Friday, June 27, 2008
I do have a few good hints. Here's one. I never begin a book without a sense of beginning and end (although I reserve the right to change it later). Writing fiction or non-fiction is like making a sandwich. You need two pieces of bread to hold the parts together so they don't fall out. What you put in the middle (in a sandwich or a story) can be an improvisation. You can make it up as you go along. But at least you have the security of knowing where you came from and where you are headed.
But mostly I tell students that writing is hard work. It takes talent to be a writer. But perseverence is even more important. And research the market. See what's out there. I met the delightful agent, Jennifer Flannery of Flannery Literary. She represents such authors as Gary Paulson and Pete Hautman. She talked about the fact that bookstore sales for children's books are on the rise. Authors of non-fiction have always relied on the wonderful support and enthusiasm of librarians and teachers, but it's good news that bookstores are including more non-fiction on their bookshelves.
Thursday, June 26, 2008
The first attraction of the half hour report was that Topic Box. Oh, how I loved the surprise, the uncertainty, of pulling a paper out of the box. It was like an eight ball, that fluid-filled prediction toy. I never knew what topic I might nab. In a time before Internet use, randomly generated, wide-reaching information was wild and stimulating. It appealed to my sense of rebellion. If I had been told what to write about, I might have balked. But when I pulled it from the box, it was magic, it was organic, it was my choice, yet not my choice. It was destiny!
Through half-hour reports, I sampled the world. I tasted a bit of Russia, spent a few minutes with minotaurs, and found the Himalayas on a map. That was the magic of Mrs. Ottewell’s room.
Now, as part of my career, I have written two children’s books on each continent. I have written a book on each biome, from rain forest to taiga, from ocean to coral reef. I have the luxury of slipping from one topic to another as I shift from book to book. For articles, I may research the geography of China, the shape of rivers, or fish in the Amazon. I follow leads, I do interviews, I am free to pursue my curiosity where it leads. It’s like those half-hour reports. I am free to think and explore and report back, only now it’s to the reading public instead of to the class.
A few years ago, my husband and I visited Mrs. Ottewell at her home. We began to discuss fellow classmates and a friend who had married someone from Egypt. We began talking of Palestine, politics, and the greater world. A question came up. Right there in the middle of the conversation, she stood up and pulled out an atlas. Soon we had a dictionary, too. By the end of the conversation, we were poring over maps and encyclopedias.
You know it has been a full conversation when you end it with books and maps spread out and your mind opened somehow as well.
Thank you, Mrs. Ottewell.
The passage above is part of a chapter in my book for grownups:
Unfold Your Brain:
Deepen your creativity, expand into new arts, and prosper as a writer, musician, or visual artist
Unfold Your Brain is a workbook/think book about how to deepen creativity. Early chapters are suitable for those just beginning to explore their artistic side; later chapters delve into the arts/publishing business and give hints about marketing, public speaking, and revitalizing creativity mid-career.
You can order Unfold Your Brain from lulu.com. Here is the URL address:
Wednesday, June 25, 2008
I expect all of us can tell stories of colleagues going out of their way to read and advise, to encourage and commiserate, even to introduce us to agents and editors. My first book contract came about that way. One of our fabulous INK writers, whom I haven’t even met in person, has offered to open a door for me.
At the moment I’m in Montana visiting my son. After a few sublime days in Glacier National Park, I’m soaking up the scene and the sun in Missoula – biking around town, meeting with the organizers of the fall Festival of the Book, and making a new friend.
About a month ago, while researching a new book, I emailed Dorothy Hinshaw Patent, renowned author of 130+ nonfiction books for kids. One of her books is related to my research subject. Emails flew back and forth as she gave me leads to follow, people to contact. When I told her I was coming to Missoula, she invited me over for tea. After driving back and forth along the highway, trying to find her little mountain road (obscured by orange construction cones,) I finally arrived at her home on the top of a ridge with a glorious view of the mountains. (The 2007 fires on those mountains came within a mile of her house, she said.)
We began by talking about the state of children’s publishing. What happens when publishing houses are bought by conglomerates that have nothing to do with books. The uncertainty and disorder that reign when two big publishers with multiple imprints merge. Which will survive, how will policies change, who will stay, who will go, what will it mean for future of our books? Then we talked about small independent presses whose only business is books.
Soon after, because it’s what women do, we talked about our children, agreeing that they are all much smarter than we are. Typical proud mother talk. Then travel tales, future writing goals, doing school visits vs. writing, her fellow Montana writers, a browse through her library for useful books for me, the prospect of sharing a panel at the upcoming Montana Festival of the Book. And finally, an invitation to stay at her house if I do come to the festival.
In ninety minutes, another friendship kindled by writing nonfiction for children.
P.S. Coincidence or what?: Dorothy herself will be guest blogger right here next week!
Tuesday, June 24, 2008
It's a nonfiction give-away contest of gigantic proportions!
To support the children's nonfiction community, our fifteen published authors have each agreed to DONATE A SIGNED COPY OF ONE OF THEIR BOOKS. That's FIFTEEN books all to ONE LUCKY WINNER.
Fabulous Books in our give-away by our wonderful I.N.K. bloggers include:
Jennifer Armstrong's title of the winner’s choice
Don Brown's title of the winner’s choice
Vicki Cobb's WE DARE YOU! HUNDRED’S OF SCIENCE BETS, CHALLENGES, AND EXPERIMENTS YOU CAN DO AT HOME (Skyhorse Publishing, 2008)
Sneed Collard's title of the winner’s choice
Susan E. Goodman's SEE HOW THEY RUN.CAMPAIGN DREAMS, ELECTION SCHEMES, AND THE RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE (Bloomsbury, 2008)
Jan Greenberg’s SIDE BY SIDE: NEW POEMS INSPIRED BY ART FROM AROUND THE WORLD (Abrams, 2008)
Steve Jenkins’s SISTERS AND BROTHERS:SIBLING RELATIONSHIPS IN THE ANIMAL WORLD (written with Robin Page)(Houghton Mifflin, 2008)
Kathleen Krull's THE ROAD TO OZ. TWISTS,TURNS, BUMPS, AND TRIUMPHS IN THE LIFE OF L. FRANK BAUM. (Knopf, 2008) or any other title of the winner's choice
Loreen Leedy's MISSING MATH. A NUMBER MYSTERY (Marshall Cavendish, 2008)
Sue Macy's SWIFTER, HIGHER, STRONGER. A PHOTOGRAPHIC HISTORY OF THE SUMMER OLYMPICS (National Geographic, 2008 Edition)
April Pulley Sayre's TROUT ARE MADE OF TREES (Charlesbridge, 2008)
David Schwartz's WHERE IN THE WILD? CAMOUFLAGED CREATURES CONCEALED. . . AND REVEALED (Tricycle Press, 2007)
Tanya Lee Stone's ELIZABETH LEADS THE WAY. ELIZABETH CADY STANTON AND THE RIGHT TO VOTE (Henry Holt, 2008)
Gretchen Woelfle's JEANNETTE RANKIN. POLITICAL PIONEER (Calkins Creek, 2007)
Karen Romano Young's ACROSS THE WIDE OCEAN. THE WHY, HOW, AND WHERE OF NAVIGATION FOR HUMANS AND ANIMALS AT SEA. (Harpercollins, 2007)
We'd love to hear from teachers, librarians, homeschoolers, writers, or anyone else from across the country who is promoting nonfiction.
Here are the rules. Each entry must consist of two parts:
1. In one sentence or less, tell us why you read the I.N.K. blog.
2. In as much space as you need, describe what you've done to support and encourage nonfiction in your classroom, library, home, or community. Photos are a plus.
We will select the winner based on the strongest, most original and all encompassing approach to getting nonfiction noticed.
All entries should be submitted by email to: interestingnonfictionforkids at gmail dot com. We will send you an email letting you know we’ve received your entry.
Entering the contest implies your consent to use the contents of your entry on our blog for promotional purposes.
The deadline to enter is Friday, September 5th. The winner will be announced on the I.N.K. blog.
Good Luck to everyone!
Monday, June 23, 2008
It’s a good one. It shows that the questioner is truly thinking about the writing life, and perhaps hoping for enlightenment that will help his or her own writing life. I have also noticed that the children who ask about writers’ block seem to be just a bit self-satisfied (some might say smug) for knowing about so sophisticated a concept. I harbor no resentment toward their attitude. I confess to having felt a bit smug as a child when I learned something esoteric, and I did not hesitate to bandy about my newfound knowledge.
But in this case, I am slightly troubled. It is not that children want to hear a few tips for getting the writing process restarted when it's stalled. The problem is that, like many adults, they view writers’ block as a handy, even respectable, explanation for why nothing has been produced. It’s not me, it’s my writers’ block.
The view is supported by a hefty collection of books on writers’ block by authors who apparently conquered the ailment long enough to get the job done. In Outwitting Writers' Block and Other Problems of the Pen, Jenna Glatzer opens by warning readers of a pestilence: “Writer’s block is an insidious pest—a beady-eyed rodent hiding under the floorboards of even the hardest working writers, waiting to rear its hideous head at the most inopportune times.”
For over half his working life, my father was a furrier. He operated a sewing machine on the floor of a factory in New York City. I have not asked him, but I’ll bet he would have had Furriers' Block from Monday to Friday of every work week if he could have gotten away with it. He went to that factory and sat at that sewing machine so his son and daughter could have something to eat and a place to call home. My mother was an English teacher at Syosset High School on Long Island. She probably found the working conditions more pleasant than those my father's workplace, but she loved to read, she liked to play tennis, she enjoyed Broadway matinees and word games and I don’t remember what else – and I’ll bet there were plenty of days when she would have relished a bad case of Teachers' Block.
In my opinion, writers who regularly find way to pass their time other than by putting words on paper – a large subset that includes myself – do not deserve to take refuge in so dignified-sounding a condition as “writers’ block.” We should call it what it is: procrastination. And we should teach our children and our students that it is best conquered by force: Forcing ourselves to sit down and get the job done. Not knowing what to write and struggling over it is not writers' block. It is writing.
On April 8, Garrison Keillor devoted his daily “The Writer’s Almanac” radio show to honoring novelist Barbara Kingsolver on her birthday. “She took a job as a technical writer,” Keillor said of her early adulthood, “which forced her to sit in front of a computer for eight hours a day and do nothing but write. She later said, ‘I learned to produce whether I wanted to or not. It would be easy to say oh, I have writers’ block, oh, I have to wait for my muse.' I don't. Chain that muse to your desk and get the job done.”
In writing non-fiction, I have noticed a subtle way in which writers’ block manifests itself: over-researching. There is no bell that goes off telling a writer it’s time to stop researching and time to start writing, so the author having an “I-can’t-do-it" moment (the root cause of much writers’ block) can extend the research phase indefinitely. That’s what I do, and I must say it is very effective in its two main goals: putting off the moment when I must put words on the page, and enabling me to feel OK about myself for not putting those words on the page (since, after all, I’m partaking in the essential task of researching – never mind that I already have way more information than I need).
And now I must close this blog entry and get to work on the sequel to Where in the Wild?, tentatively entitled Where Else in the Wild? Hmmmm. Maybe What in the Wild? would be a better title. I wonder what Mom thinks. I will call her. As soon as I clean out the refrigerator.
Friday, June 20, 2008
First on my list is Laurence Pringle. I first met Larry when I participated in the Highlights Writers Workshop at Chautauqua back in 1988. Before the workshop, I admit I had never heard of Larry. But doing some research before flying to New York, I got very excited. Here, I discovered, was a writer working on just the kinds of books I was interested in—and thought needed to be written.
Like me, Larry studied nature as a child and in college. Later, while working as an editor of a science magazine, he decided to try writing a book about one of the Favorite Nonfiction Topics of All-Time: dinosaurs. 107 books later, he is still writing engaging, high-interest books that excite and educate children about their world. His work covers remarkable breadth, from animals and plants to probing looks at environmental and health issues. He has even written several fictional picture books.
At Chautauqua, Larry gave me guidance in his low-key, honest fashion. But his work has also inspired me from the beginning of my career. One thing I am known for is writing about scientists and their work. My book Monteverde: Science and Scientists in a Costa Rican Cloud Forest, followed scientists around in Costa Rica and shared not only their knowledge, but their adventure and personal experiences. While many considered the book a breakthrough in its approach, that was only partly true. Several years before, Larry had written one of my favorite children’s books: Batman: Exploring the World of Bats. That book did something few, if any, other children’s books had done. It shared science through the eyes and personal history of an actual scientist. Monteverde, and Houghton Mifflin’s successful Scientists in the Field series are built upon Larry’s earlier, groundbreaking efforts.
Throughout his career, Larry has led similar breakthroughs in children’s writing. His award-winning book An Extraordinary Life: The Story of a Monarch Butterfly traced the complete life-history of a monarch butterfly, told from the insect’s point of view. The book is not only a wonderful factual reference, it’s a model for how voice can be used to write compelling nonfiction literature. In his younger picture books, Larry writes in a simple, lucid style that never talks down to children, but always interests them. His “Strange and Wonderful” series offers a great example.
One reason Larry is at the top of my list, however, is that he also tackles tough topics: books we all know are not going to make us a fortune, but which need to be available for young readers. Long before Gore’s inconvenient truth, Larry wrote Global Warming: The Threat of Earth’s Changing Climate, a book that clearly and undogmatically gave young people the information they needed to know about this threatening issue. He’s written other books about drinking, smoking, chemical warfare—you name it.
Not long ago, Larry sent me his newest book, Imagine a Dragon. I sat down with my five year-old son and eagerly cracked the spine. Reading it aloud, I marveled at how little I’d known about these mythological creatures, and once again appreciated Larry’s simple style and comfortable voice. Even more, I appreciated the quiet, steady contribution Larry still makes not only to children’s literature, but to the health and future of our planet.
Thursday, June 19, 2008
So now I will share with you a dream moment in any nonfiction writer’s life (or so I’m assuming). Suffice it to say, it was a dream moment for me. And that I have the best job in the world.
Picture this: You have a new book out. There is a launch event planned at your local bookstore—which in this case happens to be the fabulous Flying Pig Bookstore, this year’s recipient of the Lucile Micheels Pannell Award, which celebrates bookstores “that excel at inspiring the interest of young people in books and reading.”
Everything is going swimmingly. You have a lovely crowd, including some local teachers who have been kind enough to come out and support you, some wonderful writers who have done the same, and a healthy number of kids. There are brownies and cookies and juice.
You are well prepared to share some interesting before and after images from the book, talk about writing and working with illustrators, and read your story to the kiddos. It has also been said how nice it was for Hilary Clinton to be so on top of things as to still be running for president during the first few weeks of your book’s debut, which is all about Elizabeth Cady Stanton and women’s right to vote.
So, I ask you, what could be better?
How about this: A gentleman and his wife approach you a few minutes before your event is to begin. They definitely look like they have something to say, and I definitely don’t know them. The man is looking at me with a small smile and a twinkle in his eye. The woman says: We heard about your book on the radio (further evidence of the Flying Pig’s Awesomeness!) and had to come. She motions to the man still quietly standing by her side. My husband here is...are you ready for it...Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s...wait for it...GREAT-GREAT GRANDSON.
Now picture me speechless. Hand to my heart. Jaw open.
Me: Seriously? You’re Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s great-great-grandson? Eloquent, no?
He gives me a kind smile, likely wondering how someone who claims to have a relationship with the English language could be so utterly at a loss for words.
Him: Yes, I am.
Me: How?…where?…wow! Nice going, writer-girl!
I do manage to then pull myself together and speak somewhat intelligently to him, saying what an honor it is to meet him and that I am so glad he came (at least I think that’s what I said). We are both tickled pink. Who knew? Meanwhile, Flying Pig co-owner Josie Leavitt beams and giggles mischievously. “I’ve been keeping this secret for a week!” (And I was even in the store buying a book from her two days earlier. Now that’s willpower.)
Ok, so now it’s time for the event to begin, and the pressure’s on, right? I had better make it good. Better know my stuff with Stanton’s family member sitting two feet in front of me. So I do my thing and when I get to an appropriate part of the presentation in which I talk about how the discoveries we make while researching and writing nonfiction continue all throughout the production process and even after the book is published, I look over at him, and say quietly “is it okay?” He nods. I share his identity with the rest of the crowd. They give him a whopping round of applause. There is much kvelling in the room.
Afterward, he approaches with a book for me to sign. I ask, “So, did I pass muster?” There are tears in his eyes. And then in mine.
Nonfiction. The adventure never ends.
Note: For anyone attending ALA, please join us on Monday, June 30, 8-10 am for a session called Research Fuels the Author’s Fire with Tanya Lee Stone, Carole Gorman, and Jacqueline Briggs Martin.
Wednesday, June 18, 2008
Super Little Giant Book of Prehistoric Creatures
by David Lambert and The Diagram Group
2006, 288 pages, 4" X 5".
This small book has clear illustrations, timelines, overviews of the major geological periods, and spotlights a good variety of animals with a description plus a summary of pronunciation of those tongue-twisting names, scientific classification, size, diet, location, and era.
The Complete Guide to Prehistoric Life
Tim Haines and Paul Chambers, the makers of the TV trilogy Walking With Dinosaurs/Beasts/Monsters
2005, 216 pages, 8.5" X 11.
This book has stunning digital illustrations with photo-realistic detail that bring the ancient world to frightening life. Presented in chronological order, there’s a written description of each animal and its lifestyle. From Thrinaxodon (a reptile with whiskers), to Giganotosaurus (the largest meat-eating dinosaur), to Entelodon (a rhino-sized pig) these are fascinating creatures to get acquainted with.
National Geographic Prehistoric Mammals
by Alan Turner, paintings by Mauricio Anton
2004, 192 pages, 8.5" X 11.25"
A splendid compendium starting with mammal-like reptiles then covering the major mammal groups such as marsupials, elephant relatives such as Deinotherium (nice chin tusks), primitive whales, tank-like Glyptodonts, bear-dogs, giant sloths, the largest land mammal (Indricotheres) and many more, including human ancestors. Many of the attractive illustrations also include the habitat that existed at the time.
The World Encyclopedia of Dinosaurs & Prehistoric Creatures
by Dougal Dixon
2007, 512 pages, 7" X 9"
One of the largest guides I've found, with about 1,000 animals described and nicely illustrated. After summaries of the geological timescale, habitats, and the process of fossilization, the animals march in. Starting with early tetrapods (4-limbed descendants of fish), there are giant amphibians, early reptiles and mammals, ocean-dwelling reptiles such as plesiosaurs, flying pterosaurs, armored/grazing/meat-eating dinosaurs, almost-birds, early cats, dogs, camels, rhinos, primates... they’re all there and more in a mind-boggling parade of the incredible creatures that existed ages ago.
By the way, I haven't forgotten about prehistoric plants. There aren’t many books devoted to them exclusively, but many references include at least a token section about ancient flora. And not to neglect the wonders of the Internet... you can find recently unearthed discoveries too new to be in books by putting in search terms like “giant prehistoric rodent” and some cool critters may pop up.
The books above are for all ages, so here are a few picture books:
Prehistoric Actual Size
written and illustrated by Steve Jenkins 2005, 10" X 12", 32 pages with 2 gatefolds
By one of the I.N.K. blog’s own contributors, this book gives readers the opportunity to compare themselves to creatures depicted at life size, such a giant millipede, a three-inch shark, a chicken-sized dinosaur, and a terror bird. Like the books mentioned above, the featured animals include a nice diversity of prehistoric life in vibrant collage illustrations.
Bugs Before Time: Prehistoric Insects and Their Relatives
by Cathy Camper and Steve Kirk
This is one of the fews books that focus on prehistoric insects and other arthropods.
When Fish Got Feet, Sharks Got Teeth, and Bugs Began to Swarm: A Cartoon Prehistory of Life Long Before Dinosaurs
by Hannah Bonner
2007, 48 pages, 8.5" X 10.5 inches
When Bugs Were Big, Plants Were Strange, and Tetrapods Stalked the Earth: A Cartoon Prehistory of Life before Dinosaurs
An introduction to life on Earth before dinos with a sense of humor.
For an incredibly comprehensive list of K-12 books about fossils, dinosaurs, and other prehistoric topics, check out the page compiled by retired science librarian Jack Mount.
As for the project that has inspired all this investigation, it’s in the dummy phase right now and may “evolve” a little or a lot before completion... anyway, here’s an excerpt:
I am a little cockroach,
my family goes way back,
survival is our trademark,
despite nonstop attack.
Believe it or not, there are three more stanzas... look out world, she’s writing in verse!
Tuesday, June 17, 2008
In my kids' activities (class parties, Brownies, and preschool), they have experienced all the tried and true crafts, snacks, and games at least twice. It's a tough crowd. For personal and professional reasons, I perused many books to find unique ideas to hopefully elicit comments like... "Mom, this is cool."
Here's a small sampling of my favorite books to help keep kids happy this summer:
38 Ways to Entertain Your Parents on Summer Vacation
Dette Hunter (author)
Kitty Macaulay (illustrator)
Annick Press 2005
Hands down, the best children's book for summer, and check out the title... what child wouldn't want to see what's inside? Having taught winter after school classes titled "Summer Arts and Crafts", instructed ten years of Art Appreciation activities, and bought and read every art and craft book known to man, I thought I had seen every craft possible. The ideas, activities, and fun things to do in this book are so simple, unique, and creative. But most importantly, it's a book written for kids... to empower them and to give them the ideas to enrich their summer. The illustrations are very cute and engaging.
The Kids Summer Games Book: The Official Book of Games to Play (Family Fun)
Jane Drake, Ann Love (authors)
Heather Collins (illustrator)
Kids Can Press May 2002
An indispensable book for fun in the summer. Easy-to-follow instructions for over 150 classic and new indoor and outdoor games. Yes, there are alternatives to Lego Star Wars on Playstation 2 and Guitar Hero on the Wii.
The Super Duper Art and Craft Activity Book Over 75 Indoor and Outdoor Crafts for Kids (52 Series)
Lynn Gorden (author)
Karen Johnson, Susan Synarski (illustrators)
Chronicle Books October 2005
Written by the authors of the 52 deck activity series, this book compiles the same simple, easy-to-do, creative projects that are in the card series. Fun title, cool graphic styling, and the well-written simple instructions make this book a must have.
Betty Crocker's Kids Cook!
Betty Crocker's Cookbook for Boys and Girls
Don't you just love looking at this cover? (Sorry, I had to put this in here for me.)
Monday, June 16, 2008
I’ve chosen to avoid the full-blown biography and focus instead on the revealing chapters in a person's life.
Nevertheless, the trick still is to winnow a meaningful story to about 1500 words–I don’t’ believe kids will sit still for more–without sacrificing narrative drive and in a manner that doesn’t substitute fluff for meat.
Reducing the scope of the book is strewn with pitfalls. For example, in Uncommon Traveler, I followed the adventures of 19th Century Englishwoman, Mary Kingsley. Kingsley traveled to equatorial east Africa, displaying more than a dash of pluck for a woman who’d spent most of her life sequestered at home tending to her family. The book portrayed an epic trek through the jungle. Garbed in a thick skirt and long sleeved shirt buttoned at the neck, Mary survived rapids, swam with hippos, and even battled a crocodile who tried to join her in her canoe.
But the incidents are drawn from Mary’s two trips to Africa. The number of visits notwithstanding, I decided that the underlying tale of her courage and curiosity was of one piece, and I wrote it that way. Doing otherwise, I was convinced, would have destroyed the narrative arc for no foreseeable profit. I was careful to clarify the reality in the afterword.
The incident goes to the heart of the problem of writing history: It is not a simple chronological recounting of “true facts,” but a reflection of the historian’s point of view. When the history writer includes one bit of information while discarding another, or emphasize one episode at the expense of others, the reader must decide: Did the writer egregiously injure the truth?
I start each new project with the readers’ ultimate verdict weighing on me.
As it should.
Friday, June 13, 2008
The lucky thing is that you don’t have to make anything up. You can find facts and subjects so amazing and surreal they defy imagination.
The unlucky thing is you can’t make anything up. There’s no fudging an unknown area; you’ve got to find the facts that fit.
The lucky thing is that schools and libraries can always use a well-written book to update their collection on a particular subject.
The unlucky thing is that they can’t afford to buy them.
The lucky thing is that you can create books on subjects kids will love.
The unlucky thing is that many publishers can’t imagine marketing nonfiction to the trade market, so the kids don’t find them.
The lucky thing is that with new printing techniques and fabulous illustrators, nonfiction pictures books portray our world in gorgeous detail.
The unlucky thing is that the big chains limit their nonfiction stock and won’t display it face out with the other new picture books on the back wall.
The lucky thing is that you always have something new to talk about at social gatherings.
The unlucky thing is that sometimes people don’t share your enthusiasm for the question of how NASA is going to do an emergency appendectomy in space, what with gravity not keeping organs in their normal places—or even blood inside the body for that matter. And why isn’t that dinner conversation?
The lucky thing about being a nonfiction writer is that you are learning your whole life.
The unlucky thing…hmmm…no downside to that!
Wednesday, June 11, 2008
Many people who would make interesting subjects for biographies could be considered late bloomers. It’s not their childhoods that are necessarily so interesting but how they developed later on. Churchill, for example, did not become Prime Minister until he was 65 years old—a senior citizen. I once interviewed an artist named Harry Lieberman who didn’t start painting until he was 76 years old. For the next 27 years he was quite prolific. Recently, the New York Times had a fascinating article on a New Yorker by the name of Ruth Proskauer Smith, currently 100 years old, who upon retiring began taking a bus and train downtown every day to teach a course on the Supreme Court. What kid wouldn’t admire her?
Kids certainly do need role models. So it’s encouraging to see Indiana Jones still fighting the good fight well into his 60s. A youngin’ could learn a thing or two from a guy like that. And if they could read books about real life senior citizen super heroes, even better.
Historians, however, must face the harsh reality that the next best thing to a live super hero is a recently deceased one. As many researchers will tell you, obituaries make the most fascinating reading. Especially today, when an entire generation of people who lived through a remarkable period in American history are beginning to die off. The pages of the obituaries have recently been including all too many holocaust survivors, World War II veterans, and people who actually knew Franklin D. Roosevelt as their President.
As a writer grows older, it becomes easier to relate to how complex a person’s life can be and how rich the details that can be shared in a book. Pete Seeger, who himself turned 90 this year (and, I’m happy to say, is the subject of a forthcoming pb biography by an esteemed nonfiction writer), has a great "traditional" song that includes a line about perusing the obituaries.
"I get up each morning and dust off my wits
Open the paper and read the obits
If I'm not there, I know I'm not dead
So I eat a good breakfast and go back to bed"
Tuesday, June 10, 2008
A couple of excerpts:
“But here’s the thing. The reason science really matters runs deeper still. Science is a way of life. Science is a perspective. Science is the process that takes us from confusion to understanding in a manner that’s precise, predictive and reliable — a transformation, for those lucky enough to experience it, that is empowering and emotional. To be able to think through and grasp explanations — for everything from why the sky is blue to how life formed on earth — not because they are declared dogma but rather because they reveal patterns confirmed by experiment and observation, is one of the most precious of human experiences.”
“Science is the greatest of all adventure stories, one that’s been unfolding for thousands of years as we have sought to understand ourselves and our surroundings. Science needs to be taught to the young and communicated to the mature in a manner that captures this drama. We must embark on a cultural shift that places science in its rightful place alongside music, art and literature as an indispensable part of what makes life worth living.”
Greene points out that when science is taught in a bottom-up fashion — focusing on technical details, historical precedents, memorization of facts — students get bored. If we can try, instead, to communicate first some of the beauty and grandeur of what science has shown us about the world, many of those same students will be engaged and excited about physics, geology, or biology.
I agree with him, having experienced a few mind-numbing science classes in high school and college. I spent much of my childhood collecting fossils, building electric motors and making things oxidize explosively with my chemistry set. If science classes were boring for me, I can't imagine how someone who came to the subject with no previous interest might have fared.
It's interesting, though, to think about how a big-picture approach to science might work with young children.
When my daughter was small, we took a trip to Canyonlands National Park in Utah. I wanted to show her the jaw-dropping view from an overlook above the Green River, where on a clear day it's possible to see perhaps 100 miles. I remember that she was not really interested in the view, but was fascinated with the pebbles on the ground in her immediate vicinity. This was something she could relate to, at a scale that was accessible to her.
What I'm getting to is the idea that perhaps the best way to engage young children in science is to start small. Not with a lot of facts or technical information, but with details about extraordinary — or ordinary — things. It's the details that will pull them into the world of science and start them thinking (perhaps with our help) about how a lot of small pieces fit together to form a coherent picture of the world.
Monday, June 9, 2008
Pickers of nits may have a tricky time classifying the gorgeous new picture book about our emblem of freedom-- Lady Liberty: A Biography. What is noted author Doreen Rappaport doing with these free-verse poems, in the various voices of all who had a hand in creating the Statue of Liberty? The first poem is autobiographical, describing her Latvian grandfather seeing the statue for the first time. Then, from French sculptor Auguste Bartholdi to others famous and not so famous, the voices tell a true story-- how the statue was conceived and built and what it’s meant to immigrants ever since. Here is the voice of poet Emma Lazarus: “Soon when people arrive in the New World,/they will be welcomed/by a caring, powerful woman,” Rappaport writes, segueing into Lazarus’s own invocation: “Give me your tired, your poor,/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…” Besides being inspirational, the poems are obviously the fruit of mountains of research, and meanwhile Rappaport has collected every possible fact you could want to know into the back matter. Somber paintings by Matt Tavares swoop from unusual angles to heighten the drama. The format is large and inviting, with a “ta-da” fold-up page unveiling the completed Lady in all her magnificence. This is history, biography, and a tribute evoking genuine emotion-- all at the same time. I would call it seriously creative nonfiction (Candlewick, ages 5-8).
For older readers, the title alone-- King George: What Was His Problem?—may result in kids grabbing this book. The additional line of “Everything Your Schoolbooks Didn't Tell You About the American Revolution”—sounds mighty cool. Steve Sheinkin, the author of textbooks even he thinks of as tedious, has here amassed all the good stuff he claims his prim textbook editors wouldn’t allow him to use. That makes us the beneficiary of a clear, witty, fast-paced account that reads like a novel, even to the point of including some surprisingly clever dialog. Ben Franklin and grumpy John Adams, forced to share a bed one night, argue over whether the window should be open or closed. “I believe you are not acquainted with my theory of colds,” begins Franklin, lulling angry Adams into submission: “I was so much amused that I soon fell asleep.” Often one battle after another, this account might be more blow-by-blow than some kids will persist with (actually, this works well as a primer for adults). But it’s all good, important stuff that kids should know. The extensive back matter includes a “What Ever Happened to…” wrap-up of all the famous names—and a list of sources for every line of that dialog. Tim Robinson pops up with occasional sprightly black and white drawings (Roaring Brook, ages 10-14).
Guess what—I had other books I was going to include, but upon closer look, they have flaws. The children’s book world is so tiny (really) that I hate wasting space on negative reviews—even if it’s the infinite space of the Internet.
But here’s a terrific picture book biography, as tenuous as its connection to July 4th might seem-- Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman. Possibly the most famous American cultural icon ever, Superman was born during a tough time in this country’s history. Seventy years ago, in 1938, you were either still suffering from the Great Depression or worried sick about the upcoming world war. To the rescue came two super-nerdy teens from Cleveland (who many a sensitive kid will identify with). They responded to trauma by inventing the world’s first superhero. Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster persisted through years of rejection and later bad treatment from their publishers, searching for truth and justice as they created comic books that boosted American morale. Marc Tyler Nobleman tells his story swiftly, focusing on key dramatic moments, with a detailed afterword showing his intensive research. The stylish illustrations, in an appropriately retro palette, are by Ross Macdonald (Knopf, ages 7-10).
And in the realm of self-promotion, I have a one-page piece in the upcoming Our White House: Looking In, Looking Out. It keeps company with 107 other contributors-- authors (from Katherine Paterson to Kate DiCamillo to Jon Scieszka), illustrators (from Leo and Diane Dillon to Peter Sis to Brian Selznick), and famous folks (from Charles Dickens and Walt Whitman to Richard Nixon and Dick Cheney). At 242 well-designed pages, this anthology is the mother of all tributes to American history, a multi-faceted jewel for family sharing and endless uses in the classroom (to be developed on its companion website ). A few poems and short stories and plays sprinkle the mix, but mostly this is a nonfiction account of history as it affected our White House—the emphasis on our—and a call to learn more about being an American citizen (Candlewick, ages 8 and up).
Friday, June 6, 2008
That was in 1981, and after writing articles about the AAGPBL throughout the 80s, I finally finished my book, A Whole New Ball Game, in 1993. By then Penny Marshall’s 1992 movie, A League of Their Own, had piqued the public’s curiosity about the All-American, and teachers and their students in particular embraced the chance to learn the true story of these pioneering women. After 15 years, the paperback edition of the book is still in print, and the kids’ volumes on the subject could fill the better part of a library shelf. I’m proud that there’s now a literature of the league, and that its story is included in a number of American history textbooks as well.
Yet my association with the league didn’t end when my A Whole New Ball Game was published. During my book’s long gestation period, the former players I had interviewed became friends, and they welcomed me at their reunions. I had joined their Players Association as an associate when it was formed in 1987, and in 2000 I accepted an invitation to run for the board of directors. After six years as secretary, I am now co-chair of the Vision Committee, the group delegated with the responsibility of suggesting what should become of the organization and its assets when the remaining players, now in their 70s and 80s, are no longer around.
While by-the-book journalists might balk at a writer becoming part of the story, I think my book is better because of the connections I made doing the research. There’s no question that I am a more confident writer—and a stronger person—as well. Next to my family, my friends in the Players Association are my biggest fans. If it wasn’t for pitcher Fran Janssen’s prodding, I might never have finished my oft interrupted biography of Nellie Bly (due out from National Geographic in Fall ’09). And without the examples of Fran and countless other risk-taking women from the league, I might not have left the security of a staff publishing job to stake out a career as a freelancer in 1999.
Several years ago, at an AAGPBL player reunion, Suzy, a woman about my age, rushed up to tell me that my book had changed her life. After reading it, she'd contacted some of the players I mentioned and then followed their suggestion that she come to the reunion. Since that time, Suzy has become an integral part of the Players Association, running for office and helping to plan the most recent reunion. The women of the league do that to you--welcome you with open arms into their community and imbue you with their enthusiasm and pride. Writing about them changed my life, too. I can't imagine a better subject to claim as my own.
Thursday, June 5, 2008
Step 1: I bought a Sony 25X Optical Zoom Megapixel Handycam. It is the garden-variety point and shoot type; no worries about lighting or focusing. I also purchased a tripod since I was told that my hands might not be steady and a jerky picture is the sure sign of an amateur. I pressed my ten-year-old grandsons into service. Since they come from different families who live hundreds of miles apart, I’m lucky to get them together one day a year. The day of the shoot last August was that day. We all had a lot of fun videotaping them doing science tricks. My husband shot me and the boys introducing the project: http://www.vickicobb.com/Videos/introtowedareyou.html
I discovered that I had to acquire a new set of skills I had not anticipated—to become a director. (I learned a lot about camera angles and extra shots to cut to.) I proudly showed off my beginning efforts to the boys’ parents by hooking the camera to the TV and relished their enthusiastic response. On a roll, later that month, I made more videos without realizing I had rewound the tape. Much to my horror, I made the sickening discovery that I had taped over most of the stuff shot that first day. One trial learning. I won’t make that mistake again!
Step 2: It became time to bite the bullet and face the problem of editing the videos. I read that I-Movie, a program for Macs, was the easiest way to go. A PC user for all these years, I not only had to learn a new program and skill but I had to go into a whole different computer system. I walked into the Apple Store in the Westchester Mall, where they are well staffed to handle the neophyte buyer. I told the personable and knowledgeable salesman, Mike, what I wanted to do. He quickly put together exactly what I needed. I bought a MacBook Pro, with the Leopard OS X, 2 GB of memory, and a processing speed of 2.4 Ghz. (This means nothing to me but you might find the specifics valuable.) Best of all, for an additional $100 I could receive 52 hours of private instruction with their platoon of mavens called One-on-One. Right away I was taught how to upload my videos from my Handycam, set up projects, and assemble the clips into my little videos. I was on my way, only slightly off the ground, on my ascent up the learning curve. I should say, at this point, that my issues as a videographer, were technical, not creative. If you know how to tell a story and have worked with artists on books, you will not have a problem knowing how to put a story together using videotape.
Step 3: The next problem was to get the finished videos into a format for the web. The Mac will save the videos in the Quicktime format (.mov files) but PCs need a special player for it. The best format for the web is Flash. Ninety-eight percent of all computers come with a Flash Player, which can be also downloaded free. Videos encoded in Flash (.swf files) can’t be easily downloaded by viewers so there is some copyright protection, which was important to me as I may want to put all the videos on a DVD someday and perhaps sell it with the book. When I asked the Apple folk for a program that will convert the .mov file to a Flash file, they were at a loss. I was already ahead of them on this part of the learning curve! I did find a trial program online for the Mac but the company went out of business before I could purchase it. My PC guy solved the problem for me but it is a little cumbersome. I make a video on my Mac, save it to my Flash Drive, move it to my PC, and convert it with Flash Studio 2. Finally, I use Dreamweaver to post it on my site. (So I now have to learn how to be my own webmaster.)
How’d I do? Check them out: http://www.vickicobb.com/vicki
This journey to teach an old dog new tricks started six months ago. Was it worth it? Here’s the breakdown: Handycam and tripod: $400. MacBook Pro and additional software: $4000. The joy of creating and publishing videos of my work without depending on anyone else: Priceless!
Wednesday, June 4, 2008
We struck the deal and this month WE DARE YOU! HUNDREDS OF FUN SCIENCE BETS, CHALLENGES, AND EXPERIMENTS YOU CAN DO AT HOME was released for sale.
Reworking that tried and true material for the new book started me thinking about making videos again. In 2001 I had hired a videographer to make a seven-minute video of me and my then ten-year-old granddaughter doing experiments to promote a science fair book published by Scholastic. I scripted the material but the videographer and her crew shot it and she edited it. I have been giving it away ever since to the schools where I make appearances. It was a good investment but it was expensive. Now I wanted to create short (under 2 minutes each) videos of kids doing these tricks and make them available to everyone on my website in conjunction with the book. How could I possibly hire someone to fulfill my vision of a video library of almost 300 tricks? The answer is obvious. Modern technology has leveled the playing field. I would learn how to do it myself and invite the world to send me uncut footage of kids doing these tricks.
I am not afraid of learning something new. In 1983, I bought my first computer, a Kaypro II. I plunged into teaching myself word processing by retyping a work in progress, a chemistry book. In those days there was no such thing as drag and drop, the mouse hadn’t yet been invented. Word processing meant that you had to format the work yourself with keystrokes. It was an intense learning period with lots of swearing and tearing out of hair. I had my own publishing company then. Here’s how our first (and only) book project went: The first month I wrote a new book and had it professionally edited. The next month I sent it out for typesetting using a modem and Dial-A-Typesetter. The third month was used to make the prepress mechanicals and we had bound books after four months. Unheard of speed, in 1983, for producing a book! That was the fun part. The book did not sell well and I received a learning experience, which is what you get when you don’t get what you want. I learned I did not want to be a publisher.
But times are different now. If you have a website you are a publisher. It would be possible for me to do it all, write videos, shoot them, edit them, narrate the voice-over, add music, and publish them on my website. The fact that I was coming from a dead start, that I had never even held a video camera could not be a deterrent. I know from experience that the steepness of a learning curve is best faced one step at a time. My next post will give you the details of how I learned this new craft, in case you’re interested. If not, and you still want to see how I did, check them out: http://www.vickicobb.com/vicki
Tuesday, June 3, 2008
“Teenagers travel in droves, packs, swarms…To the librarian, they’re a gaggle of geese. To the cook, they’re a scourge of locusts. To department stores they’re a big beautiful exaltation of larks…all lovely and loose and jingly.” With this quote, dated 1960, from Macy’s advertising director Bernice Fitz-Gibbon, Evan Wolfson began his piece in this week’s Huffington Post telling how Macy’s has decided to celebrate the California decision to uphold marriage rights for same-sex couples.
Wolfson said, “Inclusion and welcome actually strengthen businesses (and communities),” reminding us (but who knew?) of Macy’s motto: “Be everywhere, do everything, and never fail to astonish the customer.”
Having typed the above two paragraphs (mainly quotes), and with the overattentive help of Microsoft Word, let me outline the points I mean to draw out from these thoughts:
"Gaggle of geese"? Anybody who has read the blogs of young adult librarians is aware that their jobs are frequently focused on gooseherding. Despite or because of this, young adult librarians have a finger on the pulse of what matters to teens. Therefore, they are busy providing programs, books, and counseling services for the kids that come through their doors, including pointing kids toward relevant books, if available. Ask a young adult librarian (or bookseller, for that matter) today for a book on gay civil rights and watch them struggle to find something to hand you or your young person.
"A big beautiful exaltation of larks…all lovely and loose and jingly.” Gosh, I love that. An "exaltation of larks, all lovely": beautiful, young, and joyous. "Loose"? Instead of being what we’re all afraid of, loose here means, again, open, willing to consider, unprejudiced. "Jingly"? Well, jingly with what? Money? To spend on what’s available, whether it’s books, food, or whatever Macy’s tries to astonish them with?
My conclusion: kids are open, new, willing to consider, and willing to buy. Which brings me to gay civil rights, which is one of the things with which Macy’s has decided to try to astonish them – and all of us – these days. High time. Which brings me to the sheer numbers of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or queer kids (an estimated 2.5 million in the U.S.) and their legions of straight friends, teachers, and family members. Open, outspoken, and organized (with more than 3500 Gay Straight Alliances nationwide), this demographic and their supporting elders swell the ranks of open-hearted, open-minded adults who are shifting and will continue to shift the mind-set of our nation regarding gay rights.
Of the Fortune 500, 92 percent include sexual orientation in their employment nondiscrimination policies.
I grew up a white, Christian, straight girl who read a hundred books a year (I used to keep a list, okay?). Among my favorites were war stories (especially World War II and the Civil War) and biographies: Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King, Jr., Louisa May Alcott, Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony, Annie Sullivan, Helen Keller, Elie Wiesel, Anne Frank. Whenever I wrote a report, it was about the struggles of my heroes as they strove for civil rights. And I followed the news, as anyone who has read my novel “Outside In” will attest, well aware of what was going on in the sixties, seventies, and eighties.
And I grew up with a lot of GLBTQ kids, well aware of their isolation and persecution, ridiculously unaware of who their heroes were. Unfortunately, I think this lack of understanding on the part of young GLBTQ kids of who their “people” are, what they’ve acomplished, and what challenges remain is woefully sparse. So, I ask:
1. Where are the children’s and young adult books on the gay civil rights movement in America?
2. Where are the biographies of the GLBTQ heroes?
3. Where is the publisher that understands the needs of its young audience – that lovely, loose, and jingly exaltation of larks – and is willing to respond to it? Which editor is willing to stick out his or her neck? Which acquisitions committee will expand their scope? Which publisher will open its list to new ideas? Which publisher is willing to astonish?
Monday, June 2, 2008
Drama (or we may say an invented story, i.e. fiction) is superior to history (a narrative of true events, i.e. nonfiction) because drama tells us what may happen, whereas history only tells us what has happened. Thus proposes the central thesis of A's Poetics. Back when I was primarily a fiction writer, I gloated when I was first treated to an exegesis of this foundation of literary criticism. "Aha!" I cried in triumph. "If Mr. Aristotle says so, it must be so!"