Friday, March 29, 2013

Dibs on This One (As If Anyone Else Would Want It)

    It happened a few years ago, and I haven't been able to let go of it since.  My friend Janet asked me over to meet her niece, Robin M. Bernstein, an anthropologist and a mom and a different-thinker who inspired me with her idea for a book she said I should write. Well, not necessarily me, I guess, but somebody.  She thought it was a terrific topic with rich, deep geographic and anthropologic material to which every child could relate.  The subject, in her view, had a natural fascination to kids, and would provide a service to them and their parents.
   We had an enthusiastic conversation, sparking each other as we told stories from our own lives and experiences, and came up with oodles of juicy ideas for chapters, sidebars, images, and more.  And when we moved on to something else for the good of the other people in the room, I promised to follow up on it.
   But I haven't. I've been busy. Yes, that's true.  And I did follow up, a little. I visited some websites, and browsed around on Wikipedia, and even jotted down a few bullet points. Beyond that, I didn't put anything on paper (or on computer). And yet the idea of a children's book on this subject won't leave me alone. So I'm tossing it out here to see what the community thinks, because I think I want to do it.  I dibs death.
  Death, not love and loss, although those would be there between the lines.  Death, not grief per se. What then?
 Burial Rituals. Religion? (Egad. Do I dare? ) Cemeteries? (I love cemeteries.)  Things people do with people's (and pets'?) ashes.
 Funeral Customs. (Geography. Anthropology. How will I ever limit things, categorize approaches, respectfully focus?)
 Biology. (Oh yes. I'm the one who did a series of experiments on such diverse topics as bugs, crime, families, and garbage in which decomposition somehow -- easily! gracefully! naturally! -- made its way into every volume.)
 Symbolism. You know, the Grim Reaper. (You're warming to this book now, aren't you?) St. Peter at heaven's gate.
 Commerce.  You would not BELIEVE what dying costs. You would? You must know somebody who has died.
  And that's the thing. There has to be a huge market for this book, especially if it's funny. (Not on every page, surely, but there's a lot of comedy in death. Or am I just twisted?)
  I think I've got a book.
  I don't have a title yet.  I could borrow from Taro Gomi (Everybody Poops):  Everybody Dies.
  Or I could do that cute thing where you borrow an adage: Kicking the Bucket.
  Or how about borrowing from the advice juggernaut: What to Expect When. . . 
  I want to do it. I really do. Definite dibs.  But tell me: would anyone want to add this to their shelf? (Besides Robin, Janet, and me?)

Illustration is from the proposed sidebar of adages and pseudonyms for the potentially forthcoming book temporarily titled Death for Kids.  Can you guess the caption for each picture?

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Sticking to It

“Negative results are just what I want. They’re just as valuable to me as positive results. I can never find the thing that does the job best until I find the ones that don’t do.”

I often share these words from Thomas Alva Edison when I visit schools to talk with kids about researching and writing nonfiction. I started doing this about a year ago, when I was asked to do a presentation on my biography of Edison, Inventing the Future. As I reread the book to prepare my talk, I was struck anew by the inventor’s persistence, his doggedness, his stick-to-it-iveness-—the same qualities we need to be good writers.

As I tell students, I usually have to try lots of approaches that don’t work before I find the one that does, try lots of words that aren’t quite right before I find the ones that are. (And by the way, I test-drove and rejected about 5 other topics for this blog before deciding this one worked for me today.)

It would be nice to have sudden strokes of brilliance, but for most of us good writing comes down to working hard. As Tom Edison liked to say, “Sticking to it is the genius.” This attitude helped him earn 1,093 patents for his inventions (a record that stood until 2003, the year after Inventing the Future was published). In his quest to invent a practical long-burning light bulb, he sketched hundreds of different designs and tested more than 1,600 different materials, including the hair from his assistant’s beard.

“Every wrong attempt discarded,” Edison said, “is another step forward.” Yet another maxim for writers to keep in mind as we embark on yet another draft.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Biographers Club in London

Reading INK can lead you down all sorts of roads.  
Marfé Ferguson Delano’s 2011 post  on Biographers International Organization (BIO)  led to my joining the group, and recently in London, took me to Mayfair and the Savile Club......
......for the February meeting of BIO’s UK counterpart, the Biographers Club
Helen Rappoport, British historian and biographer,  spoke on 'The Search for a Subject: New Ways of Looking at Old Stories.' Defining biography as “exploring human lives against a background of human events,” Rappaport presented a lively illustrated talk using her own and others’ works to present novel approaches to writing a life. Most of the following books are British, but are also published in the U.S.

Objects as a Way In
• Paula Byrne has put a new spin on an old subject in her new book, The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things, giving us Austen through everyday objects she lived with: a portrait, a shawl, a barouche (a sort of carriage.) These are the port-keys to personal, social, and even political history that impacted Austen’s life and work.
• The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance by Edmund de Waal, tells his family’s history on two continents over a century, through the lens of their collection of netsuke, small Japanese carvings.

Begin the Story from a Different Perspective
• Rappaport’s No Place for Ladies: The Untold Story of Women in the Crimean War, reflects the author’s penchant to “look at the little people,” in this case, the soldiers’ wives who followed their men to war. She had to describe the war itself – the Big Event – in order to interest a publisher, but she told a new story within that context.

Create a Countdown
To create dramatic tension, structure a biography around a single day, week, month, or year and keep the calendar in focus as the climactic event approaches.
• Rappaport focused on two weeks for Ekaterinburg: The Last Days of the Romanovs, which ends with the murder of the Imperial Russian family.
• James Shapiro’s A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599, recounts nearly daily happenings of that year. I jumped for joy when I discovered this book, just at the time I was writing All the World’s A Stage: A Novel in Five Acts, a middle grade novel about WS & Co., set in that very year.
• The Day Parliament Burned Down, by Caroline Shenton begins at 7am on October 17, 1834 and ends at 6am the following day. Not a biography as such, the book uses the dramatic device of a single day to present a wide picture of contemporary British politics and society.

Private Domestic Life
• In Lenin in Exile, Rappaport wanted to tell the story of the women who traipsed around Europe with Lenin as he plotted the Russian Revolution.  She knew that their stories alone wouldn’t sell the book, so she centered it around Lenin’s activities as she revealed the relationships with his wife, mother-in-law, mother, and mistress.
• Frances Wilson’s The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth, brings to light the Muse of her famous brother. True, it is Dorothy's relationship to a famous man that makes her story publishable, but it is a story worth telling.

True Thrillers and Crimes
• INK’s own Steve Sheinkin has unearthed some thrillers and true crimes to tickle our fancy.  His Bomb:The Race to Build and Steal the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon, the cover of which is littered with well-deserved medals, is a group biography of scientists, spies, and scientist-spies. His latest, Lincoln’s Grave Robbers, promises just as many dastardly villains and cliff-hangers.
• Kate Summerscale's Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace: The Private Diary of the Victorian Lady, describes a divorce trial of an alleged adulteress. (I wonder if Simon and Garfunkel knew about this Mrs. Robinson.) Summerscale couches the scandal in a discussion of Victorian double standards and crackpot theories about women’s sexuality.

Bits and Bobs
Helen Rappaport ended with a quote from Hilary Mantel, double Booker Prize winner for her Thomas Cromwell novels, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies.  I googled the quote and found a whole interview

Mantel says, “Nothing touches me so profoundly as the traces the dead have left; it’s an intellectual fascination but also an emotional pull….I actually like the constraints, enjoy solving the narrative problems that arise when you have strict guidelines of fact....You can’t change the facts of an incident, but you can change its whole feel and meaning by the angle from which you report it.”

Just days later the Guardian newspaper published The Art of Biography is Alive and Well . Press on INKsters!
The March Biographers Club meeting included a delicious lunch at another posh Mayfair venue, Corrigan’s. 
Neil McKenna spoke about his new book, Fanny & Stella: The Young Men Who Shocked Victorian England. Their “crime?” Cross-dressing, but since that wasn’t actually a crime, when they were arrested, the court dredged up the seamier sides of gay Victorian London that "outraged public decency and corrupted public morals." (Spoiler alert: they were acquitted.) 

McKenna sees his subject as larger than the “doom and gloom, crime and criminality” of gay history. He wants to reclaim and reveal the “joyous, happy, effervescent” gay subculture that often created “pretend family relationships” to support a group that was victimized by the establishment. 

This reminded me that however poor and/or oppressed a group may be, they find joy and love in the midst of hardship. In writing their stories, I want to balance their struggles with their comforts and pleasures.

Upcoming CCSS Workshop

The Children's Literature Council of Southern California is holding a workshop called "“Embracing Your Core: Libraries Literature, and the New Common Core State Standards" on May 11, from 9-12 in South Pasadena, California.  Speakers are Roger Sutton, Editor of Horn Book, and Kristin Fontichiaro of the University of Michigan. Click here for more information.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Geographically Speaking

The small and somewhat bizarre selection of non fiction picture books in this area continues to baffle me. There are popular books about the birds of each state and the states as a circus train but there are no outstanding books that tell you what kids really need and want to know.

What would qualify under the want to and need to know category? Well, at first glance practically anything since the majority of kids seem to know next to nothing about geography. Last year I had to threaten a bunch of kids with extra homework if they yelled out, “London” just one more time in response to a question I asked that started with “What country?”

 And yet it’s a subject that in one form or another appeals to many, many kids. For the fact obsessed among us, who love to shout out the name of the biggest state and the lucky travelers who yearn to talk about where they have been and what they ate there.

Given half a chance, many kids also like to mull over an interesting map. Maps are everywhere and with a little nudging they can really appreciate them. They also love to draw them: maps of their bedroom, their neighborhood, and their brains.

What kinds of questions might a valuable geography related book answer? These are some things kids have asked me (for which I’d love some good answers): What’s a state anyway? How did it get to be that shape? What happens in the capital city? What makes this state different than other states and why would I want to visit?

The fact that I recently found a coloring book for 25 cents that does a better job of this than most of the books I’ve searched out in the library speaks volumes about this situation. (The coloring book is called Our United States of America. Coloring and Activity Book and it’s not half bad in terms of giving each state a fact or two and a personality).

I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time trying to find some good books about maps and states and other interesting aspects of geography for the under 12 crowd. I’m still sorting through but I’ve started to build a very small collection of useful material. But I’m still not satisfied and I don’t think kids are either. 

Monday, March 25, 2013

Happy Pi Day!

I am writing this on Pi Day + 10, which = March 24. On this blog three years ago, I wrote about Pi Day, a "holiday" that was cooked up about a quarter-century ago by the Exploratorium in San Francisco. (I live in Oakland, which is across a bridge and through a snarl of traffic from that splendid hands-on/minds-on museum.) I've decided that in honor of Pi Day 2013, I will rerun my earlier post, below.

This year, I've been thinking about Pi Day and some of the school celebrations I've seen, which could better be described as Pie Day. The connection between the irrational number and the circular comestible is fun (and tasty) but when pi becomes a mere garnish to the main course of pie, I have to question the approach. I'm reminded of the kid I know who memorized pi to something like 200 digits to recite for his Bar Mitzvah: an impressive act of memory training but is it math? (I guess he never said it was, so I should hush up before I disturb the congregation.)

Do my doubts make me a fun-challenged curmudgeon? I hope not, because I love some good mathematical fun, especially when I can eat it!  I'm just asking for balance. And I found it in the video link on this page of in which Matt Parker, the numberphile, calculates pi with pies.  (I only hope he found some hungry middle schoolers to devour the leftovers after they had done their geometrical duty.) Of course Matt could just as well have used Frisbees or even rectangular wooden blocks, so long as they were all the same length, but he got into the spirit of Pi(e) Day by using the genuine article to derive the essential meaning of pi. (Well, pretty close.)

So what does this have to do with children's non-fiction? Just wait and you'll find out. I'm writing to my agent today.

Read on for my Pi Day post of March 22, 2010. (My posting date on the INK blog is the fourth Monday of the month, which is why I am doomed to miss Pi Day by about a week and a half.)

In case you missed it, March 14th was an important international holiday. Every year, math enthusiasts worldwide celebrate the date as Pi Day. March 14th. 3/14. 3.14. Pi. Get it? If you'd like a higher degree of accuracy, you can celebrate Pi Minute at 1:59 on that date (as in 3.14159). Or why not Pi Second at 26 seconds into the Pi Minute (3.1415926)?

“It’s crazy! It’s irrational!” crows the website of the Exploratorium, San Francisco’s famously quirky hands-on science museum. The Exploratorium invented the holiday twenty-one years ago. In a delightful coincidence, Pi Day coincides with Albert Einstein's birthday. Exploratorium revelers circumambulate the "Pi Shrine" 3.14 times while singing Happy Birthday to Albert.

Pi Day celebrations have spread to schools. Just over a year ago, I visited Singapore American School to give a week's worth of presentations and I found parent volunteers serving pie to appreciative students whose math teachers were trying to sweeten their understanding of the world’s most famous irrational number. Just as pi is endless, so is the list of activities, from memory challenges and problem solving to finding how pi is connected to hat size ... and writing a new form of poetry called “pi-ku," which uses a 3-1-4 syllable pattern instead of haiku’s 5-7-5.

It's Pi Day!
math's mysteries.

It is indeed the mysteriousness of pi that makes it so fascinating. For 3,500 years, according to David Blatner, author of The Joy of Pi, pi-lovers have tried to solve the "puzzle of pi" -- calculating the exact ratio of a circle's circumference to its diameter. But there is no such thing as "exact." No matter how successful, pi can only be estimated.

A refresher course for the pi-challenged: The 16th letter of the Greek alphabet, π or “pi,” is used to represent the number you get when you divide a circle’s circumference (the distance around) by its diameter (distance across, through the center). Try it on any circle with a ruler and string and you'll get something a little over 3 1/8 or approximately 22/7 (some have therefore proposed the 22nd of July for Pi Day). Measured with a little more precision, the ratio comes out to 3.14. But don’t stop there. Pi is an irrational number, meaning that, expressed as a decimal, its digits go on forever without a repeating pattern. Hence the obsession of some with memorizing pi to 100, even 1,000 places. As a Pi Day gift from 5th graders at a school I visited this year on March 15th, I received a sheet of paper with pi written out to 10,000 digits. In 2002, a computer scientist found 1.24 trillion digits. Never mind that astrophysicists calculating the size of galaxies don't seem to need an accuracy of pi any greater than 10 to 15 digits. Playing with pi offers endless hours of good, clean mathematical fun. So what if it's irrational.

Happy (belated) Pi Day, everybody!

Friday, March 22, 2013

Line Edits

This week, I survived my first line edits. [Insert applause.] Since I’ve been a little preoccupied for the last three weeks, a few words about line edits are about the only thing my brain can rustle up for this month’s INK post. So, please indulge me, while I throw out a few words and ponder, share, and whine a little about the process.

I have to say, editors are amazing and I’ve been telling this to whoever will listen this past three weeks. All my words are now working together. There’s a pattern, consistency, and a story to be told.

Line edits.
Let’s do the math; my word document manuscript has 229 pages. With 23 lines per page, that makes 5,267 lines.  Then, add in a few “make this intro more interesting”, “needs a closing paragraph”, and “chapter three needs more sidebars”. I figure that there were about 8,000 edits. Depending on the edit, I approximate that each edit took an hour.  So, 8,000 hours of edits leads me to my next word.

Dust bunnies.
The dust bunnies were throwing one heck of a party at my house. I got a little concerned when they threw a hat on the cat and carried him down the hall, but they were keeping themselves occupied. 

Sitting is the new smoking.
If sitting is the new smoking, then I inhaled a couple cartons. Husband used that excuse to why I should maybe make dinner. Supposedly, I had to get up and walk around a little. We had several take-out dinners, also.

Last month, I wrote Just the Facts about hunting down the correct version of a fact. In rewriting a more interesting intro to one chapter, I found from a number of sources where the first woman architect made her formal announcement of her design practice at a major women’s conference. Great visual story telling, right? In checking, there is no evidence of that actually happening. I looked through all the literature and attendance records of the 1881 Women’s Conference. I would have loved to use that visual to start the chapter, but it just didn’t feel right. Sometimes you have to go with what your intuition tells you.

While pounding out the manuscript, I learned a lot about writing. What an education. I didn’t expect to learn even more while I was working on the line edits. The main thing I gleaned was a better understanding and appreciation for organization. While the information that was gathered on all 22 biographies and general information on three major professions had a system to it, I came away after going through the editing process with a knowledge of how to work better the next time. And, one friend who I occasionally ranted with, said that it will get easier. So, that’s a good thing to know. Which reminds me about my next word.


In doing my research, the one thing that I feel helped was that I purchased some of the books that I was using. Using Interlibrary Loan to get my hands on some research books was amazing, but I was stacking up some fines. Finding the books on Amazon for next to nothing and then having them here to check things as I was editing was a good thing. Of course, I couldn’t buy one book that was over $1,000 on Amazon.

Yes, I turned in the manuscript at 11:58pm with 2 whole minutes to spare. Hey, it was still Monday. 

On Tuesday, I went to Pilates to stretch out my back, took two naps, and finished a book, that I had been reading for fun and put away three weeks before. The dust bunnies are recovering from their partying ways. Ready for them to stage a rebellion, I'm going to go grab the vacuum and broom.

Notice dog and 2 tennis balls under the table.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Elizabeths Rule

It is Women’s History Month and I am happy to be celebrating it with my new book about a very important woman. Who Says Women Can’t Be Doctors? The Story of Elizabeth Blackwell, is about the first woman doctor in America. I wanted to do a picture book about her for some time, and finally got the chance to with the brilliant Marjorie Priceman, who has done a priceless job of bringing this piece of history to life with her illustrations.

I am just starting to get a chance to interact with kids and other readers for this book, and am having a ball. On World Read Aloud Day, I Skyped with a whole bunch of students who wanted to know all about Blackwell! And in New York City, I was invited to do a book signing at the annual meeting for the American Medical Women’s Association, where every year they give one woman doctor an Elizabeth Blackwell Award in recognition of her contribution to the cause of women in medicine. Talk about a building full of powerful women! Wow. And were they ever enthusiastic about this book! They wanted copies for their daughters, nieces, granddaughters—and for their waiting rooms. And get this—three different women told me their young sons think that ONLY women can be doctors, since that is what they see!

My travels also took me to Washington, D.C., where the other Elizabeth in my life was remembered. That would be Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who I wrote about in Elizabeth Leads the Way. She jumpstarted the suffrage movement at Seneca Falls. It took more than her lifetime, but women finally got the right to vote and the 100th anniversary of the 1913 march was celebrated while I was in town. Fellow writer Penny Colman and I were able to meet up for this incredible occasion and march on that very cold morning with her lovely granddaughter.

All hail the Elizabeths—Blackwell and Stanton—for their unwavering determination, tenacity, and commitment as we celebrate Women’s History Month this March.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Hear Me Roar/In Numbers Too Big to Ignore

As I write, it's the Ides of March, official anniversary of Julius Caesar's deathday (44 BCE) and the 246th birthday of cantankerous  Andrew Jackson. That is, if this U.S. President No. 7 hadn't been dead for years.  But this post  goes live on Monday the 18th and seeing as I'm a nonfiction author, given to enthusiastic bouts of looking things up – man oh man, the things there are to FIND OUT.   It turns out that a Scottish MP was born 18 March 1891. And on a September night in 1954,  during Alice Cullen's time in Parliament, hundreds of her young constituents (ages 4 ~ 14) had to be calmed down, and told to take their knives and sharp sticks and leave a huge old cemetery in Glasgow.  Why were they there?  Hints: 1. Vampires. 2. Comic books, 

In any event, if you're reading this, you may well know that Black History Month grew from the strong and certain belief of such African American scholars as Dr. Carter G. Woodson and  Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois that the history of their race was a rich subject for deep academic attention.   Out of this devout certainty came Woodson's brainchild, the first Negro History Week, born in February 1926.  Why shortish, mercurial February? Because African Americans had long been celebrating Lincoln's birthday and the one which Frederick Douglass chose for himself: February 14.  In 1976, America's Bicentennial, after 50 years of progress, protests, violence, and breakthrough civil rights legislation, the week was expanded to a month's worth of study, commemoration, and celebration. 

So how is it that March was set aside for making the citizenry aware of women's history?    Because of history, as you might expect.  Or "herstory," as we might have said back in the 1970s, if it hadn't seemed so pretentious, stilted & weird.  On March 8, 1857, just a few days after James Buchanan's inauguration,  New York City needleworkers  so badly needed to work fewer hours (10 hrs. per shift) in better working conditions, that they went on strike. Heavy-handed policemen, under orders, busted it up.  Even more violent was the garment workers' strike in 1908 - on March 8, in honor of those who'd gone before. So it was that the Socialists attending their International Congress  in Copenhagen, Denmark, chose March 8, 1910 as the first International Women's Day.   So, after 60-some years of parades, protests, the Vote, the Pill, and doors forced open, a group of Californians launched an official "Women's History Week" for the week of IWD, 3/8/1978.   That week grew to an entire month, to be proclaimed presidentially and noted nationally, as of 1987, by way of a joint U.S. Congressional resolution. (It's said that a Republican and a Democrat - Orrin Hatch and Barbara Mikulski – actually co-sponsored the legislation. Those were the days, my friend; we thought they'd never end.)

I Am Woman 

Check out these books ANY time of year, but especially now, in Women's History Month,  do avail yourself of this dozen-or-so books (to name but a few) about those who came into the world as girls.

•    Ballet for Martha [Graham], by Jan Greenberg, Sandra Jordan, and Brian Floca.    •   Lives of Extraordinary Women: Rulers, by Kathleen Krull and Kathryn Hewitt     •   Minette's Feast: The Delicious Story of Julia Child and Her Cat  and Clara Schumann: Piano Virtuoso, both written by Susanna Reich    •    What To Do About Alice? How Alice Roosevelt Broke the Rules, Charmed the World, and Drove Her Father Teddy Crazy by Barbara Kerley and Edwin Fotheringhan   •   Write On, Mercy!: The Secret Life of Mercy Otis Warren and  Jeanette Rankin: Political Pioneer, both by Gretchen Woelfle   •   Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony: A Friendship That Changed the World, by Penny Coleman   •   Bylines: A Photobiography of Nellie Bly, written by Sue Macy   •   Helen's Eyes: A Photobiography of Annie Sullivan, Helen Keller's Teacher, written by Marfe Ferguson Delano   •    Remember the Ladies: 100 Great American Women and  Rabble Rousers: Twenty Women Who Made a Difference,  both by Cheryl Harness      
By the way, if it happens that you don't read my newest, Mary Walker Wears the Pants,  DO read someone's book about this real, live, courageous, idealistic, stubborn-as-all-get-out,  high octane woman, whose history is well worth the knowing. Pretty well summed up in the subtitle: "The True Story of Doctor, Reformer, and Civil War Hero."  DO read up on Dr. Mary Edwards Walker,  a valiant, eccentric Medal of Honor winner (only woman to whom it's been awarded), best known in her time as a cranky, outrageous  female, who was determined to free those of her sex from genteel purdah.  From steel-boned corsets and their long, heavy, unwieldy skirts and petticoats.   (Fun to wear once in a while - a reenactment deal or a school visit - like being a transvestite in a time tunnel. But every day? Just. Shoot. Me.)   

 So, regardless of their race or gender, grateful I am to those souls who braved the storms, walked the walks, and fought the fights.  They all deserve a medal.

Dr. Mary Edwards Walker



Friday, March 15, 2013

Lose Yourself in a Book

Among the happiest readers may be those who follow the advice: “Go lose yourself in a book.” I suspect the same can be said for writers.

This winter I lost myself in the writing of yet another book and was reminded of how magical a space that is to inhabit. Those people lucky enough to write books know what I mean. Those who read great books should imagine their own consumption pleasures magnified as if they have traveled through the looking glass.

These days I write from the luxury of solitude. In earlier years I juggled the responsibilities of marriage and growing children when I wrote. Nothing could be harder, as I am reminded when I observe the writing lives of younger friends. Somehow we do it, just as somehow we smile our ways through days of thin sleep after the arrival of babies, feeling like the luckiest, if not the most-rested, parents on earth.

Now, though, there are no alarm clocks or car pools or meal schedules in my life. Time is measured in deadlines, goals for the day, hunger pangs, and diversions for exercise and other fun. After I’ve converted my research into ready-reference note cards and aids—from time lines to diagrams to maps to photographs—I am ready to lose myself in the creation of a book.

I go through rituals before I start this writing journey. I pay all my bills in advance. I plan what I will cook, and I stock my fridge. I get extra sleep. I touch base with my closest friends; they know I am about to become scarce, and, as a testament to their friendships, they understand and forgive me when I stop corresponding and disappear. Ditto for family members; we keep in touch, but the World of the Book becomes part of their world, too, and when we interact they share in my investment in the process. Lastly, I choose what books I will read at bedtime, something complimentary (perhaps from the same era) or something familiar. I have been known to re-read Jane Austin (“Not again!” say my sons) or Harry Potter—anything that is relaxing without being diverting. I want to keep my thoughts in the World.

Then the work begins.

Let me be clear: All is not picnics and roses. This is work. Mind-draining, body-aching, spirit-straining work. For me, anyway, the book takes over my head and my life. I’m a morning person, so work starts early. Sometimes I wake up inspired and go straight to the computer in my robe and pajamas. I may stay that way for hours, snacking on hasty meals and brushing my teeth at out-of-routine moments. I measure my progress by how many inches of note cards I have consumed, marking my place with a vertical manila card bearing the hand-lettered text “HERE.” Chapter one, chapter two, and so on.

After a week or two of solid writing, I begin to dream in paragraphs. I don’t mean that I dream nice organized dreams. I mean that I see blocks of text in my dreams. (I used to dream in sentences, so maybe this is progress.) It is not peaceful sleep. Occasionally, for variety, I dream about the historical figures in my work. Sometimes I don’t sleep at all, wheels spinning as I work my way around a writing corner, measure my progress against the parallel clocks for goals and deadlines, and try to reinforce my commitment to the bone-wearying process with reminders of treats that await at the end of the work. Renewed visits with friends. The chance to plant a garden. Maybe a trip. Getting paid! Carrots and sticks. You get the idea.

The easiest way to keep going, I find, is to think incrementally. I know my destination (the conclusion), and I have a pretty good idea of how I want to get there (because of my note cards and research), but it is easiest to march along one chapter at a time, one paragraph at a time, one scene at a time, as it were. Suddenly I’ve advanced another few inches through my note cards. Suddenly another chapter is roughed out enough so that I can proceed to the next one.

And so it goes until my head is in the World 24-7, even when I am away from my desk. When I go out for walks, I almost see the history. A dog, a car, someone’s gesture all are evaluated automatically through the lens of the work. When that happens, I know I have lost myself in the book. After slipping into that groove, I hang on for the dash to the conclusion. As grateful as I am to reach the end, its attainment feels bittersweet, akin to the reader’s experience of finishing a great book—you hunger for more.

Fortunately, for writers, there is more. Revision!

And so I stay in the World even longer, testing my early work to see how well it holds weight, strengthening it with rounds of rewriting, pursuing additional research lines, if needed, and polishing, polishing, polishing the language.

When I finally step away with a finished manuscript, I do so with a mixture of relief, gratitude, and regret. My connection to the book will never be so strong or personal again. The end of the writing process is like the end of a living thing, and I can see how such loss might hit some writers particularly hard. For me, anyway, the regrets fade quickly. There are those rewards, after all, including picking up again where I left off with friends and family and fun.

As often as we write about writing, I remain fascinated by the subject and about how others experience this process. Perhaps you may want to chime in. Readers, writers: What happens when you lose yourself in a book?

Thursday, March 14, 2013


In the past few years, almost every state in the nation has adopted the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). The English Language Arts Standards are not limited to upper grades, either. Even the youngest kids—the K through 2 set—will be using the CCSS to explore nonfiction literature in their classrooms, libraries, and homes.

With that in mind, I thought I’d use this post to introduce two things: a new book and a new Teacher’s Guide just posted on my website, with ideas for how to apply the CCSS to all of my books.

Out this month is my newest book, The World Is Waiting For You. And while the main text only has 115 words, it can still be explored using the CCSS.

The ideas below are built around the Anchor Standards for Reading. (For grade-specific guidelines, click on “Reading: Informational Texts” in the sidebar on that page.)

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.2  Determine central ideas or themes of a text and analyze their development; summarize the key supporting details and ideas.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.6  Assess how point of view or purpose shapes the content and style of a text.

The central ideas of The World Is Waiting For You are the importance of getting outside to explore and the benefit of following your curiosity.

My purpose is to encourage kids to get outside, explore, and see where their curiosity takes them—and to suggest that if you follow your curiosity as you grow, it will enrich your entire life.

The book begins with an invitation to explore:

“Right outside your window there’s a world to explore. Ready? Follow that path around the next bend. Who knows where it might lead?”

This question works on both a literal and figurative level. The path itself leads to new places to explore and things to discover; and the act of following your curiosity leads to personal growth and a better understanding and appreciation of the world.

The text and photos then depict exploration on a child-scale, such as hopping into a pond or standing under a waterfall, followed by the same type of exploration on a future adult-scale: scuba diving with dolphins. Similarly, digging in a mud puddle might one day lead to digging for fossils, and star-gazing might one day lead to exploring space as an astronaut.

Throughout the book, kids see the value of exploring now and can imagine where the love of exploration might take them in the future. And the final spread in the book echoes the opening lines and urges them to get going:

 “The whole wide world is waiting for you… Ready. Set. Go.”
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.5 Analyze the structure of texts, including how specific sentences, paragraphs, and larger portions of the text (e.g., a section, chapter, scene, or stanza) relate to each other and the whole.

In the guidelines for grades K-2, this anchor standard asks students to identify text features and analyze how they provide key facts or information.

The extensive back matter of The World Is Waiting For You provides a wealth of information to enhance the main text.

The explorers depicted in photos in the main text get a fuller introduction in “The Faces of Exploration” section of the back matter. We learn their names, where each photo was taken, and specific facts about their work as explorers. This section also includes quotes from several of the explorers talking about the impact exploration has made on their lives.

In a “Note From National Geographic,” John M. Fahey, Jr., CEO and Chairman of the Board of the National Geographic Society, discusses the Society’s mission and commitment to exploration. He ends the note with words to encourage kids to explore on their own.

Thumbnails of the photographs identify where each was taken and photo credits list the names of individual photographers.

Finally, the back flap of the book jacket shares information about other books I’ve written and my personal experience with exploration.

Check out my Teacher's Guide for ideas on how to apply the CCSS to my other titles, including the biographies Those Rebels, John and Tom; The Extraordinary Mark Twain (According to Susy); What To Do About Alice?; Walt Whitman: Words for America; and The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins.