Thursday, October 30, 2008

Just for the Fun of It

Funny. It seems like that’s all I’ve been hearing lately. When it comes to the world of kid’s lit, I think the emphasis on funny can be dangerously overrated.

I was at a writer’s conference last weekend. Guess what the vast majority of the editors and agents there said they were interested in? Funny. Apparently there’s nothing better than funny. And that’s what’s bothering me. Of course kids like funny—who doesn’t? But they also like creative, clever, meaningful, thought provoking and totally cool. And if you’re just focusing on funny, well, you could be missing or passing up on a lot of good stuff.

Two of my favorite new history books for kids don’t really fit the funny category. TAKE ME BACK. A TRIP THROUGH HISTORY FROM THE STONE AGE TO THE DIGITAL AGE(DK, 2008) is like the Guinness Book of World Records for history geeks. It’s the perfect book to peruse over a bowl of cereal. Much of the appeal comes from the unique layout of each double page spread. It makes you want to flip through the pages randomly, stopping just to see what the next page is about. Lots of cleverly presented information here. Not really funny. THE RAUCOUS ROYALS (Houghton Mifflin, 2008)by Carlyn Beccia ,which Kathleen reviewed in her last post, is full of mystery and logical deduction and rumor debunking. Sure there are some laughs (especially in the illustrations), but the heart of the book is how we analyze information. Not the usual hot topic but a wonderful, well-written book. I don’t know how these two books managed to squeeze their way into a fun loving editor’s heart, but it does give the non-fun among us hope.

Another problem with pushing fun, fun, fun is it can backfire. At a public library in a suburban NJ town I found a pamphlet in the children’s department entitled “Nonfiction for fun.” The list was compiled from nominations for the Garden State Teen Book Awards. Among the weighty titles listed were HITLER YOUTH, THE 9/11 REPORT: A GRAPHIC ADAPTATION, 5,000 MILES TO FREEDOM, and OUR STORIES, OUR SONGS: AFRICAN CHILDREN TALK ABOUT AIDS. Intriguing, compelling, thought provoking, books. But fun? There would surely be a lot of disappointed readers.

We already have enough problems with the misnomer “nonfiction”. We need to celebrate the diversity of nonfiction and the variety of ways it can be appealing. Lets try not to overuse the F word.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Where's the Art?

Over ten years ago a particularly biting segment aired on 60 Minutes entitled YES BUT IS IT ART? It began with Morley Safer quoting PT Barnum’s legendary remark “A sucker is born every minute.” Safer went on to say most contemporary art is “worthless junk.” He even filmed a group of children at the Whitney Museum, and pointing to a large graffiti-like painting, asked, “Do you think you could do as well?” One little boy announced, “I could do better than that.”

The media abounds in messages that today’s new artists are trying to put something over on us and laughing all the way to the bank. The New Yorker always has a cartoon spoofing some current new art world trend. One of my favorites from many years back pictures two men, very well-dressed and puffed up, standing before a Jackson Pollock painting. One man says to the other, “His splatters are masterful but his dribbles lack conviction.”

The Gap in the Bookshelf (one of my favorite subjects). In 1989 there were no books for young readers on looking at contemporary art . Biographies of artists tended to concentrate on the old masters.. So Sandra Jordan and I decided to write our first book together The Painter’s Eye, which we hoped would help children enter a dialogue with new art and come to it with an open mind and a fresh eye. Now almost twenty years later, we have collaborated on 11 books together, and most of them focus on 20th and 21st century artists and artworks. Since the early 90’s, some terrific books about contemporary art for kids have been published. In addition, the lives and works of earlier artists are now being presented in a more exciting, creative way. It was great recently to visit the bookstores at the Milwaukee Art Museum and the Saint Louis Art Museum and see so many of these books filling the Gap on the Bookshelf.

Here are a few books on art for young readers that I enjoyed looking through. Some deal with modern and contemporary art; others cover artworks by more traditional and old master artists (chosen by me because they were so delightful!).

Sandy's Circus: A Story About Alexander Calder by Tanya Lee Stone and Boris Kulikov. A charming tale about the artist “Sandy” Calder making his famous circus, now on display at The Whitney Museum in New York.·

Painting the Wild Frontier: The Art and Adventures of George Catlin by Susanna Reich. This book about the artist George Catlin, famous for his paintings of Native Americans, is filled with photographs, drawings, and reproductions of the artist’s works. Reich also tells a fast-moving story.

Behind the Museum Door: Poems to Celebrate the Wonders of Museums collected by Lee Bennet Hopkins. Illustrated by Stacey Dressen-McQueen. Some of our favorite poets for children invite us into museums and write poems about some of the treasures we might see there from a mummy to a Picasso.

Here’s Looking at Me: How Artists see Themselves by Bob Raczka highlights self-portraits as diverse in style and period as an etching by Durer to a photograph appropriating a Caravaggio by Cindy Sherman. Bob’s many art books for kids are fascinating!!!

There are many more terrific books about art and artists and over the next few months I will try to feature some of them. Hope you will have a chance to see my new book with Sandra Jordan,

Christo and Jeanne-Claude Through The Gates and Beyond (Roaring Brook Press). It tells the story of these two partners in life and art, who have collaborated on large-scale artworks all over the world. The projects from wrapping The Pont Neuf in Paris to unfurling The Gates in Central Park last not more than two weeks and are paid for completely by the artists.The funds come from the sales of Christo’s drawings, prints, models, and earlier works. By the way, they were both born on the same day in the same year, each in opposite sides of the world. We interviewed them over a period of four years. One of the joys of writing about living artists is the opportunity to meet them and follow their work over a period of time. During the years they were organizing and engineering The Gates, our project was on hold. They were so busy. Sandra and I wondered if we would ever finish the book. Finally months after the hugely successful Gates project was dismantled, Jeanne-Claude left a message on our editor Neal Porter’s machine, saying “Let’s get the ball rolling.” And we were back in business!

Monday, October 27, 2008

Where's the Math?

Anyone familiar with recent children’s literature knows that some picture books have mathematical themes. I have written a few -- How Much Is a Million?, If You Hopped Like a Frog , G Is for Googol, for example -- and there are myriad titles by other authors that have come to comprise a sub-genre of children’s literature that some call “math-lit.” But many non-fiction (and even some fiction) books that no one would call "math books" have hidden math connections nonetheless. Teachers and parents can use these books to introduce children to important math concepts and to encourage children to solve mathematical problems. I will provide a few examples from books of my own, and I invite blog readers to post their suggestions for books with subtle mathematical messages.

Super Grandpa tells the true story of a Swedish grandfather who, in 1951 at age 66, rode his bicycle about 1,000 miles in the Sverige Loppet (Tour of Sweden), despite having been barred from entering the race on account of his age. As an unofficial entrant, he finished the course in six days and became a national hero, remembered to this day. End of story. Or is it? The story has many numbers that can generate math problems. To take a simple example, Gustaf, our hardy grandpa, rides his bicycle 600 miles to the starting line because he has no other way to get there. Then he begins the 1,000 mile race. Obvious question to ask a reader: how many miles all together did he ride? Less obvious questions: was the race itself twice as long as the distance he rode to get there? More than twice? Less than twice? By how much? More difficult question: The book says he rode the 1,000 miles in six days. On average, how many miles per day did he ride? Research question: if a 1,000 mile race started in our city, where might it end? Get out the map. Use the scale. Find several points that are 1,000 miles away. Note the distance between as-the-crow-flies miles and actual road miles. How about a circuit that starts and ends here. What are some of the cities it could pass through? Christina Nugent, mentor teacher and math supervisor for Dubuque Public Schools in Iowa, has written two mathematical lesson plans for Super Grandpa (for primary and intermediate grades), which can be downloaded at the publisher’s website, Here’s a caveat: don’t forget to let the story be a story. Read it and enjoy it. Then mine its math.

Ladybug, along with eleven other titles in the “Life Cycles” series, are nature books, not math books. Right? Not exactly. I’d agree that Ladybug is a nature book but, as in so many nature books, you can find plenty of mathematical learning opportunities. One of the photographs shows about 20 bright orange ladybugs on a bed of vegetation. Their spots can be seen and counted, and the number of spots per beetle ranges from zero to a dozen or so.

Along comes Patty Brown, an elementary school math coach from Freso, CA. Patty gives first graders orange cardboard cut-outs resembling the backs of ladybugs, each divided into two “wings” (actually elytra, a beetle’s hardened wing cases).  The first graders also get ten yellow cardboard circles representing spots. They are asked to arrange the ten spots on the backs of their ladybugs. Every child in the class arrives at the same solution: five spots on each side. “Can we arrange them any other way?” Patty asks. No one budges. “Is five and five the only way to make ten?” The children resist admitting to any other possibilities. “How about this?” Patty picks up a lady bug back and puts six spots on one side, four on the other. The kids get it but they’re not happy about it. The symmetry, which they see as “fairness,” of five and five has a very strong pull on them, but eventually they come to discover and accept all the other combinations of numbers whose sum is ten. Patty writes each combination as an equation. Everyone is happy and an important first grade math concept has been learned.

In the Forest is one of 24 titles in my “Look Once, Look Again” series. In these books, readers look at a close-up photo of an animal and they read text hinting at its identity. Turning the page reveals the full animal and more information about it. One section shows a close up view of one antenna of a cecropia moth. The text that accompanies the “reveal” photo of the whole moth explains that its two antennae are its nose – a nose sensitive enough to allow a male moth to smell females three miles away. The second graders of Judy Baker in Vacaville, CA, found this interesting and a class discussion showed their teacher that they had no idea of the distance defined by a mile. And so began an extensive classroom project Judy called “How Much is a Mile?” in which 15 students taped together the paper yardsticks they had made earlier in the year to create a long strip of paper which they dubbed “Longie.”
At first they thought Longie would be a mile but they figured out it was only 45 feet long, and a little research told them that a mile was 5,280 feet. This led them to wonder aloud, “How many Longies make a mile?” They sought the answer by repeatedly adding 45 + 45, etc., but Ms. Baker saw a teachable moment and used the project as an opportunity to teach hows and whys of multiplication by ten. Excitement grew as they approached the ultimate answer. “It was time for lunch,” Judy wrote in an email to me, “but they had such momentum, they didn’t want to go to lunch!”

Building on Judy’s classroom experiences and adding some new technology, another 2nd grade teacher, Laura Bush, in Andover, CT, went online to pull up a high-resolution map of the local area on an interactive whiteboard. Placing the school in the middle of the map, she aske
d her students to imagine a male moth at the school, and to plot several points three miles from the school in order to see how far the moth could smell. Referring to the scale of miles, they entered points on the map; as more and more points appeared on the screen, a magical thing emerged: a circle. What an opportunity to teach the vocabulary of circles: radius, diameter, circumference, area, and so forth, and to make it relevant and meaningful.

To think that all that math started with a nature book.

Friday, October 24, 2008

National Arts and Humanities Month

In honor of National Arts and Humanities Month, I'm sharing a link to a thought-provoking interview with my friend, Dan Pink, on the Oprah Soul Series.

Click on the icon or click to the link here. It will take you to Dan's blog and links.
The interview is in two parts and you can download the audio AND video. As Dan Pink covered in A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule The Future, Oprah and Dan discuss how "the MFA has become the new MBA." This year after her speech to the graduating class at Stanford, Oprah gave Dan's book to the entire class.
Please listen and let me know what you think.

In the spirit of this month, here's a list of my favorite Art/Music NF picture books. Some of the books I raved about before, but, hey, they warrant repeating. The main focus of Art Appreciation is not to do art projects or learn the name of the artist but to have the children talk about art: their thoughts, feelings, and opinions.

Jonah Winter (author)
Ana Juan (illustrator)
Arthur A. Levine Books (2002)

Great book for Kindergartners to fifth graders. I have read it to several classes and it captures the attention of all and leads to interesting discussions. 

Dali and the Path of Dreams
Anna Obiolis (author)
Joan Subirana (illustrator)
Frances Lincoln Children's Books (2007)

Beautifully illustrated book and I don't think I could explain the creative style of Dali better.

Can You Hear it?
Dr. William Lach
Metropolitan Museum of Art
Abrams Books for Young Readers (2006)

"Listen and Look". Music and 13 masterpieces. Doesn't get any better than that.

Music for the End of Time
Jen Bryant (author)
Beth Peck (illustrator)
Eerdmans Books for Young Readers (2008)

Wonderful story of the power of music and passion.

Art to Make You Scared
Art to Make You Smile
Elizabeth Newbury
Frances Lincoln Children's Books (2008)

Fun books to start lively discussions.
Wouldn't the scary one be great for Halloween?

Sandy's Circus
Tanya Lee Stone (author)
Boris Kulikov (illustrator)
Viking (2008)

Interesting story to get kids drawn into a discussion of Calder.
My son's third grade teacher is going to read to the class Blue Balliett's Calder Game to complement my Art Appeciation lesson later this year. Of course, the lesson will start with Sandy's Circus.

"Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up."
Pablo Picasso

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Wild Web Writing

I was up late last night uploading my massive new website, So digital change and web writing is much on my mind. For the last seven years or so, my husband and I have been investigating and experimenting with the digital future of writing and publishing. Yet the mainstream of my work and business continues to be in actual paper books. This heavily influences the way I write for the web.

At first, it was hard for me to loosen up, or let any prose out of my control. Writing a casual piece, such as a blog, without polishing it a hundred times can feel unnatural for book-first writers. It's like letting people troll through your messy drafts. It's like letting your slip show. It's . . . well, embarrassing and improper.

You can see this book-first writer reserve on I.N.K. Many of the blog entries here are more like articles: carefully crafted, shaped, and polished. They are by nonfiction writers who put great thought and care into every word and fact. The articles are also a big longer than most. What else do you expect from nonfiction writers? Supporting examples and facts are essential to our work and our lives. We like proof and shape, not just tossed out ideas.

But, blogging and website writing is rather addictive, as I and some of the other nonfiction writers have discovered. It fits the way I think. My new website has that mobile, easily updated content aspect of blogs. It allows me to follow tangents and take readers there with a clicked link. My clusters of ideas can flower. Feedback from others can take the ideas farther than I could myself. It's great how quickly you can correct a website.

But I do miss my book editors out here on the web. I love editors. They inspire. They save me from myself. They push me to write better, to shape better. Together we check and recheck. Editors, like writers, care.

I could go on. I am a book-first writer, after all. I have about ten more chapters on this and related subjects. But this is a blog. Right. Spontaneous. Right. Supposed to be really short. Oops.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Children's Author Superstar

Authors lead double lives: as writer of stories and dazzling performer. Both these roles require creativity and discipline. But dazzle on the page doesn’t always lead to dazzle on the stage. It’s personality that makes the difference. I saw two great children’s writers recently. Unfortunately our own David Schwartz isn’t touring southern California this fall, so I made do with novelists. But what's true for them is true for us nonficton authors.

Neil Gaiman came to town to promote The Graveyard Book. This is a middle grade/YA/adult novel, inspired by The Jungle Book, about a boy raised by ghosts. The book is full of witty details, scary stuff and wonderful characters. Gaiman is famous for his comic books, as well as novels and picture books. At the gig in Santa Monica, the hall was full of enraptured twenty-something fantasy fans – walking (and crossing) that fine line between nerdy and hip.

Gaiman himself is hip – decked out in black – tee shirt, leather jacket, knee high boots. His latest tour included pre-signed books and a Q & A with the audience. But the highlight of the evening was his reading of one chapter of The Graveyard Book per city (nine in all,) that was videotaped and put on the web the next day. He is a masterful reader, and the audience (including me) was rapt.

Superstar Gaiman writes liner notes for rock star friends and his daily blog attracts a worldwide eclectic audience. His website offers dozens – hundreds? – of links, message boards, merchandise, etc. relating to him and his work. His travel schedule rivals that of an international statesman. He’s got charm as well as stamina and seems to enjoy his public life.

Louis Sachar is a different story. No black leather, but rumpled corduroy and jeans for this acclaimed author, as he addressed a recent audience of authors and librarians. He’s a quiet, self-effacing man who began by complaining about having to do a 10th anniversary tour for Holes, then apologized for complaining and appearing ungrateful, and finally advocated for the not-so-famous writers who need author tours more than he does. Later he declined a librarian's offer to read from his books for a library podcast.

Really, he just wants to go home and write his next book. However he did navigate the treacherous world of Hollywood to write a terrific screenplay for Holes, and even got a bit starstruck when he landed line or two in the movie. But Sachar’s dazzle is relegated to his clever, poignant, funny books. And he seems to prefer it that way.

Like the superstars in this business, we all have to find our own comfort level. Some authors never leave their office. Others spend more time promoting than writing. I love being onstage for an hour or a day, but not too often. (I’m in the middle of a mini-media blitz myself, which I’ll report on next month.)

Still, I live in LA, surrounded by glitzy movie stars, and I love it when authors grab the spotlight – whatever they choose to wear.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Broadening Our Horizons Book by Book

I’ve been thinking lately about the many reasons I not only love to write nonfiction, but also love to read it. The reasons I have now, as an adult, are really no different than the ones I had when I was a young reader. I lived not far from a major city, but not in it, either, so although I had my share of metropolitan cultural experiences, I couldn’t wander into a major art museum any time I felt like it. Most of the time, books were the way in. And not just the way in to museums, oh no, but to concerts, musicians, the time of dinosaurs, the lives of interesting people, a trip to the moon, and the list went on. I think I write nonfiction to continue giving myself opportunities to learn, as well as to share what I learn. I’ve always said the fastest way to gain entry to understanding a topic is to find an excellent children’s book on the topic and jump in.

Every once in a while, the timing of what I am learning and sharing collides with an event in the larger world. As some I.N.K. readers know, my Sandy’s Circus (illustrations by the incredible Boris Kulikov) just came out. It is about Alexander Calder and how he first wowed the art world with his imaginative (and green, although that’s a contemporary term) Cirque de Calder.

Bam! Within weeks of our pub date, I was delighted to learn that the Whitney Museum had launched their revamped, reinvigorated exhibit of this very work of Calder’s art, complete with a video showing Alexander Calder on the floor performing his phenomenal creation and roaring like the lion he was.

Within days of each other, two—count ‘em, TWO—full-page articles ran in the New York Times celebrating this new exhibit, the artist, and his work. The articles are wonderful, so click on over and read them when you have the chance.

This weekend I’m happy to be heading to New York for the 5th anniversary of Wicked and will absolutely be going to the Whitney to once again get up close and personal to my subject matter, and share it with my kids. I hope Boris will join us, too. And a few days after that (can you say jet lag), I’ll be in Austin for the Texas Book Festival where I will have the ultimate privilege of introducing an entire school to the wonders of Alexander Calder’s Cirque de Calder!

I feel like a kid again myself—a kid who is allowed to bring a piece of New York, the Whitney, and Alexander Calder to my very own show-and-tell.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Pioneers of Nonfiction #3: Dorothy Hinshaw Patent

I put off writing about Dorothy for a couple months because she did a guest blog here, but I just can’t help it any longer because she’s great! Like Larry Pringle, Dorothy has been one of those people quietly blazing the trail for a whole generation of other nonfiction writers, especially in science. Like many other science writers, she grew up with a fascination in the world around her. She earned a bachelor’s in Biology from Stanford and a Ph.D. in Zoology from my own alma mater, Berkeley. Her first children’s book, Weasels, Otters, Skunks and Their Family was published in 1973—a full twenty years before my first book came out! Remarkably, she is still actively pushing the envelope of nonfiction, even after having more than 130 books published and winning countless awards.

What I most admire about Dorothy’s work is that, like Larry Pringle and other top writers, she tackles subjects she thinks are important instead of only focusing on their sales potential. She was one of the first writers to tackle evolution, mimicry, and reproduction. She has helped educate young people about everything from horses to mosquitoes to living in a family that hunts.

Some of my favorite recent books by Dorothy have been published by Clarion. They include Biodiversity; Fire—Friend or Foe; and The Buffalo and the Indians—A Shared Destiny. All of these books tackle tough, controversial subjects, but Dorothy explains them in straight-talking, highly readable ways. And some of her recent picture books are just downright fun. My faves include The Right Dog for the Job; Fabulous Fluttering Tropical Butterflies; and Slinky Scaly Slithery Snakes. The last two include astonishing artwork by Montana artist Kendahl Jan Jubb.

Besides greatly admiring Dorothy’s work and her contribution to children’s literature, I am fortunate to be able to count her as one of my friends. When I moved to Montana twelve years ago, she welcomed me into her writer’s group, and we have been friends ever since. I continue to learn from her and her work, and always look forward to what she comes up with next!

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

This Post is a Joke

For some odd reason I recently began writing riddles and jokes about invertebrates, among other creatures:

Q. Why are anemones so popular?
A. The anemone of my anemone is my friend.

Q. Why are tubeworms so shy?
A. They‘re introvertebrates.

Time travel came up... temporally, at least:

Q. What’s the most common way to time travel?
A. Throwing the alarm clock at the wall!

Q. Why is time travel so confusing?
A. I already told you that next week!

Astronomy tried to take on a starring role:

Q. What do you call a mean meteor?
A. A nasteroid!

Q. How does the Earth say good-bye to the Moon?
A. Later, crater!

If there‘s an award for awful jokes, I hope to win it. It’s been about twenty years since I last grappled with similar material, and then to do just the illustrations for David Adler’s The Dinosaur Princess. So, how do you write a riddle or joke, anyway? Here's one method:

1. Choose a subject, let‘s say mammoths. List words that describe how they looked, their behavior, their habitat, and so on.
trunk trumpet tusk snow ice huge big bones big teeth, etc.

2. Think of rhymes, similar-sounding words, and/or words that contain the word:
scary contrary fairy canary very necessary Larry
go know no slow slowpoke snowflake
junk chunk clunk skunk truncated

3. Use these ideas to write a rhyming, nonsensical, or goofy possible answer:
a scary
hairy fairy
a snowpoke

4. Make up a question that gives a hint of the answer:

Q. Why were baby mammoths afraid of losing a tusk?
A. Because of their hairy scary tooth fairy!

Q. How fast did mammoths walk in winter?
A. They were snowpokes!

5. Try variations on classic joke formulas:

Q. How many mammoths did it take to change a light bulb?
A. None because there were no lamps in the Ice Age!

Wording the question and answer carefully will maximize the effect. For a real challenge, once you get good at writing regular riddles, try incorporating one into a poem or limerick. (I’d show a sample, but have to save them for the book.)

One book for kids about how they can write their own jokes is
Funny You Should Ask: How to Make Up Jokes and Riddles with Wordplay by Marvin Terban. He has written over thirty books for kids about various types of wordplay.

I ran across This Book is a Joke by Holly Kowitt in a used book store, and find it especially funny for some reason. It covers a ton of topics from pets to school lunches to the eight types of classmates. Mostly text, it does contain a few delightfully goofy cartoons. Note the award seal on the cover which proudly proclaims: This Book Won Nothing.

The world of nonfiction has a lot of potential gold for the enterprising humor prospector... because you have know some facts about a topic in order to be able to make fun of it. And that’s no joke!

Disclaimer: It’s possible somebody has already thought of some of these jokes/riddles... I came up with them on my own, but people have been kidding around for a long time!

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

What If?

Sensibly enough, almost all history books deal with the actual events of the past, and most natural science books concern themselves with the way the world is. There are other perspectives, however . . .

A few years ago I read The Years of Rice and Salt, by Kim Stanley Robinson. It's an alternative world history, based on the (fictional) premise that the Black Death plagues of the Middle Ages killed not a third but virtually the total population of Europe. The peoples of India, China, and North Africa and the Middle East (and, to a lesser extent, the indigenous population of the Americas) are left to compete for world dominance. Robinson imagines how art, science, politics, and religion might have developed without the influence of Western Europe. It's a page-turner, and one that I think any middle school or older reader with an interest in history would enjoy.

I borrowed my blog title from another speculative history book: What If, edited by Robert Cowley. It's a collection of essays by military historians exploring how the world might be different if famous battles or military campaigns of the past had turned out differently. What if Genghis Khan had lived long enough for the Mongols to conquer all of Europe? What if the Allied D-Day invasion had failed? And so on... Again, this makes for fascinating reading. It's an 'adult' book, but I think young readers would be especially interested in looking at history in this unconventional way.

I started thinking about the way this 'might have been' approach can be applied to other subjects when I stumbled on the "Speculative Evolution" blog Here's a description, taken directly from the home page:

This blog is devoted to the the discussion of speculative zoology, an open field that looks at the possibilities for the paths that life could have or might take given that certain events do or do not take place. The posts here will explore the possible routes of evolution that
prehistoric fauna could have taken and that living organisms may take given at least a few million years.

There are links here to other sites and blogs, all of which explore how life might evolve in the future, or how it might have evolved differently had some event happened differently, or not happened at all (what if an asteroid didn't hit the earth 65 million years ago, and the dinosaurs didn't become extinct?). One of these sites, The Future Is Wild, includes an educational section for kids and teachers. Visitors can explore visions of the world in 5 million, 100 million, and 200 million years.

The most extraordinary example of the genre that I've seen is the book Life After Man, by Dougal Dixon. It is an illustrated encyclopedia of future animal life organized by biome. Dixon's detailed descriptions and beautiful, highly detailed illustrations of these animals provide a different way to think about what evolution is, how it works, and where it might lead. Younger children will be engaged by the pictures; older readers by the whole idea of thinking about the future of nature, rather than just its past.

Monday, October 13, 2008

“Lots of kids who think they hate reading are actually avid nonfiction lovers”

First of all, can we all get t-shirts made with the above quote? Credit for it, along with the prize in our INK contest, goes to Lelac Almagor, the inspirational English teacher at the KIPP DC: AIM Academy of inner-city Washington, D.C. Every day that my package to her procrastinated on my desk, I added another book for the amazing KIPPsters.

It’s surely the nonfiction event of the year—David Macaulay’s The Way We Work: Getting to Know the Amazing Human Body. No wonder he won a “genius grant” from the MacArthur Foundation, which in part allowed him to complete this 336-page event, I mean book. Really, all you can say is “wow”—at the structural magnificence that is the human body and at Macaulay’s dramatic, clear drawings conveying every detail. Like a 21st-century Leonardo da Vinci, though presumably without the real corpses, he gets inside us and dissects like mad, and not for his own edification (like Leo), but ours. This tome has tremendous amounts of info, boiled down to its essence, and obviously thoroughly vetted by experts. Kids who persist with the somewhat textbook-y text, co-written with Richard Walker, will learn how we pick up an apple, breathe, think, blink, digest, reproduce, and everything else the body does. To me the most interesting of the seven chapters was “Battle Stations,” about the way we try to fight off flu and other threats. I would think this book would be of special interest to kids who have had anything go wrong with their bodies, but it's also a gift for budding biologists, and anyone who likes to browse (Walter Lorraine/Houghton Mifflin, ages 10 and up).

I love everything about this next book except the title: Hip Hop Speaks to Children: A Celebration of Poetry with a Beat. Edited by distinguished poet Nikki Giovanni, stylishly illustrated by various artists, and with a genuinely collectible CD of great poets reading their own poetry, this is another nonfiction Event. Alas, the title seems clunky, I don’t know what it means, and as Kelly Fineman points out, not all of the 51 selections have much to do with hip hop. Most of all, the title misses the boat in trumpeting what a rare jewel this is—a treasury and history of African-American rhythms. The anthology honors poets of the past (W. E. B. DuBois, Gwendolyn Brooks), more current voices (Maya Angelou, Langston Hughes, Martin Luther King, Jr.), and up-to-the-minute stars like Queen Latifah, Lauryn Hill, Kanye West, and Tupac Shakur. A teeming treasure that has something for everyone and will get any kid dancing—and rhyming (Sourcebooks, ages 7 and up).

A third book for browsing around in is The Raucous Royals. After delighting us with her first book, Who Put the B in Ballyhoo?, Carlyn Beccia here collects a motley crew of famous historical figures suspected of weirdness. Was Prince Vlad Dracula really a vampire? Was Napoleon all that short? Did King George III indeed go mad? Did Marie Antoinette actually say, “Let them eat cake”? Plus a big bunch of rumors swirling around Henry VIII and his relatives. A book with wickedly appealing art and layout, little quizzes, juicy historical tidbits. It even attempts a moral, with specific tips about how to play “history detective” and sort out fact from rumor. But really this is a frothy book for fun, educational fun, all about one of my favorite things—gossip (Houghton Mifflin, ages 8 and up).

And who is this kindly gent glowing against this startlingly green background? Except for excelling as a husband and dad, he pretty much failed at everything until the age of 44. His mother-in-law threw up her hands—but also prodded him to write down those unusual tales he spun for his four beloved sons each night. So was born The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, the Harry-Potter-like sensation of 1900. And here is the author’s little-known story in my newest book, The Road to Oz: Twists, Turns, Bumps, and Triumphs in the Life of L. Frank Baum. The beautiful paintings are by Kevin Hawkes, and do look for a piece of his original art at the Society of Illustrators show, opening this week in NYC (Knopf, ages 6-10).

Friday, October 10, 2008

An Encomium to Google

A while ago Marc Aronson mentioned an article in Atlantic Monthly on his blog, Nonfiction Matters. The piece discussed the effect of newer technologies upon the way we process information and perhaps even think. One point Marc described was ”that the effect of the kind of searches Google makes possible is to make us speedy, rapid readers who trawl for bits and bites who grab at quick info-snacks, and no longer have the patience to sink into a book, or to follow a deep and complex argument.”

I don’t know if that is true; Marc didn’t either. And I certainly hope that the Internet and Google in particular don’t put nonfiction authors out of business. But I have to confess I love what Google searches have done for me as one of those nonfiction authors.

Obvious disclaimer: The Internet will never replace the depth and perspective that you can get in books. Or the immediacy you get in primary documents. Or the detail you get from interviews. And, yes, I understand and always explain to kids that not all web sites are created equal and must be checked for accuracy. for space info, yes. SpaceshotBob’, no.

That said, let me mention a few ways Google has changed my life. A while ago, I was reading a book and noticed an anecdote in a footnote that seemed like a promising book idea. I googled the author of this book, got his email address and was soon told this story came from a monograph. He knew the name of the guy who wrote it and that he taught in Denmark. No problem, a Google search quickly gave me his email address at University of Copenhagen. Within two days of my seeing this citation, its author offered me a copy—in English or Danish, no less.

Part of what people like about my books, The Truth About Poop and Gee Whiz: It’s All About Pee, are the weird assortment of facts they’d never heard before. That information was not so easy to come by. There are very few adult books on excretia—a few on poop, virtually none on pee. Sure you can find other sources to read up on sewer systems in ancient Rome. The toileting habits of European royals are sometimes encased in books about daily life in the Dark Ages or the court of the Sun King. Reports by biologists may include descriptions of the sloth’s habits as well. But those facts can be found, in part, because you know what you’re looking for.

Sometimes Google is best when you’re searching something but don’t know quite what. Of course if you type “poop” or “pee” in the dialog box and press search, you’ll get a lot of info—none you can use in a kids’ book! But try “feces” or “urine” and you’re in business. Then when you can no longer stand trolling through 8,000 pages of stuff, try putting two words together. They could be sort of predictable like feces and elephant –who wouldn’t want to know what that weighs? Or you can just throw two words together—“urine” and “military,” for example. Seems sort of random, actually it was, but look at one of the things I found and used at

Happy hunting!

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Nikki Giovanni and Laura Godwin on nonfiction

On September 17th, I had the great good fortune to sit down for a telephone interview with award-winning poet and author, Nikki Giovanni, and her editor at Henry Holt, Laura Godwin. Nikki and Laura's most recent collaboration is Lincoln and Douglass: An American Friendship, illustrated by Bryan Collier, which goes on sale this month. We talked about their new book, as well as about the state of nonfiction and poetry in today's market.

Lincoln and Douglass tells a story about the relationship between two men widely credited with abolishing slavery in the United States: President Abraham Lincoln, who was president during the Civil War and eventually signed the Emancipation Proclamation, and Frederick Douglass, a former slave who lobbied tirelessly for an end to slavery and equal rights for people of color. (Side note not found in the book: he was also a supporter of women's suffrage, who attended the first feminist convention in Seneca Falls, New York, and signed onto the Declaration of Sentiments.)

One of the first questions I asked is where the idea of writing about the relationship between the two men came from, as opposed to doing a biography of either individual. Nikki answered that Laura initiated the idea for this project. Showing the importance of timeliness with books, Laura noted the impetus for this project. "I knew there would be a lot of books out for the bicentennial of Lincoln's birth [in February 2009], and I thought it would be interesting to have a book out that wasn't a straight-up biography. I knew Nikki would come up with something great."

The book includes biographical information about Douglass and Lincoln, as well as their relationships with the abolitionist movement, and includes profiles of John Brown and Mary Ellen "Mammy" Pleasant, both of whom were involved directly or indirectly with the raid on the armory at Harper's Ferry. Nikki noted that "the abolitionist movement was really big and it did have breadth, and that's why Mammy Pleasant and John Brown," adding that "Mammy is a forgotten figure of history." As Nikki related, both in person and in the book, Mammy Pleasant is an interesting character who escaped slavery in Maryland and went west to San Francisco, earning a living by doing laundry and running a boarding house. That said, Nikki indicated that she never considered a separate book for either Mammy Pleasant or John Brown.

Her decision to talk about the relationship between Lincoln and Douglass was based on stories she'd learned about the relationship between the two men. Quoting Professor Anna Arnold Hedgeman, an African-American civil rights leader, politician, educator and writer from memory, Nikki said, "The problem with the Lincoln memorial is that they need to have a statue of Frederick Douglass standing there looking over his shoulder."

When I asked whether Nikki and Laura have another biographical project in the works, they indicated that they don't – yet. However, Laura said most enthusiastically that she would love to do another biography with Nikki. In particular, Laura thinks "the way she's able to make connections and focus on an event makes the whole time period make sense."

Nikki talked about her interest in historically-based projects. Although she is currently a professor of English at Virginia Tech and has won several awards for poetry, Nikki said, "I'm a history major. . . . I learned poetry very independently." When I asked Nikki and Laura whether they felt that poetry was a useful form in which to discuss nonfiction subjects (with specific reference to biographies such as The Poet Slave of Cuba by Margarita Engle, Twelve Rounds to Glory: The Story of Muhammad Ali by Charles R. Smith, Jr., A Wreath for Emmitt Till by Marilyn Nelson and the works of Carole Boston Weatherford, I found that neither of them felt that nonfiction poetry texts were new, and that both of them felt that they can work well. Laura said, "From my point of view, these sorts of things come and go. Sometimes a particular book catches the popular imagination, but I feel that it's always been around." Nikki implicitly agreed with that assessment. "I think it's wonderful. I'm a practitioner. I'm aware of what you're talking about, and I've read some. I've been writing prose poetry for years and I see it as the field catching up," she said.

"It's an easier first choice."

One question I had was whether nonfiction and poetry are both considered "other" in children's publishing. Laura answered, " I would have a hard time disagreeing [that it's other] – there's more fiction. It's an easier first choice." That said, Laura was of the opinion that nonfiction is still growing. "So many kids are naturally interested in the world around them. It's a natural part of the literature for kids. If you turn kids loose naturally, they're going to read some of each of these [, fiction and nonfiction]."

During our conversation about nonfiction, I asked about the importance of sources and fact-checking. Nikki agreed that it should be important: "When writing for children, you have to give them the information and it has to be correct." Nikki made clear that she shared the stories she herself had been told. In response to my question as to whether the facts were re-checked in-house, Laura said, "Nikki is coming from a vast store of knowledge. We don't hire her for her fact-checking skills. The book goes through copy-editing." For certain, the publisher documented that Douglass was at the second inaugural after the speech, and they checked to be certain that the venue was correct because the illustrator needed that information as well.

Near the conclusion of our interview, I asked Nikki some questions about her other new title, Hip Hop Speaks to Children, out last month from Sourcebooks Jabberwocky. You can read about that over at my blog, Writing and Ruminating. In addition, we talked about The Grasshopper's Song: An Aesop's Fable Revisited, illustrated by Chris Raschka, which was released this spring. In particular, I was curious as to whether Nikki was trying to make an argument about art, based on the grasshopper's decision to retain lawyers to sue for payment for his music during their summer work season. Nikki said that she grew up hearing Aesop's fables, and that her favorite part of the story was always where the grasshopper says "Am I not worthy of my bread?" Said Nikki, "When the lawyers ask the grasshopper, 'Was there a contract? Did they ask you to perform?' and later, when they say, 'Everybody loves a clown', they're representing the argument that art is just there because it tickles us." But according to Nikki, "art is an integral part of us." Nikki continued, "Every time they cut school budgets, they want to cut art. Art is part of what informs the ethics of the community."

To which we can all say, "Amen."

Monday, October 6, 2008

Nature (Book?) Deficit

I've jumped onto a new bandwagon, the Children and Nature Network. When I was solicited to get on board, I was alarmed by the information I was shown: more and more children staying inside, choosing electronic screens over not only books (our focus here) but over authentic experience of the natural world. It's a mounting crisis with implications for the environment and for children's health, for social networks and political movements, among other things. My role for our local chapter of C &NN will be, not surprisingly, related to books. In the coming weeks and months I will be trying to discover how children's books about nature are helping to combat (or foster!) "nature deficit disorder."
My preliminary commando raid of research (via offers the following food for thought. The bestselling children's book in the category of Environment & Ecology is Dr. Seuss' The Lorax. It comes in at #1,207 of all titles, a respectable ranking indeed (and of course it's not even nonfiction). But the long tail quickly thins with nonfiction books. Many of the books in this long tail have an admonitory tone to their titles, a sort of "turn off the lights before another polar bear dies," sort of tone. Ouch. Are these books inspiring love of the natural world, or an unwelcome feeling of moral burden? The Lorax may be selling well thirty-some years after its publication, but it's not clear that it has inspired families to go outside and romp around in the Lorax's forest.
Coming at this from another angle, we find The Dangerous Book for Boys, which has been going strong since its publication in spring of 2007, and which currently stands at #421 overall, another very respectable showing. Not exactly beside it, at #966 overall, is The Daring Book for Girls. Both of these present outdoor activities, skills and games that used to be the common currency of childhood as nostalgia. A chapter on snowballs? On skipping stones? Is outside now so outlandish that children need instructions for even its most casual use? Does this presentation imply that although outside may have been the playground of long ago, it is too quaint to be taken very seriously now?
Books about nature abound -- books about monarch butterflies and manatees and rain forests and every conceivable topic -- and many of them are amazing, many written by my colleagues here on this blog. But where are the books for children that are sending them outside to collect the bugs and gaze at the clouds and build forts? Are there books that do this? Is it appropriate to ask books to do it at all? Do we not, as nonfiction writers, hope to inspire wonder and excitement over the natural world in our readers? What are we not saying? Why are the children not running outside to play after they read our wonderful books? Why are they not engaging directly with the natural world?
As I said, I am only just beginning this investigation. I welcome your comments and leads.

Friday, October 3, 2008

“The Curves of Annabelle Lee”

One of my favorite sports articles of all time is a retelling of the classic poem, “Annabel Lee” by Edgar Allan Poe. Only this version, written by K.C. Clapp of the Grand Rapids Herald in July 1945, was not the story of a lost love, but of a lost baseball game. The Annabelle Lee in Clapp’s poem was a left-handed pitcher for the Fort Wayne Daisies of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL). On July 7, 1945, she pitched nine innings of no-hit, no-run ball against Clapp’s hometown team, the Grand Rapids Chicks.

Annabelle Lee Harmon, a native of North Hollywood, California, died on July 3 at the age of 86, and as the baseball playoffs begin, it seems like the perfect time to remember her. Hardly any media outlets noted her passing, and that’s a pity, because she was a warm, elegant, delightful woman who made an indelible imprint on the national pastime. She played pro baseball for seven years and threw the AAGPBL’s first perfect game on July 29, 1944. Beyond that, she was the aunt of major league pitcher Bill Lee—and the person who the “Spaceman” credits with teaching him how to pitch.

My most vivid memory of Annabelle is from 1995, when the All-Americans met for a reunion at a resort in Indian Wells, California. Annabelle was there with her mother Hazel, who was close to 100 years old. The paperback edition of my book about the league, A Whole New Ball Game, had just come out, and I had traveled from the east coast to show it off to the women who inspired it. With me were two friends, including Felicia Halpert, a sportswriter and a storied softball player from the women’s leagues in Brooklyn, New York.

It was late—close to midnight—but Felicia had been asking Annabelle if she still had her “stuff.” Annabelle said, “Sure, I’ll show you.” She laid down a makeshift home plate on the edge of the hotel’s patio, stationed Felicia there with a glove that seemed to appear out of nowhere, and walked off her pitching distance. Then, under fluorescent lights in the warm autumn night, the 73-year-old southpaw put on a pitching clinic. She delivered fastballs, curves, and knuckleballs, and Felicia, whose position was shrouded in darkness, did her best to catch them. Pretty soon her former teammates were lined up on the patio, cheering her on.

As I watched, I couldn’t help but think of my favorite line from Clapp’s poem: “The moon never beams without bringing me dreams of the curves of Annabelle Lee.” All these years later, I still remember Annabelle on that patio, firing pitches through the night, a feisty blond with a poetic name, a wicked knuckleball, and a shared legacy as one of the original girls of summer. She will be missed.

“Annabelle Lee Again Arouses Poet’s Muse”
by K.C. Clapp
Grand Rapids Herald, July 10, 1945

It wasn’t so many hours ago
July 7, specifically,
That a maiden there pitched whom you may know
By the name of Annabelle Lee,
And she hurled so well that not a Chick hit,
Going down to her, one, two, three.

She was not wild, this talented child,
Who twirled so effectively.
And no free passes were handed out
By this stingy Annabelle Lee
But the base hits rang for the Fort Wayne gang
For a 6-0 victory.

And this is the reason as 3,000 know
Who witnessed her wizardry
That not a Chick could hit a lick
Off the slants of Annabelle Lee,
So they sharply dropped from second spot
To a humble berth in 3.
But Fort Wayne cheers its peach-clad dears
Because of Annabelle Lee.

The moon never beams without bringing me dreams
Of the curves of Annabelle Lee.
And the South Field lights will gleam many nights
Before such a sight I may see—
No hits by Ziegler or Tetzlaff or Eisen,
No hits by the bustling “B.”
No hits by Maguire or Petras or “Twi,”
Why? Because of Annabelle Lee.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

The Cybil Awards

The Third Annual Cybil Awards (Children's and Young Adult Bloggers' Literary Awards)are now open for nominations.

GO NOMINATE your favorite nonfiction picture book and nonfiction middle grade or young adult book.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

The Agenda of a Biographer Counts

The DK biography series “A Photographic Story of a Life” picks very well documented subjects. In doing the research for Marie Curie, published in August, I must have brought home at least twenty biographies on her for both children and adults. My problem: What on earth can I bring to the party that that will set my book apart from all the others (aside from the compact and jazzy format set by the publisher)? The answer: me as author.

You see, I have an agenda. I want to get kids interested in science. Marie Curie’s work is intimately connected with the work of other scientists during the twenty-or-so years when chemistry and physics came together and culminated in modern atomic theory—a model of the atom that explained the behavior of gases, chemical reactions, electricity, light, changes of state of matter, radioactivity, the periodic table—in short just about every bit of data that had been accumulating over the previous 200 years in the disciplines of chemistry and physics. A bio of Marie Curie gave me the opportunity to tell a part of that story through the life of an interesting female scientist. For me, it is one fascinating tale.

I also have a bit of biography myself. I know from having been around for a while that there are themes and threads in the life of any multi-faceted human being. Telling a life story by sticking to chronology can make a reader’s eyes glaze over. But telling how a thread develops can be an interesting narrative in itself. Marie was a wife, a mother, a daughter, a patriot of Poland, an expatriot living in France, and the other woman in a sex scandal in addition to be a driven scientist. It was fun to weave in all these threads to the big ideas of the scientific revolution she was a part of. She was a woman in a man’s world and I know what that feels like from some of my experiences, such as being the only female in a pre-med Columbia College organic chemistry course or speaking at the Fermi Lab.

As a children’s book author yet another discipline is imposed on the telling of a story. I am terrified of boring the reader. Most people’s lives don’t unfold like a well-crafted drama. Yet, the demands of today’s entertainment-saturated readers means that I could lose my reader after any sentence. That awareness has been conditioned in me for many years. Above all, it is imperative for those of us who write nonfiction to write a good read.

I think it is the job of a biographer to find points of connectedness with the subject. I found many with Marie Curie as I did with my first DK bio on Harry Houdini. These people were successful and worthy of our admiration because they, too, had agendas that gave their lives purpose and meaning. My life and my biographies have both been enhanced by finding ways for their agendas to fit in with mine.