Friday, May 30, 2008

Pre-School Through High School? Non-Fiction Picture Books Across the Grades

This post first appeared one year ago. It received many favorable comments (including one in Chinese that I can only hope is favorable!) and I think it would be a good one for a summer rerun. More than ever, I find that my most successful books, and the ones I feel best about, are the books that work on different levels for children of different ages.

People often ask, “What age children do you write for?” Because my books are picture books, they are surprised when I say, trying not to sound smug, “pre-school through high school.” It would actually be more truthful to say, “pre-school through college” because on two occasions I have met chemistry professors who use How Much Is a Million? in their introductory courses when teaching Avogadro’s Number, an enormous and important quantity defined numerically as 6.02 X 10 to the 23rd power.

I, too, would have been surprised early in my writing career if anyone had told me that some of my books were destined for use in classrooms throughout the grades. This has happened so often with How Much Is a Million? since its publication in 1985, that I am no longer surprised when I hear of fifth, sixth or even tenth grade students devising their own problems and doing calculations modeled after mine.

More recently, I published If You Hopped Like a Frog and a sequel, If Dogs Were Dinosaurs. As soon as Frog came out in 1999, it was déjà-vu all over again. The book explores the principles of ratio and proportion by comparing animal abilities to those of humans. To use the title example, a 3-inch frog can hop five feet, or 60 inches, thus hopping 20 times its own length. Applying that ratio to a 4'6" child jumping proportionally, I came up with the statement that introduces the book: “If you hopped like a frog… [page turn]… you could jump from 
home plate to first base in one mighty leap.”

I love to see examples of student work that extend my books. If You Hopped Like a Frog has resulted in a wealth of material from the pencils and pens of clever children guided by inspiring teachers. What strikes me is how the book is enjoyed and used across a wide range of ages, and how teachers across many grade levels have incorporated it into their classrooms to support the curriculum.

I will give a few examples of diverse student work related to If You Hopped Like a Frog but I am hoping that this post will open a discussion of books by many authors that are used throughout the grades. As much as any measure, a book’s ability to be appealing and thought-provoking to a wide age range could be (should be?) an indicator of success. I certainly feel successful when I witness the same book loved by five year olds and thirteen-year olds alike.

“If you flicked your tongue like a chameleon,” I write in Frog, “you could whip the food off of your plate without even using your hands. But what would your mother say?” (Something about bad manners, I suppose.) As with all the assertions in the book, a section in the back explains both the facts and the math. Kids are always asking me, “Is that true or did you just make it up?” Well, when you write non-fiction, I tell them, you’re not supposed to make it up! If they read the pages at the back, they can see why I wrote what I did and how I did the math. In this case, it is based on the tongue length in some chameleon species being half as long as the chameleon’s entire body. (In fact, there are species in which the tongue is several times the length of an individual’s body, so this is a modestly endowed chameleon we’re talking about.) When I speak about this book at schools, I love to flick out a red paper “tongue” as a demonstration, adding comments like, “Yum, I just love those fat, juicy flies.”

Without even approaching words like “ratio” or “proportion,” a first grade class in Fair Hope, Alabama, used this as the basis for exploring the concept of “half.” Each child was assigned a length in inches. He or she was to draw a chameleon of that length, then figure out half of its length and cut out a tongue from red paper to be attached in the appropriate place. At the end of the tongue, a fat, juicy fly was be affixed. Yum.

Fourth graders in Hanford, California, did something similar with their own heights except that they did the measurements in both “customary” (American) units and in SI (metric) units. (Finding half of a height in feet and inches usually proved harder than in centimeters – a fabulous demonstration of metric superiority.) Then they made tongues for themselves and assembled for a novel class picture.

In Nashville, fourth graders drew upon my example of a flea jumping straight up to an
 altitude 70 times its own height. (“If you high-jumped like a flea… you could land on Lady Liberty’s torch.”) Instead of each child comparing his or her prodigious high jump to a
landmark in far-off New York City, they used structures in their own city, including the Ryman Auditorium (the original Grand Ole Opry) and the Bell South Tower (known to all Nashvillians as “The Batman Building.”) I like the way Genny calculated not only how far up the Batman Building she could jump, but also how far she would have yet to go before reach the summit.

At Marymount School in Paris, fifth graders got similar results but they compared their prodigious jumps to the heights of l’Arc de Triumph and the Cathedral Les Invalides.

In a most impressive class project, sixth graders in Hobson, Montana, created a class book modeled after If You Hopped Like a Frog. Each child researched the abilities of one species, found a proportional relationship between some ability of their chosen animal and a human, wrote and illustrated the text, and explained the whole shebang in detail at the back. (How cool is that?! This was their variation on the less inspired “animal report” that does little more than get kids to rehash an encyclopedia.)

The example voted by the class to be on the cover of this magnificent class-created book is “If your tooth was as long as a narwhal’s tusk...” I must refrain from editing it into the subjunctive to make it say, “If your tongue were as long as a narwhal’s tusk…” Never mind the grammar: this young author’s contribution is fabulous. To appreciate it, I will have to summarize his explanation before telling you the rest of his sentence: A narwhal is a whale that lives near Greenland; it is approximately 20 feet in length. One tooth develops uniquely, spiraling straight out to a length of about ten feet. Hence, the narwhal’s tusk is half as long as its entire body. The author of this exposition tells us that he himself is 5 feet tall, so if he had a narwhal-like tusk, proportionally, it would be 2’6”. Now I can provide his entire sentence: “If your tooth was as long as a narwhal’s tusk…[turn page]… you could roast six marshmallows over a campfire without burning your face!” How does he get that? He reports that he “did an experiment to see how close to a campfire I could put my face. The answer was two feet.” That means that the six inches of tusk hanging over the campfire would make a perfect skewer for marshmallow roasting. How big are the marshmallows? He says he measured them to learn that each has a diameter of one inch. Hence, six marshmallows could fit on the six inches of tusk positioned directly above the hot coals. S’mores anyone?

This particular class project included many other spectacular examples of creativity in concert with mathematical thinking (and magnificent art). One of my favorites is, “If you spit like an archerfish…” (this Amazon basin fish spits 16 times its body length to knock insects off of branches above the river; it can then gobble them up) “…you could nail the second baseman from home plate.” Please don’t try it at home. Or at school. But do the math. You’ll have to use the Pythagorean Theorem to figure out the distance from home plate to second base.

And you thought picture books were just for little kids?

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Independent Dames writing nonfiction

I recently had the opportunity to read and review Independent Dames by Laurie Halse Anderson. It's a nonfiction picture book focusing on the contributions of women to the American Revolution. And since Laurie and I are both independent dames who write nonfiction, and I recently interviewed her, I thought I'd discuss some of what I learned from writing biography and from talking to Laurie Halse Anderson about it.

One thing that Laurie does (which works well, I think) is to use approachable language. In fact, the narrator of Independent Dames and Thank You, Sarah has a decidedly irreverent tone. And where other information is presented (as in the bio bubbles in Independent Dames, she provides only the interesting bits, in concise, approachable language.

Another thing Laurie does well is to create a sense of the times by describing not just the actions of a person in isolation, but some of the setting (time, place, and other events) that were taking place, so that a reader understands not just the contribution of a particular woman, but something about the times in which she was living (and whether her actions flouted convention).

The Research Bit

Research is a key component of writing nonfiction (or historical fiction). Getting the details right is an important part of establishing credibility. As Laurie said:

Historical accuracy is vital to my work. My manuscripts have all been reviewed by historians whose special expertise is the time periods or events covered by my story. Most of the characters in my novels are fictional, but they are as true to what people were like back then as possible. When “real” people wander across the pages of my books, like George Washington, they only do or say things that I can prove they did or said. Laurie Halse Anderson, interview with Kelly Fineman

When researching the life of Jane Austen, I read biographies by other people, Austen's novels, Juvenilia and letters, books of literary criticism, historical accounts of life in Georgian and Regency England, books about locations in England, and more. I have spreadsheets to keep track of what books and articles I've read, and notebooks full of copies of articles from periodicals and web pages. I have written notes, often typed and backed up, but always kept together so I can find what I need. Organization is crucial when it comes to research. And so is knowing when enough is enough.

What I do for my Austen project is not unlike what Laurie Halse Anderson does when researching for a historical novel or nonfiction project:

It helps that I read quickly and I am rather compulsive about organization. I read constantly, both popular books about the time periods I care about and specialized historical journals. I belong to a number of history-based listservs and take advantage of the expertise of others. Once I have the broad outline of what I want to accomplish in a book, I delve into academic libraries, looking for the writings of historians who have made my topics their life’s work, and using their bibliographies as my guide to primary source materials. I keep copious notes and often have nightmares in which I am drowning in a sea of citations. Laurie Halse Anderson, interview.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Oh, The Places You'll Go...

….. and the people you’ll meet when you write nonfiction! I know I’m not alone in loving – sometimes preferring – the research part of the job. Getting out of my head and on to the phone. Out of my office and into the big wide world.

Unless you’re writing about the president or a Beatle, you’ll probably find that the expert(s) on your subject are willing – nay, delighted – to speak to you. Most likely, they live in a rarified world with a few colleagues and a spouse who already know all their stories. You are a new audience, eager to hear what, how, and why their work is so fascinating and important. Of course you don’t begin by saying “Tell me about ______.” You read everything you can and formulate intelligent questions. What can they add that you haven’t already learned?

For my first book, The Wind at Work, Paul Gipe, a noted wind energy expert, invited me to his home for an interview and a look through his extensive photo collection. He let me use his photos free of charge. I also arranged a private tour of a wind turbine factory, got some free photos, and the company has been a loyal promoter of my book every since.

The Guild of Volunteer Millers in the Netherlands includes over a thousand windmillers and their apprentices. I visited one on a Sunday afternoon as he ran “his” restored windmill. Not only did I get a closeup look at and listen to the mill, but I learned that the windmills have to be operated regularly to prevent woodworm larvae from hatching in the beams. It's the vibrations that do that. A few miles away a tourist attraction with several windmills was jammed with people and busy millers. I had a windmill and a miller all to myself.

Not long ago I was researching a particular event in London in 1598. A new book came out that described the event in greater detail than I had found elsewhere. But still I had questions. I emailed the distinguished scholar/author and got a response within half an hour. The man mentioned his son as a prospective reader of my book.

Many towns have historical societies, or perhaps just a display case in the public library, with artifacts from the town’s past. Even more towns have one citizen, probably a native, who is the amateur historian extraordinaire. I’ve had many talks and walks with these folks, who proudly pass on countless stories about their native place. NB: Double the time you think the talk/tour will take. Recently I arrived mid-morning in a town in Norfolk, England for such a tour. I expected to be finished by lunchtime, after which I planned a leisurely drive to York for dinner with friends. I didn’t leave Norfolk until 4 p.m., and ended up dashing halfway up England well over the speed limit.

My travel research began in the 1980s when I wrote for airlines magazines. I rarely took a trip I couldn’t deduct from my income taxes. Besides the pay and the deductions, I found that having a focus for the trip made it more fun. I can’t seem to break the habit – nor do I want to – now that I’m writing children’s books. My recent trip to England involved two talks/tours in two different towns with aforementioned amateur historians extraordinaire.

Then on to Paris where my subject had many adventures. I didn’t meet any experts there, but I did rent a bicycle and found the places he lived, worked, and was imprisoned – snapping photos along the way. I also took some guided walking tours that gave me more information, photos, and local color.

After Paris, I spent a week in the Dordogne region, exploring prehistoric cave art. On this rare occasion I had no research in mind, no story ideas. I didn’t even save my receipts. Then, touring the last cave on my last day, I heard an anecdote that sparked an idea. Aha! Now, home again, I’m contacting authors and curators who will, I hope, lead me to the bi-lingual world authority who can tell me where……. and on it goes.

As for those missing receipts, I’ll have to rely on my credit card bill to help me with the IRS. Luckily I charge everything to my card, which gives me miles to take more trips to research more books….

Now, tell me your exotic, adventurous, disastrous, serendipitous research tales.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Does writing fiction affect the non-fiction writing process?

The launch of my debut novel, Climbing the Stairs, is going very well indeed. On the 1st of May, we celebrated with a reading and autograph party at The Other Tiger Bookstore in Westerly, RI, on the 17th at Barrington Books, RI, on the 18th at Front Street Books, MA, and on the 31st there will be another reading at Books on the Square in Providence.

Fine, you’re thinking. So what in heaven does this have to do with the INK Blog? This blog isn’t about novel writing, for Pete’s sake, you’re saying to yourself. It’s about interesting nonfiction.

Well, that’s true. But since I read Tanya's post of long ago and her very true words "I suspect that rethinking nonfiction means different things to each of us", I've realized that to me, one aspect of rethinking nonfiction that interests me is how fiction writing has influences nonfiction writing and vice versa.

That's been on my mind quite a bit these days – especially because I was also recently notified that I won the SCBWI Magazine Merit Award in the Nonfiction category for my article, The Power of Peace, which appeared in the October issue of Faces – and, incidentally, incorporated some of the research I’d done for the novel. The novel is set in India in the 1940’s – the time of the nonviolent Indian independence movement, led by Gandhi. The article is a nonfiction piece about the Gandhian revolution. That's one obvious example of how my fiction affected my nonfiction.

But was there anything in the actual process of writing a novel that I can apply to my nonfiction writing? That’s what I plan to blog about for the next few months: how features that we often associate with novel writing (such as “show don’t tell”, “plot”, “character”, “pacing” and “setting”) translate in terms of writing creative nonfiction. Yes, I can assure you that in my head, anyway, these terms apply equally well in the nonfiction world. And I will try to blog about why and how they do.

But before we go there, I’d like to start with one of the most important lessons I learned through writing my novel, which is about writing even on the "bad" days. Writing a novel or a long nonfiction book is like running a marathon, I think, while writing a picture book is like running the 100m dash – somewhat different in terms of the training and mindset required in some ways - but both require sustained effort and there are many similarities between the two types of writing. As I (and every other author of a picture book is well aware) a picture book is just as time-consuming and all-enveloping an effort as is writing a longer book.
Here are two tips on one important question about sustaining effort and staying interested enough in a topic to write hundreds of pages about it (or writing 16 pages and revising and polishing those 100 times over).

1.I switch to another book-related activity.For instance, I might decide to visit a writing blog, read a book that is somehow connected to the work at hand. And I don’t just do this passively – I take out my pencil and write down notes – if nothing else – even just words that leap out at me while I read. The key here, though, is that I set my alarm clock first, so it goes off in about 20 minutes or half an hour. Once that time elapses, I get right back to writing again.

2.I’m no artist, but sometimes I get out a pencil and draw the scene/concept/topic I’m having difficulty with. I think this can be really helpful at times, because it forces you to think of the topic in a different way and it can turn on the creative switch and thus help me explain it better.

That, at any rate, is my 2 cents. I’d love to have others comment on what they do on days when the muse doesn't seem to sit on their shoulders (or whatever it is that muses do to get their authors in shape). WHAT DO YOU DO ON DAYS WHEN THE MUSE DOESN’T SIT ON YOUR SHOULDER - or even flit your room for that matter?

Monday, May 26, 2008

Reading Vacation

Sometimes you need to be trapped somewhere with a book. I know, it shouldn't be that way. But it is. Some of the great reading I have done as a child and as an adult has been when I was stuck somewhere and at the mercy of books left by someone else.

On a rainy day when I was sick in a cloud forest in Ecuador, I adopted a book left by another traveler. It was a book about the songlines in Australia. That book led to significant creative breakthroughs in my life.

The chore of dusting has brought me to books. Cleaning off the shelves in my mom's house often leads me to end up, half way down the shelf, on the floor, reading a book. I wouldn't normally read a book of quotes by Winston Churchill even if someone gave me the book. But it it's my discovery...well, why not! Note to parents, aunties, and grandparents...assigning someone to clean off a shelf is a good sneaky way to encourage them to dip into new knowledge.

Personally, I believe in the power of boredom, of empty time. I think every child and adult needs that time to let their mind range in organic ways. But seeding a place with some good nonfiction books can yield excellent results. These are knowledge books that lift us up and inspire us in our quiet times. These are books you don't give to a child to read. You just leave the couch or in a vacation house. Put them on a shelf at eye level where "time outs" are done. Stick a few in the pocket on the backs of car seats or in a bag for a long trip.

I think, as Linda Salzman said in her Thursday May 22 post, we sometimes need to start reading what we wouldn't normally choose. Each year, just before their beach vacation, my friends Andrea and Donnie visit the local library and sweep a random assortment of books off the endcaps and fill a bag. They do so without sorting or really choosing. Then they take these book bags to the beach and randomly read. It leads them to all sorts of discoveries.

Nonfiction is perfectly suited to this kind of spontaneous reading. Seed your surroundings with such books and see what happens!

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Stretch Your Mind

In the front of the children’s room of a local library I was excited to see a new display with a sign “Stretch your mind with some new Nonfiction.” I immediately thought of Susan Goodman’s post about alternative phrases for nonfiction. "Stretch Your Mind" might be the most appealing one yet. The children’s librarian saw me looking at the books and rushed over to me to tell me they had lots of great new nonfiction and pointed me to the shelves. She’s my new favorite librarian.

Time to fess up. I can be very finicky about my nonfiction selections. I read a lot of nonfiction yet I can easily pass over (aka be very judgmental about)some things that look to me to be fictionalized accounts, mostly photos with little information, or 250 pages on a subject I never gave much thought to. This time I decided to go with the motto-- stretch my mind-- and try some books I might otherwise have past up.

One book I picked up had the first section dated 1678, accompanying paragraph written in the first person. I would normally drop such a book immediately or at least try to reshelve it properly in fiction. I must admit I actually wound up liking I, Vivaldi by Janice Shefelman.
After reading through the story of the young Vivaldi's life, I realized that fictionalizing some of the story of this 17th century composer's life may have been the only choice. The book does a great job of showing how someone can follow their passion even if other responsiblities sometimes get in the way. I love that the author recommends a specific recording of The Four Seasons, adding to the feel that the author and illustrator had a special connection to the music.

I don't usually go for any nf book with a commercial connection but I do enjoy facts so I tried Kermit's 501 Fun Facts and was pleasantly surprised.
The facts were interesting, varied and fairly specific given the small amount of space allotted to each one. I think this was way above the level for the average Sesame Street age viewer and no self-respecting fourth grader would be caught carrying around a Kermit book. Maybe they can go back to the old paper bag book covers for a while because any fact loving 4th or 5th grader would really enjoy this.

How Big Is It? is the kind of glossy, big photo nonfiction book that I usually pass over for a more erudite choice.

So when I pushed myself to read it I was pleasantly surprised that it was actually chock full of information, some of which I had been trying to find on my own. On one spread about airships, Hillman juxtaposes photographs of a modern 747 next to the Wright Brothers plane, next to the Hindenburg. When I was researching dirigibles, I spent hours trying to get the actual dimensions of these different airplanes so I could compare them to a dirigible. And now, there it was, in both words and photo, with the impact just as dramatic as I had imagined. As Steve Jenkins mentioned in his post, scale can be very important in helping a reader relate to a topic. This book uses that concept very successfully.

After having expanded my nonfiction horizons, I went home to face the book on World War II that had been sitting on my desk for weeks. I feared this would be a really dull read and had been avoiding it. When I finally picked up The Causes of World War II by Paul Dowswell, I couldn't put it down.
It was a very concise, well written account of what led up to the war, the major players,and the position of the many countries that entered the war. It answered many of the questions I had been struggling with in my research and I was sorry I hadn't read it sooner.

Lesson learned. Follow your friendly librarian to the nonfiction section. Inhale deeply. Stretch.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

When Facts Change: Updating Nonfiction

Every author encounters facts that shift over time, from expected changes such as a new President to the unprecedented landing of an alien spacecraft on the White House lawn (theoretically.) When you least expect it, carefully researched details or large chunks of a book can be rendered obsolete overnight. As an example of the latter, remember when this graphic was ubiquitous on cereal boxes and school cafeteria walls across the U.S.?

In 1994 I had based a book on t
he USDA Food Pyramid, The Edible Pyramid: Good Eating Every Day, so it was a bit of a hassle when the USDA updated the program some ten years later, however welcome the changes were.

Since the point of the book is to explore the foods found within the various sections of the pyramid, the graphic was on most spreads. It's usually a fairly easy matter to update a book’s text, but artwork is another story. Fortunately we illustrators now have software such as Adobe Photoshop to assist in this task. The original illustrations were hand painted, so the production films were scanned and turned into digital files that I could then alter as desired.

The new pyramid included steps on the side to emphasize the need for daily exercise, so I wanted to create a new illustration showing the characters’ favorite activities. It was a reasonably easy matter to cut and paste to condense two spreads into one to gain the needed space. Making digital art match hand-painted art is a little trickier, but can be done. It was also nice to fix one small but annoying glitch in the original book... in the hand-lettered text the misspelled word “ravoli” has now been spelled correctly at long last. Note to self: don’t use painted lettering because it’s much more difficult to make changes.

Another of my books was dealt a body blow by of all groups, the International Astronomical Union, who decreed in 2006 that Pluto is no longer a planet, but instead is a “dwarf planet.” One commentator I heard at the time asked, ”What's next, they‘ll take Yellow out of the rainbow?“ My contribution to the still ongoing debate is to say that a “dwarf tomato” is still a tomato....

The frustrating thing for me was that only six months before the IAU announcement I had already revised Postcards from Pluto: A Tour of the Solar System to include a variety of factual changes in the years since its publication. For example, in the first edition I had been too specific about the number of moons around various planets, a strategic error on my part since new ones are discovered fairly often. Of course, the fact that the very title of the book contains the not-a-planet-anymore Pluto means that no amount of updating may satisfy those curriculum makers who prefer the official planets and only the official planets. Sigh.

Another example of a changing fact in one of my books is New Hampshire’s famous rock formation and icon, The Old Man of the Mountain. I included an illustration of it on the state‘s page in my Celebrate the 50 States! Unfortunately, it collapsed in 2003 (the rocks, not the book!) In this case, it seems a fitting memorial to leave the page as is.

As these examples show, facts can behave like bucking broncos, and authors can’t always ride them for long. But that’s what web sites are for... to post corrections and updates, right?

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Girls Rule!

I didn't originally plan on posting about NF books that promote strong women, but the topic has been on my mind a lot lately. Strong women and girls rule because:
a) My daughter, who is also my first born, turns 16 years old this week. I am proud to say that she won "Most Strong-Willed" award in her kindergarten class. I think they created the award just for her. She's somewhat shy and reserved BUT she definitely knows her mind.
b) At this point in our historic Presidential race, I still have no idea who I'm voting for. If there is a small chance that the US support of a woman Presidential candidate would make a difference in other countries where women have little or no rights, then I'm in full support of a woman President.
c) I am a woman.
d) With all the negative influences in the media (from rap music to the fashion industry... to even the toy industry), we should empower our daughters every way we can.

Here are some really cool books that show girls that they can do ANYTHING they set their minds to and the possibilities are endless:

Her Story: A Timeline of the Women
Who Changed America
Charlotte S. Waisman
Jill S. Tietjen
Collins April 2008

This beautiful book is shelved in the Adult NF but should definitely be located in the YA and Children's NF sections. Each page explains years of amazing accomplishments by women and the timeline format illustrates so well the role of women in US and world history. The professions index is fantastic because it groups the women by all the varied occupations; in all areas of arts, business, politics, sciences, and advocacy. Just think of all the inspiration in this book! Hundreds of biographies with wonderful photos illustrate the history very clearly... and will keep children (and adults) of all ages interested.

The Sky's the Limit: Stories of Discovery by Women and Girls
Catherine Thimmesh (author)
Melissa Sweet (illustrator)
Houghton Mifflin 2004 (paperback)

A sequel to the book below, this fun, informative book delves more into the discoveries of women in science: i.e. anthropology, astronomy, biology, medicine. Of course, don't forget the word Girls in the title. There is a fantastic chapter on young girls that made great discoveries.
Wanted to add: just returned from library with daughter. While we were there, she announced, "I need some books on influential women/current history/European for AP European History." I gave her this book and she was happy!

Girls Think of Everything: Stories of Ingenious Inventions by Women
Catherine Thimmesh (author)
Melissa Sweet (illustrator)
Houghton Mifflin 2002 (paperback)

I fell in love with this book when I saw the cover. How great is this?
Women Inventors! Yes, to a toy inventor this book is golden.
When I entered industrial design school, I was one of just a handful of girls. (My roommates thought that was really cool but not for the reason I write this post.) I was lost in the shop room and no one was willing to help. Thankfully, girls now take shop class in school along with the boys. (Whoops, got a little off topic.)
Very importantly, there's even a chapter on how to produce and submit your inventions.
I have a few patents already... hum, maybe I can be in this book someday. Even grown-up girls can dream!

Cool Women, Hot Jobs: And How You Can Go for It, Too!
Tina Schwager
Michele Schuerger
Free Spirit Publishing 2002

A current complaint of parents today is that high school is too much like college. Students choose classes geared for their major/profession beginning their freshman year and occasionally in 7th and 8th grade. How can children possibly know what they want to be 'when they grow up' when they are that age? (Heck, I'm still asking that... but that's another issue.)
Cool Women, Hot Jobs wonderfully exposes a variety of professions through interviews with 22 fascinating women and then lays out the tools needed to discover your dreams and how to achieve them.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Take That, You Scoundrel!

It’s election season, so how about some Presidential Election History?

Candidate Thomas Jefferson described opponent John Adams as a “hideous hermaphroditical character which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.”

During the 1828 election, John Quincy Adams and his Federalist Party called Andrew Jackson’ wife: a “dirty…wench”, a “convicted adulteress” who was prone to “open and notorious lewdness.”

(For the record, she was a perfectly respectable woman. It’s been said that the accusations killed the unwell Mrs. Jackson.)

While campaigning for President, Stephen Douglas called Abraham Lincoln: a “horrid-looking wretch, sooty and scoundrelly in aspect, a cross between the nutmeg dealer, the horse-swapper and the nightman,” and “the leanest, lankest, most ungainly mass of legs and arms and hatchet face ever strung on a single frame.”

Lincoln returned the favor and described the diminutive Douglas as “about five feet nothing in height and about the same in diameter the other way.”

In the 1884 Blaine vs. Cleveland contest, news of Cleveland’s support of child he had fathered during his bachelorhood, led to opponents’ taunt of “Ma! Ma! Where’s my pa?”

During the 1804 election, detractors of Thomas Jefferson reprised the outrageous claim that Jefferson, "kept, as his concubine, one of his own slaves…Her name is Sally," and that Jefferson had "several children" by her.”

…Of course, the outrageous claim ultimately proved to be true.

It reminds us that there is more than “Spin” on the the campaign trail; An important lesson for the hypocritical SOBs of the (Insert Party Name Here.)

Friday, May 16, 2008

The Nonfiction Author-Illustrator Relationship

It’s an exciting day. I’m getting ready to leave for the International Reading Association conference in Atlanta. Even more exciting, I just learned that two pieces of art from my new book WINGS (Charlesbridge), are winging their way to my home. This is only the second time I’ve been able to buy original art from one of my books, and these pieces are particularly stunning. Robin Brickman has been my favorite artist I’ve worked with. Her dazzling 3-dimensional cut-paper collages just pop off of the page, eliciting oohs and ahs from everyone who sees them. Thinking about the many talented artists who have illustrated my books, however, I thought it might be interesting to share something about the nonfiction author-illustrator relationship.

Not long ago if someone had asked me about this relationship, I would have answered, “It’s simple. The author and illustrator don’t have a relationship.” After all, authors and artists rarely meet each other and almost never have direct correspondence with each other during a project. For a variety of reasons—some valid, some silly—publishers like to keep authors and artists apart. Our titanic egos probably have something to do with it! Still, I’ve found that in nonfiction, I do get the opportunity to interact with artists more than a typical fiction author might.

One reason for that is because nonfiction art not only has to be beautiful, it has to be accurate. I often get to see art at the sketch stage as well as once or twice in the final stages. This is critical in catching mistakes or misinterpretations. As editors have learned that I’m not going to be a complete jerk to my artist colleagues, however, I’ve also had a few chances to correspond directly with them during a project. Recently, for instance, I and Andrew Plant, who illustrated my new book REIGN OF THE SEA DRAGONS (Charlesbridge Publishing), got to trade some information about giant ancient marine reptiles. This was helpful to both of us and helped to clarify some information in the book.

Robin Brickman and I have also swapped info a number of times. One reason she is my favorite artist to work with is we’ve had a chance to do three books together. I just have fun talking to her and seeing what amazing things she’s going to come up with next. She is also one of only three artists I’ve gotten to present with at a conference. I hope we get to do this again.

Not long ago, another one of “my” artists, Joanna Yardley, who lives here in Montana, took an especially daring step. She decided to include me in part of the fun of the artistic process. While working on our book SHEP—OUR MOST LOYAL DOG (Sleeping Bear Press), she called me up and said, “Sneed, I need a model.” I went over with my dog Mattie and we got to pose for the illustrations of Shep with his master. Of course, my character ends up dead in that book, but I try not to take that too personally!

Artists have extended me other kindnesses as well. When my book ANIMALS ASLEEP (Houghton Mifflin) came out, the artist, Anik McGrory, made up a little board-book version of the book to send. The timing was perfect as my son Braden had just been born. It was one of the most touching experiences I’ve had in my career.

All of this aside, authors and artists do not interact much. Of the fifteen or so artists I’ve worked with, I’ve probably only met about half of them, and usually briefly. Although I understand why editors like to keep us apart, part of me feels sad about that. It’s not a situation that’s likely to change, however. Meanwhile, I try to appreciate the interactions we do have—and look forward to having many, many talented people work on my future books.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

My Tune Has Changed: Writers and Photo Research

Back when I started publishing nonfiction (about 11 years ago), things in the photo acquisitions world were a bit different for me than they are today. I would write a book and include with it a photo “wish list” for the publisher. I would then wait for the layouts to arrive and weigh in with my opinions about those photos—are they placed near enough to the text they illustrate, are there enough images to help tell the story, is this one too small or that one too big—all fairly straightforward issues. The publishing team did the rest. I didn’t question it at the time; in fact, I felt pretty lucky that I had a team available to do this. So lucky that when I heard other writers complain that they had to do all the photo research themselves, I was known to climb up on my soapbox and point them in the direction of publishers who would not make the writer do the lion’s share of the work.

I have given said soapbox away.

Extenuating circumstances notwithstanding, I now guard my right to find and secure the photos I need to help me tell stories. Why, you may ask, the change of heart? Why would you want to add the many hours, nay weeks or months, of time into an already bursting schedule to play detective and track down image after image after image? The answer is simple.

Of everyone on the team involved with putting together a fabulous book—and we all know there are many invaluable players—there is only one person who can claim having come close to becoming an expert on a topic. That person is the writer. The one who has made it her business to learn everything there is about a subject and more (as Jennifer Armstrong’s post recently pointed out—we continue to care and learn about our topics long after our books hit the shelves).

I am the one who is equipped to do the extensive digging to find a source, an obscure credit, an event in someone’s life that may have been visually documented, a mention here, a hint there—all clues that lead me to discovering the best images I can possibly find. And believe me, the best ones are often the hardest to uncover and take the most persistence.

I now cherish this part of my job as a nonfiction writer. I look forward to the time in the production process when I can focus wholeheartedly on the images and study the notes I have made along the way. I call people, find out interesting histories in the process, meet family members with new perspectives. The act of searching for the images inevitably leads me to new information I am able to add to my story. It’s a thrill. A privilege.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not walking away from photo budgets or permissions counsel in the foreseeable future. Those necessary assists are also part of the team process. But the next time someone gripes about having to do their own photo research, my own experiences have changed my soapbox platform. Be the expert. Find the photos. Your subjects will thank you in the end.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The Book that Started It All for Me

Other authors on I.N.K. have mentioned how they started writing books for kids or what children’s books truly inspired them. For me, one book answers both questions. A magazine writer at the time, I picked it up because of its intriguing title: Round Buildings, Square Buildings, and Buildings That Wiggle Like a Fish. (Sorry, I tried to get its cover shown here but messed up.) Philip Isaacson was an architect and wrote the book to explain the elements of architecture, but also to tackle the abstract notion of how and why we perceive beauty.

Frankly, I was blown away. Here was a guy who had clearly thought about this subject for a long time. He had passion and vision—two ingredients that characterize many great nonfiction kids books. And he could convey them both, beautifully.

Let’s go for the acid test, a discussion of the lowest and dullest of building materials—concrete. Isaacson starts by saying that concrete has strength, but can take on soft, flowing shapes. Then, as an example of both, he describes the now defunct Trans World Airlines Terminal at JFK Airport. “The designer of the terminal must have loved air travel, because he gave us a building that looks as though it is sailing through air. Its roof sits on columns that sweep upward and its insides soar toward the heavens. When we enter it we feel that our flight has already begun. Most terminals are the last place on land; this one is our first step into the sky.”

Okay, he can write. But what amazed me just as much as his lyric prose was his ability to explain complex, abstract subjects without dumbing them down a bit. He made us understand them—and feel them.

My reaction? I didn’t know you could write this way for kids!?! I want to try.

* * * * *

AND NOW A REQUEST TO ANY TEACHERS OR LIBRARIANS who look at this site, or anyone with elementary school aged kids or anyone with access to elementary school teachers or kids…

My new book, See How They Run: Campaign Dreams, Election Schemes, and the Race to the White House, deals with democracy, the electoral process, and ways kids get involved. To help kids start thinking about these issues, I created the KIDS SPEAK OUT! Survey—a quick (12 questions), anonymous, nonpartisan way for them to give their opinions on voting and issues facing our country.

The survey can be accessed via which takes you to my web site where you can click on the Take the Kids Speak Out Survey link on top. Another option is to go directly to my web site:

The goal is for students all over the country to participate. My target audience is 3rd to 8th graders, but the more the merrier. Could you look at this survey and, if you feel comfortable, tell students about it? Soon there will be a downloadable teachers guide for the book on the same web site that includes ways teachers can use the survey in their classroom. And other activities to help teach about elections in the fall.

Thanks so much--Susan

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The Problem with Science

Full disclosure: I’ve used another cute, somewhat misleading title. Catchy, though. On a final art deadline, so I’ll try to be succinct.

The problem, of course, isn’t with science. Science is a process — a way of explaining things — that’s been developed and refined over the past twenty-five hundred years or so. It works pretty well, and is the best tool we have for understanding why the world is the way it is.

Science does have a problem, however. There’s a widespread misunderstanding and mistrust of science and scientists in the U.S. This is causing lots of problems, or at least delaying their solution. Preventable diseases are re-emerging because parents won’t vaccinate their children, the planet is rapidly warming, stem-cell research is crippled — need I go on?

Certainly part of this disconnect — this basic misunderstanding of what science is and how it works — can be attributed to culture war fallout. The anti-science policies of the administration that is limping, at last, into the home stretch, along with the usual cast of IDers, flat-earthers, and others who are driven by something other than the quest for truth all share a little credit for muddying the waters and confusing the general public.

But that’s an old sore, and it’s not what I want to talk about. Some other time, perhaps.

I’m more interested in the problems that arise from the nature of contemporary scientific inquiry itself. These aren’t social or philosophical issues. Rather, they bring us up against the limits of human intellect and imagination. Much current science deals with the very large or the very small. The units of measurement used in astronomy and sub-atomic physics are so remote from our direct experience that they are nothing more than abstractions. The same is true of time. The impossibly short life spans of man-made elements or the billion-year intervals that describe the development of life are, once again, too extreme for most of us (perhaps any of us) to really grasp. I’m convinced that an inability to appreciate the time scale of the earth is at the root of many people’s refusal to accept evolution as an explanation of life’s diversity. It just doesn’t feel like it makes sense.

How does all this relate to science writing for children? I think giving kids a way to understand extremes of size, time and quantity is one of the most important tasks of a science writer. There are lots of ways to do this, and many authors have tackled the problem. David Schwartz’s How Much is a Million is an ingenious look at large quantities, using familiar scale references such as goldfish — and children themselves — to express just what a big number a million is.

Powers of Ten, by Philip Morrison and Phylis Morrison (based on the film of the same name by Ray and Charles Eames) is not usually thought of as a children’s book, but it should be. The book begins at the scale of the universe and takes us to sub-atomic particles in a series of views, each magnified ten times from the previous one. My own book Looking Down uses a similar structure to explore a more limited range of scale. It opens with a view of the earth from space and zooms in to a ladybug in a child’s backyard.

Metaphor can also help make the extreme understandable. One of my favorite examples is Richard Dawkins’ Climbing Mount Improbable (this is not a children’s book, but I include it because it illustrates the principal so elegantly). Mount Improbable is life, in all its complexity and diversity. Looking at it head-on, we see an unscalable cliff: how could all these marvelous organisms have just happened? They must have been designed. Dawkins takes us around the sheer face of the mountain to see the long, gradual slope that leads from single-celled bacteria to us — and everything else alive — in a series of tiny, gradual steps. It’s a slope that can easily be climbed, if we have the time.

I think that anytime we introduce a concept or phenomenon that is bigger, smaller, faster or slower than what a child can directly experience, we should provide some sort of key — a way for the reader to leverage what they already know about the world to make sense of this new information.

Monday, May 12, 2008

"Can Informational Books Be Sexy?"

Sorry, I must gush about our first Fartiste signing, a giddy event at IRA in Atlanta where Paul and I signed books as fast as we could. (I would describe the sensation as like being on drugs, but you would think I’m obsessed, per April 14.) I had talked up the book at the two sessions I spoke at, but most people in line had simply seen the title in the IRA program and had to have it. Yep-- all the laughing teachers and librarians were buying the book for males, a significant percent for their reluctant readers, and another major percent as gifts for husbands... fathers...even grandpas. Paul and I got even fizzier when we learned on site of our first review-- a star from Kirkus in its kindest mode: “Put that tired copy of Walter the Farting Dog away: This long-overdue tribute to Le Petomane, ‘the man who made his pants dance,’ is a total blast.”

OK, on to hot-off-the-press books by other people, such as The Day the World Exploded. What kid could resist such a title? The subtitle explains all-- The Earthshaking Catastrophe at Krakatoa. It was the most violent explosion ever recorded, destroying the Indonesian island of Krakatoa in 1883. Followed by a tsunami that killed at least 36,00, it became known as the "mother" of all natural disasters. The explosion caused 13 percent of the earth's surface to vibrate, and it actually changed the way people thought about the world. Edvard Munch, to take but one example, was inspired to paint The Scream. This blend of history (of all sorts of things), science (of all kinds), and insights about the meaning of life goes down easy. In full color, it's even easy to visualize, with maps, diagrams, archival photos and etchings, plus dramatic new drawings by Jason Chin. Wherever possible, author Simon Winchester and his adapter Dwight Jon Zimmerman pull in info relevant to today; a second edition will probably mention that Krakatoa is not far from the ongoing disaster in Myanmar. A splendid example of this trend of downsizing popular adult books (in this case, Winchester's Krakatoa) into ones worthy of kids (HarperCollins, ages 10-14).

Am I the only one who’s a sucker for self-help books pitched at younger readers? When they’re done well, of course, as in the series of “What-to-Do Guides for Kids.” The newest, by child psychologist Dawn Huebner, is What to Do When You Dread Your Bed, a clever title subtitled A Kid's Guide to Overcoming Problems with Sleep. I would imagine that this 96-page paperback would be particularly handy for therapists and concerned parents (who are addressed in the introduction). But with its language, concepts, and art (cartoony illustrations by Bonnie Matthews) it's actually aimed straight at kids: "Wouldn't it be great if you could climb into bed, snuggle under your covers, close your eyes, and fall asleep without any fuss or fear?" And if you can't? You're not alone. Insomnia, nightmares, fear of the dark, crawling into bed with your parents-- such problems affect one of every three children, according to the author. So here is a workbook full of advice and practical techniques to improve sleeping skills-- an honest, head-on approach to one of life's frustrations (Magination Press/American Psychological Association, ages 9-12).

The Mysterious Universe-- yet another tempting title, and what a fascinating science book this is. Subtitled Supernovae, Dark Energy, and Black Holes, this is the newest in the well-received “Scientists in the Field” series. Focusing on the work of astronomy professor Alex Filippenko, who uses the most powerful telescopes ever, this enlightens us on discoveries that are being made right now about the big bang, our expanding universe, time travel, spiraling galaxies, dark matter, not to mention how exciting it can be to be a scientist. Ellen Jackson writes clear, high-interest text (though in some unfortunately tiny fonts, not her fault), with stark black backgrounds making NASA's and Nic Bishop's photos even more dramatic. Includes a thorough glossary for those of us not up on these ultra-mysterious matters (Houghton Mifflin, ages 9-12).

For the very young and the musically inclined (the same thing, really), Before John Was a Jazz Giant: A Song of John Coltrane makes a lovely, lyrical tribute. Coltrane wasn't born knowing how to create innovative jazz with his sax. His childhood was all about listening, lots of listening, to the sounds a child growing up in the South in the 1930s might have heard-- bones knocking around in a grandma's pot, the rhythms of a grandpa's sermons, birds singing, steam engines whistling, big bands on the radio. Carole Boston Weatherford shapes the sounds into a flowing story, while Sean Qualls accompanies her with airy, mixed-media illustrations. A detailed Author's Note gives a full biography and a list of CDs to listen to.

As for today’s outrageous title above and what on earth “sexy” could have to do with the world of children’s books, I refer you to The Craft & Business Of Writing: Essential Tools For Writing Success (Writers Digest Books). It's a brand-new tome that reprints an old article of mine with this question as its title and an elaborate case for an affirmative answer: After you swap out "sexy" for "stimulating," nonfiction clearly rules-- for readers and writers.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Three Favorite Writing Tips from Patient Editors

The following are some words of advice I give writing students, as I travel around the country teaching workshops. I’ll be leading a seminar at Aspen Summer Words in June. I’d love to hear from some of you if you have other writing tips that I can share with my students.
1. The first tip has to do with revisions. In high school (a few hundred years ago), when I told my English teacher, my first real editor, that my fantasy was to someday be a writer, she said, “You have to write a million lousy words before you can begin to get it right.” I was lucky that my first novel (A Season In-Between 1979) found a publisher right away, but it went through five revisions before it went to press. Writing is rewriting. Collette said you have to murder your darlings. Flaubert said you can’t be married to your words.

2. Strange work we writers do, turning words around all day. But don’t worry about writing the perfect sentence or you’ll never get past the first paragraph. Write it all down the way you’ve been thinking about it, mulling it over in your head, and then go back and rewrite later. Remember to cut any scene that doesn’t serve to move the plot along or reveal character, no matter how brilliantly written you think it is. If you like the scene that much, go back and try to give it a reason for being there. (I guess those are two tips in one.)

3. I never begin a story, either fiction or non-fiction, without having a sense of beginning and end. Writing a story is like making a sandwich. What do you need to make a sandwich? Yes, two slices of bread. What goes in between the slices can be added as you go along, a tomato here, a marshmallow there. But you need bread to hold the parts together so they don’t fall apart. It’s the same principle for writing a story. Reserve the right to change the ending, but at least you can see a light at the end of the tunnel, so you’re not stumbling around in the dark.

Just wanted to tell Linda that I enjoyed her report on the wise words of two of our great writers of non-fiction for kids, James Cross Giblin and Russell Freedman. Also check out a blog
http:/ It mentions I.N.K. and has enthusiastic discussions of new children’s books. Side by Side was featured last week. CCBC-Net from University of Wisconsin is also one to enjoy. Finally even though I didn’t enter the discussion, I was fascinated by Don Brown’s exchanges about history, what’s politically correct, what’s not. Thank you, Don. These short, feisty exchanges, along with news and information, are what “blogging” is about, I think.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Sources of Inspiration

Since I was confused about which day I was supposed to be blogging (I thought it was next Thursday), today’s entry is a bit last minute.

As I was mulling over possible topics, I got to thinking about the people who inspired me to start writing children’s books in the first place, as well as those who continue to inspire me. And I thought sharing the names of these people might help some other writers and illustrators out there. Or cause them to share some of their own sources of inspiration.

So without further ado, my very random list of 10 creative people who have inspired me, in no particular order:

Douglas Florian
Children’s poet and wordplayer extraordinaire. And he illustrates his own poems to boot. I love the apparent simplicity of everything he does.

Chris Van Allsburg
He re-introduced me to the wonders of children’s books when I was in my 30’s. When I saw The Polar Express, I knew I had to get into this field.

Bill Bernbach
The guru of creative advertising in the 60’s. If you want to learn about how words and pictures work together, look up the advertising work of Doyle Dane Bernbach from that era.

Robert McCloskey
What a storyteller. What an illustrator. I never get tired of reading his books to my kids.

Eric Carle
To experience the sheer joy of creation, I highly recommend a video that he did about his creative process called Eric Carle, Picture Writer. It’s available at my local library and probably at yours too.

Leonard Marcus
He’s written so many books about the business of children’s books, all of them inspirational–especially Dear Genius and Ways of Telling.

Vincent van Gogh
800 paintings in 10 years–he literally painted like a madman. Like me, he was a latecomer to his chosen field. I’m not ashamed to say I cried when I saw The Sower in person.

Jan Vermeer
Only 35 of his paintings survive, and most of them stop me in my tracks. I love the fact that he may have used an early form of the camera, called a camera obscura. Some see it as cheating. I see it as creativity.

Dr. Seuss
No one can match his talent. But everyone tries. I also like the roundabout way he discovered his calling.

Bob Gill
I was a Graphic Design major in college, and Bob Gill wrote a wonderful book called Forget All the Rules You Learned About Graphic Design, Including the Ones in This Book. His basic premise is, when you’re designing something to solve a problem, and you get stuck, creatively redefine the problem. It’s a great book about thinking differently. And it’s fun to read because it’s made up entirely of examples.

Is that ten already? I know, I know, there isn’t a non-fiction writer in the bunch, unless you count Douglas Florian. But as they say, inspiration can come from anywhere.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

About the Selling of Books at an Author's School Visit

Note: I wrote this piece many years ago. It was originally published in the SCBWI Bulletin. After the recent live chat on school visits, I was asked to post it as a blog. It is also available on my website:

As an author of science books for children, I have been the guest speaker at many schools across the country. Because I was a teacher, I don't do the typical program of discussing how I write. Instead, I do a performance designed to get kids interested in science. Usually my books are sold at my appearances. But there are a few places where they have not been sold and I have come across a negative attitude toward the selling of books at an author's appearance that prompts this article.
There are all sorts of reasons to bring an author to a school both on the part of the children and the author. An author's appearance "makes books come alive." It shows kids that "authors are real people." Authors have enough visibility to pass as "famous" in our celebrity-crazed society, thus making the visit a special event. They are usually articulate and can present an entertaining program that reinforces interest in their books. For authors, school appearances promote their books and have a residual effect, putting their name on the map in a school for many years to come. It also gives them feedback on their readers' reactions. But, in my opinion as an educator, there is only one truly important reason to have an author come to a school: namely, to motivate kids to read. Presumably, meeting an author in person can create a demand for his or books, particularly when the author writes, as I do, on less popular subjects. If an author excites and interests kids, the author is invariably asked, "Where can I get your books? If the books are not at hand, the moment is lost. What baffles me is why a school that has spent some of its limited resources to bring an author to the school, obviously caring about "enrichment," does not understand how to optimize the educational experience it has created.

One argument against selling books is simply school policy: nothing is sold to kids at school, period. Any exception to the rule would somehow open a Pandora's Box of ills. In this kind of thinking, kids are characterized as avid consumers, easily manipulated by the excitement of a performance to spend money they don't have on a frivolous impulse. The schools' role is to protect them from such exploitation. A superintendent recently said to me, "If you were a rock star, the kids would want to buy your CD." I found myself in the ludicrous position of having to point out to the educator that I am not a rock star, and it might do some good in the fight against boredom, video games and drugs to create a demand for science books along with the opportunity to fulfill it.

Another argument is, "We live in a mixed socio-economic district and we don't want to put pressure on poor kids to buy things they can't afford." My most popular books are paperbacks that can be offered in schools at a discount, priced at under $4.00. From what I hear about certain poor districts, kids have money for Nintendo, VCR's, candy bars and sometimes drugs. Why not put pressure on them to buy a book? I once signed a book for a poor child in a small village in Alaska. It was a hard cover and I didn't know he hadn't yet paid for it when I wrote his name in it. When he realized he didn't have enough money to pay for it, he was offered a less expensive book, one he could easily afford. But no. This was the one he wanted. He would bring in the money the next day. The librarian told me that there was no way his parents would give him the money to buy the book. Yet the next day he did, in fact, return for it. It was clear that this book was precious to him. Imagine! A poor child valuing a book! A small event yet one with enormous implications for the thesis that education is a way out of poverty. One reality of society is that often we think things are valuable only when we have to pay for them. And if this is yet another way to instill a value for books in children, we are remiss if we don't offer the opportunity.

Finally, there is the unstated insinuation that we authors are money-grubbers who want the royalties as part of our fee, and the schools will have no part of such greed. Personally, wearing my educator's hat, I don't care if only the $4.00 books are for sale at my appearances. Every book sold frees up the library book for a kid who truly can't afford it. The royalties will hardly amount to anything, let alone make me a rich woman. In fact, a career as a children's book author is hardly a get-rich-quick scheme. On the other hand, children's book authors are often viewed at schools as career models. If we make our living writing books, should we then be put in a position of apologizing for the fact that they are for sale?

In the real world, people earn money selling something of value, whether it's a product or a service. My fee for a day's school appearance pays for three entertaining, highly motivating programs for hundreds of children. If books for sale are not made a part of the day, the library cannot handle the demand. I become simply another entertainer for a passive audience of kids all too accustomed to being entertained. That momentary flicker of interest in reading a book quickly dies for most kids if it is not immediately reinforced. At a time when our educational systems are under fire, when students are turned off and dropping out, we can't afford to waste any opportunity to involve kids as active participants in the learning process.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

I.N.K. Links

We are about to begin the process of overhauling our links and recommendations. We hope to expand them to make a greater, more user friendly resource for information on children's nonfiction.

We need to expand our database a bit. If you write or have an interest in nonfiction for kids, please introduce yourself and let us know if you have a site on the world wide web.

We'd be happy to link to anyone connected to and supportive of writing interesting nonfiction for kids including other writers, teachers, publishers,schools, booksellers, and libraries. If you'd like to be included on our I.N.K. links, please leave your information in a comment or send it by email to the contact address listed on the sidebar.

If you have a blog or website of your own, please mention I.N.K. and set up a link. If you need any more information from us, feel free to ask.

More interesting posts coming soon.

Monday, May 5, 2008

What I Wish I Had Known

Being book-oriented means I have always preferred doing my research at the library. Or in an easy chair in front of the fire. Sometimes, however, there is no substitute for direct experience. Depending on the topic of the research, however, there may not be an opportunity for direct research. Not many of us get to go into space, for example, so writing a book about space travel will have some unavoidable physical limits on the kind of research you can do.
I can think of two examples of opportunities for direct experience that came my way after the book was written -- written, published, and on the library shelves. The first was my trip to Antarctica, which I made well after my two books about Shackleton's Endurance adventure were in print. (Shipwreck at the Bottom of the World, and Spirit of Endurance both published by Crown.) Of all the direct experience of Antarctica that I had, the one that I wished I had known before writing about it was....... silence. I have never experienced such profound silence as I encountered in Antarctica. I remember clearly the day I wandered through an expanse of volcanic debris on Ross Island, with no sound at all but the crunching of grit under my feet. No animal sounds, no wind through trees. No mechanical noises. Yes, there are other places in the world to experience deep silence; that is true. But without a trip to Antarctica while I was writing about it, I overlooked that silence as a meaningful part of the story.
The second example is from a class in wet-plate collodion photography that I was able to take after I wrote a book about Civil War photographs (Photo by Brady: A Picture of the Civil War, published by Atheneum.) During the three-day workshop I was relieved to discover that I had, in fact, described the process accurately. Whew! But one little thing had escaped my researches at the time, and I think it is because it was so commonplace for wet-plate photographers that none of them had mentioned it. The silver nitrate solution, which is what turns jet black when exposed to light, thus creating the image on filmed glass, gets on the photographer, too! It's unavoidable, especially in rough, outdoor conditions. In the darkroom the clear silver nitrate might splash on the photographer's hands or clothes; the moment that photographer steps out into the light, those splashes turn black! I left that three-day workshop stained everywhere -- on my feet (I'd worn flip-flops), on my hands, on my jeans, even a smudge on my cheek where I'd scratched an itch with a silver-nitrate-dipped finger. And it didn't wash off, it just had to wear off after several days. There is no way a field operator in the Civil War could have avoided tell-tale drips, drops, and splashes of black on his skin and clothes. I wish I had known that when I was writing.
Sometimes this kind of direct experience is not available to the researcher. But this is why my recommendation is to experience as many things as possible. Some day you may be writing about that subject and you'll remember the silence and the stains. These are the things you won't find in the library stacks.

Friday, May 2, 2008

All in the Family

Though I grew up the daughter of a CPA and a former schoolteacher, in some ways I’ve always considered publishing to be the family business. In 1929, my dad’s uncle, George Macy, founded an amazing venture called the Limited Editions Club, and for 27 years he was an integral part of the storied literary circles of New York. His club issued limited editions of the classics —usually 1,500 copies—with illustrations by the leading visual artists of the day. Among the 300-plus volumes were Main Street, illustrated by Grant Wood; Ulysses, illustrated by Henri Matisse; and Lysistrata, illustrated by Pablo Picasso. Upon the dedication of The George Macy Memorial Collection at Columbia University’s Low Library in 1957, the English book designer Sir Francis Meynell declared, “No one but George Macy could have persuaded both Picasso and Matisse to illustrate books for him.” Today, these $10 books, all signed by the artists, are worth thousands of dollars.

Although Uncle George died in 1956, when I was only two, his presence loomed large in my house. When my parents got married, my dad asked him for books to fill the bookcases in his new home, and Uncle George responded by sending one hundred or so volumes from the Heritage Press, which produced less expensive reprints of Limited Editions Club offerings. These books, with their elegant bindings and their sturdy slipcases, formed the backdrop of my childhood and set the bar high for me as an aspiring writer. I wonder what Uncle George would have thought had he known I would spend 16 years as an editor with Scholastic, the company largely responsible for the proliferation of mass-market paperbacks among the country’s youth. Hopefully, this connoisseur of fine bookmaking didn’t believe you could always tell a book by its cover, or its paper quality.

Uncle George is on my mind today because last week, his daughter Linda came to town after being out of touch with our family for almost 20 years. Over lunch, she shared tales of her mythical dad and his life among the literati, including Alexander Woollcott of the Algonquin Round Table, who she often found in their living room, and Norman Rockwell, who created the portrait of her father shown here.

Linda’s memories brought me back to the golden age of publishing, when ambitious kids fresh out of college launched brilliant ventures and a company could succeed by making every book a work of art. It seems like such a different world today, but it’s reassuring to know that many of Uncle George’s modern counterparts continue to take pains to produce books whose visual impact goes hand-in-hand with the text. There are still editors who refuse to do a book if they can’t do it right, and that means holding fast to their standards of design and paper quality. I’m lucky to have worked with such editors at National Geographic, but as my colleagues on this blog will tell you, there are others throughout the publishing world. I think Uncle George would have approved.