Thursday, November 29, 2012

Top Reasons to Buy a Great Nonfiction Book for a Kid on Your List

(with tips below on how to make a great match)

With gift-giving holidays just around the corner, here’s an idea for that hard-to-buy-for kid on your list. How about a great nonfiction book? Here’s why this gift can be a real winner:

* It shows you know the child and his or her interests and passions. Animal lover? Football fanatic? Astronomy obsessed? You can really tailor the gift to the child’s passion.

* You’ll probably be buying a book the child doesn’t already have. Narrative nonfiction and other interesting nonfiction for kids are the best-kept book secrets around.  They can be as gripping and absorbing as fiction but rarely get the same buzz. So it’s less likely that the child already has the book.

* You’ll have something to talk about, especially if you read the book, too. Books are a great way to connect with kids. And the book will give you a chance to connect over something you know the child cares about. Maybe you could even read it aloud together. Now that would be a meaningful gift.

* If the book is interesting nonfiction, the child will be entertained while also learning something. It’s kind of what we want in all our relationships, isn’t it? We want people to like us, enjoy us, but also learn and grow from us. Great nonfiction books offer that great mix, too.

So HOW to pick the right book?

* Start with subject. If you don’t already know what interests the child, ask his or her parent.

* Scan award winners and “best of” lists for the best books on that subject area. Some good lists are:
Kirkus has released its best of 2012 list:
As has School Library Journal:
The ALA’s Sibert Medal (like the Newbery or Caldecott for nonfiction),
Orbis Pictus Award for Outstanding Nonfiction for Children
Outstanding Science Trade Books for Students K-12
Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Children
For you visual-types, here’s a good pinterest site with some recent outstanding nonfiction titles:

* Match the book to the child’s age and reading level. (One caveat. Many kids I know will read slightly above their age and reading level if they are really passionate about a topic.)

* Give more than one. Can chose between two? Get them both. Maybe one is slightly more difficult than the other. Or covers a different part of the story. If a child loves one, they will probably like them both. (If you don’t want to give two at once, save one for the next birthday.)

* If a child already reads, loves and enjoys nonfiction, hand them something on a different subject than what they usually read. The best nonfiction writing will hook readers in topics that they never knew they would find interesting

* Pair the book with something fun. A stuffed lizard.  A “build your own robot kit.” A historical wig.

* If you have the time (everyone sitting around stuffed after a big holiday dinner) offer to read the
book (if it’s short) or the first chapter (for a longer book) aloud to the child. Everyone loves to be read to. And it could get them hooked.

Happy Holidays!

Elizabeth Rusch

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

When Day Is Done

When I’ve finished work for the day – writing or reading or driving home from a library or marking page proofs or answering emails or …… I do other stuff: hike the Santa Monica Mountainscycle around town, sing, cook, eat, and go to plays and movies and such.

The last few months I’ve gone to a load of plays all over Los Angeles.  We’ve got a lot of actors hanging out here, and after their shifts at Le CafĂ© du Jour, some of them do live theater. The other night I saw, or rather didn’t see, Theatre in the Dark -- ninety minutes of listening in a pitch black theatre. with voices coming from all parts of the theatre.

Then there are the small companies who are helping me complete my life-goal of seeing all Will S’s work on stage

However I have a special love for books, plays, or films about an artist’s creative process. How s/he drags that faint idea into a finished book/play/film. Three recent ones come to mind. Seminar  made me glad I didn’t do an MFA program in writing literary fiction for adults.  It’s a romp for Jeff Goldblum, but has its moments that ring true for all writers. For instance, however resigned we are to rejection and open to critique, a part of us always wants to hear, "It's perfect!" not "It needs a lot of work."

I saw King Vidor’s Show People, a 1928 silent film a few weeks ago. Similar plot to The Artist , but, IMHO, a better movie. It was contemporary: the old cameras, lights, etc. weren’t created in the studio’s prop shop and the writing is a lot tighter.  Marion Davies is fabulous. What I, as a writer, took from this – besides a big crush on Billy Haines -- was the conviction to keep doing what I’m best at.

Last weekend I saw Hitchcock,  and though it’s gotten mixed reviews, I loved it. One of the friends I went with wanted a biopic from childhood, but for me the story of the genesis of one film, Psycho, was just right: the way a project takes over your life, including your dreams (and nightmares.) The way your characters talk to you, as you try to bring the story to life, the havoc  creative obsession can wreak in one's life. While mine has never reached Hitch's fever pitch, I get it.

As for Theatre in the Dark – it reminded me to read my stuff out loud. Even if my readers never do that, the sounds of our words echo inside their heads. Not all my extra-curricular activities feed my writing, and that's OK. But it’s lovely when they do. 

Monday, November 26, 2012

Googol On!

I had just given an evening program for families at a school in Berkeley when a parent named Steven Birenbaum came up to tell me something remarkable. During the presentation I had introduced my book G Is for Googol: A Math Alphabet Book by projecting this inequality on the screen. (The slashed equal sign means "does not equal.")

No one who has tapped a computer keyboard in the past ten years needs an explanation of the word on the right. The less-known word on the left is the name for the number one followed by one hundred zeros and it appears in the title of my book. Googol, the number, is of enduring interest to myself, to many children and adults who love thinking about big numbers, and to Steven Birenbaum. He is the great-great nephew of Edward Kassner, the mathematician in the story I had told about how this un-numberlike name had been invented:

"A mathematician wrote a one with a hundred zeros after it and showed it to his nine-year old nephew. 'What do you think we should call this number?' he said. The nephew thought a minute and said, 'Googol!" I have no idea why the mathematician asked the question or why the boy answered the way he did, but his name stuck and ever since then we've called this giant number 'googol.'" 

After speaking with Mr. Birenbaum I now know why the storied mathematician was seeking a fanciful name for this enormous number and I have a pretty good idea of why the winning name was "googol."

The mathematician was Edward Kasner, who taught at Columbia University for 39 years during the first half of the 20th Century. He was looking for a striking way to make a point about all whole numbers, no matter how large, because he had been irked by the way people (even scientists) used the words "infinite" and "infinitely" as synonyms for "enormous" or "numerous." In a published lecture, Kasner observed ruefully that people commonly said things like, "It is so large that it is infinite."

Kasner wanted the world to know that no matter how large something may be, "large" cannot mean infinite!

I am reminded of my sixth grade teacher who said, "Tell me any number and I'll tell you one bigger." Whatever number we proffered, he just appended "and one" to it, and he had a bigger number. If you thought the biggest number was "gazillion," he would ask, "What about gazillion and one?" His point was that there is no such thing as the biggest number. Infinity, on the other hand, is not countable and is not a number. As I sometimes tell upper elementary kids in presentations, "Infinity is not a number but numbers are infinite."

Back to Kasner. He wanted an easily-remembered monicker for a gigantic number so he could talk about it. He presented the challenge of naming it to his two young nephews Milton and Edwin Sirotta during a walk in Palisades Park, near Manhattan. As the story goes, Milton blurted out "Googol!"

A few years ago, when the internet company Google* was holding its initial public stock offering, the Wall Street Journal ran a profile of Kasner by Carl Bialik. (You can read it here.) From the article I learned that some of Kasner's living relatives believe that the two brothers should be given equal credit for a collaborative effort. (A number that big can stand to have two namers, I guess.) Denise Sirotta, daughter of Edwin, not only makes that case based on family lore, but she sheds light on the question of why "googol"? She says her father told her that Kasner wanted "a word with a sound that had a lot of O's in it."

Think about it: "googol." Not only is the sound rich with O's but so is the look. Notice those letters. Every one of them except the "l" has an "O" in it (yep, even the "g's").

So, thanks to the serendipity of my encounter with Steven Birenbaum, both of my public musings earlier in the evening—why did Kasner want a name for this basically useless number and why did the boy(s) say "googol"?— have been answered.

I have to mention one other thing about Kasner, which I learned from the Wall Street Journal article. The mathematician never had children but he was adored by his nieces and nephews. It is said that on a walk with some of them in the Palisades, the party encountered tea kettles and matches that he had hidden under rocks and teabags that he had hung from trees. They stopped to make tea!

No wonder Kasner was described by Time magazine in 1940 as a mathematician who was "distinguished but whimsical." What a noble combination!

Googol on!

* Google, the company, is said to have derived its name from "googol," as an implicit reference to the enormous amount of information on the internet. Whether of not the founders changed the spelling deliberately or mistakenly is an open question. But there is no question that the company's headquarter complex is named for another number that the Sirotta boy or boys named: The Googleplex. A googolplex (note the spelling) is a one followed by a googol zeros. Try writing them all.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Back to Reality

At the NBA dinner: "Who are you again?"
Last week was kind of surreal—three amazing days in New York City, doing National Book Award-related events. I walked around much of the time with this huge medal around my neck (they said we had to wear it—really!), read on stage with some serious literary heavy hitters, even walked a red carpet (a very short one) at the super-fancy black tie awards dinner. Okay, it was mildly deflating when photographers asked, “Now, who are you?” (which I noticed they didn’t do to Dave Eggers). But still, an unforgettable experience.

Driving home early the next morning, with two screaming kids in the back seat, that’s when reality began to reassert itself. I guess the good news is, when your job is to research and write nonfiction, reality is a pretty good place to be. At least, it’s filled with stories as wild and incredible as anything any novelist could invent.
Due out in Jan. 2013, Scholastic

 My next book, aimed a bit younger than Bomb, will be Lincoln’s Grave Robbers, a true crime thriller about a bunch of Midwest counterfeiters who decide it would be a good idea to steal Abraham Lincoln’s corpse. This was eleven years after Lincoln’s death, and the gang was desperate to get their best engraver out of the state pen. Their plan: bust into Lincoln’s tomb in Springfield, steal the body, stash it under a bridge, and refuse to give it back unless the government lets their partner out of jail. And the most amazing thing of all is how close this crazy-sounding scheme came to working.

Would you trust these men? (Hint: they're grave robbers)
On top of the priceless plot, what makes this story great from a writer’s point of view is that the sources are so rich. The top Secret Service agent in Chicago discovered the plot from an informer, and wrote daily reports on the case to his boss in Washington, D.C. (the boss didn’t believe a word of it). And the caretaker of Lincoln Monument, a man who dedicated his life to protecting this sacred place, saw the crime up-close and later wrote a detailed memoir about it. There was even a Chicago Tribune reporter lurking around the monument the night of the attempted theft—he’d been tipped off that something big was going to happen, and was able to write an eye-witness account of the showdown between cops and robbers.

This is one of those stories you just love telling kids. One of the events last week was a “teen press conference” at the Brooklyn Public Library, where students got to ask the five finalists questions about our books and writing process. I was the one nonfiction guy up there with four fantastic novelists, but the students were every bit as intrigued by true tales of atomic espionage and grave robbing as they were by fictional plots!

A good reminder that in this line of work, getting back to reality is not such a bad thing. 

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

What Happens In Vegas....

When you read this, I will be in Las Vegas. I've kind of always wanted to go to Vegas. Even after seeing the movie LOST IN AMERICA. Maybe especially after seeing that movie.

My husband, on the other, hand has not wanted to go to Las Vegas or more importantly, for me to go to Las Vegas. This may or may not have to do with the time he had to drag me away from a slot machine in Atlantic City after I won $13.00. Which was not long after we saw the movie and the words "nest egg" kept reverberating in his mind. Have you seen the movie? You should. It's Albert Brooks at his best, and Julie Hagerty, well. Take a look at the trailer, and then come back.

Right? It's really funny. But. I'm not going to Las Vegas to gamble (keep in mind I'm writing this on Friday in the comfort and safety of my own home). I'm going to the ALAN part of the NCTE conference. I'm thrilled to be part of it, honestly, not because it's in Las Vegas but because English teachers are some of my favorite people. Hi, Mrs. Thomas! Hi, Dr. Egolf (two of my high school  English teachers).

I'm curious to hear if there will be any discussion in that set about the Common Core. I wonder if there are any English teachers who read I.N.K. who would be willing to comment about whether you and your colleagues will be using more nonfiction in your classrooms. One of my editors yesterday told me that a huge part of the Core is learning about point of view. That can be done in really interesting ways in nonfiction, can't it?

I'm really looking forward to my panel. On Tuesday afternoon (maybe while you're reading this)  I'll be talking to teachers with the great Francisco Stork about "The Last Taboo in YA--Religion." I'll be talking about Charles and Emma: The Darwins' Leap of Faith, my YA about the Darwins' marriage of religion and science, and my new novel, Intentions, about Rachel, whose struggle with her faith is precipitated by her idol, her rabbi, crashing down off his pedestal in a most spectacular fashion. Intentions was recently listed in Booklist as one of this year's top ten books for youth with religious and spiritual themes. Here is the list. Notice there are both fiction and nonfiction titles.

Francisco and I have been compiling a list of YA books with religious and spiritual themes. Check on my website soon for the list, which we hope people will add to.

Monday, November 19, 2012

The Tragic, the True, and the Weird

So, this being the 149th anniversary of the day when a beleaguered president spoke briefly to folks assembled at "a great battlefield of" that ghastly, pestilential war that was currently shredding the nation and nerves of its people, I ought to be writing about Lincoln today. And about how stunningly he was portrayed in a certain film which I saw Saturday morning. Or maybe I could be  quibbling about said film: General Grant's clean boots and uniform at Appomattox – [No! Burst my bubble, why doncha, Mr. Spielberg! I'm sitting there thinking: Everyone knows Grant was head-to-toe muddy that day from the battlefield!  then 'Get over yourself – It's a movie, not a term paper. Sheesh.]  And the stalwart Mrs. Keckley – would Mrs. Lincoln's African American dressmaker and confidante have been seated next to the First Lady?  at the US Senate? in 1865? 
        But, anyway, anyway, I'm not writing about the wily & charming Man of Sorrows today. [For a fine discussion, though, of the historical aspects of the Film, there's a fine essay HERE.]  Or the fact that today marks the 269th anniversary of the birth of frontier soldier, George Rogers Clarkas rugged & then some as his kid brother William, the explorer.
       Or that James A. Garfield, US President No. 20, would have been 181 years old today if still another assassin hadn't shot him and his doctors had had a working knowledge of soap and germ theory. 
       Or that Teddy Roosevelt's youngest son Quentin, came into the world on this day in 1897, only to leave it twenty years later, a casualty of the air war over the Western Front. 
        Nope, not writing about any of that. Instead I wanted to tell you about hauling my sleep-deprived self out of bed way too early last Friday morning to go talk to some of the Missouri teachers attending their association's annual conference in Kansas City. Lucky for them, coming to MY session because they were informed to a fare-thee-well about our blog and about I.N.K., thanks to Vicki Cobb, bless her, sending me a pile o' pretty blue iNK Think Tank postcards. They rode in the heavy suitcase along with a thick stack of nonfiction picture books, including Jim Murphy's Blizzard, and Vicki Cobb's Open Your Eyes.    These the teachers looked at [along with my handout sheet, introducing them to I.N.K. authors & their books ] and passed around while I gassed away at them about historical literacy [an excellent essay about that HERE. and about the uses of trade nonfiction books in the classroom [a far out essay about THAT HERE].  And most of all, I talked with them about the virtues of knowing history, despite the fact that some blockhead educational planners appear to deem such knowledge to be less important than math, reading, and writing, can you believe it? After all, what are people to read and write about; how are citizens to think and feel about their nation without a knowledge of what has been done before? The reasons decisions were made, actions were taken? By whom?  To what ends? 
        After all history is no mere catalogue of factoids – although, let me tell you that I've been working on an historical Weird But True book for the National Geographic and I'm not suffering from a want of human weirdness. I mean, don't you love knowing that the fashionistas of medieval Japan painted their teeth black?  That Hannibal of ancient Carthage snake-bombed his enemies with pots full of poisonous reptiles?  That in 1415, when the Chinese emperor was confronted with his first sight of an African giraffe, he and his wise men identified it as a unicorn? 
        Anyway, anyway, history's more than a roster of battles and dead people's birthdays. It's the saga of human behavior, your basic cockeyed caravan of role models and cautionary tales. It's EVERYTHING, all that we have said and dared to do. It's a "guide to navigation in perilous times," so said David McCullough. "History is who we are and why we are the way we are."
      And it's a boatload of stories:  Of TR whispering "Poor Quinnikins," on hearing that his youngest had been shot down behind enemy lines in the summer of 1918. That the old lion of an ex-president/soldier/explorer died not long after of hard living and a broken heart. Of his old political enemy, big-bellied Wm. Howard Taft, weeping in the cold by TR's grave. 
       Of James A. Garfield surviving a fatherless, poverty-stricken childhood to become a college president by the time he was 26 years old. 
       Of Colonel George Rogers Clark leading his half-starved Kentucky "Long Knives" through chest-deep icy water, on their Kaskaskia>Vincennes campaign, 1778-79.
         Excellent movie fodder, Mr. Spielberg. 

Friday, November 16, 2012

Painting and Writing Interesting Nonfiction for Kids

I love “By the Book”, a semi-new section of the Sunday New York Times Book Review. Each week, a different author shares his or her favorite books, the books on their nightstand, who they’d like to eat a meal with, and various questions on writing ~ and each week, I manage to glean a few useful gems from each author.
The author profiled last weekend was Orhan Pamuk; author of “The Innocence of Objects” and “Silent House”. What caught my attention was the interview question: “How has your training as a painter informed the way you write and read your books?” When I read that, I knew I struck gold!
Orhan’s response: “As I wrote in my autobiographical book, “Istanbul”, and now in “The Innocence of Objects”, I was raised to be a painter. But when I was 23-years-old, one mysterious screw got loose in my head and I switched to writing novels. I still enjoy the pleasures of painting. I am a happier person when I paint, but I feel that I am engaged more deeply with the world when I write. Yes, painting and literature are “sister arts” and I taught a class about it at Columbia.”

Orhan points out the five things that the painter in him taught the writer in him:

  1. Don’t start to write before you have a strong sense of the whole composition, unless you are writing a lyrical text or a poem. 
  2. Don’t search for perfection and symmetry --- it will kill the life of the work. 
  3. Obey the rules of point of view and perspective and see the world through your characters’ eyes --- but it is permissible to break this rule with inventiveness. 
  4. Like Van Gogh or the neo-Expressionist painters, show your brushstrokes! The reader will enjoy observing the making of the novel if it is made a minor part of the story. 
  5. Try to identify the accidental beauty where neither the mind conceived of nor the hand intended any. The writer in me and the painter in me are getting to be friendlier every day. That’s why I am now planning novels with pictures and picture books with texts and stories. 
Read more of the interview here.

Now, tell me that you didn’t grab an inspirational gem from that.
While writing my manuscript the past year, I’ve been aching to paint. I even have a board on my Pinterest page titled “Things that make me want to paint”. If I look it from Orhan’s perspective, I shouldn’t be berating myself for not painting… on canvas --- guess I was painting on Word.

Later in the day last Sunday, I watched part two of the David McCullough interview with Morley Safer on 60-Minutes. Truth be told, I have a little author crush on David. The Great Bridge helped me immensely while writing my Emily Roebling chapter. Turns out David originally started studying painting in college. He even drew a picture of Another gem!
The book "The Writer's Brush: Paintings, Drawings, and Sculpture by Writers", written by Donald Friedman, is filled with many paintings by our favorite writers, but I had never made that writing/painting connection that Orhan pointed out. So, now that my manuscript has been sent in and another looms in the future, I think I will try to switch to some canvas work. Question is: acrylic or oil?

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Why Do History Books Win So Many Awards?

While I was presenting at a recent conference, I tossed out a question I’ve been thinking about for a long time: Why don’t science titles seem to win the BIG awards in children’s literature as often as social studies titles? It led to an interesting discussion, so I thought INK readers might like to join the conversation.
Since I’m a scientist, here’s my data. I tallied Newbery and Caldecott winners since 1995. The Sibert was created in 2001, so I tallied the winners since its inception.


Newbery Honor

I have to admit that when I’ve read through these lists in the past, I came away with the impression that history titles had science books beat hands down. But a closer look shows that history is only the clear leader among Newbery Honors. Biographies are the big winners overall with a total score of 37 (8 medalists, 29 honors). While history (22 overall) and STEM (12 overall) trail behind.

Next, I took a closer look at the people featured in the biographies. It turns out that 23 are key historical figures, and 8 are scientists. The rest are visual artists or musicians.

Combining all these figures, the totals work out to 45 winning history titles and 20 winning science books. In other words, history titles win the big awards more than twice as often as science titles. Why is that?

Frankly, I don’t have an answer, so I’d love to hear any thoughts you have.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Connecting to Nature's Rhythms

Jim Murphy's recent post connected us to the familiar and mundane aspects of our daily lives, those frustrating moments that can crush our creativity.  When we can get away from our routines and experience something different, our creativity can be inspired and renewed.

This Saturday, my husband and I traveled from our home in Missoula, MT, where the temperature was 19 degrees, through Salt Lake City, where the snow fell fast enough to delay our flight by 1 1/2 hours, through sunny LA and on to the Garden Isle of Kauai'i, where it rarely gets below 75 degrees or over 84.  Jeans are traded in for shorts and shoes for sandals.  The phone doesn't ring, and meals become simple.  The seashore calls, and the warm breeze welcomes.  Nature is up close and personal.

The natural world is both my personal beat and my professional one, so I really 'dig' this place.  I believe that when we are close to nature we are closer to our fundamental, creative selves.  On this island, residents and tourists alike are drawn to the natural rhythms of sun and sea, moon and tide.  Every evening, people flock to the sea wall on the west side of the island in hopes of seeing a great sunset.

 And when the full moon rises out of the ocean, families and neighbors gather in the park to watch as the moon spreads its silver mantle over the dancing waves.  No wonder this island is home to many artists and writers.

I don't write about Hawai'i, but I do renew my creative batteries here, not only because of the closeness of nature, but also because being here brings a shift in my daily life, and being jogged out of our routines helps nudge our creativity.  At home in Montana, summer days stretch on deep into what is black night in Hawaii, and winter days end while the tropical sun is still shining.  Here in Hawaii, the record high and low temperatures throughout the year don't vary as much as they do over a normal 24 hour span at home.  Everything is different, and the differences bring about a shift in my being.  I do work here--one of the perks of being a writer is that you can carry out your craft wherever you are--but I try to keep that to a minimum.  I want those batteries to be chock full of creative energy when I return to the deep, dark cold of winter, when writing is the one thing I can do, no matter what nature has to offer my spirit.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Pardon My Rant

Our toaster died a couple of weeks ago.  The event did not make it into the New York Times, but it was still newsworthy in our house.  Being toastless for two days is no laughing matter around here and besides that toaster was only 14 months old (and, of course, just out of warranty).

RANT #1:  Why can't anyone make a toaster (or other small appliance) that lasts longer than a large box of preservative loaded cereal?  I was once in an antique shop that had a shelf of old toasters, all of which worked.  One was from the 1920s called the E-Z Turn Toaster (weighing in at 5 lbs., it was nickel plated and flipped the bread to toast the other side whenever the door was opened).   There were also a bunch of Sunbeam toasters from the 30s and one by McGraw Electric from 1934 simply named the Toastmaster.  I mean, it can't be all that difficult to engineer more life into modern kitchen appliances.

Okay, so Alison went out and bought us a new toaster.  It was the Cuisinart Metal Classic 2-Slice Toaster # CPT-160.  I kid you not.  Oh, and it came with a 7 page instruction booklet!

RANT #2:  Did whoever gave this such a long, clumsy sounding name really think it would impress potential buyers?  Now, I have nothing against using the company name Cuisinart.  Or the word Toaster.  But why stick in "Metal."  I mean, do they have a plastic line of toasters I don't know about.  And "Classic."   One dictionary definition of a classic is: "Having lasting significance or recognized worth," but we all know this thing we have is built to burn out before my next birthday.  And I love adding "2-Slice."  The picture on the box and on the instruction booklet show very clearly that the toaster has...oh, let me count to be sure...yes, TWO SLOTS FOR TWO SLICES OF TOAST!  And the toaster inside confirms this.  I was worried there for a second.

RANT #3:  A 7 page instruction booklet!  Oh, come on!  Is this even remotely necessary?  Here are some of the gems of wisdom provided:  "Unwind power cord...Plug power cord into the wall outlet"  "Insert slice(s) of bread"  "To Begin Toasting.  Press the carriage bar lever until it locks into the down position"  "Always allow the toaster to cool completely before cleaning."  And guess what's on p.7.  It's an entire page for your NOTES.  Yes, 21 lines so you can jot down some of the important tips on toaster operation that you might forget overnight. 

This booklet is an example of everyday nonfiction and it is exactly the sort of lifeless, deadly, and heavy prose that turns off both adults and kids.  Hopefully, the changes in the Common Core State Standards will make kids in the future more demanding and maybe they can get companies to change the way they address customers.  Better yet, maybe some classes could rewrite booklets like this as an assignment on how to write for humans.

I'm not holding my breath on that last idea, so here's my suggestion to Cuisinart when they decide to revise the instruction booklet.  No. 1: name this the Cuisinart Toaster.  If you must, stick the CPT-160 on, too, since it sounds official.  No. 2: the cover can have that nice photo of the toaster on it, and you could even label the parts we see, such as the "cancel" button, etc.  There must be someone who sees the word cancel and doesn't understand what the button is for, right?  This would eliminate repeating all of this on p. 3, plus it would do away with such numbing text as "Extra-Lift Carriage Control Lever: Brings the toast close to the top of the toaster, making it easy to remove the smallest items."  Items?  I get "items of jewelry" and "items of interest," but "items of bread, bagels, and English Muffins" doesn't compute.  No.3: my recommendation for the interior copy.  Direct and to the point is best.  The instructions should be 1 page only.  When the happy buyer turns over the page with the handsome toaster potrait on it, he or she should be greeted with "If you really need an instruction manual to operate this or any toaster, please proceed immediately to your local police station and surrender your driver's license."  It's okay if Cuisinart wants to stick the warranty information under this, but, please, please, please, cut it back from its current 26 lines.

I feel much better now.  I have a very Lewis Black-like glow about me.

Feel free to comment with a rant of your own, be it about nonfiction for kids, about something that annoyed you recently, or even about someone taking up valuable INK blog space for a toaster rant.  I promise to do better in the future.  P.S. Humor is an important part of any book for kids.             

Monday, November 12, 2012

Two Kinds of Marriage

Me with Zach (not Mike!)
On October 28th, I married Zach Klein, a man I've lived with for about 34 years.  Many of our nearest and dearest came to celebrate with us, including my buddy and bookmaking partner Mike Doolittle.  Over the years, I'd joke that I had spent more time traveling around to hotels with Mike than any other man except for Zach.  It is doubtless true.  

Mike's wedding toast touched my heart.  But upon reading the copy he gave me afterwards, it struck me that it is also a wonderful tribute to the joys of having a good working partnership and a close collaborator.  I know that my fellow INK blogger Jan Greenberg has had one for years as well.  I hope others of you have been so lucky, be it with another author, illustrator or editor--and even for a book or two.  It's a special experience.   

Anyway, indulge me, here is Mike's toast:  

I've listened to all these great things about Zach and Susan and it occurred to me that my relationship with them, and particularly Susan, highlights a different side that hasn't been talked about. My name is Michael Doolittle and I have collaborated with Susan since the early 1990's on 14 books. I take the pictures, she does the words. I actually thought about asking her to write this, since that's her thing, but it didn't seem quite fair.

I met Susan around 1991 in Peru at a rainforest workshop where guests paid money to tromp around the forest learning about the plants and animals. Susan was doing a story for National Geographic Traveler and I had just finished the designing and building of a rainforest canopy walkway near the place we were staying. She was supposed to take some pictures for her story, but quickly realized this was a tough place to work. Some of the first words she said to me were something like, "This place is a f**king nightmare for photographing, why don't you take pictures for the story?"

We kept in touch and the next year proposed our first book on middle school students exploring the rainforest, which became Ultimate Field Trip 1, the first of a series on educational field trips for Atheneum. Collaborating is a little like marriage, which is why our lasting collaboration is very unusual. 

So why does it work? To me, it's because we quickly realized that by working together, we did a much better job than we could have done on our own. Susan found stuff out, and I remembered it for her. I did any math that was required and ate all her leftover carbs. We bounced ideas off of each other for several days, made the kids comfortable with us by being adults, but not chaperones. Eventually an outline would emerge, ideas for chapters would fall into place, and we would crank out the book in the last couple of days--at least my part of it, the photography, something Susan would frequently complained about, especially after we'd get back home. By the fifth and last field trip book, we didn't even need a well organized program--we'd just take what was there and turn it into the kind of program it should have been. 

And Susan knew me well enough to know that when I saw what I wanted, I'd just do it. So when I jumped off of the walkway and strapped my camera onto a tree to take the right picture, clambered around on a ledge to highlight an Anasazi ruin, or moved out onto a steel beam 800 feet above Broadway, she could say to worried kids and onlookers, "Oh, it's fine, he never falls..."

You wouldn't know it to look at her in that beautiful dress, but Susan is a great field person. She's up for anything, and has a sense of curiosity and interest in the lives of others that makes her a great writer and interviewer. We've been dumped on by tropical rains, bitten by raging insects in Peru and the Bay of Fundy, and buffeted by such strong winds at the very top of an unfinished skyscraper, an experience that had me thinking for the first time that maybe I was out of my mind. We've rumbled along in military vehicles repurposed to carry elk feed in the bitter Wyoming cold (although Susan was warmer in the heated cab), explored the inky black rainforest nights with flashlights looking for insects and snakes, and felt what it was like to land in a military cargo plane and slide on runners instead of rolling on wheels until we were dropped off on a mile-thick ice sheet with a cold weather survival bag and told that they'd pick us up in a couple of hours "if the weather held."

To me, this collaboration has been the highlight of my professional career. She's everything a partner should be-- great writer, unique mixture of irreverent and professional, sometimes raunchy, and always ready to laugh at something. I will never look at ostriches the same way, or listen to Tina Turner without thinking of the Amazon.

One great bonus to me for the first 8 or 9 books was that I shot them on slide film. So once we came back and she had actually outlined the thing, I'd head up to Susan's house to edit pictures and mentally layout the book. So I got to know Zach and Jake. It's not as much fun now that we do everything online.

As for the wedding, I can't add much to what's been said already. Normally at a wedding, lots of folks wonder to themselves "What are these kids thinking? Don't they know how hard it is to stay married?" I was married at 26, and, looking back, have no idea what I was thinking. In yet another example of doing things their own way, Susan and Zach have reversed conventions, and only got married after they knew that they live in a relationship that exemplifies what a marriage is supposed to be-- the whole is greater than each part.