Friday, March 27, 2009

I.N.K. is on Facebook!

Please join us. I.N.K. on Facebookor just search for I.N.K.: Interesting Nonfiction for Kids.

We haven't figured it all out yet but we hope to expand the discussion and bring new people into the mix.

We're going dark for a few days to work on our site and other things. When we come back we just might have a new look, some new bloggers, and some other interesting things to introduce to you.

See you on Wednesday, April 1st with brand new posts. No foolin'.

Edited to add--tune in to C-Span 2 this weekend to see Tanya Stone!
See times and summary below:

Tanya Lee Stone, Almost Astronauts: Thirteen Women Who Dared to Dream
Tanya Lee Stone recounts the stories of the thirteen women who trained to become astronauts in 1960, many years before the first woman would be accepted into the NASA program. Known as the "Mercury 13," all the women passed their required tests but ultimately had their career advancement blocked due to what the author posits was gender prejudice. Ms. Stone's book is written for a young adult audience and she presents it to a class of students at Politics and Prose Bookstore in Washington, DC.
(Saturday 8:45 AM and 9 PM, Sunday 4 PM, Monday 4 AM ET)

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Beat Boring Nonfiction: Create a Scene!

This time of year, when I am visiting schools, I am less focused on what I write for kids than what they are writing. This week, during a wonderful visit to my home state of S.C., I visited with young authors who were making great strides in crafting interesting nonfiction. I'd like to pass along what I shared with them in a Writer's Group Session for grades 3 and 4.

One common assignment is for students to write about someone they admire. They often choose someone they know well: a parent, a friend, or a teacher, for instance. The first drafts of these pieces typically sound like lists. I like my friend because she is sweet. She is nice to me. She is good at sports. She shares with me. She cheers me up when I am sad.

Certainly, a list is a good way to start. But what really fires up these kinds of essays is scenes. For the second draft, I encourage the students to be specific. Choose a characteristic of the admired person and find an instance when this characteristic was expressed. The reader needs to experience what it is like to have this person in his/her life. We need to hear the details. Several short incidents can make a strong piece. These telling details and incidents show us both the character of the admired and the admirer. They loosen up the writing and add character to the piece.

When my mother showed me the letter, she . . .
When I was sad about my cat dying, my friend sat with me and . . .

Of course, an admired person may be a public figure, not a friend or family member. Scenes still apply. Digging for incidents just takes a bit more work.

When he was 14, he . . .
When she was turned down for school, she . . .
When she lost the election, she . . .

That's it. Make a scene. These moments of narrative within expository pieces make nonfiction interesting. I've seen the change they can make in a student's writing.

P.S. My new book is out. I feel like being a bit loud about it. If you read the book, you will see why. (Hint: honk, honk, hisssssssss!) This is not a shy, retiring book. It is:

Honk, Honk, Goose: Canada Geese Start a Family. Illustrated by Huy Vuon Lee and released by Henry Holt.

My thanks to the students of Lexington, S.C. and Gilbert, S.C. This week they gave me the pleasure of hearing it read and performed for the first time. I divided the audience into groups. Some had "honk." Some had "hee-honk." In unison, we hissed. I conducted the group and it was laugh out loud hilarious. Okay, so we were making a scene!

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

This and That: Fiction and Nonfiction

As I browsed through a few picture books just out this spring, I noticed that writers, illustrators, and book designers continue to defy that most obnoxious of platitudes we children’s authors hear too often – “Anyone can write picture books – they’re so short and simple.” The picture books below present multi-layered stories in words and pictures and the interplay between the two. Some of these books are clearly written as nonfiction. Some are fictional, but present as much information as a nonfiction account of the subject. And one I am hard-pressed to classify at all.

B is for Baseball: Running the Bases from A to Z doesn’t list an author on the cover. Small print on the copyright page lists “Book design by Sara Gillingham. Text by Lisa McGuinness.” This book promotes alphabet books from beginning readers to older kids. It is a history book and a sports book. All the photographs are from the last century and show us the game of baseball (pitcher, umpire, knuckleball) as well as the spectator sport (hot dogs, national anthem, and fans.) Drawings show us the parts of a baseball field. We read about Little League, the Hall of Fame, and the women’s league. Colorful design elements highlight old black and white photos. A “simple” book? I don’t think so.

Sandra Markle’s Animals Charles Darwin Saw (illustrated by Zina Saunders) was reviewed in this blog in the round-up of Darwin bicentennial books. I’d just like to point out the lively mix of biography, geography, and zoology the author and illustrator give to us.

A Tree for Emmy by Mary Ann Rodman (illustrated by Tatjana Mai-Wyss) taught me all about mimosa trees and Emmy who, like her favorite tree, is “stubborn and strong and a little bit wild.” We see a mimosa’s strong branches, fuzzy pink blossoms, and percussive seedpods. We learn why mimosas aren’t sold in nurseries like fruit trees. But Emmy manages to get a mimosa tree for her birthday and we learn how she cares for it. Fiction masquerading as nonfiction? Nonfiction masquerading as fiction? Who cares – it’s a terrific story.

When Louis Armstrong Taught me Scat by Muriel Harris Weinstein (illustrated by R. Gregory Christie,) informs us about the subject, but with fewer facts and more experience. Momma and Sugar start to dance to “swingy music” that “jumps inside my body, rolls riffs on my tongue, and tootles to my toes.” Momma begins to sing scat and Sugar tries it too. That night Louis Armstrong visits her for a scat lesson that turns into a fourteen-page riff on bubble gum. Two author’s notes on Armstrong and scat give us useful history, but reading the scat aloud with wacky typeface and illustrations shows us what Louis was about.

Duck! Rabbit! by Amy Krouse Rosenthal and Tom Lichtenheld is the book I find hard to classify. Its 206 words are spoken by two unseen friends who argue about a creature shown on the pages – is it a duck or a rabbit? This is a book about perception – about expanding our perception as we see first a duck, then a rabbit (or visa versa,) as we look as its bill/ears. Then imagination kicks in as we “hear” a quack or a sniff, “see” it flying or hopping, getting a drink or cooling its ears. Finally the two friends wonder if maybe the other was right. I expect a librarian will put this with the fiction picture books, but there’s a lot here that we nonfiction authors can claim as our own.

Reading and writing for this blog has given me a broader understanding of fiction and nonfiction – what it contains and how it communicates. Have you gone looking for books that blur the lines between fiction and nonfiction? What have you found?

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Silver Lining

I can no longer easily find a parking spot. My favorite chair is now usually occupied. “This item is not renewable because there is a waiting list” is the startling reply as I try to hold onto that book I haven’t yet read for a few more weeks. My territory has been invaded.

Thus I nodded my headed knowingly as I read Joseph Berger’s article in the New York Times that there has been a “surprising upside to the economic downturn.” What’s the good word? Yes, indeed, I already knew. “Libraries are booming.”

People are rediscovering the library in droves. They are borrowing books, CDs and DVDs. They are using the free internet service and attending the free weeknight programs. According to one librarian Berger quoted, the library is being used “as a gathering place for people who are intelligent and have similar values so they’re not as isolated.”

Can it be that there is actually a silver lining to this dismal economic situation? Of course the library budgets are being cut along with everything else. But will people actually start to appreciate the tremendous resource that is their local public library? Will new users now become aware of how important the library is to their community and possibly contribute to fundraising efforts when they can? If movies are too expensive will more parents take their kids to the library to find a good book or two?

Perhaps our libraries will finally be acknowledged in the public’s mind. Imagine everyone valuing them as much as those of us who love to read. I’d be thrilled to see it happen. As long as I get my chair back.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Nature, Toddlers, Books--Connecting the Dots

This month I am still traveling in Southeast Asia visiting international schools and speaking at an education conference in exotically named Kota Kinabalu (in the Malaysian part of the island of Borneo), and I have asked my friend Nancy Raines Day — an environmental educator, bookseller and author of both fiction and non-fiction for children — to write a guest post for me. I will be back in April.
David Schwartz

Thanks, David. I feel lucky to be in touch with this community! After spending the last couple of years working on California's new environmental curriculum, I’ve been ruminating on how best to hook kids into nature right from the start, and how books might help do that.

Many of you know the book, The Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. In it, Richard Louv makes the point that children and nature are and must be connected for the health of our children and our planet.

It worries me that American children probably spend less time in touch with nature today than ever before. Especially city kids may have trouble relating to living things in environments they have no personal connection to. Of course, the more outdoor experiences—walks in the park, camping trips, or days at the beach—they can get, the better.

In between such opportunities, putting the right books in their hands can be a great way to connect kids with nature. As Louv wrote, “People who care about nature often mention nature books as important childhood influences.”

Many fine nature books are out there for school-age children. Nature books at the earliest (0 to 4-year-old) level can help build a base for later understanding. Rachel Carson has said, “It is not half so important to know as to feel when introducing a young child to the natural world.” Below, I’ve rounded up some books that help the youngest audience feel their connection to the natural world.

My favorite “young” books new for spring are In My Nest and In My Pond, written by Sara Gillingham and illustrated by Lorena Siminovitch (Chronicle Books, 2009). These tiny books are a tactile delight, allowing little fingers to delve through layers of thick pages while wiggling a baby bird--or fish--in the midst of its family. In My Nest shows the twigs, leaves, and feathers that go into building the nest. When a child later sees a real bird carrying a twig in its mouth, he or she will feel such satisfaction knowing why!

Also perfect for spring is Kevin Henkes’ Birds, a large book with appealing illustrations by Laura Dronzek (Greenwillow, 2009). Kids everywhere see birds in their daily life, so feathered friends are the perfect wildlife ambassador. The imaginative text engages all the senses. You have to see the illustrations to get a sense of the utter joy conveyed in this passage: If there are lots of birds in one tree and they all fly away at the same time, it looks like the tree yelled. . .

S U R P R I S E !

Another great intro to birds and other animals for toddlers is the whimsical, geometrical art in Charley Harper ABC’s and Charley Harper 123’s (Ammo Books, 2008). He captures each creature's essence with warmth and humor. Harper said of his bird art, “I have never counted the feathers....I just count the wings.”

To introduce very young readers to environments they may not know firsthand, try Over in the Ocean in a Coral Reef by Marianne Berkes, illustrated by Jeanette Canyon, (Dawn Publications, 2004). Based on the traditional rhyme, “Over in the Meadow,” the bouncing, joyous text and colorful clay art will delight young listeners and lookers with the wonders of life on a coral reef. Likewise, Over in the Jungle (2007) enfolds young readers in the splendor of the rain forest. Both luckily come in board book editions.

I’d love to hear about your experiences with these or other books that strengthen young children’s nature connection!

Friday, March 20, 2009

My Daughter, Myself

Twenty-five years ago, my husband, Ronnie, and I received the call that every parent dreads. Our daughter, Lynne, had been in a car accident. A careless boy driving too fast on a country road. He walked away, but she was rushed to the nearest emergency room. Thus began our summer from hell, but, at the end of it, after suffering multiple fractures, she healed and returned to college. My friends told me to write a book about it. But it was too raw, painful, and, besides, it was Lynne’s story to tell, not mine. She went on with her life, a law degree, marriage, two children, later a doctorate in English literature, a teaching job. A life of her own in New York. A great life!
Three summers ago, that long ago accident came back to haunt her. And eventually, she did write a book about it. It’s not a book for children. But it is non-fiction –The Body Broken A Memoir. The pub date from Random House is next Tuesday, March 24. She will be on Good Morning America that day and then come home to St. Louis to celebrate her book with family and friends. I wanted to tell you about it. Perhaps you or your family or a friend are dealing with chronic pain and you might want to share her story. I wish she’d been able to write a different book, a different story. But I am so proud of her.

“We are all looking for lessons in courage. And family. And faith that some of our sweetest hours will come on the darkest days. All are here in Lynne Greenberg’s razor-sharp memoir of life and pain and the miracle of a family bound together by love.”
—Diane Sawyer, ABC News

“Greenberg’s memoir is unsparing, accurate and moving.”_ Maxime Kumin, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Tanya Goes to Washington

After a whirlwind mini-tour to our nation’s capital for my new book, Almost Astronauts, I decided it made sense to share the experience with you here. A sort of virtual show-and-tell, if you will. The old elementary school days of show-and-tell are really what helped sow the seeds of my writing life, after all. Discovering something new, finding out more about it, and then presenting it to my classmates was the ultimate rush when I was six and seven. And it’s the same rush I feel now when I get to stand up in front of a crowd of people and say, “Hey listen to this, you’re not going to believe what I found out!”

I got to do just that last weekend, to several different groups of kids. First stop was the Sheridan School, where I showed them a slide presentation, highlighting some of the tests the "Mercury 13" women went through when they were tested to be astronaut candidates. I told them how even with stunning testing results, the women were still kept out of the program, and some of the reasons why--including a few American heroes behaving badly who really put the kibosh on the whole program. The kids amazed me with the depth and breadth of their questions, and their grasp of the entire story. The next morning at Politics & Prose, as the CSPAN cameraman was setting up an audience mike that the 5th grade girls coming in were supposed to use for questions, I worried that they might be shy. It’s not easy to get up in front of people, walk to a mike, and ask questions in public. Boy was I wrong! Those kids popped up off the floor as soon as the Q&A started, and get this—there wasn’t a single repeat question and every question was directly related to the book and my presentation. Hey DC—your kids are AMAZING!

On Saturday it was on to the Smithsonian’s National Air & Space Museum in Washington, D.C., for their annual Women in Aviation & Space Day at the location in Chantilly. If you haven’t been, check it out—it is an incredible museum set in a hangar with air and space craft in it such as the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird (the fastest jet in the world), the space shuttle “Enterprise,” and even Betty Skelton’s Lil Stinker, which is shown in Almost Astronauts.

When I arrived, two things had me squealing like a little kid right off the bat. The first was realizing that I had just walked under Betty’s aforementioned plane and was looking up at the craft she had explained with such love and affection when I interviewed her. The second was that Nicole Malachowski, the first woman to become a Thunderbird and whom I featured in the book, was speaking on the flyway just a few feet away. Moving closer to hear her speak, I was thrilled when she caught my eye and waved. When she was done we had a chance to catch up and she told me how excited she was about the book and that she had it on her coffee table at home.

Giving a talk in this location was surreal, especially when I turned to see that the person who had popped in to help advance my slides was none other than Margaret Weitekamp, curator at the NASM and author/expert of the first book written for adults on the “Mercury 13” women. It was her doctoral work that uncovered the smoking gun in our story—and she wrote the foreword for my book.

Oh, and did I mention the Girl Scouts? Thousands of Girl Scouts went through the museum that day, earning their aviation badges by listening to the talks and experiencing the exhibits. It was a great day for women in aviation and space and I felt just like that six-year-old version of me again—spouting show-and-tell to a live audience. Nonfiction—oh the places you will go!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Help us create a logo for I.N.K.

Since the I.N.K. blog is now over a year old with several hundred subscribers, it probably is time to come up with a logo and/or banner. We thought our readers could give us a hand with opinions and ideas. What says “Interesting Nonfiction for Kids” to you? Here are some of the concepts we’ve played around with:

#1 A galaxy with various nonfiction topics flying around
#2 An antique quill pen writing the I.N.K. letters on parchment

#3 Skywriting by a jet or an airplane pulling a banner
#4 An octopus holding up various books
#5 A fountain pen writing
#6 A takeoff on Roy Lichtenstein artwork, with thick black lines and colorful dots.

I didn’t get a chance to sketch out anything for the above ideas, but did try some (non-finalized) art for the next few concepts:

#7 Block letters with nonfiction topics inside

Still #7, but with color

#8 Book with various topics flying out.

#8 with color

#9 Ink bottle and splat with topics

So, do you like any one in particular, or have another idea? Please leave a comment and tell us what you think... and any and all I.N.K. bloggers, by all means chime in!

Update: Thanks for all the good comments... here is another variation, I’ll call this #10 to avoid confusion.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Green Craft Books for St. Patrick's Day

Happy St. Patrick's Day!
Hope everyone has their "green on" today!

Happy National Craft Month!
Hope everyone's crafty this month!

When Linda told me my post day was St. Patty's Day, I thought, "Great... what the heck am I going to do with that topic?" I've let the topic stew and stew in my head this month. Then, last week, I discovered that it's National Craft Month. Woohoo! Again, I thought, "Craft books is a fantastic topic for this month." Then, again, that nagging St. Patty's Day date popped in my head. Stew, stew, stew... Eureka!


For the last few winters, I've taught the class, SUMMER Arts and Crafts, at the local elementary school as part of afterschool enrichment. Doesn't that sound great? Summer crafts in the Winter! I turn on beachy/woodsy/nature-y music; which is kind of cool because it sets the mood and calms down the group. Then, I ask the kids to listen to the sounds and pretend we just came back from a long hike in the woods.
Almost all the crafts we've made incorporate recycled materials. At first, when I started thinking about crafts that would work for the group, using recycled materials wasn't a requirement, but it just made sense. Why buy something where materials you have running around the house would work just as well? With each craft, I leave the project open-ended. Dreamcatchers can be made from any size or material of plastic ring like sour cream container tops or take-out containers. The roping can be made of yarn, lanyard plastic, embroidery thread or any material that can be casually woven creating a center "eye". The sky's the limit on the decorating: beads, feathers, stickers, etc.
With all the projects, I stress to the students almost any material can create a great craft, so their imagination can soar.

Last summer, I recommended some great green craft books as part of my Summer Arts & Crafts book list. Now, there are some more wonderful green craft books that were recently published or are about to be released. What I love most about these particular books is the projects are open-ended. The crafts shown are just the tools for millions of creations!
And, it probably goes without saying, all these books are filled with projects perfect for National Craft Month or Earth Day at the library or in the classroom!

Clever Ways to Use Everyday Items
Kathy Ross (author)
Celine Malepart (illustrator)
Millbrook Press March 2009

Earth-Friendly and Kid-Friendly. Fun pages, cute illustrations, and great ideas.

Emma Hardy
Cico August 2008

Interesting separation of projects into 4 chapters: Salt Dough, Paper, Natural Materials, and Fabric and Wool. The book cover caught my eye with the gorgeous rainbow sherbet colors!

A Green Activity Book About Reuse
Anna Alter
Henry Holt March 31, 2009

I love this book - from the adorable illustrations, to the fun open-ended projects, to the creative design of each page. Creating the craft from each character's eye will instantly draw kids into the project!

Jane Bull
DK Children May 2008

Cool graphics and bright colors make each page fun. Some of the most unique ideas I have seen plus the foundation for thousands of other fun projects.

After teaching the Summer Arts & Crafts class last month, something suddenly dawned on me. In many of the little projects I created growing up, the craft involved a recycled piece. This was the '60s to '70s. Was recycling even "in" back then?
I sewed a black and green snake for my brother for a Christmas present - the materials were old scraps, the inside was an old coat hanger and my next door neighbor's old panty hose! I made a super cool Bar's Open/Bar's Closed with an old piece of wood and my woodburning kit. (I thought it was cool, anyway.) Old towels: stuffed animals. Old pieces of soap: bath crystals.
I thought every kid did this.

Even now, my basement has quite an assortment of used stuff: all sorts of paint palettes for myself and classrooms, glass jars, oatmeal containers, old seashells, leftover pieces from my children's craft projects, and all sorts of really cool things that my husband calls junk and wants to throw out in the trash. Was my "resourcefulness"inevitable because my mom grew up in Germany during WWII and my dad grew up in Indiana during the depression?

Anyone else have this need to reuse things?

Wishing everyone a creative National Craft Month and a lucky St. Patrick's Day!

Friday, March 13, 2009

My Last Post

This is my last post. For the last year I've had a place to share my thoughts - i.e. ramble & vent -and now it's time to give someone else the chance. The INK contributors are creative people who are dedicated to non-fiction; It's been an honor and a treat to be associated with them. (And, if you haven't already noticed, they're nice people, too!)

I leave with a (provocative?) question:
Does the ALA Sibert Award for non-fiction make sense? Does, say, a K-3 picture book about butterflies really belong in the same category as a Young Adult biography of Hitler?

More Than Facts

In the weeks before the election, I volunteered at a phone bank for Obama. I’m from Boston and, coming from a very blue state, we had mostly hounded people in New Hampshire. But on Election Day, Virginia seemed to be in play and our assignment, at least through lunchtime, was to contact people in Richmond to make sure they were going to the polls.

I was given a list of names and it became clear very quickly that I was calling an urban, African American district. And because it was midmorning I ended up talking to a lot of older people. I’d identified myself as being from the Obama campaign and would start the conversation by apologetically saying that they must been getting a lot of calls from people like me. Yes, they’d say, but it’s no problem at all. Or, you’re the fourth call today, isn’t that something? Or, yes, thank you for your work. (Very different than New Hampshire.)

“Have you had a chance to vote today?” I’d ask. “Yes, ma’am,” they’d answer. They all had, despite the fact that polls would still be open for hours and hours. And because it felt like an important moment for them and me, I found myself prolonging the conversation-- asking them how long the lines were, telling them that I heard it was a cold, cold morning (this from a Boston girl!). “Yes ma’am, it was,” one woman said to me, “but we all stood there patiently in the rain, even the young ones, until it was our time.” I didn’t ask, but I just knew that lady got dressed up to go and vote that day.

Then there was the couple who got to the polls at 6:30 a.m. and the line was so long that they went to breakfast and walked around until the crowd died down. I said, as politely as I could, that their voter information revealed they were of retirement age, why didn’t they wait until a more reasonable hour. “We were so excited we couldn’t wait,” the woman replied. “We had been awake since five.”

That morning was a total gift. It wasn’t as if I didn’t realize that this election was triumphant and moving beyond words for those who experienced massive prejudice and a thousand cuts a day for a lifetime. I already knew that fact, I understood that fact, but that day I got a glimpse of it on a whole different level. It went from my brain to my gut. As Heinlein would say, I grokked.

When we read about people in history or different cultures or about some amazing bit of science, we all too often just read the facts. Or write them. As nonfiction authors, how do we convey something in all its dimensions—go for the grok response? Yeah, yeah, I know--show don’t tell. Or if you are gonna tell, tell stories so readers can identify. As Dorothy Patent said in her March 11 blog, choose deep, rich subjects that pull from many areas of knowledge and feeling. But is there something else we need to make a bunch of facts equal more than the sum of their parts?

Thursday, March 12, 2009


A book is finished. It's been edited, designed, printed, reviewed, and delivered to stores. Perhaps the author has done some interviews and booksignings. And's time to start a new project. What'll it be?

In my case, it'll be very different from the last one. Here's why.

Some authors work on several books at once. I write one at a time. My most recent, Painting the Wild Frontier: The Art and Adventures of George Catlin (Clarion, 2008) was four years in the making. Just the illustration work--finding and choosing a hundred images, negotiating permissions and fees, writing the captions--took almost a year. For me, a nonfiction book for older readers is a huge commitment of time and energy, a true labor of love.

With that kind of production schedule, the book would have to be a bestseller to pay for itself, and as we all know, few nonfiction books are bestsellers. So I'm not planning to quit the day job anytime soon. I'm also not yet up to the mental challenge of another labor-intensive, multi-year nonfiction project. Fiction sells well, you say? I do have an idea for a novel, but that, too, would take a lot of energy and a couple of years to write.

If variety is the spice of life, then I like to spice up mine with nonfiction for different age groups. Right now, a nonfiction picture book is just the thing. I've found a story that's appropriate for a younger audience, one that can be told in about 1500 words. I'll enjoy the research, but I won't have to spend months and months doing it. Keeping my new book short and simple will be a refreshing challenge. And since it'll be illustrated with original art, there'll be no permissions to get or fees to pay.

But no, I'm not going to tell you what it's about. Maybe next time.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Knowledge Geek Surival

Let's admit it--we nonfiction writers are all knowledge geeks. One of the main reasons we do what we do is because we love learning new 'stuff.' We can't write about it until we learn it, right? And we want to share the cool information that fills our heads with young readers to fuel their wonder at the real world.

I'm getting pretty worried about the future of our profession, however. A recent trip to New York resulted in an opportunity to get to know my editor much better because there really wasn't much to say about my professional work, like----what might I write next? Instead, her parting words were, "Get your contracted manuscript in on time, before we evaporate!" So, after that book and one more with a contract, what will follow?

I've been thinking about survival in the new publishing world, and I think there are a couple of hopeful paths we might take. One is to choose deep, rich topics that do more than just convey the basic information about subjects and events, that make our readers ponder the wider world and that synthesize information from various areas of knowledge so that there's no way a potential reader can log on, google, and learn what our books can teach them.

My 2006 book, "The Buffalo and the Indian: A Shared Destiny," describes the interwoven fate of these two American icons over thousands of years, from the days of buffalo drives by humans on foot through the glory days of horseback hunting, through slaughter and attempts to eradicate both during the nineteenth century, and into today's world, where the white buffalo provides symbolic hope and many tribes acquire their own buffalo herds to help cement their identity and their connection to the natural world. Googleing won't get them this information.

Another survival technique is to create books that appeal to a broader age range, thereby expanding the market potential. "When the Wolves Returned: Restoring Nature's Balance in Yellowstone", my 2008 book, uses a format successfully pioneered by writers like Sneed Collard, with two levels of text for two audiences. The book can also attract the strictly visually oriented book lover as each spread is covered with photos. As a writer, I bristle at the editorial admonishment, "Not too many words," but these days looking has become perhaps more important than reading.

One last possibility for us is to leap into the abyss and combine our love of information with our imaginations to create historical fiction. I've been telling myself this for about ten years, and I've decided it's time to take the leap, especially since I don't see any great nonfiction opportunities out there for me now, and I have several periods and places in history I want to explore. All I need now is stories to go with the facts! Wish me luck.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

On Becoming a Writer

First, a thank you. Last month, I wrote about a year-long trip my family is planning, and asked for advice about home-schooling resources. I appreciate all of your suggestions about books, web resources, and strategies. I'm accumulating more of the same (most of which are applicable to anyone interested in educating children, in any context), and will make them the subject of a future blog.

I've enjoyed many of the recent posts that describe the authors' evolution as writers. There are many different stories, but everyone, despite having a distinct voice and point of view, seems to end up confronting the same issues: writing nonfiction simply, clearly, and engagingly. Precisely the qualities the previous sentence lacks.

Is it just me, or does something about the blog format foster a confessional mode of expression? Reading I.N.K. posts often makes me feel as if a mistake has been made — why am I in the company of so many writers who can express themselves with such eloquence and so little apparent effort?

I started making books for children as a form of visual expression, and I'm still trying to get comfortable with thinking of myself as a writer. Twenty years ago I was an experienced graphic designer, an inexperienced illustrator, and an even more inexperienced new father. Reading piles of books to my daughter — we started when she was too young to even sit up — started me thinking that making a book might be fun. Notice I say making, because my first books were really all about the images. From the beginning, however, I was drawn to nonfiction about the natural world, and I realized that words might be necessary if I wanted a book to convey much actual information. Or get published. I did make one wordless picture book — Looking Down — but the other subjects I was interested in exploring required some annotation.

Now, twenty books or so later, I find that writing has become my central preoccupation when I'm working on a book. I love the visual part of the process, and approach it with very little trepidation. I'm confident that I can solve a book's visual challenges, one way or another. Illustrating the book is a reward — it's like dessert. The writing, however, doesn't get any easier. Just the opposite, in fact. In my early books I was blissfully naive about the writing process. I just wrote down what I thought would explain the image on the page. I didn't rewrite as much. I was a designer and illustrator making a book, so I didn't worry too much about the text.

It's been the slowly developed recognition that I have as much responsibility (more?) to the words as to the images that has made writing more and more of a focus. I remember being surprised and a little bemused that teachers and librarians encountered at schools and conferences were reading my books and thinking about the way they were written, sometimes recognizing pattern and intention that had never occurred to me.

It's much more difficult than I imagined, being a writer. It's humbling, frustrating, exhausting, gratifying, and intoxicating (not in the Dylan Thomas sense, at least most of the time).

In the interests of making this post a little more than a self-absorbed soliloquy, I'll share a few of the books I've found helpful on my journey:

On Writing Well, 30th Anniversary Edition: The Classic Guide to Writing, by William Zinsser
(this book was recommended in a recent Vicki Cobb post, but it's well worth a repeat mention)

Also Zinsser's Writing to Learn.

This one is probably too obvious to mention, but I will anyway: The Elements of Style, by William Strunk and E.B. White. This link is to a new edition cleverly illustrated by Maira Kalman.

Dictionary for Writers and Editors and his Bryson's Dictionary of Troublesome Words are both useful.

Ways of Telling: Conversations on the Art of the Picture Book, by Leonard Marcus, is a inspirational series of interviews with iconic children's book author/illustrators.

Finally, all of Edward Tufte's books are invaluable to anyone interested in the presentation of quantitaive information. Their subject is visual presentation, but Tufte does such a good job of explaining what he's showing us that they are also a useful resource for writers. You could start anywhere, but one of my favorites is Beautiful Evidence.

Monday, March 9, 2009

BuZZ-worthy Books and Newbery Nightmares

The cover of You Never Heard of Sandy Koufax?! is a grabber. It's a 3-D vision of the mighty pitching that made this "Greek god of baseball" impossible to defeat from 1961 to 1966. Stats and facts dot the book, but trust me, you don’t even have to understand baseball to relish this story. Jonah Winter spins the tale in a folksy voice loaded with Brooklyn pizzazz. The illustrations of Andre Carrilho, the wizard who does those eerie distorted caricatures for the NYTBR, ooze style. Best of all is the narrative arc. This picture book's pace is smart and snappy, with triumph coming late in the book, as it did in life: Far from an instant success, this was "a guy who finally relaxed enough to let his body do the one thing it was put on this earth to do" (Schwartz & Wade/Random House, ages 4-9).
Now I know why Nic Bishop wins so many awards for his science books. The photos in his newest, Nic Bishop Butterflies and Moths, take these magical aerial phenomena and magnify them again and again, propelling them to whole new heights. Gasps of awe will begin when a monarch butterfly caterpillar-- a bitsy thing magnified 45 times-- hatches and eats its old eggshell. Gasps will continue at each new photo of creatures gorgeous, creepy, bizarre, or just plain miraculous. Bishop's text works--conversational, fascinating--and a fold-out page demonstrates the principles that allow a butterfly to fly. He also explains his photo techniques, and how very laborious it was to set up these shots. Prediction: more awards for Nic Bishop (Scholastic Nonfiction, ages 4-8).
Robert Crowther's text and art aren’t full of wild personality, and technically Robert Crowther's Pop-Up House of Inventions: Hundreds of Fabulous Facts About Your Home isn’t quite new, but an updating. Yet I dare anyone to to set this book down. Five intricately designed spreads fold out to reveal the details of a typical house's kitchen, living room, garage, bedroom, and most amusingly, bathroom. Hours of fun facts to entertain the family, from why the first washing machine was named Thor and how many names were in the first phone directory, to the title of the first book published for children, how the first raincoat came about, what country invented the bra.... (Candlewick, ages 3 and up).

So I’ve been having unusually convulsive nightmares, and I look over at my nightstand reading—the Newbery-winning Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman. Is anyone else having this reaction??

Friday, March 6, 2009

All the News That's Fit To Print?

Last Friday, February 27, 2009, the Rocky Mountain News published its last edition. Though I live thousands of miles from the paper’s Denver offices, this development hit me harder than the shuttering of my local King’s Supermarket that same day. Don’t get me wrong. Losing the King’s, with its excellent appetizer counter and great bakery, was a startling reminder of today’s crashing economy. But the closing of “the Rocky” only two months before its 150th anniversary is one more sign of a cosmic shift in how we get the news and maybe even in how we define what news is.

I can’t imagine life without newspapers. I need to see a story on paper to take it all in. I grew up reading the New York Times and the (North Jersey) Herald-News everyday, and when I was 17, I joined the workforce for the first time as a summer intern on the Herald-News. I spend three summers there, and although I quickly decided that the pace of newspaper work didn’t suit my temperament, I am inordinately proud of my short tenure in this noble profession. Of all the people who write for a living, newspaper reporters are the ones on the front lines, literally and figuratively. Whether they’re covering a war or a ballgame, they’re charged with getting the facts and reporting them swiftly.

Not to mention accurately. Newspaper reporters and editors subscribe to a journalistic code of ethics that goes a long way toward assuring readers that what they’re reading is legit. (I know there have been some well-publicized exceptions, but they are relatively few.) The tenets of this code—objectivity, accuracy, truthfulness, impartiality, fairness, and public accountability—are ingrained in every reporter, including summer interns, and often are displayed in newsrooms. In a touching and informative video account of the Rocky’s final days, sportswriter Jeff Legwold cites a saying that was painted on the wall at his first newspaper job: “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”

As a non-fiction writer, I turn to contemporary newspapers whenever I tackle a new topic. No other source comes close in helping me travel to another time period, fast. The ads, the editorials, the very language of the articles transplants me to a different time and place, and the eyewitness reports on the topic I’m researching are often the best resources available. If more newspapers go the way of the Rocky, what sources will future non-fiction book authors turn to? Faded printouts of online articles? Vast digital archives of blog comments, tweets, and instant messages?

I don’t know what the news reporting landscape will look like in 25 years, but I hope it still includes newspapers. In the process of making its way into print, an article goes through checks and balances that strengthen its style and content. While the Internet offers immediacy and accessibility, information flashes that originate here need to be augmented with the more substantive articles and investigative reports traditionally found in print.

What do you think? Will newspapers still be around in 2034? If not, what other forms of communication will fill the bill?

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Return to the Mother Ship

I went to visit a Scholastic editor this week to talk about books, but that's not why I'm writing this. I'm writing this because her office happened to be in the middle of Scholastic's news magazine group, where I got my start. I never even worked in these particular offices and, indeed, never visited 555 Broadway as a magazine writer. But seeing those glass-walled offices, their windows collaged with words and pictures that inspired the inhabitants -- including a life-size standee of President Obama -- gave me a funny feeling in the back of my throat. "I learned to write here," I explained briefly, blinked like I had something in my eye, and battled past the moment.

Maybe this kind of stuff happens when you get close to 50: you start to see your past with rose-colored glasses, and tear up at the weirdest moments. But I've had several months to think about Scholastic, and what working there meant to me, and I've reached the conclusion that those rosy views weren't just hindsight or my natural cockeyed optimism, but pretty darn close to the truth of the situation. I began considering the matter again last summer, after a lunch with my college student daughter in an outdoor cafe on Third Avenue threw Carol Drisko into my path.

Emily and I were talking intently when I glimpsed Carol striding along. I hadn't seen her for years, but she looked the same as she had when she'd hired me, long hair tucked into barrettes behind her ears, big tote bag, bright eyes not missing anything. I reached out and grabbed her wrist and pulled her toward me. "Do you know who I am?" I demanded, like an insane person. "You'd better!"

Carol is the editor who hired me, proverbially wet behind my proverbial ears, straight out of college, where I'd majored in education and written exactly one (1) story in four years. I'd heard about the job on the classroom magazines from a guy at a party one Saturday night, and called Scholastic to apply on Monday. It wasn't an easy job to get: first I had to do a 250-page feature on anything I wanted (I interviewed the owners of an ice cream shop. Then I had to write a history of the Troubles in Northern Ireland in 500 words. But later, after all that, Carol told me she'd hired me because she liked some drawings I'd done in high school, something I'd brought along on my interview in desperation because I didn't have anything else.

If the party conversation had piqued my interest, my visit to the Scholastic News offices inspired a major crush. Cubicles, sweet cubicles... as far as the eye could see. And each of them was decorated kind of like my bedroom: Every wall was covered in pictures and clippings, keepsakes and ideas. Weird stuff was stuck on top of the partitions: plastic palm trees, for example. Globes. Travel posters. People were talking on the phone. Everybody's office was a mess. Scholastic News magazine covers were stuck on doors and walls.

So this was publishing? I thought everyone looked interesting, funny, proud, and ambitious. My heart really did beat faster: life can really be like this, I thought. With all my 21-year-old drama, I thought I might die if I didn't get the job. Now I know that I wouldn't have died. Now I know that my life would have been completely different. And I don't know whether I would have become a writer.

To paraphrase the posters, everything I ever needed to know about the writing life, I learned from Carol Drisko and the magazine staff at Scholastic News.

For starters, I learned to write fast, accurately, and with what I hoped was style. We had to put out 40 issues of an 8-page sixth grade magazine each year, and there were only three of us -- Carol, the editor; Elaine Israel, the managing editor; and me, the newbie -- plus our art editor, Carol Dietz. They showed me how to plan, organize, cut, trim, rewrite, throw out, and start again -- all in one day, sometimes. Each piece had to -- it just HAD TO -- get finished and finalized and proofed and published. Start to finish, over and over.

But I had other teachers, as well -- the people who worked on the magazines for the other grades. They inhabited the offices across from and on either side of my cubicle. I hear their voices in my ears when I brainstorm, research, fact-check, and edit. Thank goodness our floors were linoleum and the cubie walls were metal: they absorbed no sound and let us all share phone calls, meetings, and conversations. From Mike, Holly, Amy, Jonathan, Denise, Andy, the other Mike, Lucia, Rebecca, the other Amy, Sue, Deborah, and the rest, I learned some of the principles that have guided me all my writing life. Here are my favorite major points.

There's nothing new under the sun.
Loosely translated, this means: who do you think you are, Shakespeare? In other words, do you think you're the first person in the world who had to come up with a new take on a Halloween story? Do it sweetly and originally and try to put your mark on it, but don't overthink it or get conceited about it or expect everybody else to go crazy over it.
To confuse things further, this means: Do your work seriously. But don't take yourself too seriously.

These days, I still struggle with this one, as I try to become God's gift on each subject I write about. Staying out of the way as a writer and just telling the story is a challenge.

Boy, are our faces red.
This sentence came into play when someone wrote in to tell us that they disagreed with something we'd written, or that we had gotten something wrong. The fact that my coworkers had this sentence at their fingertips showed me that, although perfection was something to strive for, falling short could be expected. Even The New York Times has a daily section for errors and corrections. I was reminded of this years later when my five-year-old son started learning hockey. The first thing they had the little guys do was to lie flat on the ice as though wiped out; then they taught them how to get up. They fell less because they weren't afraid they would fall.

These days, I'm still wrong a lot. 'Nuff said.

Call the White House.
Or NASA. Or the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Or 20th Century Fox. Tell them it's Scholastic calling. Get the quote. Use the voice, Luke.

Was it the word Scholastic? The Big Scholastica, the mother ship of classroom publishing, book club pioneer, purveyor of magazines with circulations in the hundreds of thousands? Yes and no. Scholastic's name did (does) have clout. But what really had clout was KIDS. Besides learning to ignore the butterflies in my stomach, pick up the phone, dial, and deliver, I learned to say to interviewees, "This is your chance to tell children about your work." Yes, I still had to walk through the doors myself; but working on deadline on these magazines forced me to do it briskly, and taught me the power of writing for kids in the mind of the public.
But there's something else here, too: We wrote seriously, for kids. We did the same research, we believed, as Time Magazine. I learned that if I didn't make those calls, consult those experts, reach for the facts and swing for the fences, my colleagues and editors were going to call me on it.

These days, I recognize that butterflies in the stomach are a good sign, also that competition with other writers is something to learn from, not hide from.

What's green and red and goes 500 miles per hour? Low men on the totem pole at Scholastic magazines have the job of editing the back pages, where the jokes and puzzles are. And that means opening mail from kids and reading their favorite jokes -- an open window on the mind of American youth. Do you know the answer to the riddle above? Everyone on my staff did. Each time one of us received this joke -- by far the most popular during my Scholastic News tenure -- we would read it aloud over the cubicles. And back would come the sweet chorus of replies: a frog in a blender.

Okay, you're asking. What's the message of the frog in the blender? That kids like humor, even when (especially when) it's a little sick and twisted? That they pass jokes and stories around with an awesome vigor? That they like to be noticed, recognized, even published, just like we do? All of the above, plus something more: that they're alike in their individuality. The frog in the blender joke came from Native American kids in Alaska, from Sunday schoolers in Alabama, from a one-room schoolhouse on an island in Maine, from public schoolers in Queens. My friend Mike wallpapered his cubicle with their letters, reminder of the commonalities and the differences.

The frog joke may seem like a small thing, or a stupid thing. But when you're writing for hundreds of thousands of kids, they can become faceless, meaningless, charmless. For the most part, I don't write for hundreds of thousands of kids anymore. (I'm lucky if there are hundreds!) But the lessons I learned at Scholastic News way back when stay with me: Be original, but be willing to prove what makes you special, and don't be too in love with your ideas. Be accurate and expert, then move on. Get out of the way, quote experts, and let the voices of others be heard. And never forget your audience: if you can write to just one of them, instead of all of them, then maybe more of them will take an interest.

In his book A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future, Daniel Pink suggests writing a letter of gratitude to someone who has helped you. I guess this is mine, written for the editor and the staff and the publisher that I loved first.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Begin with a Bang; End with a Snap

I somehow managed to get through college and graduate school by writing only two major papers. One was on the status of women in the middle ages and the other was my senior thesis on the state of the biological sciences. I became a writer only by happenstance. It was when I was “retired” from my first teaching job (junior high science), expecting my first child. I needed something to do at home that would keep me from being bored and bring in some much-needed cash. I read an ad in the NY Times for teachers to write educational materials. How hard could that be? I figured that if I could talk about science in a classroom I could write about it. The publisher of University College Tutors, Inc (similar to Cliff Notes), interviewed me and concluded, “You sound intelligent even if you are pregnant.” (This was 1964. Even so, I was puzzled by the comment.) He asked if I could write a high school chemistry text book. When I said I thought I could he warned me, “But it has to sound simple.” I went home to write a simple-sounding sample chapter introducing chemistry. After three revisions he awarded me a contract. My name would not be on it and I received no royalty, but that hard-won assignment enabled me to learn how to write something book length. You just keep at it, like knitting. I’ve since lost that manuscript but I have no doubt that the writing was not particularly good. It never made it to press.

I am nothing if not persistent. So I kept on taking writing assignments (while caring for my two little boys). I learned on-the-job from a variety of editors, revising my work to please them, often biting the bullet in pain when they did not coddle me. My writing became clear and dispassionate, untouched by my heart or my wit. I can only describe it as “plain vanilla.” I sounded just like everyone else they were editing. There was nothing to distinguish me from other competent authors.

I need look no further than my own early books to give you examples of what I consider bad writing. Here’s the lead sentence from my first published book, The First Book of Logic: “Anthropologists, who are concerned with the study of man, like to talk about the chief differences that make men superior to apes.” Yawn! Why should a kid care what anthropologists think? That sentence has nothing to do with logic, the subject of the book. It just demonstrates my own insecurities because I’m invoking authorities to give me credibility.

Here’s another early book lead from The Long and Short of Measurement: “Some things in the world are very, very big.” Well…duh! Stating the obvious is not a grabber, that’s for sure. I’ve since learned to never begin anything with a generalized statement. (Check out how many textbooks begin with such a sentence.) It is flat, uninteresting and tells me that the author was too lazy or uninspired to think of an attention-grabbing entry into the material. Generalized statements can be powerful conclusions at the ends of paragraphs and books. But they are not beginnings.

Many years later, after about twenty books, I came across William Zinsser’s classic book On Writing Well, which is now in its 30th Anniversary Edition. He discussed every lesson I had learned the hard way. Darn! This book could have been a short-cut for me, if only I had known about it, except that Zinsser himself claims that “writing can’t be taught but it can be learned.”

Perhaps Zinsser is saying that there are no short-cuts. We writers must each find our own way by writing and writing more. The only advice that ultimately paid off for me came from my first husband’s high school English teacher, a man I never met. He told his students (and me, by one degree of separation) “Begin with a bang and end with a snap.” This rule can apply to each paragraph as well as the work as a whole. And it helped me to find my voice. Perhaps you, too, will find it useful. (Now, is that last sentence enough of a snap?)

Monday, March 2, 2009

Our New Monthly Feature: I.N.K. News

The first Monday of the month seems to be a good time to talk about all things Nonfiction. We hope to make this a regular feature on the blog. Our bloggers will share news about their own books or speaking engagments, their critique buddy's new book, new books they've heard about but don't have time to blog about, local nonfiction events people might be interested in, etc.

We'd like to ask readers to add their noteworthy events in the comments. Read a good book? Reorganized the nonfiction section of your classroom? We'd love to hear about it.

I found a hidden gem of a resource for nonfiction books this weekend. On a visit to the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens I discovered a wonderful collection of nonfiction in their gift shop There were books on everything from nature to New York City, both small presses and large publishing houses. I was happy to see books by April, Steve, and Sneed among their picks. If you are looking for another place beyond the big chains to find an interesting book, don't forget about a gift shop at a nonprofit--in this economy, it's a great way to support them and expand your nonfiction collection.

From Rosalyn Schanzer:

The Washington Post and the Children’s Book Guild of Washington, D.C. have announced that the winner of their 2009 Award for Nonfiction is Susan Campbell Bartoletti. Tickets for the Award Ceremony on April 4 are available at
Susan Bartoletti will speak about her books, many of which address the role of children during difficult periods in world history. Hitler Youth: Growing Up in Hitler's Shadow was a Newbery Honor book as well as a Sibert Award winner. As a salute to her Sibert Award winning book Black Potatoes: The Story of the Great Irish Famine, Irish music and dance will be the featured entertainment. A reception with drinks and refreshments will follow the performances.
Saturday, April 4, 2009 at 2 P.M.
National Geographic Society
Grosvenor Auditorium
1145 17th Street N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20036
Metro: Farragut North

From David Schwartz:

I am writing from Indonesia, where I am visiting the Jakarta International School for two weeks of speaking (and playing). For me, 2009 is a big year for international speaking appearances. At the time this is posted, I will be home, but only for a few days before heading back to Asia. For a full month beginning March 9, I will be visiting the Singapore American School, the International School of Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia) and the Surabaya International School (Indonesia). In addition, I’ll be a speaker at the East Asian Regional Council of Overseas Schools (EARCOS) Teacher Conference in Kota Kinabalu, Borneo. I have always had splendid experiences at international schools. I love the diversity of students and staff, as well as the high academic standards and a curriculum (most use the International Baccalaureate, or IB, curriculum) that values inquiry and creativity. And the food is usually excellent!

But why am I going home at all between two trips to the same faraway part of the world? Well, that’s my other news. I am traveling back to attend an award ceremony near Los Angeles. I am the recipient of the 2009 Leo Politi Golden Author Award, given to the author with the largest number of books selected for inclusion in The California Collection, a list compiled by the organization California Readers (which is also the sponsor of the award). I’ll be returning to the States in early April. In that month and May I’ll be speaking at schools and conferences in California, Virginia, Washington DC, New York, Massachusetts, Florida, Wisconsin and Iowa. I still have a few days open if there are any schools desperately seeking an author.

From Loreen Leedy:

Missing Math: A Number Mystery has been awarded a Bronze medal by the Florida Book Awards in the Children's Literature category. The honored books will be featured in the summer issue of FORUM, the Florida Humanities Council magazine. Also, I started a blog about my books and other creative activities called Loreen Leedy’s Studio:

On Saturday, March 14 at 1:30 pm Tanya Lee Stone will be discussing her new book about the "Mercury 13" women, Almost Astronauts, at the National Air & Space Museum in Washington, DC, for their annual Women in Aviation & Space Family Day. The book was released on Feb 24, and has received 3 starred reviews to date. While in DC, she will also appear at Politics & Prose on Friday, 3/13, 10 am, and Saturday 3/14 at 10:30 am.
Link to NASM event: 2009 Amelia Bloomer List of Recommended Feminist Literature - link to

From Deborah Heiligman:

I was interviewed on NPR's Morning Edition about my new book, CHARLES AND EMMA: The Darwins' Leap of Faith, on Darwin's birthday, February 12. Here's the link. That interview was part of a longer one that Robert Krulwich (a genius of an interviewer!) did with me, and he sent out more of it on the Radiolab podcast.

Vicki Cobb's new six-book series Body Battles: Your Body Battles a Cold, Your Body Battles a Skinned Knee, Your Body Battles an Earache, Your Body Battles a Stomachache, Your Body Battles a Broken Bone and Your Body Battles a Cavity for grades 2-5 is published this month by Millbrook Press, a division of Lerner Publishing Group. With cutting-edge photomicrographs by Dennis Kunkel and amusing art by Andrew N. Harris, this series belongs in schools, libraries, and every pediatrician’s waiting room.
Kathleen Krull's Hillary Rodham Clinton: Dreams Taking Flight is on the 2009 Amelia Bloomer List of Recommended Feminist Literature - link to