Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Children's Nonfiction Book Lists

The last day of the year seems like a good time for lists. So I hope you will join me by posting lists of recommended nonfiction books.

Great nonfiction lists also make me think of the wonderful Coleen Salley, who passed away this year. She and Terry Young were among the first and most dedicated advocates of read aloud nonfiction. Coleen Salley was a great light in children's literature. Her joy was infectious and she had a gusto for life and literature that connected people in many parts of the children's book community. We just loved her in all her glory. Look up her name and "blog posts" and you will find a slew of great memories of her. Here's one that expresses her spirit, on Planet Esme.

Below is a link to some of those read aloud nonfiction lists Coleen and Terry compiled. I hope Terry will keep doing that work. He knows the field of science literature like no one else. He and Coleen put on some terrific "introducing science through literature" workshops at state and national conferences. Be sure to click the links on Coleen's site to find out more about her life and her books.

Below are some nonfiction-specific awards. Lists of their current and past winners can give anyone a great start on reading.

Robert F. Sibert Informational Book Medal
(Also check ALA's other awards for nonfiction as nonfiction is doing well in many categories these days!)

John Burroughs Award List of Nature Books for Young Readers

AAAS/Subaru/Science Books & Films Prizes for Best Science Books

Horn Book List of Recommended Books
This divides nonfiction in the to following topics:
• American History and Biography
 • Astronomy, Chemistry, and Physics 
 • Human Body 
 • International History (includes some fiction)
 • Plants, Animals, and the Natural World
 • Prehistoric Life

I am sure there are many more lists that I have forgotten this morning. So feel free to speak up and add them.

Happy New Year to all!
April Pulley Sayre

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Books I Gave for Christmas and Hanukkah

This year, as every year, I gave lots of books for holiday presents. I did buy other stuff too, but few people escaped without at least one book. This year, I’ve noticed that my list includes nearly all nonfiction, for children and adults.

My two- and five-year-old adorable great-nephews got a delicious new book, Jewish Holidays Cookbook: 50 festive meals for celebrating the year (DK Publishing) by Jill Bloomfield. This has the old standards as well as some new dishes, along with dollops of Jewish history. The book has lots of pictures and a handy spiral binding. (It reminds me of the old UNICEF children’s cookbook that was well spilled-upon by my children.)

My niece’s younger boy also got Susan Goldman Rubin’s beautiful art-board books, Counting with Wayne Thiebaud and Matisse: Dance for Joy (Chronicle.) These combine spare poetic text with gorgeous design and, of course, exquisite artwork. I gave the older boy a subscription to Ask magazine that delivers all sorts of nonfiction goodies with photos, drawings, and comic strips. The younger one got Ladybug, which mixes fiction and nonfiction.

Their parents, my niece and her husband, received two new books, I Love Dirt! 52 activities to help you and your kids discover the wonders of nature by Jennifer Ward, and The Creative Family by Amanda Blake Soule, full of indoor and outdoor arts, crafts, explorations, and family rituals. Both are from Trumpeter/Shambala.

My son, a Montanan and superb cook, got Montana Cooking: A Taste of the Big Sky Country (Glove Pequot/Three Fork) by Greg Patten, gourmet chef, and husband of INK guest blogger Dorothy Hinshaw Patent. Elk steak and huckleberry muffins, anyone? One more cookbook (and wine guide) made its way to Canada to my brother-in-law, another superb cook: Anything but Chardonnay: a guide to the other grapes (Stewart, Tabori, and Chang) by Laura Holmes Haddad.

My daughter, a Londoner, got a new book from the UK, written by a friend of mine: More Than Just A Game: Football v Apartheid (HarperCollins UK) by Chuck Korr and Marvin Close. This tells the thrilling story of a soccer league established by political prisoners at the notorious Robben Island prison in South Africa. I hope HC brings out a U.S. edition soon. Marvin tells me they are considering writing a YA version, though any soccer and/or politico teen could handle the adult book. Derelict London (Random House UK) by Paul Talling provides a funky alternative tourist guide to London history and architecture for the whole family – including me, in London as you read this.

My writer’s group exchanges already-read books at our December meeting. This year I offered the classic and classy Eats Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss – not my own copy which I refuse to relinquish, but a copy bought at my library’s book sale. There’s a children’s version meant for younger readers.

Regular shipments of library sale books cross the country during the year for my 97-year-old mother in law, an intrepid reader. She, the dedicatee of my biography of Jeannette Rankin, loves women’s history and so received not-so-current biographies of Abigail Adams and the wives of Henry VIII, along with a last-minute fictional find, Restoration, a delectable novel of 17th century England by Rose Tremain.

It says something about our times – or perhaps just my family – that men (and boys) got the cookbooks and women got history and sports. As for me, I read them all.

Happy New Year to nonfiction lovers everywhere!

Monday, December 29, 2008

How Much Is 700 Billion?

After How Much Is a Million?, my book about big numbers, appeared in 1985, I quickly discovered what everyone really wanted to know: “How much is a million dollars?” It gave me the idea for my second book, If You Made a Million.

Now everyone is thinking about the federal bailout of 700 billion dollars, aka $700,000,000,000 – with an extra 30 billion thrown in, or not, for good measure. So, how much is 700 billion dollars?

Let’s start by counting the way the characters count in On Beyond a Million (yet another book I wrote with “million” in the title). In that book, the characters count not by ones the whole way (or they’d never get beyond a million) but by ones to ten, by tens to a hundred, by hundreds to a thousand, and so on. Mathematicians would say they are counting by “powers of ten,” but in the book I call it “Power Counting.” Let’s just quickly “power-count” our way from one to one million:

1 (one)
10 (ten)
100 (one hundred)
1,000 (one thousand)
10,000 (ten thousand)
100,000 (one hundred thousand)
1,000,000 (one million)

Did you notice that one million is three steps of power-counting past one thousand? Each step multiplies by 10, so one million is three of those, or 10 X 10 X 10, or one thousand times bigger than one thousand. One million is one thousand thousand. Let’s go on:

10,000,000 (ten million)
100,000,000 (one hundred million)
1,000,000,000 (one billion)

One billion is three steps past one million, or one thousand times one million. Just as one million is a thousand thousand, one billion is a thousand million. (In some countries, including Great Britain, they call it “one thousand million” instead of a “billion.”) Let’s do one more round:

10,000,000,000 (ten billion)
100,000,000,000 (one hundred billion)
1,000,000,000,000 (one trillion)

One trillion is one thousand billion. Did you notice one hundred billion in bold? We’re going back to it. Take seven of those and what have you got? Seven hundred billion. In dollars, it’s the bail-out. One heck of a lot of money. Oh, we could figure out how high 700 billion kids or 700 billion one-dollar bills would stack if we were inclined to stack them, or how many homes it could build or heat, and so forth. . . but let’s not. Instead, let’s try to understand the magnitude of this giant pot of cash by taking a step back from big money to very small money: one cent.

Would you rather have a penny that gets doubled every day for a month (let’s say a 30 day month)… or would you rather have a million dollars in cash today, but not another cent for the rest of the month? Maybe you’ve heard this one before but no matter. I’ve told it dozens of times, and it still amazes me that doubling the pennies gives a pay-off of over $5 million in pennies on the 30th day (not to mention all the pennies accumulated from the other days)! Don’t just believe me -- do the math. It’s not hard, especially if you round off along the way.

So, when you put one cent through 29 rounds of doubling it gets really big, really fast. That’s the power of doubling. (There have been some fine picture books based on this mathematical principle, including One Grain of Rice and The King’s Chessboard.) But what happens every step of the way when we put a zero after a number, when we “power count”? We aren’t doubling; we’re multiplying by ten. I don’t know of any verb for that, so I have invented one: decktuple. (Please use it widely.) If you thought doubling was powerful, think of decktupling – power to the max!

My favorite way to see the difference between big numbers and appreciate their magnitude is to think of seconds. One million seconds is about eleven and a half days. One billion seconds is -- take a guess before you read on – about 32 years. And one trillion seconds is about 32,000 years. So the difference between a million, a billion and a trillion is like the difference between 11.5 days, 32 years and 32,000 years! I like to say that I have a pretty good idea of what I’ll be doing a million seconds from now. . . I have no idea of what I’ll be doing a billion seconds from now. . . but I have an excellent idea of what I will be doing a trillion seconds from now.

And what about 700 billion? That’s seven-tenths, or 70%, of the way to a trillion. In seconds it would be 22,400 years. I am writing this on December 28, 2008 at about 9pm. If instead of dollars we talked about seconds and I started clocking them right now, I would get to a million on Jan. 9th at about 9am . . . I would get to a billion early in the year 2040 . . . and I (or someone, I hope) would get to 700 billion in the year 24000 (not 2400 but 24000!), give or take a few hundred years.

Does this help explain the size of the bailout. Or does it just boggle your mind? Both are good.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

I.N.K. blog on Holiday

The I.N.K. blog will be on vacation from December 22nd to December 26th and January 1st-2nd.

New posts Dec. 29th-Dec.31st!

We'll be spiffing up our sidebars and hoping to look nice and pretty when we see you again on a regular basis in 2009.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Nonfiction Report from the Field

Well, finally back home after a busy fall of school and conference visits. Though these visits are tiring, nothing beats talking to kids about science and books in person. It also gives a great on-the-ground feel for what kids are interested in. To wit, I’ve never seen greater kid interest in nonfiction. Science, biography, sports, history—kids are gobbling it all up, a fact confirmed by almost every librarian I talk to. That doesn’t mean that their parents are buying nonfiction books, but it’s nice to know they are at least flying off of library shelves.

Environmental literature especially seems to be in great demand these days. Recently, I’ve had several librarians ask me to write books about global warming, for instance. I probably won’t, since there are some excellent books already out by Laurence Pringle, Lynne Cherry, and others. But I am glad people are at last realizing what dire straits the planet is in.

My last gig of the fall, in fact, was a panel on environmental literature at the NCTE convention in San Antonio. Since I write both nonfiction and fiction, I thought I would compare the two. Thinking about it, I realized that nonfiction and fiction can complement each other in wonderful ways. While nonfiction might be better at educating a person about how the environment works or is being damaged, fiction has a greater potential to reach a reader’s emotions—and perhaps spur action.

A wonderful award that honors both nonfiction and fiction environmental literature is the Green Earth Book Award, given by the Newton-Marasco Foundation:
Looking at their list of past winners is a great starting point for becoming familiar with the best environmental literature of recent years. And with that…back to work.

Have a great, low-emissions holidays!


Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Another Gift Idea

The mention of utilizing a pencil in this digital age (Jan Greenberg’s 12.12 post) inspired me to think about when and why I still use one. Although it has been liberating to adopt word processing as well as its visual analog of digital illustration to create my books, sometimes it’s best to keep it simple. Especially in the formative stages of a project, a pencil is indispensable.

But not just any pencil. Relatively recently I discovered the joys of writing and sketching with a mechanical pencil... no sharpening is required and a worn-out eraser can be replaced. It seems odd that I had a full blown computer system a decade prior to adopting a mechanical pencil. Guess they need a better marketing program. I like a .5 mm HB lead. Anyway, why use one at all?

• Taking notes and sketching by hand is the best way to imprint something on my memory. When gathering and processing information, what I write or draw is retained much more vividly.

• When brainstorming, using a pencil allows a much more rapid, fluid, non-linear process. It’s easy to switch between writing and sketching, and erasing irrelevant stuff allows additional ideas to be inserted near related topics.

• When a project hits a roadblock, it’s best to stop wrestling with the computer, sit down with my magical pencil and rethink things. Strangely, doing this while watching TV can be very productive... perhaps it shuts down the usual brain pathways and engenders out-of-the-ordinary thoughts.

• For some reason it’s easier to see the glitches when editing a hard copy. When working with a collaborator, it's convenient to pass a printout back and forth.

• Pencils are very portable and hardly ever break down.

• Last but certainly not least, there is great power in putting things down on paper. Not only books, but great nations have been started that way. A personal or professional goal, no matter how large or small, gets closer to being achieved the moment it’s put into writing (or doodled).

Of course, you need something to write in. I used to scribble on loose sheets of bond paper, then toss the sheets into folders. The problem with that system is the papers get scrambled and tend to throw themselves into inaccessible cracks behind bookcases.

A notebook or journal helps to capture the swirl of ideas and creates at least a semblance of order. I try to date each entry, but since I feel free to go back to add or delete things, it’s certainly not a precise timeline. A spiral binding that lets the book open flat and gives a convenient place to stash the pencil is my preference. These “sketch books” can be found in art supply stores in various sizes. The photo shows a small 6" X 8" one that is great for taking on the road. For stay-at-home journals, I like the large 9" X 12" ones. Be sure to get one with reasonably heavy paper that won't ripple and show through too much from the other side.

This is a section of a journal page when I was working on Missing Math, attempting to work out part of the verse. By the way, that little dog turned into a calf for some reason. (If I had written it down, I would remember why!)

So, during this season the best gift for some people just might be a book they create themselves.

Happy Holidays to all!

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Santa is Nonfiction

The now famous letter to The Sun goes like this:
DEAR EDITOR: I am 8 years old.
Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus.
Papa says, 'If you see it in THE SUN it's so.'
Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?

And, I say to my kids, “If you see it in the nonfiction section, it’s so!”
Here’s the evidence I found at our local library:

Santa Claus
Rod Green, author
Carol Wright, illustrator
Atheneum 2006

The Truth About Santa Claus
Green Tiger Press 2007
Blue Lantern Studio

Santa Claus: A Biography
Gerry Bowler
McClelland and Stewart 2007

Nicholas: The Epic Journey from Saint to Santa Claus
Jeremy Seal
Bloomsbury 2005

The Real Santa Claus
Marianna Mayer
Phyllis Fogelman Books 2001
Found in Juvenile Biography!

And, I can’t forget:
101 Questions About Santa Claus
Robert E. Litak
Adventure 2003
Our handy coffee table book for years.

For my final argument, may I present:
The Santa is Nonfiction T-shirt

This Christmas, my little guy will be nine years old. We’re still holding on to the magic. I hope I made a few believers with this post.
Any other favorite Santa books our readers would recommend? (It pained me to not include many beautiful picture books, but I specifically searched for hardcore Santa Claus NF books!)

To all my INKmates and the faithful followers of INK this year-
Have a warm and wonderful holiday season and a magical new year!

Monday, December 15, 2008

Are there things we can’t write about?

Are some subjects off base, unwanted and unwelcome? In other words, taboo?

Something in me believed it so, convincing myself, for example, that the intersection of sex and religion is so fraught with incendiary passion that children’s books about them must barely exist.

Well, I was wrong. Or right.

Using Amazon as a database, I searched the children’s section for books about controversial subjects Roe versus Wade (abortion), Margaret Sanger (birth control), and the Scottsboro Boys (race and sex.)

The resulting titles were of modest number, and few of recent publication.

Still, they were there.

I am unsure of my original supposition and wonder: Are the relatively few books a reflection of the modest place the subjects hold in comparison to the larger themes of, say, the Civil War, Immigration, or Westward Expansion. Or do they represent a de facto taboo?

I don't know.

What do you think?

Friday, December 12, 2008

December Muse/Musings

I remember writing my first book, a novel, in 1978 on a big, old typewriter. I would pencil in revisions and then retype over and over again. For the final copy to send to my editor, I would turn the manuscript over to a professional typist. Inevitably, I would reread it, revise it again, and send it back to her to redo. A few years later I bought an electric Smith Corona and eventually my first computer in the 80's, which changed everything for me in terms of revisions. I could now do it all myself. Since then I have bought three more computers, each an update from the last, the most important innovation being the ability to send e mail and attachments to editors and my co-author on a number of projects, Sandra Jordan. The internet has been invaluable for research. Recently at a meeting with Sandra, our editor Neal Porter, and the illustrator Brian Floca, with whom we are working on our next book, I was amazed to see on Brian's computer an actual film with music about our subject, a dance collaboration. We saw the live performance together, and there is no substitute for seeing the real thing, but when our memories fail us about a costume or a dance sequence, having instant gratification is exciting. It would have been impossible in 1979. What has stayed the same, however, is reading hard copies and penciling in revisions. I find that hand/eye process invaluable. When Sandra and I sit down together to go over a manuscript, we read it aloud to one another, listening for word repeats, breaks in rhythm, the need for transitions, and so on. We pencil in notes and changes, then go to the computer. My recent present to myself was a lightweight Dell laptop, which I can easily carry around with me when I travel. But my pencil box comes along too.
On another note, the last month has brought dismal news about cuts in publishing jobs, halts in book contracts, budget cuts in schools, and drops in book sales. Yet from what I read, books for young readers, especially non-fiction, are better than ever. It seems to me that to those of us who write, who tell stories, who spend our days playing around with words, the "economy" that matters most is the economy of language. We are concerned with how to make our stories richer. What I have enjoyed about I.N.K. blogs this past year has been the opportunity to share writing tips, to read news about new books, and to muse about non-fiction and other topics that concern me about the business of children's literature. And so "the business" we are engaged in is the business of inspiring, entertaining, and introducing young readers to the worlds we find compelling. Best Wishes for this Holiday Season and for the New Year! Happy Writing and Reading.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

On the Hunt for Information

Nonfiction authors, like cats and children, are insatiably curious. How else to explain the fact that long after a book is written, we're still willing to pounce on information about a subject, even if it means traipsing through a cemetery on a frigid December day?

A few days ago, with the wind chill at about 10 degrees, I attended a lecture by Dr. Joan Carpenter Troccoli, senior scholar at the Denver Art Museum Dr. Troccoli was speaking at Brooklyn's historic Green-Wood Cemetery, 478 stunningly beautiful acres in the heart of a gritty urban neighborhood, and the final resting place of hundreds of famous--and infamous--Americans, including Horace Greeley, Henry Ward Beecher, Lola Montez, "Boss" Tweed, Louis Comfort Tiffany, Leonard Bernstein, and Frank Morgan (aka the Wizard in "The Wizard of Oz")

The subject of the talk was George Catlin's painting of DeWitt Clinton. Clinton, governor of New York from 1817-1828, is best known for his role in building the Erie Canal. Catlin, the subject of my book, Painting the Wild Frontier, is renowned as a painter of American Indians. Both men are buried at Green-Wood.

Dr. Troccoli's talk traced intriguing connections between Clinton and Catlin. But what struck me was the way it showed that studying history is like holding a prism that refracts light in all directions. By looking closely at any one incident in a person's life, you can find myriad connections to other people, places, and events. This is why scholars constantly re-examine familiar texts and mine old information for new insights, and why nonfiction authors tromp through cemeteries, always on the hunt for a good story.

After the lecture I took a trolley tour of artist's graves led by Green-Wood's resident historian. The trolley was packed, encouraging evidence of New Yorkers' enthusiasm for history, and a reminder that cemeteries are not just the repository of skeletons, but a unique and unusual opportunity to explore the past.

Afterward I walked back to Catlin's grave, high atop a windswept hill overlooking a picturesque lake.George Catlin is buried in his wife's family plot. She had predeceased him by many years, and when he finally passed away in 1872, his in-laws buried him in an unmarked grave. It wasn't until 1961 that a group of Catlin enthusiasts and family members finally raised funds for a monument.

After four years of working on my Catlin book, I was very excited to finally be visiting the grave. In fact, I was shivering in anticipation (or was it the cold?). What I found was a plain granite marker--just Catlin's name and dates. But there on the ground in front of it, someone had left an old paintbrush, stiff with paint. A scrap of artist's rag was wrapped around the brush, flapping in the wind. I hurried back to my warm car, marveling at this perfect tribute to a man who devoted his life to his art.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Stocking our Nonfiction Shelves

I read PW Daily via email each morning and one bright spot amidst grim industry news is Shelftalker, bookseller Alison Morris’s blog about children’s books. Last week starting on December 1, Alison had a running feature in which she asked, “What books should no self-respecting bookstore be without?” Each day she’d mention a different age group and ask her readers to suggest five books that they think a bookstore should carry within that category. The original four groups were YA fiction and nonfiction, middle grade fiction and nonfiction, picture book fiction and nonfiction, and books for babies and toddlers. Then she added adult books so people could weigh in on that as well.

It was generally fun to read the ideas of the 100+ people who responded over the week. Being a nonfiction author, I had a bit of an agenda: I wanted to see how much nonfiction would be mentioned in the mix. Of course, the proportion wasn’t close to I would have liked it to be. In fact if our own Anna Lewis hadn’t contributed her nonfiction ideas, we’d be in real trouble. (As an aside, not too many people wrote in for the adult day. But 6 out of the 7 who suggested adult books had at least one nonfiction book in their list—very different than for the younger age categories.)

I’m not really whining here. I’m just interested in this idea. Some of the children’s nonfiction considered a “must have” for any bookstore included: We are the Ship, Becoming Billie Holiday, Our Eleanor, Hole in my Life, The Diary of Anne Frank, The Way Things Work, The Cartoon History of the Universe, Frozen Man, What It Feels like to be a Building, work by Tana Hoban, Frida, books by Denise Fleming, How Bright is Your Brain?, Kid Chat Gone Wild, Her Story: A Timeline of the Women who Changed America, Global Babies, and Baby Talk.

I happened to be talking to Terri Schmitz, the owner of Children’s Bookshop in Brookline MA, the other day. Although I didn’t ask her the “must have” question, I know she loves Oh Rats! The Story of Rats and People and Phineas Gage: A Gruesome by True Story About Brain Science among so many others.

What about all of you? How do you think we should fill the kids nonfiction shelves of our imaginary book store?

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

More Gift Ideas

I'm following in Kathleen Krull's footsteps (see her post of 12/8, below) with a few more holiday book suggestions. Science is the subject of all of these titles, but it is addressed in a cultural context that makes these books relevant to a broad audience.

The first is The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, by Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan. Sagan, who died in 1996, didn't always get the respect he deserved as a scientist and writer. Ironically, his successful efforts at popularizing science on television — most famously with the PBS series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage — probably contributed to a perception of him as a TV personality rather than a serious astronomer and author. Demon-Haunted World is an accessible, intelligent, and engagingly written look at how science works and why pseudo-science deserves its moniker. In it Sagan and Druyan logically and systematically debunk alien abduction stories, astrology, faith healing, crop circles, and many other irrational beliefs. More significantly, the book is a celebration of science and how it has freed us — some of us, anyway — from the suffocating weight of superstition. If you enjoy Sagan I also recommend The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God, also written with Druyan. The title is a reference to William James's The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature.

Here's another: Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion, and the Appetite for Wonder (1998), by Richard Dawkins. The British evolutionary biologist was best known, until recently, for his book The Selfish Gene (1976). With the publication of The God Delusion in 2006, Dawkins has become something of a spokesperson for those with a skeptical, secular worldview. He's perhaps the most recognizable of the recent crop of authors critical of organized (and unorganized) religion. The God Delusion is an interesting read, but I think Dawkins's real contribution to the lay reader is his brilliance at explaining evolutionary biology in a lucid, conversational style and his ability to communicate something of the beauty and wonder of the natural world as it is perceived and deciphered by science. Unweaving the Rainbow is an unsentimental love letter to science. If you like it, try Climbing Mount Improbable (1996), which is as clear an explanation of the theory of evolution as you'll find.

Finally, a more recent title: Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America's Soul, by Kenneth R. Miller (2008). There are plenty of books that convincingly refute the case for Intelligent Design, and the author does a nice job of that here (for a biologist, refuting ID doesn't require much heavy lifting). But that's not the main point. What makes this book interesting — and important — is Miller's argument that the battle over evolution will have scientific and social consequences far beyond the fate of whether or how one theory is taught. A serious read, but one that's hard to put down.


Monday, December 8, 2008

Books Make the Best Gifts, They Just Do

In deciding which new nonfiction books to urge for the holidays, I’m squeezing my thoughts into one mother-of-all-recommendations: Nonfiction Writing from the Inside Out: Writing Lessons Inspired by Conversations with Leading Authors (Scholastic).

Usually, the teaching of writing emphasizes fiction and poetry, all well and good, but it’s expository writing that takes the cake in real life. The entire nonfiction writing process-- how to organize, research, think about a topic, find a voice, convince or inform-- these are skills that will carry students through life, helping them to be clear-thinking citizens and better at whatever career they pursue.

The author of this book, Dr. Laura Robb, has been a noted teacher for over forty years. I can’t say enough about the book—it’s the best possible gift for teachers, librarians, parents, anyone who wants their children to be able to write clearly. She details, step by illuminating step, how to get kids to write essays, plus book reports, diaries, interviews, letters, indeed any kind of creative writing that calls for persuasiveness and simplicity. As Dr. Robb writes, “We must help our student writers find their voices and approach nonfiction writing as an exciting craft they will want to fine-tune throughout their lives.” Her book is one savvy way of helping students open that door to becoming lifelong learners.

And I swear I’m not pushing it because she interviewed me. The authors from whom she gleans pointed tips about what makes good writing tick include Russell Freedman, Kathryn Lasky, Walter Dean Myers, James Cross Giblin, and a gaggle of other professionals.

Happy holidays, Laura Robb and all such dedicated teachers. Hopeful holidays to talented colleagues currently jobless. Anyone else, may I suggest some nonfiction for everyone on your list?

Friday, December 5, 2008

Comfort Zones

In 1887, Nellie Bly made an indelible mark on the New York newspaper world by feigning insanity and getting herself committed to the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island. She suffered 10 days of neglect and abuse (e.g., the women got one bath a week, with one after the other using the same tub of dirty water and the same solitary towel). Then she exposed the inhumane practices of that institution in two articles for Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World. It was landmark reporting that helped give birth to the tradition of investigative journalism that still continues today. It also was a perfect example of how a writer sometimes needs to leave her comfort zone to compose work that is meaningful and memorable.

I’m trying to do that now. I’ve been fascinated by the world’s first women’s intercollegiate basketball game ever since I wrote an article about it for The New York Times, and I’ve always thought it was a great topic for a picture book. I wrote a proposal and almost sold it to one publisher, but after much anticipation, that fell through. Last year my clever agent finally found me a publisher and I composed a first draft, using my fine-tuned research skills to document all the facts of the game but missing the boat by a mile. It turns out that being a successful nonfiction author doesn’t automatically make one a picture book writer. My non-fiction instincts don’t mean all that much in a 32-page art-heavy format.

So I had a talk with my new editor about arcs and conflicts and protagonists and then I went to the experts. At Thanksgiving dinner, I asked my cousin’s twin five-year-old daughters to name their favorite book. “The Queen of Style,” they replied, and like a good researcher, I bought a copy and did my best to understand the appeal. It wasn’t hard. Author-illustrators Caralyn and Mark Buehner created a charming, funny story about a bored queen who transforms her life, and her kingdom, when she takes a beauty school correspondence course and practices her skills on her subjects--and their sheep. It’s plain to see why two sophisticated Manhattan kindergartners love this high-fashion fairy tale.

Caralyn and Mark Buehner have nine children according to the book’s flap, so of course they should know how to engage a young audience. I have only a rambunctious cat who prefers chewing books to reading them. Short of getting myself committed to an elementary school, it seems the best way for me to proceed is to break free of the very rules and standards that make for writing quality non-fiction and admit that a picture book is a different animal. Telling the story of the basketball game in picture book form means communicating its essence, rather than reporting on the play-by-play action. If Nellie Bly could bathe in filthy water and eat wretched food to write her exposé, the least I can do is leave my own comfort zone to give writing a picture book a try.

Wish me luck!

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Holiday Shopping Recommendations

As I posted on my own blog last week, this year I'm mostly buying books for the holidays. And I got to thinking about some of my favorite nonfiction offerings this year. Not that these are the only nonfiction books out there, naturally, but here are some that I found to be knockouts:

For the youngest readers

Swing! by Rufus Butler Seder. I'm counting this one as nonfiction because it accurately depicts the actions taken in a variety of sports. I give this book the highest sort of recommendation: Within hours of its arrival in my house, it was gone, sent off into the world with my children's brother-from-another-mother, who is nearly four. B was willing to hand off his Thomas the Tank Engine trains in order to carry the book, which he has since spent lots of time happily looking through, watching as the player hits a ball and the ball comes right at you, or as the skater pirouettes upon the ice, or the boy shoots a foul-line throw. High praise indeed. This one is a line-blurrer, since it's really for kids older than the baby set. Great for toddlers and the preschool set, as well as young school students.

Attention sports fans

We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball by Kadir Nelson. Award-winning illustrator Kadir Nelson proves that he's equally talented as an author. A must-read for anyone with an interest in the history of America's favorite pastime or in the Civil Rights movement, since the book focuses on what the Negro Leagues were, and what it felt like to be a part of them, including being the brunt of name-calling and being subjected to the thousand cuts of segregation (not all of them being small cuts, by the way). For those interested, Nelson offers signed copies of his book on his website at list price, and "remarqué" copies for $100, which feature both a signature and an original piece of artwork.

Civil War/Lincoln buffs

Lincoln Shot: A President's Life Remembered by Barry Denenberg, illustrated by Christopher Bing.

If you're going to buy one new children's book about Abraham Lincoln this year, this is the one to buy. Be prepared to make space for, it, though, because this book is TALL, measuring a foot wide by 18" high. It contains 40 pages, conceived as a newspaper representing the one-year anniversary of Lincoln's assassination and the search for and capture of the assassins, this book looks and feels like nothing you've seen, and will grab and hold your attention start to finish. Wanna see an inside page? Cool, yes?

Recommended for anyone over the age of 8 or so with an interest in American History, particularly the Presidency, the Civil War and/or Abraham Lincoln.

Books for those interested in the Revolutionary War and/or feminism

Independent Dames: What You Never Knew About the Women and Girls of the American Revolution by Laurie Halse Anderson, illustrated by Matt Faulkner. My full review can be found elsewhere, but in short, here's what I liked about this history book: All told, 89 women and girls are profiled in the book, including African American and Native American women who fought for the Patriot's cause, whether in word or deed, as well as devoting a bit of attention to the Loyalists as well. This book contains a tremendous amount of information, and it has quite a bit going on in it, but the genius of its set-up is that it never feels heavy or pedantic.

Books for a good cause

Our White House: Looking In, Looking Out is the creation of the National Children's Book and Literary Alliance (NCBLA), and contains contributions by 108 children's writers and illustrators, along with content from a bunch of other folks, including Robert Kennedy's comments following the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., an essay by Lynda Bird Johnson about her bedroom in the White House, and words from a number of presidents, including Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush. Pretty much my only criticism of the book has to do with the failure to include these other folks in the headcount on the front of this wonderful book, which relates the history and stories of the White House.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

I Love Librarians!

I’ve just come back from two conferences with librarians. The first was the SLJ Summit in Hollywood, Florida. It was a small but mighty conference, with only about 250 attendees. Many of the participants were in charge of whole school districts. Their mission: to find the most powerful ways to promote literacy. Naturally, they love books. They get it that books give the most coherent and lucid explanations of complicated issues. But they are also on the cutting edge of technology. Most school librarians are also their district “techies” and are responsible for spending portions of their budget for computers, software, and digital materials. They must also keep up with the internet sites kids are accessing as well as the games they are playing. This was reflected in the panel discussions: “Creating and Managing Digital Video Content,” “Can You Hear Me Now? Exploring the Audio/Ebook Experience,” “Reference in the Digital Age, ” “Digital Books for Children: Blessing, Bane or Both?” and the panel I was invited to speak on, “Opening the Book: Matchmaking Nonfiction Books and Educational Technology in the Digital Age.” Marc Aronson, the moderator of my panel, wanted us to show how other media enhanced the power of a book. It is clear that the book is not dead, but it is also clear that the future involves lots of integration between the printed word and other technologies.

The second conference, four days later, was the Mississippi Library Commission, in Jackson Mississippi. These were public librarians (mostly in children’s services) whose whole mission in life is to get patrons into the library and to get kids into books. To do this, they put on programs: story times, read alouds, movies, craft activities, even science (hence my invitation). My job was to empower them to bring in kids using science. Instead of using high tech, public librarians rely on their own personalities and interests to “sell” kids on books. So I gave them lots of hands-on activities, which they enthusiastically threw themselves into. In fact, I’ve never seen a group have so much fun. They were an extraordinarily extroverted bunch, with no shyness about volunteering, sharing or speaking up. I stayed for story-teller
Dianne de las Casas’ session. She uses her dynamic presentation to create a participating audience, which was not a stretch for this group. These women (there don’t seem to be many men in this profession) were particularly uninhibited about acting out parts of a story or singing aloud. And this was well before happy hour!

Both authors and librarians are thinking seriously about the future of the book. There is no question that other media compete for time in the busy lives of today’s kids. How do you introduce kids to unfamiliar subjects and kindle further interest in a topic? How do you get kids to apply themselves to something that requires discipline and effort as opposed to the enticing path of least resistance (video games, for example)? The answer is: revealed humanity through the single passionate voice. This is something that librarians seem to have in abundance. Each individual librarian has her own idiosyncratic way of revealing her passion to connect children and books. It is also what creates literature out of the best authors’ endeavors. Revealed humanity, whether through print or personal connection, is the subtext of all authentic communication. It is behind librarians’ recognition of our voices as authors. And it is behind their courageous and fervent fight for literacy. This is a profession that is often below the radar of public recognition. But obviously not in my book.

Monday, December 1, 2008

What I'm Studying Right Now

Quantum mechanics. Yes, that's right. I should sell tickets to this show: I read, I scratch my head, I reread the same paragraph. My head drops forward onto my chest: a sign that my brain is on the run. I am watching, for the second time, a twenty-four lecture series on Einstein and the quantum revolution. I'm okay with Newton, and a clockwork universe. I can handle Gallileo. I can even manage to wrap my head around special relativity and curved space-time.

But the statistical probability of matter just freaks me out. Before observation, contradictory possibilities exist simultaneously; the act of observation forces one possibility into existence, and eliminates the other. So I am forced to consider that while I'm sitting at my desk, the black kitten named Mimi is behind me, watching me, and at the same time, upstairs asleep on my daughter's bed. Both possibilities (and more besides!) are real. It's not just that both are possible. Both are equally real until I check. It gives me the creeps -- should I turn around and check, or just sit here, wondering, trying to trick quantum physics by looking -- really fast! -- and then turning back and hoping the universe didn't see me peek?

One of the attractions of nonfiction (for me, at least) is the comfort of knowing that things are real. Either a historical event happened or it didn't. Either a bat is a mammal or it isn't. The maybe-ness of quantum mechanics has thrown a big monkey wrench into my Weltanschauung. I have the sensation of moving inside a bubble that consists of the possibilities I drove into existence by my observation; my bubble is floating through a gray, multi-dimensional miasma of contradictory possibilities which are all co-existent because I haven't observed them yet. What is this sensation, this head-spinning, stomach-lurching sensation? Oh, I remember now: this sensation is poetry. Or something like that.

Strange, isn't it?

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Thankful Books: Celebrating Byrd Baylor

When I think of thankfulness and books, I think of author Byrd Baylor. She writes both fiction and nonfiction. But all of her books are full of truth—resonant truth that bubbles up out of her clear prose. Her books, such as THE WAY TO START A DAY have been around for a while. But read them or re-read them and I think you'll find they hit home. They give thanks, for life and nature, at an elemental level.

THE TABLE WHERE RICH PEOPLE SIT is a perfect book for this economy and this particular November day. THE WAY TO START A DAY is a celebration of life and worth savoring. EVERYBODY NEEDS A ROCK is one of my favorites as a lover of science and rocks. I know the deep, intimate process of finding THAT rock. It is an essential way to connect in a sensory way with Earth.

For educators, Baylor's books are a terrific introduction to nonfiction voice. She is a master of both intimate storytelling and exposition. Her books show the power of unhurried prose. She doesn't throw something in your face and demand you love it. She shares. She calls on touchable, tastable details that bring big concepts to small fingers and hearts.

I call on her publisher to re-issue a Byrd Baylor collection. I'll buy it and tell everyone I meet about it. Her voice, as a nonfiction writer, is something special. I didn't come across Baylor's work until I'd been writing and publishing picture books for quite a while. But when I found them . . . ah. Her books are the kind that make me hug them to my chest and just sigh. After reading, I look around with new eyes. Wherever you are, Byrd, thanks for your work.

Happy Thanksgiving, all!

April Pulley Sayre

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

My Fifteen Minutes

Andy Warhol’s allotment of fame came in two installments for me this fall. My latest book, Jeannette Rankin: Political Pioneer has gotten nice attention this year: several notable lists, two awards, and one finalist. Who knew when I began writing it several years ago that this would be the year of the political woman? Not I.

The Children’s Literature Council of Southern California’s award ceremony was preceded by a scrumptious brunch at the Bowers Museum of Art in Santa Ana. Masks and sculptures from Oceania lined the room; a wall of window looked out onto an Asian-themed garden. Then we processed to an auditorium where authors and illustrators of various genres gave five-minute award acceptance speeches, mine for an Inspiring Work of Nonfiction.

As a member of this congenial group of librarians and authors for the last decade or so, I’d harbored a secret wish to win their award – and now I had done it. I’ve been a public speaker for decades. I’m at ease speaking to kids in schools, college students in classrooms, the general public in all sorts of venues. But this was different. I surprised myself by getting choked up as I spoke to my peers who were honoring me and my work.

Five minutes and it was over.

Two weeks later, the Simon Wiesenthal Center/Museum of Tolerance gave me the first Once Upon A World Award for young adult literature. (Their picture book award is thirteen years old, won this year by Ellie Crowe for Surfer of the Century: The Life of Duke Kahanamoku.) This was an afternoon event, open to the public and filled with winning-book-related events. Children made campaign buttons in an art activity room. (Jeannette Rankin was our first Congresswoman.) A storyteller narrated some of Rankin’s life in another room filled with beanbag chairs.

At the ceremony itself I did a ten-minute monologue as Rankin, wearing period hats. Then came the award and photo-op (no choking-up this time,) followed by a reception [see recipe below] and signing, then a dinner party at the elegant home of the award’s sponsor. And my book now wears a gold seal.

5 minutes + 10 minutes = my 15 minutes

Between those two events, I traveled to Missoula (Rankin’s hometown) for the Montana Festival of the Book, a fun-filled two-day event featuring talks, panel discussions, readings, and signings by 140 authors, mostly Montanans who knew each other. Film screenings, art exhibits, and a poetry slam provided entertainment in the evenings. I spoke on two panels with biographers, novelists, and librarians – and paid a school visit to students who, unlike most kids, had already heard of Rankin, a Montana heroine. All that and gorgeous autumn weather -- golden glowing cottonwoods and larch trees -- made for a memorable weekend. (Hanging out with my son, who lives there, was an added bonus.)

I love talking about books. I love being surrounded by other writers and I was happy to be just one of 140 in Montana. But every once in a while I do like that dollop of icing on the cake – see below – when I and my books are the center of attention.

Recipe for Literary Icing
The folks at the Museum of Tolerance created a Jeannette Rankin edible book cover cake! Here’s how they told me you do it:
1) Scan the book cover.
2) Print it onto a sheet of edible rice paper (with edible food coloring.)
3) Lay carefully over a large sheet cake.
4) Eat!

Tuesday, November 25, 2008


True conversation overheard at dinner one night in suburban NYC.

Teen H.S. student: “I have to go finish my homework. I still have twenty pages to read in my history textbook. It’s the most boring piece of crap ever.”

Teen’s father, graduate of top academic high school in NYC: “Oh, you must be using the same textbooks we did.”

Teen’s younger brother: “Well, my history textbook still calls Russia the USSR.”

(names have been withheld to protect blogger from family's wrath)

What's with the boring, outdated nonfiction?
If we hope to successfully analyze how we can make nonfiction more appealing, our first step needs to be acknowledging what nonfiction kids are actually reading. Most school age children read nonfiction every night. It's true. They do their homework(usually) and they read their textbooks. The sad reality is this is often their only form of nonfiction reading and, it can be argued, a primary reason they don’t pursue nonfiction further.

As the above conversation references, we need to seriously consider textbooks as well as school and library editions-- forms of nonfiction that dominate the school environment --because this is how children are exposed to nonfiction. It starts early in kindergarten and first grade, where the classrooms offer less expensive, paperback library nonfiction. Then it’s on to textbooks which have been known to actually cause a child to loose interest in a subject. No matter how creative nonfiction writers get, the truth is that kids first and predominant exposure to nonfiction has not had any significant improvements in the last thirty years. Or is it longer?

I read an interesting article recently about a watchdog organization devoted to trying to help journalists approach their topics from a position of knowledge and understanding. Its goal is to find ways for journalist to become more educated on the subject matters they cover so that their articles have the depth and understanding of someone who is actually involved in education, the environment, politics or whatever subject they are writing about.

Perhaps children’s publishing could benefit from a similar approach. There is currently a lot of “we only do literary fiction” or “we publish solely for the library market” kind of isolating talk and behavior. Kids don’t break down their reading habits in this way; it doesn’t serve them well that the professionals do. If nonfiction is going to really push through the old barriers, we have to look at the bigger picture. If we understand what they read, required and otherwise, from an early age then perhaps we can understanding how to keep them interested as they grow older.

Kids today are still going to spend a lot of time texting and instant messaging. But it still might be possible to engage them with a new, improved old school kind of text.

Monday, November 24, 2008

It's "Math-Lit" But Is It Good Lit?

I am just back from San Antonio, where I spoke at NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English). An annual appearance at NCTM (National Council of Teachers of Mathematics) has been on my agenda since 1996 but this was my first NCTE. I started thinking about similarities and differences between the two organizations in how they encourage teachers to use literature, and I mostly came up with similarities. And then I remembered a book on my shelf at home that makes that point exactly, focusing on mathematical literature. Appropriately, the book is published jointly by NCTM and NCTE. If I could put just one resource in the hands of a teacher wanting to mine the many treasures of “math-lit” as a teaching tool for both mathematics and language arts, this would be the book.

New Visions for Linking Literature and Mathematics by David J. Whitin and Phyllis Whitin is more than a resource book about using math-related literature in the classroom. It does indeed illustrate a myriad
ways that teachers can use a wide range of quality b
ooks to support both math and literacy. But note the word “quality.” In addition to providing examples (plenty!) and illustrating how teachers have used them (impressive!), it tells you how to judge mathematical literature. That’s where New Visions differs from any other resource book I’ve seen. “Many (math-related books) seem more like workbooks than stories,” write the Whitins and I agree wholeheartedly. “Some give detailed prescriptions for reading, much like a teaching manual for a basal reader, while others mask doses of ‘skills’ with comical illustrations or popular food products…” Bottom line: not all math lit is created equal, and New Visions shows you how to evaluate. It even shows why some books just don’t make the grade, and it does name names. Harsh! But someone had to do it.

The Whitins put forth four criteria as a guide for judging mathematical literature as worthy. They then select one book as exemplary, showing how it makes the grade in all four areas. More on that later. Here are their criteria with an example of a book that stands out in each category.

1. Mathematical integrity Stories and literature have enormous value when they inspire children to apply mathematical ideas to the world around them, but for that to happen, the math in a book should be not only accurate, but should be presented in a context that is believable, not forced; it should be presented in an accessible way; and it should “promote healthy mathematical attitudes and dispositions.”

The Whitins give several examples, including Ann Whitehead Nagda’s Tiger Math: Learning to Graph from a Baby Tiger, which provides both an exciting non-fiction narrative with photographs and statistical data from the true, suspenseful story of a motherless tiger cub being raised at the Denver Zoo. Data (such as weight gain over time) is expressed in a variety of useful graphs. It’s an engaging book that connects math to the real world in a way children find spellbinding — and educators find supportive of the standards they are trying to teach.

2. Potential for Varied Response. Children’s books should not be worksheets. Instead of being didactic, they should encourage children to think mathematically and invite them to “investigate, discuss, and extend… (and to) engage in research, problem posing and problem solving.” Readers are not directed. They are invited.

Readers of the charming Grandpa’s Quilt by Betsy Franco, are easily tempted to find their own solutions the problem that faces the book’s characters. The 6-square by 6-square quilt does not cover their grandfather’s feet so they must rearrange its dimensions. Children are likely to explore factors of 36 and to get a feel for the relationship between perimeter and area. And the mathematical “invitations” go on from there.

3. An aesthetic dimension “Good books appeal to the emotions and senses of the reader, provide a fresh perspective, and free the imagination.” Here the Whitins look at how well the written language is crafted, along with the quality of the visuals and whether the book actually inspires a greater appreciation of the wonders of the world (including the human world). To earn our respect, the words and visuals of a work of mathematical literature must be just as compelling as those of any other literary genre. Claiming "It's just a math book!" doesn't cut it.

In their unique counting book, Spots: Counting Creatures from Sky to Sea, author Carolyn Lesser and illustrator Laura Regan use vivid, evocative language and stunning paintings to inspire awe and appreciation of nature — as well as the mathematics that is so often useful in describing and explaining the natural world.

4. Racial, cultural and gender inclusiveness. My first reaction to this criterion was a bit dismissive. “Doesn’t that apply to all books?” I asked. Of course it does, but we should be especially careful not to let the
mathematical component of literature that perpetuates stereotypes blind us to an unfortunate sub-text. There is a huge push now to attract women and members of ethnic minorities to careers in mathematics, science and engineering, and children’s books can help promot
e equity. There is more to it than counting boys vs. girls or white children vs. black or brown children in the illustrations. As one of several fascinating examples, the Whitins sing the praises of The History of Counting by eminent archaeologist Denise Schmandt-Besserat, a non-fiction picture book that celebrates the contributions
of many cultures over many centuries in developing diverse number systems.

New Visions for Linking Literature and Mathematics goes on to provide myriad examples of books for a wide range of ages, strategies for using them to teach math, and an outstanding annotated bibliography called “Best Books for Exploring.”

Now about that exemplary book the Whitins chose to feature in the opening chapter. I held off identifying it until now for fear of seeming self-serving, but in the interest of full-disclosure, I should say that it’s my book If You Hopped Like a Frog. I’ve written about it in earlier posts so I won’t summarize it now and it would really feel way too “me”-focused to list the ways the authors of New Visions found that it met their four criteria. Instead, I’ll close with a passage from an article published in Horn Book in 1987, quoted by the Whitins. I can think of no better summary of their feelings and mine:

“You can almost divide the nonfiction [that children] read into two categories: nonfiction that stuffs in facts, as if children were vases to be filled, and nonfiction that ignites the imagination, as if children were indeed fires to be lit.” (Jo Carr, “Filling Vases, Lighting Fires” Horn Book 63, November/December 1987.)

Friday, November 21, 2008

Photography and Nonfiction Kids' Books

Today, I realized with surprise that only a couple of posts have dealt with photography in nonfiction children’s books. Especially for books beyond grades 3 or 4, photography plays a huge role in both the effectiveness and success of a book. How does an author get the photos he or she needs?

In some cases, publishers do the work. With my “American Heroes” biographies and my book Pocket Babies, for instance, I have been fortunate to work with publishers that do a wonderful job at photo research. Taking my own photos, however, has been pivotal to the some of my most successful books. And yet, I do not consider myself a professional photographer. How does that work?

Well, the answer is that back in 1994, I bought a camera system that is smarter than I am. Before that time, I tried to take professional-grade photos using a manual 35-mm Olympus system. Just couldn’t do it. Even though I spent a great deal of time trying, the photos always came out slightly out-of-focus or with the wrong metering. Today’s cameras are so good, though, that they solve most of these issues. Still, that doesn’t mean that I’m home-free.

Most books require a few specialized shots that someone like myself just cannot get. So a key for me is recognizing the kinds of photos I can take myself. I limit myself, for example, to subjects that are close and holding still. Fortunately, that includes 90% of most photos I ever need for a book, from plants and landscapes to insects and people. Another big key is using a tripod. Even on a well-lit, still day, a tripod is almost essential for getting that crispness that I must have to make a picture publishable.

For the other photos I need, I just plan on obtaining those elsewhere. People I am interviewing for my books often have these available. For my new book Science Warriors: The Battle Against Invasive Species, I was able to obtain some key close-up—and gruesome—photos of flies emerging from an ant’s head from a scientist who works with this system. For my book The Prairie Builders, the refuge I featured had a number of historical photos in their collection I could use.

While part of me dreads getting photos together for a book, a larger part really enjoys the process. Documenting a research trip with photos actually helps me a lot with the writing process. And you just can’t beat being right in a place taking the pictures you need. BTW, I use a Canon system with a macro lens, a wide-angle lens, and a zoom 50-300 mm. And don’t faint now—I still shoot film! That will surely change with the next big photo book, but for now, it’s all worked remarkably well—and enriched my entire writing process.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Passionate Nonfiction and Staying True to Your Readers

I tried to post this before leaving for San Antonio this morning for the NCTE/ALAN conference, but it didn’t work. I’m hoping I can tap into the wireless during my next layover and send this off to cyberland from Newark. If you’re reading this, I have succeeded.

The topic our NCTE (National Council for Teachers of English) panel will be discussing is how we, as nonfiction writers, remain a reliable source of information while sharing our passion and point of view on a topic with young readers. It’s a very good question and one that I, like my fellow panelists—Marc Aronson, Elizabeth Partridge, and Tonya Bolden—and other nonfiction writers spend a great deal of time thinking about and incorporating when we transfer our thoughts to the page.

There are many factors that come into play, especially when writing for an audience that is older than the picture book crowd. When I delve into a topic I try to learn as much as humanly possible on a subject. This means that I sometimes uncover issues that not be entirely positive or may be difficult to address with kids. But it certainly doesn’t mean that I avoid those issues. For example, while researching Ella Fitzgerald for my Up Close: Ella Fitzgerald book, I discovered that there were many half-truths or misperceptions perpetuated in books about her over the years. Figuring out that some of that information was related to the fact that Ella had a particularly rough childhood and was a homeless teenager for a time was something I felt important to disclose to young readers even though there had been historical attempts to keep this under wraps. Ella’s past speaks directly to the type of strong, tenacious woman she was and illustrates for kids that she was able to overcome adversity and follow her dreams to success. This kind of information gets us closer to our subjects; closer to the truth of who they really were. And isn’t that the point?

At other times in my research, I have uncovered what I like to call “American heroes behaving badly.” Uh-oh. What’s a writer to do? Tarnish the reputation of a well-known figure? Maybe. Gloss over it and fail to bring it to the reader’s attention? Ignore it and hope it goes away? Of course not. But to tread here, one must do so attentively. With thought and care. I feel I have a duty to my young readers to tell them the truth about the world as I see it. Of course, my way of seeing it is as unique to me as yours is to you. But that’s all any of us have to work with. That, and integrity and ethics. If I tell readers the truth as I see it, and give them as much context as I can so that they can see things for themselves as well, all the while staying as true and honest as I possibly can, I have done my job. This was my goal in my forthcoming book Almost Astronauts: 13 Women Who Dared to Dream, which is about the 13 courageous women in 1961 who excelled at astronaut testing and continued to push onward even when NASA did not let them into the space program.

I can tell you right now that you will read about a few beloved American heroes behaving badly in this particular episode of history. But I can also assure you that, in addition to my deep personal feelings about this story, I have been fair and honest. I have taken multiple perspectives into account. Including my own.

Some may say that nonfiction should stick only to the facts, but I disagree. The kind of nonfiction I most enjoy reading, and that I believe young readers get the most out of, is the kind of nonfiction that is as alive as the people whose stories are being told. That’s what makes history exciting and that’s what gets kids excited about reading.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Crazy About Similes!

My fall book tells a tale using only similes as the text. The easiest way to get a sense of it is to watch this video preview. The impetus to create Crazy Like Fox: A Simile Story was to follow up on a previous book of sayings (There’s a Frog in My Throat) while using a different format. Frog is a compendium of over 400 sayings; Crazy tells a story as well as having several similes on each page. Every time a character is compared to something, he or she turns into it. For example, when Rufus is sleeping like a log, on the next page he becomes a log (and even snores like a chain saw.) This enabled me to have tons of fun with the illustrations. It’s been well-received, with a starred review from Kirkus.

I’m not aware of any similar book where the text consists of only similes, but please let me know if there is one for curiosity’s sake. The title was the first simile chosen, and the plot needed to explain what “crazy like a fox” means. So, Rufus the fox had to act weird for some reason that would make sense by the end of the story. In the manuscript’s early stages, he was jumping as high as a kite to get over a fence, running as fast as the wind to escape some critter, and finally building a contraption to vault him across a river to get breakfast at Mama Somebody's Cafe. The ending seemed a tad flat, though.

Meanwhile, I was busy collecting similes. If there’s some master web site full of zillions of ‘em, I never found it. This one has a fair number (you have to scroll down a bit.) But mostly, I had to compile a list using various general idiom or cliché sites. One of my favorites is this one that you can search by key word. Of course, only a small percentage of any group of sayings are similes, so it took awhile to get a reasonable number to “audition” as part of a potential text. After amassing quite a few, for the sake of organization they had to be put in alphabetical order by first key word. Thus, as tall as a giraffe came before as tough as nails. For Frog I had made a database, but for this project a list worked fine. I did separate “like” from “as“ similes to make it easier and to ensure there was a good balance of both forms in the book. Also, I left out similes that were obviously unsuitable because they were too antiquated (as mad as a hatter), inappropriate for young children (like a bat out of hell), or probably wouldn’t fit into the story. Whatever the story turned out to be, that is.

Eventually the idea popped into my head for Rufus to pick on his friend Babette the sheep, and thus lure her into chasing him all the way to her own surprise birthday party. The party is as noisy as a herd of elephants, so of course the guests turn into... elephants! If you’ve never seen a possum, a crow, a ladybug and several other critters transformed into long-trunked proboscideans,
this is your chance.

In the book biz, snags can crop up anywhere, and towards the end there was suddenly a title problem. Namely, the publisher wanted me to jettison the title Crazy Like a Fox and call it Simply Similes. Rather than freaking out (my first impulse,) I sent them a list of the pros of keeping the title as it was, plus the requirements for any alternate title (has to be catchy and fun, inspire kids to read it, tie in with the story, and so on.) I also had the chance to mention the issue to a group of teachers who all were in favor of the original title, and POOF! that little issue went away (yay!)

Monday, November 17, 2008

Horn Tooting

My newest titles were published this Fall.

All Stations! Distress! about the Titanic and Let It Begin Here! about the Battle of Lexington and Concord are departures from my usual biographical-picture-books-for-younger-readers fare. Instead, they are longer format books aimed squarely at nine to twelve-year-old readers.

Whereas my picture books are studies in “reduction” – What can I leave out without damaging the narrative arc of the story or, worse, skewing historical accuracy – The longer text in the new books allowed me to explore details of the story as well as employ more complex sentences. (Even so, I’m still a sucker for the straight-forward declarative sentence.) And I could indulge in art more appropriate for an older audience, specifically of the ‘blood and guts’ variety.

All Stations! Distress! received starred reviews from the Horn Book and School Library Journal. SLJ also awarded Let It Begin Here! a starred review.

Friday, November 14, 2008

"Borrowing" Fiction to Create Nonfiction?

While working out this weekend, I watched a children's DVD about an artist that I've been researching and writing about. To get into a writing groove, I love to jump on the elliptical and watch an inspiring art video. It was a nice story about a famous painter and at the very end of the long list of credits, I read, "adapted from the O. Henry story The Last Leaf".

"Interesting," I thought. "I guess I should check out this O. Henry story."

The story about this famous artist on the DVD was exactly the story, The Last Leaf. So, to understand this correctly, if showed this DVD to an art appreciation class, I'd have to say, "Well, this is a story about ______ but it's not true. The artist and other characters in the story actually knew each other, but what happens in the story never happened. They borrowed it from a fictional short story from another author."

Now, I'm all for great stories about artists that illustrate for children the power of art. I'm all for using literary techniques to help creatively tell the story; i.e. complication/resolution, flashback, foreshadowing, and pace. But, is it just me? I felt misled by the use of another author's fictional story. I believed the story to be true. It wasn't until I read the credit at the end of the credits that I learned that the story was untrue (by the way, there was no mention on the cover or the beginning credits... only the DVD author's name, not O. Henry.)

To illustrate, suppose I write a children's book about Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. Frida and Diego want to give each other Christmas gifts but they don't have any money. So (can you guess where this is going?) Frida cuts her hair to sell to buy a watch fob for Diego and Diego, in turn, sells his watch to buy a beautiful clip for Frida's hair. To be fair, I'll add some art to the book. Nice story, huh? Is it okay to then add in the fine print at the end of the book, "Adapted from The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry"? Wouldn't you assume that the story actually transpired between Frida and Diego? I mean, they probably did buy each other Christmas gifts. Right?*

To give credit to the DVD, it was a nice reminder of the the power of art and it had cool computer graphics. I've purposely not mentioned the title so that someday it might not come back and bite me. And, sorry, if any other of my INKmates have "borrowed" from other famous works of fiction to tell a nonfiction story. Heck, maybe there are some award-winners that I'm not aware of that are "adapted" from other works of fiction. I don't mean to offend. It is my hope that other sage nonfiction writers would weigh in on this topic.

Anna rant is over. Please leave a nice, constructive comment.

*Ha! As I reread this, way, way back in my mind, I vaguely remember that Frida and Diego never exchanged gifts, but I may be wrong. I thought that was a little weird. Now, maybe, that would make an interesting story?

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Truth and Nothing But

I thought I was going to write this blog at a leisurely pace on an entirely different topic. Then again, after a lifetime of being called for jury duty and never being picked, I also thought I would had plenty of time to write it.

On the way home from court, it occurred to me that being a juror is a lot like researching a nonfiction book. You never come upon the important information in a neat package. You have to ingest the pieces of evidence as they come, then sort through them to create a narrative you believe best resembles the truth. Some witnesses seem to be lying to support their agendas. Others seem untrustworthy for a more benign reason. You wonder if their emotions have pushed their sense of what happened into a posture that actually feels true to them. You find both types of when you research books too. Try to figure out what was going on in Salem during the witch hunts. Or explain McCarthyism. Or many of the American myths from George and his cherry tree onward.

Sorry, this blog is going to be short. Frankly, I want to watch some bad TV, go to sleep, and get ready for tomorrow’s closing arguments and deliberations. Coming up with a verdict in this case will require much thought and hard work. I’m not going to equate being intellectually lazy in the jury room with writing a mediocre book—someone’s freedom is at stake here. But doing the best you can at both jobs may have lasting effects (albeit it, quite different ones) on the lives of people you don’t really know.