children is the level of interactivity. I’ve heard that some young kids are disappointed if a tablet ebook isn’t game-like, i.e.with movable components, animations, sound effects, and other media enrichments. My take is that an ebook can be reading-oriented OR game/movie-like OR something in between...but I don’t think every ebook must have jumping, jiggling, jangling elements to be worthwhile. Someone who wants to be completely immersed while reading may prefer zero interactivity. Ultimately, the market will decide.

#8 Roles

Who’s involved in designing the interactivity? The developer...? Personally, when I think about creating an interactive book, an adaptation of an existing book almost seems more difficult than starting from scratch...guess it depends on what the interactive components turn out to be.

#9 Competition

The technological barrier to creating a digital book is getting ever lower, depending on what kind it is (text-only being the easiest.) And since 80% of Americans supposedly want to write at least one book, there are going to be many, many more ebooks. Whether they’ll be worth reading is another issue(!)

#10 Search

Finding a particular ebook is a bit of a Catch-22 situation at the moment. If you already know the title or author, it’s fairly easy to find it on whichever ebookstore. The question for authors is, how will people know your your title even exists amidst the bazillion others?

#11 Business as usual?

If ebooks are priced lower, they may undermine the sales of traditional books, a huge problem for most publishers (and naturally authors.) The impact on libraries and bookstores, how schools will utilize ebooks, the affect on textbooks, the split authors get versus the various middlemen, how ebooks will be reviewed, the rise of indie publishing... whew, must stop now.

These factors and more are the reason it’s daunting for all involved, from authors to publishers to people who just want to read. We’ll muddle through it together, hopefully sooner rather than later. If you’re interested in how one group of authors (including me) are navigating these waters, please check out our brand new blog, e is for book.

One of my aspirations is to create interactive book apps and ideally I’d rather create the whole thing myself. A word processor plus drawing, painting, and layout software are the tools I currently use to make my I’m hoping for a reasonably easy app-creation tool that doesn’t require me to learn a computer coding language. Maybe one will come out next week, who knows?

Many authors may be waiting for their publisher to take care of everything, hard to say.
I’m no expert on these issues, just am trying to be informed (despite the fact that much of this post is subject to change.) I'm pretty sure that paper books aren’t going away...many of us prefer them most or all of the time. What’s clear is that the book biz is being reconfigured all around us, right now.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

A Teacher's Wish List

When I was thinking about what I would write for this post, after a month filled with family medical stuff, which included intense nerve pain for a month (me); a middle of the night dramatic collapse (husband) followed by 34 hours in a NYC Emergency Room (if only I wrote for grown-ups I'd have enough material for the rest of my life just from the set of rotating characters in the bed next to us), I decided I would take the easy way out and ask some teacher friends of mine to give me a list of books they wish someone would write.

[By the way, so you pay attention to the rest of my post and don't worry too much about us, as I write this, my husband is walking around the apartment strapped to a portable heart monitor, which I've named Halle Berry so he doesn't hate it so much, and which I am convinced will show as that his AFib was not a common occurrence; and my pain has, in the first words of ?John Stuart Mill? (someone else?), somewhat abated. I have every reason to believe we both are going to be o.k., though I must say the most commonly used word around our place lately is "vulnerable"...]

Anyway, thinking I'd let some teachers do the work for me (which in no way reflects my history with teachers, I swear), I started with my friend Jane Ribecky Geist, whom I've known since fourth grade. Jane teaches fifth grade in Allentown, Pennsylvania, where we both grew up. Her school is Union Terrace Elementary school. I visited there as an author many years ago and then volunteered in the reading lab, where I got to know the dedicated teachers and the circumstances of much of the student population. I have decided to start and stop with Jane today because what she wrote to me was so moving--and, incidentally, fit emotionally in a profound way with our last month (think vulnerability)--that I don't see the point in going farther right now. But I do hope teachers will chime in with their own wish lists and suggestions.

I asked Jane what was her wish list for nonfiction books for her kids, and here is what she said:

"I wish there was more nonfiction for kids on the unsung heroes in our history. I am just finishing Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand. I was telling my kids about it and they were enthralled! I even brought the book to school and selected sections for some of them to read. Any time we talk about history - and I mean truly talk about it, no Hallmark card renditions allowed - they don't want to stop! From the explorers to present day (thank you, Miss Laudenslager, for giving us background knowledge), there are people who made our nation what it is today, but they are not written about enough. [Note: Miss Laudenslager was our fifth grade teacher.] Spies, women who did their part, tales of defiance and survival - even the tricky strategies of the known people....when Washington decided to attack the Hessians (Valley Forge) and ignore the generally accepted policy of abstaining from battle on holidays...are excellent topics. My kids don't want to hear that everyone was smart, motivated, and morally sound. Let them know that these people may have been a lot like them. But they were passionate! And that is what allowed them to persevere - something kids in the Allentown School District must do everyday - continue to continue despite the hugely unfavorable conditions of their lives."

What Jane means about the "hugely unfavorable conditions of their lives" is this:

"Most of my kids are emotionally deprived, lacking almost any kind of attention - almost an after-thought by their parents....(due to their parents' struggles)

socially deprived

living at the poverty level


severely lacking in life experiences/background knowledge (some never heard of a groundhog, in 5th grade!!!)

very below grade level

lots with learning disabilities (due to mother's choices while pregnant or lack of nutrition when young or experiences sustained - eating lead paint chips - ??? who really knows...there's just soooo many of this type of child in our school)

often very street-wise

severe lack of boundaries within the home

First hand experience with a lot of violence - seeing dad burn mom, seeing sister shot in gang-related issue, shots outside of their homes, beaten/cigarette-burned themselves, often by those they 'love'

people doing drugs/drinking while kids are right there...."

And yet, they go to my friend Jane's class and she brings the world of history to them. However she can. And those kids, kids who get free breakfast and lunch at school, kids who probably have no books at home, have parents who work two jobs, or don't work at all, kids who have close relatives in jail, etc., these fifth graders are hungry to hear about success. They are captivated by heroes, real-people heroes with foibles and hard lives; people who make bad choices, who struggle and ultimately achieve success.

Let's see what we can do to help--fellow writers, publishers, librarians and teachers. Please, first of all, suggest some books you think Jane might be able to use in her class. Remember that although she teaches fifth grade, she needs books that are written on lower reading levels. (A quick aside, my friend who teaches fourth grade in a private school said she also needs books on historical and scientific topics on lower reading levels.) Second, let's all look for ways to write and publish books, on lower reading levels, about people these kinds of kids can relate to. As I finish this post (on Monday morning) my son just put "Shed a Little Light" by James Taylor song on the stereo--

Let us turn our thoughts today
To Martin Luther King
And recognize that there are ties between us
All men and women
Living on the earth

Ties of hope and love
Sister and brotherhood
That we are bound together
In our desire to see the world become
A place in which our children
Can grow free and strong

Monday, January 17, 2011

This and That and Mary

So, as I write this Annette Bening just won a Golden Globe, for what it's worth. How I love eating Girl Scout cookies as I watch thin women in their pricey finery. Many an American, legions of school children, bless 'em, are about 2/3 through a three-day weekend because Monday is set aside to honor a valiant and peaceful man who came into this vale of tears and wonder in 1929, whose birthday was on Saturday. Certainly many a fine book has been written (and illustrated) about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Of these, I'd most certainly mention Doreen Rappaport's Martin's Big Words, graced with Bryan Collier's illustrations. And A Picture Book of Martin Luther King, Jr., by David A. Adler, illustrated by Robert Casilla. Incidentally, you may or may not wish to know that Dr. King shares a birthday with the French playwright Moliere (1622-1673), the Hungarian physicist Edward Teller (1908-2003), and Margaret O'Brien (1937 - ).
Now today (as of this writing; by the time you read this, it's yesterday), would have been Dian Fossey's 79th birthday, had the world been a gentler place. A glorious look into her endeavors is to be found between the covers of Light Shining Through the Mist: A Photobiography of Dian Fossey, by Tom Mathews. And, as you know, the 16th of January, 2011 marks 455 years since Philip II parked himself upon the throne of Spain.
The 17th of January is, of course, the deathday of Clyde Tombaugh, discoverer of Pluto and President Rutherford B. Hays. It's the birthday of Betty White, Rock Hudson, James Earl Jones, and Al Capone, but for our purposes better to focus upon the fact that this is the 305th anniversary of the birth of a man about whom one can read in Robert Lawson's Ben and Me: An Astonishing Life of Benjamin Franklin by His Good Mouse. David A. Adler's B. Franklin, Printer or his A Picture Book of Benjamin Franklin, illus. by John & Alexandra Wallner; or Who Was Ben Franklin, by Dennis Brindell Fradin.... Of course, there's What's the Big Idea, Ben Franklin, by the estimable Jean Fritz. And let me tell you all here that it was an honor and one of my happiest experiences, book-wise, was learning more about, writing & envisioning, painting The Remarkable Benjamin Franklin as a boy, a teenager, young husband, father, scientist & inventor; revolutionary statesman, Francophile, air-bathing naked geezer, and dead Renaissance man.
I haven't had the privilege of writing & illustrating a proper book for a while, the world being rotten, the times being hard & fast-changing. But last month an editor offered me the chance (rain in a dry land) to do a picture book biography about a truly brave, bullheaded doctor, suffragist, reformer, and stemwinder. Dr. Mary Walker was one of the first females, certified as an M.D. She was the only woman ever to have been cited for the Medal of Honor for her service as a civilian field surgeon in the American Civil War, during which she was captured & shipped off to a Confederate prison. When those of you who came into the world as girl-babies go out and about in your jeans rather than having to wear a long skirt every single day of your life, give thanks to such dress reformers as Amelia Bloomer and Dr. Mary. Long after women of her day got sick of the ridicule and insults and went back to their long gowns, Mary stuck to her trousers, "from the highest, the purest, and the noblest principle." In fact, she added a manly coat and a silk topper. In fact, off I'll soon be going to the fabric store to buy the goods for a Bloomer costume (not being dorky enough in my usual garb) for the school visits coming down the pike.
I've written about Mary before, when I was a lot younger and thinner, in my bookRabble Rousers (actually, barely, still in print!). A joy it has been to tell a little more, learn a little more, about this passionate, cranky American, all these Americans all these years.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Finding New Books -- In Your PJs and Slippers

My mom (retired librarian and all-around great person) just told me about this cool thing (thanks, Ma!) and since the coolest people I know read this blog, I thought I’d pass it along.

It’s called wowbrary. It’s a service libraries can use to let patrons know about the newest books, movies, and music coming into their library system via weekly email updates. (Patrons can also sign up for RSS feeds or check Facebook posts.)

It’s kinda like if you went down to your public library and browsed the new arrivals shelf—only with wowbrary you can see the new books that someone else currently has checked out (and thus wouldn’t be on that shelf if you were standing in front of it) and you can browse in your pjs and slippers.

I looked at the sample email newsletter for my mom’s library system in Fairfax County, Virginia. The new titles were listed by category: adult nonfiction (broken down into subcategories like biography, history, and business); recreation (cooking, sports, travel, and more); personal growth (parenting, health, religion—it’s all there); fiction; large print; non-English; and even books for young people (children’s books, graphic novels, and teen. Fellow INK-ers Kathleen Krull and Jim Murphy will be pleased to know that the Fairfax County libraries are carrying your new books, Charles Darwin and How George Washington Saved the American Revolution.)

Next to each listing is a little button to see “more info” about the book, and another button to “borrow” the book—which takes you directly to your library’s website so you can place a hold. Is that easy, or what?

According to the website, wowbrary is “a project of Interactive Sciences, Inc., a California nonprofit 501(c)(3) public-benefit corporation that uses technology to help with social needs.”

To sign up for this free service, you just type in your email address (which according to the wowbrary website is never sold or shown to any other entity—no spam) and that’s it. They don’t know your library card number and don’t keep track of what you check out.

A cool service for cool cats like us.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Out With the Old, In With the New

2010 ended in a frenzy of work as I tried to finish up the revisions of two manuscripts. I wanted to start the new year working on new projects. And for the most part I succeeded (We all know that a book is never really finished; there are always questions to answer, a caption to rewrite, etc., etc.). But there I was last week trying to put together a book proposal and finding myself frustrated.


On the surface, the book will be about Vivien Thomas, a brilliant African-American man growing up in the Jim Crow South who wasn't able to finish medical school because a bank failure wiped out his savings. Fate led him to a job as lab assistant (his job title was really janitor) with Alfred Blalock, an equally gifted white surgeon and researcher who recognized Thomas's intelligence and drive. They had a complex thirty-four year long partnership that ushered in a new era of cardiac medicine and helped launch modern heart surgery.


Information on their important work and their working relationship is reasonably easy to come by. They were known and remembered by hundreds of colleagues and students. And Thomas's autobiography is a extrodinarily detailed study of what they did together and how they began to rely on one another to advance various medical research projects. And we know something about each one's personal life and feelings. For the most part the latter information is all surface, the obvious, observable things that make up the framework of any biography. But for me something vital was missing.


I wanted to know what Thomas felt about his place in life and in Blalock's laboratory. What he really felt. Did he feel trapped, abused, frustrated, angry, disappointed? Was he ever sad about how his life had turned out or annoyed at how his hard work was rarely acknowledged in the world of medicine outside Blalock's lab? There is nothing in his autobiography to suggest deep resentment; in fact, he comes across as remarkably even-tempered and content. Saintly even. But below those calm waters there could have been (should have been?) some swirling current, some bitterness or distaste or confusion. Or maybe there wasn't; maybe Thomas was able to accept what had been dealt to him through some powerful, inner calm. And what about Blalock? What did he really feel about Thomas? He liked and respected him, that much is clear? But what else? Never once in their many years together did Blalock invite Thomas or his family to dinner. And when Blalock celebrated his 60th birthday with a grand party attended by scores of his peers, Thomas was there -- as the bartender. Was living in the South and unbendable social customs the answer? Or was there something else? It's this deeper connection between the two men or the lack of it that I wanted to find.
Searching for this information wasn't what was frustrating me; that's half the fun of putting together a book. It was that without knowing what I might find, I wasn't able to 'see' the shape of the book or even envision a loose narrative line.


That's when I had the dream.


In it I was standing on NY City subway platform, waiting for a train. A man appeared nearby and I nodded to him and said, "Happy New Year." He smiled and answered, "Out with the old, in with the new." I recall thinking that was an odd response when the light of an in-coming train appeared and the platform began to shake. The next second a beautiful, old-fashioned Santa Fe streamliner went sailing past almost soundlessly, a great, improbable blur of shiney silver metal and running lights. Where did it come from, I wondered. I leaned out and saw its red lights fading, fading, fading away as it sped up the tunnel. And where was it going? Certainly not to the 72nd Street station. Somewhere distant and exotic and unknown.


And the next day when I went back to the proposal, I remembered that streamliner and its disappearing up the tracks and suddenly the route my book would take became clearer. It would be about Thomas and Blalock, of course, but also about the search for their inner lives, the angels and demons, those distant feelings that are often kept hidden from public view. It would be a guide to how the information for a biography is rooted out, sorted and analyzed. And if I couldn't find what I was looking for? Well, the book would be about the unknown areas of history and how we have to deal with them as well.


Not that the actual text would unfold as easily or in as orderly a way as that last paragraph suggests. Life (and book writing) is messy and filled with the unexpected and I assume that whatever I write will be much different than the proposal. But at least the New Year has left the station and is gathering speed.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Feed the Muse with Facts

A belated Happy New Year to everyone!

This week I’m teaching at Lesley University’s low residency MFA program for creative writing in Cambridge, MA. Each semester begins with an intensive residency on campus where student writers in five different genres (stage and screen, grown-up fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, and kids lit) attend seminars and lectures, critique groups, readings, and meetings with their individual mentors. Then they go off and submit monthly packets to their mentor (me, for example) for feedback.

Being of the nonfiction persuasion, I realize how important research is for writing in every genre. And I’m still surprised this is news to so many students. Sometimes it’s as basic as—you’re setting your steampunk novel in Victorian England. So what are the people wearing and what technology are you going to show us? Or, your character is crossing a large desert. How is she going to survive? Hmmm.

So now I regularly teach a research seminar in which I stress that facts are not just necessary for all sorts of writing, they can actually feed the Muse. How?

Background information isn’t background, it provides a framework for your writing. If you set your novel in the South in the early 60s, you better know about Nehi. And you’d better understand not only historic details, but also attitudes. They permeate your story even if your plot has nothing to do with, say, civil rights or racial relations.

Sometimes your research takes your work in directions you hadn’t imagined. One of my students was writing a middle-grade mystery with a villain who hated crows. Her first assignment—learn everything she can about these birds. When she found out that scientists proposed poisoning of crows on Cape Cod in an effort to save the piping plovers from further depredation, she found a way of deepening her mystery by creating a new character, an impassioned ornithologist at a Wildlife Center, and a new subplot along with her.

Research provides the ring of truth that keeps your reader going. Another student, another mystery, this one a YA. Her villain killed someone with a heart condition with an overdose of digitalis. Our detective/heroine picked up this piece of the puzzle when she opened the medicine chest at the villain’s house during a party and saw the villain’s father’s medicine. Okay, how much medicine would it take to OD? Could that many pills be taken from a man with a heart condition without him noticing? I don't think so. How about the villain stealing samples that her doctor dad got for heart meds from pharmaceutical companies? But then it couldn’t be digitalis because pharma only gives samples for new drugs they can make a profit on, not generics. Time to research!

Good research teaches readers about science or art forgery or whatever your plot involves. I have probably learned as much about Elizabethan England from historic novels as I have nonfiction books on that era. If the authors were making that stuff up instead of researching, shame on them. If they are doing that while writing books for kids, even worse. A pox on their houses (which, if you do your research, you’ll learn is a bastardized Shakespeare quotation and not a reference to the current mortgage crisis)!

Friday, January 7, 2011

Lights, Cameras, Action!

It isn’t every day that a TV award show inspires a whole new direction in one’s artistic life, but a few years ago, that’s what happened to me. I was watching the Independent Spirit Awards, that hip and laid-back paean to independent cinema celebrated annually the evening before the Oscars. During the program, several up-and-coming filmmakers won grants to finish their work and one of them, a woman, invited “anybody out there who has something to say” to embrace the medium of film to say it. Her words didn’t exactly send a lightning bolt to my brain, but a small, possibly 60-watt bulb did switch on. I’d always used photographs to tell the stories in my books, but should I explore using video?

Since I’d never even used a video or movie camera at that point, my first step was to determine how serious I was about this new outlet. After due consideration, I decided to buy a video camera, with some advice from people in the know. I choose a Canon that uses tapes, rather than one that stores everything on an internal hard drive, because it somehow felt better to have evidence of my movie shoots that I could hold in my hand and store as backup. With memories of my dad’s 8-millimeter camera from the 1950s in my head, I was astonished at the exquisite technology that’s now available to anyone with a few bucks. Skill, however, is another story.

I got my feet wet by shooting footage of a friend’s birthday party at a bowling alley, then did some video oral histories with my dad and the father of another friend. Concurrently, I started taking One-to-One lessons at the Apple store, learning how to use iMovie software to edit the footage I shot. Making movies in this way is hugely empowering—something that millions have discovered before me, as evidenced by the fact that people upload hundreds of thousands of videos onto YouTube daily, according to the site’s Fact Sheet. Well, better late than never.

As much as I enjoy the act of capturing movement and sound, I have a constant internal dialogue going on about whether to use my still or video camera. Sometimes video is an obvious choice. Still pictures of my once-in-a-lifetime attempt at karaoke in 2009 would not have the same entertainment value as the video footage that my friend and I shot. (Though those who watched the video might have appreciated the silence of a dramatic photograph of me at the mike.) But I like the ability of a still photo to communicate both information and mystery at the same time. When I look at a photograph, I wonder what happened just before and just after it was taken, even as I pore over the details of the moment that was frozen in time. I think at heart, I’ll always be a still photograph kind of gal.

In the interest of meeting a challenge head-on, however, I decided to make a trailer for my new book, Wheels of Change: How Women Rode the Bicycle to Freedom (With a Few Flat Tires Along the Way), which is finally hitting the stores this Tuesday, January 11. The trailer mixes original footage that I shot (behind the opening titles) with still photographs and some dandy archival film of women awheel. The process of gathering and organizing the images and editing the video was maddening but fun—and so engrossing that I barely noticed the developing blizzard outside my window. (Not surprising, writing the script was the easy part.) It was exciting to think about subject matter I knew so well in, literally, a whole new light. While I don’t plan to give up my day job, I want to continue exploring this other medium. It is, indeed, another compelling way to tell a story.

Check out my book trailer here.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

A Random Walk Through My Notes

It’s funny how these blog-posting deadlines sneak up on a person. One solution: dig around in one’s notes to find something that 1) already exists, and 2) is relevant to a blog about children’s nonfiction.

I’ve come up with just the thing. It’s a list of random facts I’ve collected — things that may or may not make their way into one of my books. In a best-case scenario, one of these factoids might, on its own, be the inspiration for a book — mine, or someone else’s. In a spirit of openness, I offer these tidbits to the world. Perhaps someone will take one and run, or perhaps they’ll just provide an excuse to not start any real work for another five minutes:

Chicken or egg? Chicken, of course. At some point a bird that was not a chicken laid an egg from which a chicken hatched. In the same way, if we think about one generation at a time, there is a continuous link from each of us to our parents, our grandparents, and so on back to a unicellular life form, the common ancestor of everything living.

Humans did not evolve from apes — apes and humans share a common ancestor.

All living humans are the descendants of a single woman who lived in Africa about 200,000 years ago.

An average person has many ten times more bacteria cells living in their intestines than there are human cells in their body (there are perhaps 100 trillion cells in an adult human’s body).

Every hour there are almost 9,000 more people living on Earth.

The total number of humans who have ever lived is estimated at about 100 billion.

It’s likely that the eye has independently evolved at least 40 times throughout the history of life on earth.

One in five living organisms is a beetle.

There are fossils on the summit of Mount Everest. OK, this doesn’t come as a complete surprise, if we know a little bit about geology — specifically plate tectonics. Still, it’s pretty interesting. On a related note, my father, a physicist and astronomer who enjoyed making calculations about this sort of thing, figured that if the flood in Genesis is the explanation for these fossils, and that the water that covered Everest evaporated and is now part of the atmosphere, earth’s atmospheric pressure should be about 900 times greater than it actually is.

Humans are responsible for what may be the sixth great extinction in Earth’s history (the previous one took place about 65 million years ago, punctuated by an asteroid impact). Species are currently disappearing at a rate 100 to 1,000 times faster than what is predicted by “normal” background extinction rates.

In about seven billion years our sun will be a red giant, with a diameter greater than Earth’s present orbit. Our planet may or may not be swallowed up. The sun will also lose mass, and Earth will drift farther away from its star. It won’t matter much to our descendants, if any are alive — the oceans will have boiled away billions of years earlier.

A supernova can release more energy in a few days than our sun will during its entire 10 billion year lifespan.

Life as we know it would be impossible without supernovae, since elements heavier than iron (many of which are required for life) form only when stars collapse and explode. We are, in a very real sense, made of stars.

A really big supernova — a hypernova — can also release an intense burst of gamma rays. These rays radiate in a beam along the star’s axis. They are so powerful if we found ourselves in the path of a gamma ray burst within a thousand light years (6,000,000,000,000,000 miles) of Earth, life on our planet could be extinguished.

The contrail of a jet plane is (mostly) composed of water released during the combustion of jet fuel. Water vapor forms the ice crystals that make the characteristic white, puffy streak across the sky. If water was sentient, it would be surprised to find itself suddenly freed 30,000 feet above the ground, its last previous memory being several hundred million years old, when it became chemically combined with decomposing plant matter to form crude oil.

A piece of a neutron star the size of a pea weighs more than an aircraft carrier.

Roughly 100,000,000 neutrinos, tiny high-energy particles produced by stars, pass through each square centimeter of your body every second. Only once, on average, in a human lifespan will there be a collision between a neutrino and an atom in a human’s body.

It’s so cold on Pluto that when the former planet is in the part of its orbit that is most distant from the sun its atmosphere — probably methane and nitrogen — freezes and falls to the ground as snow.

Most of Earth’s biomass — the weight of all living things on Earth — may exist in the form of subterranean bacteria.

The weight of all the ants on Earth exceeds the weight of all the humans.

The probability of dying from an asteroid collision with Earth is about the same as that of perishing in a commercial airline accident.

The Andromeda galaxy and our own Milky Way are likely to collide in about three billion years. Not too worry. If you happen to be around to observe the collision, the stars in each galaxy are so spread out that you probably won’t be affected.

I could go on, but I want to save some things for future postings. . .

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

It’s That Time of Year—Science Fairs Loom on the Horizon

I’ve attended a number of science fairs in my day. The scenario that passes through my mind as I walk up and down the aisles is the frantic work that must have been done on the part of parents and children in the final days leading up to the fair. I can just imagine the exhortations, tears, and meltdowns behind the exhibits. It’s not just their superficial nature that gives me pause (a lot of volcano models) but the last-minute evidence in my email inbox from parents asking me for suggestions. It reminds me of the joke about the Louvre where an American tourist races up to a guard and says, “Quick. Where’s the Mona Lisa? I’m double-parked.” Too often the point of a science fair is to have something, anything, to exhibit. What is lost is the experience of science as a process—an inquiry into a unique way of knowing. It is not an experience for procrastinators. It can be a way of life. This blog is an early heads-up so that the science fair is an experience that has value.

Science fair season is typically in March. So now is the time to start thinking and planning. And if you’re looking for inspiration, do I have a book for you. It’s called See for Yourself! by yours truly and the second edition has just been published by Skyhorse. In it I draw inspirations for experiments from very familiar places, starting with the human body and going to the supermarket, the drugstore, the hardware store, the stationary store and the toy store.

The purpose of my book is to get kids hooked on doing real science. And if you think that’s not possible, read how some
British school children did a study of how bees learned to recognize colors and patterns. They actually published their findings in a peer-review scientific journal! Children are natural scientists until they start worrying about grades and how they’ll show up at the science fair. My problem with science fairs is that the exhibit becomes the all-important goal—not doing science itself. I want them to return to this natural curiosity and their science fair exhibit will be simply a by-product of the fun they’ll have along the way.

I recently read a study that stated that most working scientists discovered science before middle school. Scientists love science. They love the rush they get, the “Eureka” experience, when they make a discovery. It is my intention that kids start asking the questions that lead to many “eurekas” of their own. Science also gives scientists (and kids) an excuse to play—to try stuff out just for the fun of it. And, guess what, when you do science it doesn’t matter if you make a mistake or guess the wrong answer. All that matters that you learn something. These are the reasons I think a science fair is a good thing. So start browsing through those pages.

If you want to see what I have to say about this book, here’s my

Tuesday, January 4, 2011


Happy New Year, everybody—2010 is kaput! Adios to pictures of pelicans drowning in oil. Outta my way to massive layoffs, home foreclosures and cranky voters. Goodbye to the multisyllabic Icelandic volcano that grounded so many airplanes and to the Somali pirates who hijacked so many ships. And for Pete’s sake, no more vuvuzelas! 2011 is ready to roll, and maybe we can get a few things right this time around.

In that spirit, I’d love to rev up some excitement about nonfiction this year and help to put it on the map at a time when it’s needed most. Nonfiction books for kids may not explode pieces of the planet like last year’s BP oil spill or the war in Afghanistan, but they can certainly give the next generation a leg up on preventing such disasters. Why? The big surprise is that we’re currently in the midst of a Golden Age of nonfiction writing for kids. The quality of work that’s being done is simply astounding. Just look at all the things that first-rate nonfiction books can do:

Despite our best efforts, our children are falling behind the rest of the world in education. The U.S. ranks 17th in the 2009 OECD tests comparing student performance in reading, math, and science.
The best nonfiction books are written with such care and are so thoroughly vetted that they get the facts straight, unlike many of today’s error-prone textbooks.

Better yet, these books are anything but boring. Their pages overflow with magical ways to get kids excited about the very subjects they need to learn in school; math, science, history, social studies, reading, writing, economics and the arts. The best nonfiction can do something else too; it encourages readers to think outside the box of tests and test scores. We need all the creativity we can get. It’s one of the main traits that made us successful in the first place.

Not only that, but nonfiction books are fun to read in their own right. They are not textbooks, after all. So nonfiction gets to be hilarious. Or insightful. Or creative to the nth degree. The books can often shock and surprise their readers, and their fabulous artwork adds luster to the tales and enhances the information. Their pages can examine any subject in great depth. They can relate the best stories of all time, and like their fictional counterparts, they can present their true tales as mysteries or as adventures or even as romance. Readers are introduced to the most interesting people of all time too, each one up close and personal with all their flaws and imperfections as well as the deeds that made them famous. What's more, they don't even have to be famous.

I often wonder who’s reading this blog. Other INK bloggers? Writers? Nonfiction fans or artists or teachers or editors or parents or kids or lurkers and surfers? I imagine that I’m usually preaching to the choir , and if that’s the case, maybe we can give nonfiction a shot in the arm this year. But if you’re simply curious or were just passing through, try taking a look at these books. I think you’ll be in for a treat.