Friday, March 30, 2012

Creative Nonfiction Doesn’t Always Tell a Story

In recent years, we’ve heard a lot about narrative nonfiction—books that uses scene building, dialog, and other elements borrowed from fiction to tell true stories. But narrative texts are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to creative nonfiction for young readers.

Here are some examples:
Lyrical nonfiction employs such language devices as alliteration, rhythm, and repetition to infuse prose with combinations of sounds and syllables that are especially pleasing to the ear.

Vulture View by April Pulley Sayre (illus by Steve Jenkins)

Lightship by Brain Floca

Swirl by Swirl: Spiral s in Nature by Joyce Sidman (illus by Beth Krommes)

The Secret World of Walter Anderson by Hester Bass (illus by E.B. Lewis)

Step Gently Out by Helen Frost (photos by Rick Lieder)

Under the Snow by Melissa Stewart (illus. Constance R. Bergum)

Humorous nonfiction makes expert use of sentence structure, unexpected word choices, and puns to craft a voice that has an unmistakably sassy, silly, whimsical, or even irreverent tone.

Thank You, Sarah: The Woman Who Saved Thanksgiving and Independent Dames by Laurie Halse Anderson (illus by Matt Faulkner)
The Truth About Poop by Susan E. Goodman (illus. by Elwood H. Smith)

See How They Run: Campaign Dreams, Election Schemes, and the Race to the White House by Susan E. Goodman (illus. by Elwood H. Smith)

Boy, Were We Wrong About Dinosaurs by Kathleen Kudlinski (illus. by S.D. Schindler)

What to Do About Alice? by Barbara Kerley (illus. by Edwin Fotheringham)

Those Rebels, Ton & John by Barbara Kerley (illus. by Edwin Fotheringham)

What to Expect When You’re Expecting Larvae: A Guide for Insect Parents (and Curious
by Bridget Heos (illus. by Stephanie Jorisch)

Some creative nonfiction for children is noteworthy for its structure, art, and design rather than its exceptional storytelling or spot-on voice.

What Would You Do with a Tail Like This? by Steve Jenkins and Robin Page

Never Smile at a Monkey by Steve Jenkins and Robin Page

Move! by Steve Jenkins and Robin Page

Where in the Wild? Camouflaged Creatures Concealed and Revealed by David Schwartz, Yael Schy, and Dwight Kuhn

Redwoods by Jason Chin

Coral Reefs by Jason Chin

When it comes to today’s nonfiction for kids, the creative possibilities are endless. And the news gets even better.

All of these books can serve as great mentor texts for students studying writing. They can help elementary-aged kids:

develop a better understanding of voice

improve sentence fluency

learn how to write for an audience
understand why including meaningful details and strong verbs is important

And best of all the content of these books can also enhance science and social studies lessons.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

"The dog is the noblest work of Art"

Almost midnight. I sit on the sofa, laptop on my lap. Beside me sprawls a big, beautiful, golden-haired dog. His name is Hucks and he is my best buddy. I catch his eye. "How did it get so late?" I ask him. "How could I leave my blog until the last minute?" I sigh. He sighs. He understands. He's been here with me before.

And then I get an idea. "Hey Hucks, maybe I could write about Emily and Carlo? Even though it's cataloged as fiction, it's still a true story, it's thoroughly researched and beautifully written and illustrated, and it's a wonderful introduction to Emily Dickinson's life and poetry, and it's only two days until National Poetry Month...and it's about a DOG!" He cocks his head at me. I can tell he thinks it's a great idea.

Written by Marty Rhodes Figley and illustrated by Catherine Stock in color-drenched watercolors, Emily and Carlo tells the story of the shy poet and her best friend for 16 years, her "shaggy ally," a huge, floppy, slobbery Newfoundland named Carlo. Featuring excerpts from Emily's poems and letters, it's a book about love and friendship ("I started early, took my dog, / And visited the Sea") and eventually, loss ("Carlo died...Would you instruct me now?). Kirkus Reviews called the book "a pleasing little window into Dickinson's life and an invitation to learn more about the fresh-breathed poet from Amherst."

My own shaggy ally is snoring now. I'll take that as a hint and wrap things up. Hucks and I recommend celebrating National Poetry Month by checking out Emily and Carlo. And we agree with Emily, by the way: The dog is the noblest work of Art.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Have Laptop, Will Travel

One of the best things about being a writer is our portability which can incite mobility. Long ago when I was an MFA student at Vermont College, I met a visual arts MFA student who complained about the mighty costs and problems of shipping artworks to the twice-annual residencies. We writers only had to pack our floppy disks.

Nonfiction writers aren’t quite as portable as our fiction-writing cousins. Speaking for myself, my desk is littered with loose papers, file folders bulging with notes and photocopies, books piled high on said papers and stuffed into overflowing bookcases.

But the lure of mobility forced me to rethink my portability a couple of weeks ago when I flew to England to attend the twentieth anniversary retreat of the Kindling Words workshop in the Lake District. Fourteen of us spent a week at a four-star hotel, eating four-course meals each night, walking along the lake, into the woods, and up the hills (but not enough, I fear, to work off those four-course meals.) And, yes, attending workshops and writing.

Though I wasn’t the only nonfiction writer there, many were tapping away on fantasy novels. As they retreated to their imaginary worlds by the fireside in the lounge, I time-travelled back to eighteenth century Revolutionary America, to meet my biography subjects. As others were drawn by guided meditations into the subconscious minds of their protagonists, I tried to do the same, but was interrupted by an annoying voice whispering, “Document your sources.”

Seven writers, headlights shining, about to descend into the subconscious of their protagonists, or was it the Honister Slate Mine?

When the luxurious week was over, I took off for East Yorkshire to visit old friends, including writer Marvin Close, who live by the sea. One of the world’s biggest offshore wind farms will soon arise off the Yorkshire coast, but not soon enough to be pictured in my next book, The Wind at Work, a history of wind energy. So here, instead, is a picture of the beach with dog Libby chasing a seagull.

One evening Marvin arranged an interview at the local radio station, BBC Humberside. The topic of the interview: how a children’s writer from southern California came to be an obsessed fan of English football in general and Chelsea Football Club in particular. I tried to mix it up with writerly talk, but not having many people to discuss football [soccer] with at home, I was happy to talk about the sturm und drang of the current Chelsea season.

Now I’m in London for three months, thanks to my latest travel adventure: home exchanging. Sitting in a top-floor flat in Notting Hill Gate with sun streaming in on all sides -- I brought it with me from LA -- I’ve got several manuscripts in progress, just a few file folders of research, a couple of books, and a brand new card from the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Library system. All the comforts of home!

I’m still immersed in the American Revolution, which has a whole different significance from where I sit now. And I’m on the lookout for something to research on the ground here. English football perhaps?

More anon on the joys of portability and mobility.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Non fiction. Non book

Every time I step into my local B&N, I mourn the loss of actual heaping shelves of books. Instead there are lots of games, knick knacks and plenty of room to stand around and admire their Nook reader. For this reason, if I'm in a bookstore and am allowing myself to spend any money at all, I try to buy books. But lo and behold, sometimes the local independent book store or shop or online store has non fiction non books that's actually good stuff.

My favorite children's bookstore in NYC, The Bankstreet Bookstore, has the most amazing, drool worthy, nonfiction section ever. Isn't it a thing of beauty?

I always want to buy books when I go there. But sometimes, the other non fiction non book stuff, which I also can't find anywhere else, draws me in too. I first bought one box of these fun card sets and now I'm up to four (I believe, but I don't want to go count because it might be five). The American Heroes and Legends set is great for getting a little bit of info.on someone and a question that can start a discussion.

At The New York Historical Society gift shop, I picked up two other non fiction non book I hadn't seen anywhere else. One is a set of cards put out by the Library of Congress called "Historical Encounters! A Quiz Deck on World-Changing Events" which are basically a pack of cards which each describe an encounter between two people in history that changed their lives and history as well. Examples include Lennon and McCartney meeting at ages 16 and 15, Jackie Robinson's meeting with Branch Rickey in Brookyn before he signed him with the Brooklyn Dodgers, and Sears meeting Roebuck in Chicago in 1887. I wouldn't go so far as to describe the blurb on each card as "a brief, captivating essay" as the authors do on the box itself, but still lots of interesting information here that might easily lead to the desire to do more research.

The NY Historical Society also has terrific post cards and posters of a handsome, beardless A. Lincoln. This would make a great pairing with the children's book about the girl who wrote to Lincoln and suggested he'd look much better with a  beard. Clearly not the best exchange of advice ever given and taken if you look at the photos.

My daughter recently bought me the Teddy shirt from this non fiction non books fabulous hair-storically accurate site. (Yes, I'd also like the Abraham one. Even with the beard.) She has one of the scientists and it was a big hit at her college astronomy society. I will wear mine proudly on the streets of New York and surrounding environs and hope it sparks an interesting conversation, or at least a smile, with another lover of all things non fiction.

Monday, March 26, 2012

New Hope for Old-Fashioned Books

Exactly one month ago I received an email from my friend and colleague (and fellow East Bay resident), Marissa Moss. It began almost apologetically:

“I know this probably comes out of thin air, but I've heard from so many talented writers and illustrators that they have problems getting contracts now from the major NY publishers who only want books with mass market appeal …”

Sounds like an understatement in these days of publishing uncertainty (aka “crisis”) but I was hooked. Marissa is a versatile writer and illustrator of both fiction and non-fiction, full of ambition and creativity, who has enjoyed considerable success. What was she up to?

The golden age of picture books, when fine books were edited and published despite not being blockbusters, doesn’t have to be over,” she wrote.

Instead of lamenting the demise of publishing as we knew it, Marissa announced that she is going to turn the dearth of publishers seeking to put out beautiful books into an opportunity. She has found financial backers who share her values, and she is starting a new publishing house intended to turn back the clock by producing “quality books the old-fashioned way.” Golden Gate Books will make its mark with children’s fiction and non-fiction that book-lovers will want to hold, admire and read repeatedly.

This is actually the second recent blast of publishing news to gust my way. Our own INK is becoming a publisher of e-books, starting with the out-of-print titles of our members. I have four titles ready to go, as soon as I do the necessary scans and we work out the contract details to sell our books on the iTunes store and perhaps other e-marketplaces. This is exciting news not only because it gives authors a chance to immortalize our books and make them available at very low cost to interested readers, however many or few they may be. I am also thrilled because it is the impetus I need to enter this new world of publishing and experiment with its myriad possibilities.

While INK, for starters at least, will be e-publishing out-of-print titles (which, in the current reality of publishing, does not mean out-of-life or out-of-value titles), Golden Gate Books, despite valuing the paper-in-hand approach to reading, may also enter the e-realm by releasing all of its titles as e-books within months of their print debut.

Whether or not its titles have an e-life, Marissa is embracing web-based promotion and even fund-raising. Right now she has enough money committed to plan eight books during GGB’s first year, but if she can raise an additional $50,000 she will go for twelve with a larger marketing bang for all of them. She is using, a fund-raising website that follows the NPR model to seek pledges from donors who receive premiums at different levels depending on how much they give. No pledges are actually collected unless the goal is achieved. In this case, it’s $50,000 in pledges by April 19, 2012. Check it out and please feel free to choose your premium:

Here is one piece of the pitch, where Marissa (writing from the future) summarizes the mind-set of today's typical publishers:

"Instead of taking risks on new voices or subjects, they focused on what had already sold well – one Harry Potter book led to a slew of imitators. One Twilight book created a wake of supernatural novels. Instead of looking for the great books of the future, they looked for books that were like great books of the past."

I would make one edit: change “great books of the past” to “successful books of the past.” I recall my appearance at the Texas Library Association conference in April, 2000, after my book If You Hopped Like a Frog had just come out with Scholastic. It put forth a new, enjoyable approach to proportional thinking in which human abilities were compared, proportionally, to those of animals. Proportion is an important concept in algebraic thinking, taught in various ways (most of them confusing, boring or both) throughout the upper elementary and middle school grades. The Scholastic team was out in force at TLA giving away, waving and wearing a plethora of promotional items in various shapes, sizes and levels of extravagance. Did even one of these marketing pieces reference my book or that of any other up-and-coming author? Not on your life! Every single one was about Harry Potter, whose third (or was it fourth?) installment was hitting the American market. Harry really needed the help, didn’t he?

On May 25, 2009, I wrote a blog post here called “Paen to a Publisher,” in which I paid tribute to one of my publishers, Tricycle Press, which (along with its parent company, Ten Speed Press) had just been bought by Random House. I wondered aloud whether the many uncommon practices that had made Tricycle my favorite, if smallest, publisher would be retained once it became part of the world’s largest media conglomerate. (For example, Tricycle ignored a near-universal convention in publishing by allowing an author to have a voice in selecting the illustrator for his or her book. Tricycle even allowed authors and illustrators to influence editing decisions and sometimes gave them the final say. Can you believe?)

I have never written a postscript to that discussion and here it is: in January, 2011, Random House announced that it was scuttling Tricycle Press. My favorite publisher is history. One of the many pieces of flotsam left adrift by the maelstrom of that decision was my manuscript I Rot: The Fall and Rise of a Halloween Pumpkin, which I described in my May 24, 2010, INK blog post called “Researching With Researchers.” Since then, I have been seeking a new publisher for my rotten manuscript (and the revolting photos by Dwight Kuhn that accompany it).

Along comes Golden Gate Book, seeking authors and illustrators with worthy manuscripts in search of a publisher, authors who have established relationships with booksellers and who effectively promote their own books through school visits and other appearances. . . Along comes Golden Gate Books, promising to give the creators of books an unusual amount of control over their projects. . . Along comes Golden Gate Books, “a company that cares about the magic that happens when a parent reads a picture book to a child.”

And I am now delighted to announce that the magic of a decomposing pumpkin (and it is magical in its own transformative, regenerative way) will be featured on Golden Gate Books’ first list in the Fall of 2013.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Creative Nonfiction Nonfiction

Last week, while perusing the internet and listservs, I came across this video/lecture by Lee Gutkind on creative nonfiction.
Lee Gutkind talks about Creative Nonfiction Writing for Scientists

I've been sharing some of the facts that Lee Gutking mentions to anyone who would listen - husband, friends, children, writer friends, the dog, etc. Here are the points that he made - in speaking about creative nonfiction for adults that struck a cord with me as a writer for children:

1) "Creative nonfiction is the fastest growing genre in the publishing industry, right now. Creative nonfiction is the fastest growing genre in the creative academic world, as well."

2)  Research, in the past 4 to 5 years, shows that people remember facts that are presented to them and many more facts for a longer period of time when those facts are embedded in a story.

3) People are persuaded in a much more successful way, when the information is presented in a story.

4) We remember our life stories in chapters.

I was fascinated (and curious) by this information and how it relates to children and learning. It appears to me that creative nonfiction books for children have an amazing potential for education. Though creative nonfiction is used in the schools right now, it seems that there is maybe a huge untapped potential to help our children learn - backed by research and data.

I've also been sharing, to anyone who will listen, how Gutkind presented Organ Donation in his book, Many Sleepless Nights: The World of Organ Transplantation. It's toward the end of the video if you get a chance to listen.

So, if you are reading this, guess I have once again managed to get someone to listen to my "aha" moment about creative nonfiction. Love to hear your comments.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Writer As Speaker

Mostly we talk about books here. But I'm sure I'm not alone in finding that much of the content I deliver each year is through presentations. In some years, it takes up about half my time; in others about a quarter of my time. In the last two years, the speaking thing has gotten woollier and wilder, with presentations to audiences I have never addressed before. Early childhood educator conferences. Math teacher conferences. Botanical gardens. Science conferences. Regional writing coach workshops. Author-in-residence programs.

So it seems like a good time to ponder a bit about preparing presentations. I’m interested in hearing from others. Because I’m guessing, that like the writing process, this process has as many colors, stripes, and formulas as there are writers. (Have a better way to do this? I’m all ears!)

The labor begins with an innocent "YES, I'd love to come speak to a workshop of math teachers in Mongolia!" (Example only. Have not been to Mongolia. But I love to travel so, yes, I'd probably do it at the drop of a yak.)

The actual process of creating the talk is a massive brain dump, a pulling together of inspiration, sound, video, images from all over my experience/my life. I never write down the actual words or speak from a script. Some people can do that. I'm incapable of faithfully following a script or, for that matter, a soup recipe. Creating a talk is more like reorganizing a storage room: first comes utter mess, bother, and confusion; later—satisfaction.

When people ask me for a talk description ahead of an event, I experience both annoyance and panic. Yes, yes, I realize that something must be in the program brochure. But really, the event is months from now. How can I say today what will be in my heart/mind then? What passion, idea, epiphany will be present and ready that day? What new scientific tidbit, discovery, spark will be in the air?

When the day approaches I find myself looking back on whatever description I gave that day and somehow fitting what is presented to that form.The problem is that a Keynote/powerpoint does not feel done until a couple of days (okay occasional a few minutes/hours) before the actual speech time. It doesn't matter if I work on it for a year or a week, it will always take until that time.

For this reason, I do not allow myself to work full time on a speech until it's within a couple weeks of the actual event. Months ahead of time, I'll begin thinking, note taking, gathering. I plop photos, videos, sounds, and thought snippets in a file. But I literally stop myself from going any further. Because the last week before a presentation, at least, will be spent working full time on the talk. If I do too much ahead of time, I just change, rebuild, discard what I did before.

It does not matter how I am paid for the talk or if it is over Skype/Ichat. There is no way for me to do a half job, lesser job, or a little bit. It must have everything I can give to that subject. I have learned I am not capable of putting in the amount of effort appropriate for the event, audience size, or pay. This is not a particularly helpful quality for a small business person and I bet there are lots of nonfiction authors out there who have this same issue.

It takes about ten times longer for me to figure out what to say in six minutes versus sixty minutes. Then, if it’s a panel talk, I’ll doubtless pitch everything I have planned to the winds and adapt fluidly to what is happening.

The awful part is that final pull, the shaving away of extraneous material.(Hmm...sounds a lot like the editing process for a recent book.) I can clearly see sections emerging. But I have no idea how it will all come together. What is the overarching organizational element? How will it flow? I know there’s good stuff there. But won’t people who like organization, the folks who take your outline and mentally tick it off as you speak, be thrown for a loop by all this material? Yup. I dig in and organize.

I shift pieces for logical content progression, but also for flow. Fast sections. Inspirational sections. Humorous sections. Meaty but important sections. Then I try to insert some wide concept, some slam dunk at at the end. For years, I’ve used the Trout Chant, which I have memorized and can deliver very quickly as almost a rap, for the final piece. It expresses my joy about nature and language.

I use Mac’s Keynote program and it’s effortless to drag in video, slides, sounds, and movie-like transitions. But I'd advise folks not to get too drunk on the transitions and builds. Sure you can have letters type in, burst with color, turn to fireworks, and swing like swings. But these gee whiz aspects slurp time—time that can be used to actually make an important point. They’re also downright distracting if overused. They need to make sense, to match the tone of whatever you are presenting.

Speaking and writing certainly have a synergy. Doing talks allows me to gather and crystallize ideas, to adjust them according to audience response during and after a speech. In the meantime, I reflect. What if I had scrolling credits, like a PBS show, or wore a Nascar-like jacket covered with sponsorship for school visits and speeches? The credits, especially for school visits and young author conferences would say things like this:

Author brought to you by

countless parents in Parent Teacher Associations

passionate editors/publishers who partnered to create authors’ books

6 weeks of a tired teacher selling port-a-pit chicken coupons

a grant from a river gambling boat

dues paid by hardworking teachers

an anonymous grant from a donor in rural Indiana

auctioning off a primo parking space at the front of a school

dozens of autumn carnivals, complete with homemade games made by tired parents too late at night

sales of magazine subscriptions

grants from regional education organizations

money from Title I funds

money from gifted and talented programs

money personally given by staff

When this is what goes into bringing authors into a place to give a speech, how can we do less than put all that we can offer into a talk?

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Common Core is for real (at least 50% of the time)

As I've read on many a teacher blog and on listservs, “Common Core is coming.” Or has already arrived in many states. If you haven't delved into the basics of the Common Core State Standards yet, check out the site. If my count is accurate, 45 American states have adopted them so it’s safe to say they are already having a big impact on education.

The headline for I.N.K. authors and readers is that the percentage of informational texts to be read by 4th graders is no less than 50% and it increases to 70% by 12th grade.(1) I haven't found good numbers on the current split between fiction and nonfiction texts in schools, but the general consensus is that fiction has been dominant (at least in in elementary schools.) In any case, things are a‘changing so why not actually read the Standards (or at least try)? Here are a few excerpts that caught my eye:

Reading Standards for Informational Text, Grade 2 students

3. Describe the connection between a series of historical events, scientific ideas or concepts, or steps in technical procedures in a text.

6. Identify the main purpose of a text, including what the author wants to answer, explain, or describe.

8. Describe how reasons support specific points the author makes in a text.

In recalling my 2nd grade self, it's hard to remember being as smart as these objectives require. Here is a Reading Standard for 5th graders:
Draw on information from multiple print or digital sources, demonstrating the ability to locate an answer to a question quickly or to solve a problem efficiently. (3)

Sounds like something authors need to do every day, no?

How about this Writing Standard for 3rd grade:
2.a. Introduce a topic and group related information together; include illustrations when useful to aiding comprehension.

I definitely do that one, often.

Grade 6 Reading Standard:

2. Determine a central idea of a text and how it is conveyed through particular details; provide a summary of the text distinct from personal opinions or judgments. (5)

I wish more people did that, actually.

It’s a little overwhelming to read pages and pages of the standards, but based on interacting with classroom teachers over the years, they will break them down one by one for each grade level and find ways for many (if not most) students to master them. And the plan is that authors will provide many of the resources to assist students on their way to smartness. Right?



My web site

All the standards can be found on this page:
1 Common Core English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects, page 5.
2 ibid. page 13.
3 ibid. page 14.
4 ibid. page 20.
5 ibid. page 39.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

In Love with Alan Alda

One of my dearest and oldest friends is Alan Alda.

Alan Alda, My Friend

Of course he doesn't know that, but don't we all feel that way about him? I grew up watching M*A*S*H. I just know he's a great guy. I saw him eating lunch a couple of years ago in one of my neighborhood restaurants, like a regular person, so that alone proves it. I went to a staged reading of a play he wrote about Marie Curie. The play, Radiance, had a lot going for it, most of all his passion for the subject, which he talks about here, in an essay for the Huffington Post called "In Love with Marie."  The essay is worth reading not only for the subject matter but also because it is how so many of us non-fiction writers feel about the people (and subjects) we are writing about.

I am not alone in Alda love. I know this. My friend Rebecca used to drag her mother to the inferior Chinese restaurant in their neighborhood because Alan Alda ate there. His photo was in the window. Of course she did. What are so-so cold sesame noodles compared to Alan Hawkeye Alda?  And I adore great cold sesame noodles.

I would like to say to Alan, as William Thacker's sister, Honey, says to movie star Anna Scott in Notting Hill, "I genuinely believe and have believed for some time now that we can be best friends. What do YOU think?"

(I also believe that I could be best friends with Julia Roberts, but maybe that's because I've watched Notting Hill 1,424 times.)

Also, as long as I'm off on a tangent, my favorite M*A*S*H episode was the heartbreaking one with Blythe Danner called "The More I See You." (I looked it up. Tried to embed video. Couldn't find any. Had to order it from Netflix. This blog post is taking many, many, many  pomodoros.)

Where was I? Yes, Alan Alda. Here's the latest reason to be smitten with him. He is the cofounder of The Center for Communicating Science at Stonybrook. And he has recently issued THE FLAME CHALLENGE.

Here's Alan explaining it in SCIENCE Magazine:

"I WAS 11 AND I WAS CURIOUS. I HAD BEEN THINKING FOR DAYS ABOUT THE FLAME AT THE END of a candle. Finally, I took the problem to my teacher. “What’s a flame?” I asked her. “What’s going on in there?” There was a slight pause and she said, “It’s oxidation.” She didn’t seem to think there was much else to say. Deflated, I knew there had to be more to the mystery of a flame than just giving the mystery another name. That was a discouraging moment for me personally, but decades later I see the failure to communicate science with clarity as far more serious for society. We feel the disconnect all around us, from a common misimpression that evolution is the theory that we’re descended from monkeys, to the worry that physicists in Geneva might suck the universe into a teacup—or something uncomfortably smaller...."

Alan goes on with his argument and ends with the Flame Challenge,  a contest to find the best explanation of a flame. "Tell it to me like I'm eleven!" For all the details go back here.

Teachers can get students involved. Writers can enter. Scientists can enter.

I think my friend Alan has come up with a great way to talk about flames. But more importantly he has fanned the flames of interest in how best to communicate science, not only to children, but to everyone.

How can you not love the guy? (It was my husband who first alerted me to the Flame Challenge. So he's not jealous. I swear.)

Monday, March 19, 2012

Far Afield

So, if you're reading this, you're doubtless aware that today is the 19th of March, 2012. Happily for me, writing-wise, today marks an absolute gaggle of birthday anniversaries, i.e. opportunities to note the lives, times, words, and works of significant individuals. AND, not so by the way, it is now four years since Arthur C. Clarke's deathday; 62 since that of Edgar Rice Burroughs. (I love it that ERB, whose Mars explorer/adventurer, John Carter is to be found at your local movieplex this weekend, is found
If they were not already deeply dead and long-departed Sec'y of State, 3-time Presidential candidate, courtroom duelist, and supremely gifted gasbag, William Jennings Bryan, the "Great Commoner," would be celebrating his 152nd birthday. Lawman Wyatt Earp would be 164 today and the glorious western painter Charles M. Russell would be turning 148. The valiant and earnest "Pilgrim," governor of Plymouth Plantation, William Bradford would be a seriously decrepit 422-year-old, as of this very day. How I loved learning about and visualizing this man - and his tragic wife, Dorothy, for crying out loud, who fell off the good ship Mayflower and if she jumped who could blame her? Not me! – when I researched and wrote my first history book.
But the birthdays I most wanted to note are those of a pair of very different men, medical missionary, David Livingstone, ('I presume'), born in Scotland, 19 March, 1813; and geographer, translator, spy, poet, soldier, cartographer, speaker of more than 25 languages, Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton, pictured above, born in Devon, England, 19 March, 1821. He seems to have been a fencer, too - why am I not surprised? About dashing, dramatic Burton, I came across this book for young readers and this, about the earnest Livingstone. What did these men have in common other than their fealty to Queen Victoria? They were explorers. Certainly they both explored the continent of Africa, where Livingstone ultimately died. Europeans had always been fascinated with the so-called 'Dark Continent.' But Burton's explorations extended into Arabia, where he, a non-Muslim, disguised himself so he could investigate Mecca; elsewhere in Asia, to South America - even into the American West, in 1860, via stagecoach. He wanted to check out Brigham Young and his fellow "Mormons."
I don't know - what is it about explorers and the very idea of wandering off to see the unseen? Some of my fellow INKsters have been bitten by that bug, but not I. Perhaps because I recently illustrated Julie Cummins' book about explorers of the female order - oh baybee, those women! - Louise Arner Boyd of the Artic. Freya Stark, passionate writer of her travels through the Middle East, the Arabian deserts, and into Afghanistan. The Valiant Nellie Cashman of the Canadian wilderness & Tombstone, Arizona.
Indefatigable botanist, Ynes Mexia, who explored the South American wilds. Lucy Evelyn Cheesman, entomologist of the South Pacific. Julie got to write about the mountaineer Annie Smith Peck, the mysterious Alexandrine Tinné, and a few others, but I got to visualize them with my paints & colored pencils, safe at home.
Perhaps because I am a timid sissypants who fears getting lost, who gets very anxious when I have to learn something too far afield - why can't I just KNOW?! Perhaps because my own personal armchair at home is my very favorite place to be, I am fascinated by explorers, but then who wouldn't be? My Eyewitness EXPLORER book is a ragged, 1991 model (this LINK will lead you to a soon-to-be-pub'd new version), well-stuffed with clippings about Steve Fossett and Jean Pierre Blanchard, an 18th century balloonist. My bookshelves bulge with books about explorers. Just this past weekend at a literature festival in Ottawa, KS, I purchased yet another, Christina Taylor Butler's shiny, little Explorers of North America. (Which reminds me, as I write, it's March 17th, 208th birthday of American explorer and Mountain Man, Jim Bridger, whose weary old body was buried not far from here, here in Independence, Missouri.) And I want this one, though the title makes me ill: Explorers Who Got Lost. These, too: The Picture History of Great Explorers.
Into the Unknown: How Great Explorers Found Their Way by Land, Sea, and Air. Explorers. AND, finally, though I'm supposed to confine myself to nonfiction and NOT fantasy (Do I want to be an explorer? Shoot. Me. Now.): So You Want to Be an Explorer, by that smartypants duo, Judith St. George & David Small.
Thank heavens for books and joys of armchair exploration.
Now I'm going to go fix me a cuppa cocoa.

Women Explorers

of notable birthdays. the anniversaries of the births of a pair of 191st anniversary of the

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Visual Storytelling—Part Two

Back in October, I posted about the beginning of my visual storytelling process for my next book, COURAGE HAS NO COLOR. This book is about a group of people who should be as well known as the Tuskegee Airmen, but are fairly unknown. The Triple Nickles were the first black paratroopers in WWII and proved to the military that black men could be paratroopers. Their story is a fascinating and complex one, and tracking down photos for this book has been the hardest of any book I have written. It has taken several years of playing detective and unearthing photos one by one from varied and far-flung sources. Now I am at the other end of the process—not nearly the end, but getting closer. I have inventoried all the photographs I collected and have decided to use, chapter by chapter, and keyed the manuscript with the numbers I assigned them. What does keying mean? It means I go through each chapter and note which image I want to use and the text it should be placed nearest.

Then I go back through my inventory and see if there are photos that matter to me that I haven’t found a place for yet and I take another pass. This may mean replacing one I think has more storytelling potential than something else if I can’t fit them both. It’s a tricky balance as you physically can’t fit too many images on a spread without overwhelming the design—or the designer!
I then go through the next pass for a different visual feature—pull-out quotes. This means I am looking through my own text with an eye toward the reader who will be skimming the pages to get a sense of what this book is about—which lines or quotes do I want to highlight that will lead my reader through the story. Again, there will potentially be more than the designer can fit, so I have to choose with intention and know they won’t all make it in. There will be another pass, and another, and another, so I’ll be able to make changes, but this is the big first important sweep that begins to transform a manuscript into a book.

Meanwhile, my talented designer is working on sample pages with the images I have sent. Is there a font we want to use that will help convey the time of the book, or the emotion in it? How do we make things flow? How will we fit everything in? And, of course, a hundred other design concerns and questions I know nothing about—I will simply get to see what her handiwork and vision produces!

What we are all doing at this stage is looking at the book from a visual perspective. We want to know that we are assisting the readers for that moment when they will inevitably browse through to see if they even want to read this book. Are we making an impact? Is it clear what this book is about? Have we set the right tone? Do they want to turn the page? As we head into this phase of production, it is always astonishing and wonderful to me how many minute details there are to consider, and how much they impact the final product. I’m excited!

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Jan Interviews Jill Evans Petzall

It’s not surprising that as a writer of nonfiction, I also enjoy watching documentaries. I don’t mean the cinema verite variety one often sees on You Tube, where folks perform narcissistic show and tell alls. I’m talking about videos and films that have a story with a beginning middle and an end. They are well researched, entertaining, and present  a consistent point of view. Sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes funny, these documentaries are always thought provoking and believable. With non-fiction books, the same qualities are necessary. But as much as these two art forms – a documentary film and a nonfiction book- have in common, there are major differences.
I decided to sit down with my friend, Jill Evans Petzall, an Emmy award-winning documentary film maker, and explore these similarities and differences. Here is the edited text of our conversation at lunch one day, accompanied by lobster salad and glasses of Chardonnay.
Jan: How did you get into making documentaries?
Jill: It happened by accident. I was raising three children and working on a Ph.D. in Philosophy. I didn’t watch T.V. and I limited their screen time. But I always loved working with language and images and exploring the relationship between the two.
Jan: I remember growing up that you were the artist and I was the writer …but you also wrote poetry. Your husband, Claude, calls you “relentlessly creative”.
Jill: (laughs) Around this same time I decided I didn’t want to be a fulltime academic, which is what a Ph. D means.  I was having an exhibit of my photographs at a gallery. Someone from ABC-Hearst saw it and approached me about doing a video project. This was 1982 and cable television had just burst on the scene.. He’d been commissioned to do inserts of programming, ten pilots of two minute FYI segments on women’s issues. ‘I don’t watch T.V,’ I told him. ‘I don’t know the first thing about it.’
‘I’ll help you,’ he said.
I had already decided to not to pursue the Ph.D, so the timing was right. I didn’t know a thing about film and video production, but because the technologies were so new, I could grow along with them. What I needed, I had. I could write well and see photographically.
Jan: You also had content to draw on, as you read extensively and look at things philosophically.
Jill: Another coincidence happened. My boss from ABC-Hearst ran into local St, Louis newscaster Karen Foss and asked her to be the anchor (on-air-talent) for our short  programs. At that moment she was on a hiatus from anchoring her news show at the NBC affiliate. She looked at my scripts, loved them, and said yes.
At the same time Channel 9 public television was putting together a TV magazine. TV abounds with programs like this now, but at the time this was unusual, especially for public programming. They asked Karen to do five pilots on St. Louis artists over 5 months. She asked to bring me along. Karen would meet me early in the mornings at the TV station and teach me how to edit and essentially how it all worked.
Jan: Karen sounds like a wonderful mentor. What were some of the things she taught you?
Jill: For example, I learned about putting a story in a limited time frame in five to eight minute segments; here’s where story-telling in the media differs from story telling in print. Media story-telling occupies given amounts of time in the same way that  print story-telling occupies a given number of pages of text. That’s why it’s sometimes called ‘real-time media’.  So when you are given 1500 words for a story, in my field, I need to contain my story to a limited amount of minutes, which comes downs to frames per second on-screen.
And when someone is speaking on screen, you can’t speed-rush the time they take to say what they mean. If you were quoting them, either you can condense or paraphrase their words; in real-time media, you must electronically edit their sound bite and still do justice to their thoughts, their cadences, and word choices. Then you need to find other, related images to visually ‘cover’ where you spliced together what they said, or else it looks strange on TV. It’s always about the relationships between the sound and the image, the meanings in the words and the messages in the pictures – and how these inform one another
Jan: What do you think are some other differences between writing non-fiction and making a documentary film?
Jill: “In writing you can make magic happen anytime, if you write with authenticity, A writer crafts the words and the reader understands this. But in video, the viewer expects a carbon copy of reality. Some of this is an illusion as people forget about editing, (especially if the editing is done well), and when it is, people forget that the film maker has a distinct point of view. Even in a documentary film, the filmmaker is still creating an artificial world out of real sounds and images from the real world. The filmmaker selects what to shoot, what to ask, what to include in the final and what to leave on the cutting-room floor. The documentary ‘reality’ part is still an illusion of condensing time by framing the image and editing the moments. Ideally, it should all feel like a motivated, dramatic necessity. But this is always the filmmaker’s vision.
·                            Jan: Like writing nonfiction, the film maker chooses the important anecdotes. Tell me about “When the Bough Breaks: Children of Mothers in Prison,” which won an Emmy and is now part of permanent collections in libraries all over the country, used in schools and film workshop. It is the story of women in prison and the children they leave behind. You asked the controversial question, "Should nonviolent, female offenders be kept in prison? I know you did years of research.
Jill: It took four years to complete the documentary. By the time I began to interview people on tape, I went in with a list of questions that had been carefully put together after two years of off-camera interviews and tons of other research.
Sometimes it takes a long time to get to the defining anecdote. In writing an essay, you can use back notes. Not in film. It needs to be spoken by the character while the camera is rolling and the mike is pointed in the right direction.
Jan: In a book, you use language, words on the page, to describe emotions. Vocal inflections and gestures need to be described through dialogue, action and sensory language. 
Jill: The good news is that you can catch facial expressions visually, but, unlike writing text on a page, you  can’t control your character’s vocal inflections. So it has to be a soundbite that takes its own time. Then this footage has to be edited down into a coherent scene, visuals and all, not just talking heads. And when the audience is watching, the story needs to have given them everything they need to know to arrive at that anecdote in the documentary. Because they can’t go back through pages of a book to recall the character’s name, they have to remember who is speaking and why it’s important just then.
Jan: But like in a nonfiction book, you have to build suspense and provide an element of surprise.
Jill: For months & months before, I hung out with the families and monthly went to the prison to see the Moms. Before I interviewed the kids, I needed both them and their caretakers (foster parents, real fathers, step moms) to trust me. I wanted to be constant, ordinary person - who was also special to them. For factual research, I mostly talked to the Moms and Dads – or foster parents or other kin - about the children. If I hear too much from the kids themselves before I ask them questions on film, then their answers when the camera is rolling get stale. No one tells their own story to the same person the same way twice. So I wait to ask kids the important questions for the filming. Kids and especially their mothers are not used to be taken seriously but the filmmaking setting makes them feel more important. I wanted them to feel surprised about how well they did. They got to learn this when they finally saw the edited documentary.
Jan: As a writer, videographer, and video artist, who has been vitally interested in women’s issues throughout your career, can you share what you think is the most important message, you can give to your audience?
Jill: It seems we are all imprisoned by expectations we have learned over the years of watching television and dramatic fiction films. The mass media in our everyday world has become the dominant story-teller around the globe. Electronic technologies stretch across barriers of language, class, race, and literacy. And then, media stories are absorbed into our real-life relationships. We believe that the authority of TV brings us what is. But I think it mostly teaches us to want what is considered sexy at the moment.
Usually, we are trapped into expecting stories about heroes, about men, about men who do or do not romance a woman; about women whose happiness depends on being chosen for romance by the man. Mostly we are taught to expect men who are strong and women who are needy; men who are providers and women who need to be saved. Everyone is taught to prize the dramatic tensions that please white men and make white men look good. So how easily what we are taught to want on TV is real-life distortion, what seems spectacular but without artistic surprises.
Yet, sometimes there are dramas where women challenge those norms. Here’s where we can see what might be, not what is. This is when the audience can be given important surprises, as Monk would say. For outside of the art of story telling (whether in music or fiction or documentary), in real everyday life, the lives lived outside our peripheral awareness are never so simple, with easy-to-recognize good guys and bad guys.  
We live in a real world where people cope in all kinds of ways, but most of their realities aren’t marketed as being plot-worthy for prime-time.  And sadly, mostly these realities are lived by women whose voices are not heard, who are not beautiful, nor sexy, nor stereotypically empowered. Still they have important things we can learn – about worlds that surprise us, and about making our culture into a more empathic, fair-minded society. These are the stories I like to find, to tell, and to show in real time.
Here is a link to learn more about Jill’s work.