Tuesday, June 30, 2009

More Ask the Author

You have questions. We have answers. Two I.N.K. bloggers readily agreed to answer this question from AMD:

What advice do you have for writers interested in breaking into this field?

Barbara Kerley responds:
Much of my experience in nonfiction has been writing narrative nonfiction—nonfiction that tells a story. Like any story, it needs a beginning, middle, and end, and a strong central character(s) who drives the story. The added challenge, of course, is that everything in the story needs to be true. The first step in writing a narrative nonfiction book is to determine if your idea fits into the story framework.

If it does, then you need to determine what kind of story you'll be writing: a nonfiction article, a picture book, or chapter book. I think about the age-appropriateness of the ideas underlying the story, to determine if it works for a young or an old audience. As for article vs. book, I think it has to do with the heft of the story—if the idea is meaty enough that a kid would want to read it more than once—and also, its illustration potential (this is especially critical for picture books).

I have to say that selecting the right story to tell, then, is crucial to breaking into the field. I have abandoned many ideas, sometimes after days or weeks (or, when I was first starting out, months) of research, when I realized they wouldn't work as a story. (They might work beautifully as a different kind of nonfiction book, however, so if you love the idea, don't abandon it—just figure out the right format to present the information!)

Once you've identified a promising idea, check around to see how it's been covered by other authors. The easiest way to do this is to search on amazon and see what's in print. Think about how your approach will be different/fresh/necessary—you'll need this info when you submit your manuscript to editors.

Next, you have to be willing to put in the time to do your research. Seek out primary sources. Interview experts. Read read read. Triple-check your facts as you write. (I like to use the footnote feature in Word to note which sources I used for each fact. I don't submit a final draft with these footnotes, but there are very helpful during the writing and revising stage when you have to keep tabs on a lot of material.)

After you have a solid draft, get some feedback. Join a critique group if you can, find a trusted reader(s), or see if one of the experts you interviewed would be willing to read the manuscript.

Revise revise revise until you have the best manuscript you can write. Then, spend some time in the library and in bookstores, identifying which publishers publish books like yours, and send your story off. Celebrate a job well done and then, while you are waiting what seems like forever to hear back, start something new :)

Vicki Cobb responds:
I broke into this field many years ago by answering an ad in the NY Times for teachers to write instructional materials. If you have expertise in a field, that is still available and there are many companies that produce teachers guides, workbooks, etc that hire freelancers. Times have changed, however and the children’s book business is difficult to get into. My suggestion is to join
SCBWI. They offer a lot of regional networking, as well as conferences where you can meet editors and hear their concerns.

I think Barbara Kerley covered the writing aspect of this question very well. I think it’s helpful to know that publishers are not looking for books. They are looking for suppliers of books. If your submission doesn’t fit into their editorial program, you will be rejected and it has nothing to do with your work. So think of your submissions as calling cards. Your writing can make an impression even if it’s not a buy. Be pleasant about a rejection and offer something else. Ask editors what they’re looking for. Read catalogues of publishers to get a sense of their editorial thrust.

Be prepared to pay your dues. I wrote a curriculum for cosmetologists, legends for the backs of a series of blown up photos, teachers’ guides, and manuals before I got my first book contract yet the topic was assigned by the editor. Is there a recipe for success? I love Dolly Parton’s answer, “I never quit trying and I never tried quitting.”

We’ll answer more questions at the end of July and at the end of future months, so keep let us know what’s on your mind. We want to discuss the topics that interest you most!

Monday, June 29, 2009

Ask the Author

Thanks to YOU, our loyal I.N.K. readers, we have lots to talk about today and tomorrow. For the rest of the summer, we will be setting aside the last couple of days of each month to answer questions you have left us in the comments.

Today, we’ll start off with a question from Melody: How closely do you need to connect with your subject matter to write about it? Do you need to be female to write about amazing women? An environmentalist to write about Rachel Carson? Do you lose all your credibility if you're writing about African-Americans and you're not African-American?

Three I.N.K. bloggers were excited to answer this interesting question:

Susan Goodman responds:
Melody, thanks for the question. It’s especially interesting to me because I just finished a manuscript about a young African-American girl from the 1840s. I do think that nonfiction writers have an easier time with this issue than fiction writers since we don’t have to have to inhabit our characters or imagine them in quite the same way. Nevertheless we have to inhabit their worlds and understand what their frame of mind was during a different time in history. The answer in part--research, research, research.

In my case, I had to learn about the specific African-American people in my story--who they are, what they looked like, what they did and, hopefully, what they felt and said about those feelings. But I also needed to know what their world was like and how their attitudes, assumptions, and expectations were different than ours today. That said, I also had to learn the same about the white people in my story. Can white people of today write about white people in times so different than our own? In a lot of ways, it is the same question.

But this hasn’t really addressed your question directly. It’s hard because it’s so complicated. I guess I’d say that anyone who writes and is interested in not only including facts, but also truth, in a project probably has something to add. But we writers have to be sensitive and careful. And we have to be just as willing to research and fact-check our own attitudes and predilections as our information.

Let me give you an example. My story takes place from 1847-1850 and there were obviously times I had to mention that someone was African American. But I hesitated to use the term “African American” because it wasn’t in use back then and I was trying to create and be true to a sense of place and time. It felt jarring and anachronistic to me. But, what to do? In my draft, I tried using the word, “black.” It was in usage back then and, since it was the preferred term a few decades ago and acceptable today, it felt like my best bet.

I had enough doubts, however, that I decided to consult with a prominent African-American historian and the director of the Smithsonian’s Museum of African American Culture and History. They both answered my email with long considered responses within hours. They both were clear—use “African American.” Basically they said that by using African American I was making a direct link between some of my contemporary readers and their ancestors. They could see themselves in the people of the 1840s. I also wasn’t accepting the designations imposed on people of African descent by the dominant group.

Needless to say, I changed the word throughout and felt good about it. But I don’t know what I would have ultimately decided on my own.

Gretchen Woelfle responds:
History books are soooo much more interesting these days, thanks to outsider historians and subjects. I'm finding African American history is full of great topics and subjects--way beyond the usual suspects of the civil rights movement. Keep at it, Sue!

Ten years ago the issue of who can tell whose story was extremely controversial. The controversy seems to have died down a bit, but important points were made. Get it right! I believe that anyone can write about anything if s/he gets it right. What does right mean? Obviously factually accurate. And skillfully written. But also with sensitivity to the subtleties of the subject matter and the readers.

I give my manuscripts to experts to judge if the facts and the tone are right. In writing about another culture, I would ask several members of that group to critique my work. I, a white woman, am working on African American history now, following such white authors as Doreen Rappaport, Larry Dane Brimner, and Ellen Levine. Of course we all owe much to Virginia Hamilton, Julius Lester, Andrea Davis Pinkney, and many other African American authors who led the way.

Why would I choose to write about African American history, rather than examine my own German and English heritage? Passion. I’ve found a particular topic that I’m intellectually and emotionally passionate about, and I think that I can tell the story in a compelling way. I’m determined to get it right.

I’ve got more to say about this, including my experience several years ago, of a wonderful workshop led by Ellen Levine. To be continued in my INK blog message of July 22.

Rosalyn Schanzer responds:
Most of my books focus on famous people from history, and I feel very strongly that it doesn't matter one whit about the authors' sex or race when they pick a person to introduce to their readers. As long as a biographer is a terrific writer who's willing to do thorough, unbiased, and accurate research, all is well. After all, it's not a bit unusual that I'm a female who doesn't need to be a guy in order to write about men, so why should a woman be portrayed only by another woman?

Consider this: There's no such thing as a modern historian who was alive 200 or 300 or 400 years ago, yet without ever having lived in, say, Colonial Jamestown or Victorian England, our best writers are somehow able to make the people who lived in those days spring credibly to life. If we can jump that hurdle, then why can't we write just as well about people who are different from ourselves in other ways too?

Thoughtful outsiders put fresh and worthwhile new spins on stories all the time. And even though there are editors and readers who heartily disagree with this philosophy, there are plenty of examples of award winning books that prove my point. Here's a very short list of just a few of them:

Russell Freedman, a white male, won the 2005 Newbery Honor Medal and the Sibert Award for The Voice that Challenged a Nation, which tells the story of Marian Anderson, a black female. He also wrote many notable books about American Indians. This brings to mind Paul Goble, a white Englishman who won the 1979 Caldecott Medal for The Girl Who Loved Wild Horses, a book about an Indian girl. In fact he wrote about Indians all the time too.

Another white American male, James Rumford, won a 2005 Sibert Honor award for Sequoyah (the famous Cherokee Indian), and he wrote books about Polynesian and Iraqi people as well. And a white female, Ann Bausum, wrote the Sibert Honor book Freedom Riders, which tells about black and white male and female activists during the historic Civil Rights Movement, thereby covering every base we've just discussed above.

Look for answers to another question tomorrow. And by all means, keep those questions coming. We want to discuss the topics that interest you most!

Friday, June 26, 2009

Great Backseat Books for Summer Vacation

On Good Morning America Talk Radio yesterday, the discussion was all about alternatives to watching DVDs on long car rides. I was driving somewhere and caught the end of the segment. There was an interesting divide between parents who loved the electronic babysitter and the parents who didn’t want their children’s brains to go to mush on the drive.

The most interesting part of the conversation was callers sharing their wonderful memories of long car rides when they were little. No air conditioning, no DVD player, no radio – just kicking their little brother the whole way to Florida. Whoops, that last one was my memory.

Parents shared how much fun they had with simple car games. The car license plate game, roadside bingo, and animal, vegetable or mineral were just a few of the activities that helped pass time and had the family interacting.

As I continued driving, I got wondering about what nonfiction books would be great to take along on family vacations. My kids and I tend to get carsick so deep novels wouldn’t be a great choice for us. (Though, my daughter kept us entertained on a car ride from Georgia to Illinois a few years ago. She decided to read Wuthering Heights and got stuck on a word about every minute or so. So, I spent about ten hours trying to define desolation, resolution, soliloquize, stunted, abode, slovenly, squire, impertinence, attribute, parry, inhospitable, churlish, pigeon-cote, peat, ferocious, countenance, venture, conjecture, condole, listless, morsel, sobriety, preposterous, endeavor, suppress, kindle, blubber, compel, interloper, wheedle, grievously, curate, plague, threshold, degradation, reprimand, vociferous, throttle, expostulate, flog, fiend, prognosticate, infernal, coquette, poignant, fidget, quiver, wretch, perdition, imprecation, annihilate, delirium, esteem, munificent, concession, degradation, aversion, obstinate, covetousness, deplorable, avarice, feign, discourse, saucy… )

Here are a few nonfiction books that would be great travel companions. Hopefully these books will entertain kids in the backseat or airplane seat, get the family talking and laughing, and make trips to whatever destination more enjoy able.

Have safe and wonderful travels wherever you may go this summer!

National Geographic Kids Almanac 2010
Nations Geographic Childrens Books May 2009

Kid’s Travel Fun Book: Draw, Make Stuff, Play Games, Have Fun for Hours!
Loris Bree (author) Marlin Bree (author)
Marlor Press April 2007
Kids Travel Series

Kid's Trip Diary: Kids! Write About Your Own Adventures & Experiences!
Loris Bree (author) Marlin Bree (author)
Marlor Press September 2007

Backseat Books Series
Rand McNally Kids’ Road Atlas
Kristy McGowen (author), Karen Richards (author), Chris Reed (illustrator)
Rand McNally Publishers
March 2003

Coast-to-Coast Games
Rand McNally Publishers
March 2003

Are We There Yet?
Karen Richards (author), Steven Mach (illustator)
Rand McNally Publishers
March 2003

Miles of Smiles: Travel Games & Quizzes to Go
Laurie Calkhoven
American Girl Press Inc May 2007

I Wonder Why Series
I Wonder Why the Sea is Salty: And Other Questions About the Oceans
Anita Ganeri
Kingfisher April 2003

I Wonder Why Planes Have Wings: And Other Questions About Transportation
Christopher Maynard
Kingfisher August 2003

Carschooling: Over 350 Entertaining Games & Activities to Turn Travel Time into Learning Time
Diane Flynn Keith
Three Rivers Press 2002

Looks like the book is no longer being published by this publisher (and the used copies are garnishing a high price tag). You can find out more information from the Carschooling Website.

Shameless Plug:
Next week I'll be posting a related article over on my National Children's Toys Examiner Page:
Great Backseat Toys for Summer Vacation.
I'll add the link after it is posted.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Nonfiction Book Blast at ALA: Booktalks for Reluctant Readers

I am busy searching for baby skunks and caterpillars this morning so I have nothing intellectual to say. But I do have an announcement.

If you're attending the ALA Conference in Chicago this year, be sure to come to this Sunday morning presentation. I'm one of the panelists, along with Anastasia Suen and others you see below. Even if you are not attending, you might want to check out the wiki for nonfiction booktalks to use in your classroom or library.

Nonfiction Book Blast: Booktalks for Reluctant Readers

Sunday, July 12, 2009
10:30 am to 12:00 pm
ALA Annual Conference, Chicago
Convention Center Room W181
wiki at http://nfbookblast.pbworks.com/

Track: Children & Young Adults; Literature & Collection Development

Despite the emphasis on fiction for leisure reading in schools, many reluctant readers are often more drawn to reading nonfiction. Expand your nonfiction repertoire as 18 authors booktalk their latest work.

Panelists include authors April Pulley Sayre (Vulture View), Kelly Milner Halls (Albino Animals), and CarlaMcClafferty (Something Out of Nothing: Marie Curie and Radium), as well as many additional prolific or brand new authors. Their booktalks, plus new ones crafted by audience members, will be yours to take back home to excite your students about reading nonfiction.
Speakers: Anastasia Suen; JoAnn Early Macken; Jeri Chase Ferris; Gwendolyn Hooks and more.

I look forward to meeting INK readers at this event. Or drop by and chat during my book signings:

Sunday July 12, 2009

Henry Holt 2-3 pm

Sunday Charlesbridge 4-5 pm

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

"Reading is like basketball. I love it."

I’ve invited Guest Blogger Deb Hanson, Media Specialist, to describe the Guys Read program at Veterans Park Academy for the Arts, Lehigh Acres, Florida. I read an earlier version of Deb’s report on Marc Aronson’s blog, Nonfiction Matters (http://www.schoollibraryjournal.com/blog/1880000388.html,) and was in tears by the end of it. (But then I burst into tears at “76 Trombones” during The Music Man last week.) Anyway, Deb’s report made me contemplate, once again, the special place in heaven reserved for hard-working innovative teachers and librarians. Back on earth, I wanted to spread the word about her (and her colleagues’) terrific program.

There’s a video about Guys Read: http://tinyurl.com/m63kg7. If you’d like contact Deb directly, her email address is debradh@leeschools.net.


“Reading is Like Basketball. I love it.” This was one of the comments scribbled on a sticky note on May 14th, 2009 by one of 24 boys who participated in the inaugural, experimental Veterans Park Academy Guys Read Club. It sums up the program in a way nothing else can.

In December 2008, an idea to begin a Guys Read Club for boys began as a small group of dedicated adult men on our faculty volunteered to be mentors to 24 of our most reluctant middle school readers – all boys – boys who also demonstrated some kind of leadership potential (positive or negative). We began the club by inviting the boys to breakfast and giving them an opportunity to tell us what they were most interested in learning about, talking about, or doing. From there we took their top interests (football, basketball, sports) and chose activities that included reading, to engage them in the process of learning and thinking and talking and doing.

By May 2009 the boys had read dozens of websites, articles, magazines and, yes, even books – about football, basketball, baseball players, local high school athletes, steroids, hockey and more. They had bonded with their mentors, gone on a field trip to a local college basketball game, started promoting books to their classmates, and created a promotional video for the school book fair. But most of all their attitudes about reading had transformed. When asked their “thoughts about reading” in December, the sticky note responses read “Boring”, “LAME.” “Reading isn’t fun for me. I hate reading.”. In May, 2009 we got notes that said, “Awesome.” “Reading is like basketball. I love it.” And “Reading is way more exciting than what I thought thanks to Guys Read Club.”

The most difficult part of this experiment was finding enough time and the right time to have club meetings. Because many of the boys participated in after school sports and teachers had after school meetings, we chose to meet before school at 7:30 AM. This meant the kids had to get there early and they missed “social time” out in the courtyard with their friends. Also, most of our mentors were teachers with first period classes, so we had to end the meetings by 8:00 AM. The second problem we had was that many of these boys would miss breakfast if they came to the club meetings, so we fed them at the meetings. Finding donors for donuts and juice every week proved to be difficult, but we provided it anyway through personal donations by staff members.

At one point we found that some of the boys were taking advantage of the food and fun, but were not contributing to the discussions or reading. This is when the mentors decided to assign each mentor to a small group of boys, keeping track of them outside of club meetings as well as during meetings. They also added some competition to the activities, thanks to the advice from Marc Aronson and Charles Smith. Both these strategies worked and by the end of the year, the boys were much more involved and active.

One of the biggest challenges, and I think mistakes on our part, came when we decided to get the boys into books and have each small group read a book together. Because we did not have multiple copies of good choices of non-fiction at lower reading levels, some of the groups chose to read novels. While some novels proved to be good reads (like Tears of a Tiger) and engaged the boys, others did not. When we do it again, I hope we will find more good non-fiction books related to the boys’ interests for their first book to read together.

All in all, our Guys Read Club has been good for these boys. They feel special. They’ve learned that reading is not boring and lame when it helps them learn about things they are interested in. They’ve learned that people care that they succeed. They feel more comfortable with finding information and reading for fun. They are willing to risk being seen with a magazine or book in hand. The last meeting of the year included a 6-station reading and physical challenge in the gym, where teams of boys had to read an article or figure out a reading puzzle and then perform a physical task such as free-throw shooting, football throwing, etc. in the fastest time possible. They loved the challenge. The combination of reading and physical activity and competition was a winner! Afterwards each boy was given a certificate and a copy of Guys Write for Guys Read to take home this summer.

The impact of the club has reached well beyond the boys for which it was formed. Other boys are now asking to be included. Girls are asking if we can have a read club just for them. And so, next year our hope is to have “Read Clubs” for every middle school student. They will choose their clubs based on their interests - sports, music, famous people, cooking, romance, and more. Time will tell if this idea is successful.

2008-2009 Guys Read Club

• Adult male mentors committed time & energy
• Targeted most reluctant readers
• Focused on student interests
• Started with short reading assignments – websites, articles, excerpts from books
• Got free magazines from ESPN
• Kids love to eat – provided breakfast
• Worked up from websites to books
• Gave students right reasons to read (find info about stuff they love, make choices about sports/teams/etc.)

• Too little time for meetings (needed 45 min – 1hr)
• Kids were selected by teachers, not self-selected
• Required a lot of planning, coordination, commitment for the mentors outside their regular work hours and duties
• No funding for program initially (did get parent group to purchase Guys Write books)

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

With a Side of Book Talk

Last month, I wrote about spending seven days in a fourth grade classroom. As you might have read, the students did not do any reading while I was there. The situation left me feeling bereft. Yet there was one bright moment that I’m still holding on to. An impromptu book discussion can even give a pessimist a wee bit of hope.

What with all of the studying for the test, teaching to the test and taking practice tests going on in the classroom, I had a lot of free time. Luckily I had brought along Marjorie Morningstar by Herman Wouk, a 560 plus page novel that kept me engaged for a good bulk of the time. At one point, on the last day I was there, one girl--I’ll call Sabrina --wandered over and asked what I was reading. I told Sabrina it was a novel and I described the plot a bit. She smiled and asked if it was a true story. (The word “novel” seems to have gone out of vogue. Kids rarely seem familiar with it).

Well, we started talking books a bit. She told me she collected Goosebumps and they were special to her. Okay, not my area, but I tried to go with it. This led to the love of Junie B. Jones; now that I picked up on speedy quick. She told me how she had a special bookshelf in her room for her books even though her room was quite small. Apparently Sabrina had a substantial collection and she believed it might be valuable one day. She was still considering whether she should try to sell them for a profit one day or save them to hand down to her children. I told her she still had time to worry about that but I was glad she saw the intrinsic value of sharing much loved books.

Then I waited. Because I could tell Sabrina was a true lover of books and I had a feeling it would come. And then it did. “You know what I really love reading about? Real stuff. Like King Tut. I love to read about how they figured out all this stuff about him and what it means.” "Yes! Me, too. Me, too", I joined in gleefully as I jumped up and down in my seat. "I love that kind of stuff, too." So we talked more about that stuff and the joy of finding out even more stuff.

Reading nonfiction for pleasure; yes, outside of the classroom, well beyond the curriculum, for the sheer fun of thinking and wondering.

Great stuff.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Let's Give em Something to Talk About

Our I.N.K. Authors want YOU to give them something to talk about. Do you have any questions for our bloggers? Are there any topics or issues regarding nonfiction that you'd like them to ponder?

Here's your chance!

Please post your questions/topics/issues in the comments. On Monday and Tuesday, June 29th and 30th, our bloggers will post their thoughts and responses. Everything should, of course, relate in some way to interesting nonfiction for kids. Please post your comments here throughout the month.

While your thinking up some hot topics, here's a little Bonnie Raitt to sing along to:


Friday, June 19, 2009

Guest Blogger: Jean Reynolds, Some Observations on the History and Future of Informational Books, Part 2

Jean Reynolds is a veteran children’s nonfiction editor. She founded Millbrook Press and was its publisher for 15 years. It was sold to Lerner in 2006. She has also been Chair of the Children’s Book Council and served on the Board of Governors of Higher Education in Connecticut.

On June 10, she gave us a summary of the history of children's nonfiction as she experienced it. Today is her eagerly awaited vision of its future.


As the 1980’s merged into the 90’s, a number of things that had been brewing for a decade began to come to fruition. First of all children’s books became important in the context of the publishing world. The trade bookstore had rediscovered their potential and suddenly there was big business to be had. Picture books that had been around for years suddenly had new lives and their publishers (and a number of very fortunate authors and artists) made small fortunes on book sales as well as merchandise and media deals. At the same time the library market began to change. School librarians were victims of budget cuts and we no longer had the highly knowledgeable buyer that automatically made a good book a saleable book. Purchasing decisions were centralized, and non-fiction publishers poured into the industry offering massive series of standardized books designed to appeal to the administrator more than to the child or the librarian. This situation was great for fiction, but not so great for informational books whose discovery by the trade bookstore was slower in coming.

The other happening was one that especially affected informational books. The internet became a tool for student research. It gradually became the place of choice for finding out the population of Utah or the life span of a cheetah. Librarians were capable of leading kids on a tour of cyberspace where information abounded. This was major. Pundits began predicting the demise of the informational book, indeed of all books!

When I began in this business, the filmstrip was to have been the demise of the book. The next threat was television, and then microfiche and I think there have been a few others over the years. The only thing they had in common was that they were all wrong. I don’t think the internet represents a threat to good informational books but rather offers an opportunity for the best books to once again rise to the top. The formulaic books that present the straight facts are indeed threatened, and will no doubt go the way of the print encyclopedias. A lot of factual information benefits from being up-to-date, and unfortunately the information in a book is frozen in time on the day the manufacturing department tells the editor “no more changes.” That can be several months before a book is even published. But as the straight factual books recede, there will be more room and more recognition in the marketplace for books that synthesize information in a way that the internet cannot.

Authors who present a point of view, who write with a voice, who use their skills to breathe life into their subject matter, who understand what children really want to know about a topic are about to get a clearer field. Smart publishers are seeing that the days of the formulaic book are numbered and seem more open to creative proposals. For example, I recently worked with Lerner’s young adult line, Twenty-First Century Books, on a series by Cathy Gourley called Images and Issues of Women in the 20th Century, analyzing the way media portrayed women, and how women perceived themselves in the twentieth century. Five volumes of entertaining and fascinating material brought together advertising, government agendas, women’s rights, radio/TV portrayals, social progress, and biography all blended into a decade-by decade-history. Not exactly internet fare!

And speaking of biography – a good biography is no longer “just a biography.” You have Jan Greenburg and Sandra Jordan’s Christo and Jeanne-Claude to attest to that. Or look at Bob Racaka’s picture book The Vermeer Interviews. These books are so exciting and the usual information is worked in so cleverly that we’re reading a story, not a biography.

I’m already seeing some of the things that happened in fiction just beginning to happen in informational books. I’ve talked with authors whose rights have reverted and who have been able to repackage some highly creative materials and bring them back to life. We now have prizes that recognize achievement in the field. Bookstores are actually purchasing informational books – perhaps not in the quantities of the latest picture book, but that can come. And, of course, good blogs like this one abound.

Books that delight as well as inform are becoming ever more important – and their authors and artists are going to live happily ever after.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

How do you find your way IN to a story?

I've been here before. The story is written. Told in an engaging way. Finally.

It has taken many versions and experiments with different approaches to get it right. There were many questions I asked myself. Who's story is it? What's important? Should it be a wide-angle view or a close-up perspective? Third person past? Third person present? For that matter, what about first person present or past? That would accomplish telling the story from the main character's point of view. But that could be problematic as I would lose the historical context I need for kids to understand where this person is coming from and why it matters.

For Almost Astronauts, there were MANY experiments until I settled on the right way In. It takes time. And I am here again, now. With a new story, new friends. Because the women in Almost Astronauts DID become my treasured friends--some of them truly, in real life, others in my writer's mind. In the end, the story was for them. And now there are new people in my head.

In some ways, the process with nonfiction is so different than fiction; yet in other ways, so similar. With both, storytelling mode is paramount. But when I'm writing a novel, the people in my head exist only there. I choose where they go, what they feel, what's important to them, and how they react in every given situation. There is a certain freedom in that, which by no means implies that it is easier than nonfiction, because it isn't. But with nonfiction, of course, the people I write about are real. Every detail I convey comes from fact. Where the sun was shining in the room on the day they were born. Fact. What person they bumped into on the beach who changed their life. Fact. Every step of the way, the choices we make in the HOW of presenting nonfiction is inextricably linked to the facts.

So, how DO you find the way in? Picture book or longer form? What serves the story best? What serves the reader best? Almost Astronauts started out, incredibly, as a picture book. What was I thinking? My friend Ellen Jackson told me at the early stages of that phase that I was "trying to fit a size 10 foot in a size 5 shoe." And she was right.

I think of all these things as I start transforming the next book from short form to long. I have done this twice now--starting out in picture book and slowly realizing that the subject demands a larger treatment. And it makes perfect sense to me in hindsight because both stories are big and complex and center on many people instead of one main character, so in retrospect I was searching for a way to manage them, to contain them. But ultimately, letting go, and allowing them to loom large and choose their own shoe size is, in the end, a much more comfortable fit. Maybe next time I won't have to try on so many other sizes first. But frankly, isn't that half the fun?

Each new story is just that--brand spanking new. Every book is a new beginning. How exciting--because I also know more than I did before with each new book, and have more tools in my belt. And also potentially exhausting--because I know how complex the journey I am about to embark on is in order to retell this story--finally--the right way. I have found my way IN again.

How do you find your way in?

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Nonfiction Now: One Publisher’s View

This month I decided it was high time to query a publisher about nonfiction. My contact at Holiday House prefers to stay anonymous but has graciously provided the following responses to my questions:

What is unusual or surprising about nonfiction vs. other types of books?
The thing that still surprises me about nonfiction is that despite many novel and inspiring attempts, booksellers have yet to figure out how to get customers to buy nonfiction for children that does not include some sort of novelty element.

Does nonfiction seem to be viewed differently than other genres by the reading public? If so, in what way?
The Internet has made the reading public view nonfiction differently. Publishers, authors and illustrators of nonfiction, and booksellers now need to explain to consumers that books can offer things that the World Wide Web does not. It's not just about the information—although that is certainly a crucial part of what nonfictio
n can provide. We need to figure out how to engage young readers with excellent writing, innovative approaches, critical thinking, and innovative formats.

What innovations in presenting nonfiction have been significant in recent years? (Photos vs. illustration, length of book, graphic design, etc.)
Technical advances have been changing nonfiction for some time, particularly in the area of illustration and graphic design. From pop-ups like Encyclopedia Prehistorica Dinosaurs by
Robert Sabuda and Matthew Reinhart to new manufacturing techniques that allow the use of “scanimation” in Gallop! by Rufus Butler Seder to ever more amazing techniques in taking photographs and reproducing them such as in Wolfsnail: A Backyard Predator by Sarah and Richard Campbell, nonfiction is constantly becoming more sophisticated, more innovative, and more novel.

Do you receive many nonfiction submissions vs. other genres?
Holiday House is known for nonfiction, so we receive many nonfiction submissions from authors who have done their homework. [See their submission guidelines here.]

How do nonfiction sales compare with fiction? Has that changed over the years?
Nonfiction does well for Holiday House, but it is a specialty for us and consumers look to us for nonfiction. Most of our nonfiction ends up in schools and libraries.

What have been some top selling nonfiction books for you?
There's a Frog in my Throat! by Loreen Leedy and Pat Street, Coral Reefs by Gail Gibbons, and Freedom Walkers by Russell Freedman.

What are the most and/or least popular areas of nonfiction in your experience?
Any topic can be made interesting and popular if the book in inventive enough and extremely well-executed. However, some topics seem to be of perennial interest such as dinosaurs and natural disasters.

Any other thoughts?
Because nonfiction is competing against the Internet and other new forms of technology more so than against picture books or fiction, it needs to be constantly improving in every way possible and distinguishing itself from other ways of getting information.


Many thanks to Holiday House for a thought-provoking perspective on nonfiction. I just saw the guest post by editor Jean Reynolds and am looking forward to reading the second installment. Hopefully additional publishing insiders will contribute to future I.N.K. posts.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

It's Good to be Nosy

It’s Good to Be Nosy

It’s good to be nosy. When I say this in schools, there’s always one teacher who looks uncomfortable. He’d rather I’d use the word curious. (Yes, it is, for some reason, usually a he.)

But I am nosy. Always have been. Always will be. I am a people watcher, an eavesdropper. If I could get away with it, I’d read other people’s mail, ask strangers in the airport probing questions (o.k. I have done that once in a while).

I wish I knew all about you, yes, you reading this post.

I don’t know if my nosiness is a result of nature or nurture, but I can tell you either way I got it from my mom. Nosiness was my mother’s milk, and I am glad for it. It made me a writer, made me someone who loves, loves, loves to do research. It was one of my mother’s greatest gifts to me. (Though I did suffer from her nosiness as a teenager when she read my journal--just because I had left it out. Who knew THAT was a rule? I sure didn’t--until that day. Oy, what she found out. Don’t ask.)

Here are some of my most significant childhood memories:

*Sitting in a hotel lobby with Mom, watching the people, and talking about them. What’s his story? Hers? Are those two a couple? Where do you think they live? What do they do? What is with that hat?

*Sitting in the kitchen during family gatherings while the women cooked, making myself as invisible as possible so they would keep gossiping. On different occasions I learned: my cousin M. had set the cat’s tail on fire and his mother, Crazy Aunt B., had just laughed; my father’s cousin Hymie, whom I adored, hadn’t died of a heart attack but had jumped out of the window at 80 because he was bereft at losing his long-time love—whom he lived with! But wasn’t married to! (It’s mine; you can’t have it.) Sitting in the kitchen also gave me practical information, of course: how to separate eggs, roast a chicken, what hormones can do…

*Sitting half-way down the steps during one of my parents’ parties. Is that how grown-ups act when kids aren’t around? Why?

Writing fiction is about looking at people and asking what makes them tick. Writing biography is exactly the same, only you can’t make anything up. Writing all non-fiction is about asking questions you don’t have the answers to. So you have to do research to find out. For that all it takes is being nosy.

When you do research you ask yourself, “What do I know and what do I need to know?” At the beginning of a project, the answer to the first part of the question is (in increasing level of panic) “not much, next to nothing, certainly not enough!” and the answer to the second part is, “a whole lot, so much, everything!” But if you just let your natural nosiness work for you, finding out more is often easy—and always fun. It’s like a treasure hunt, with clue leading to clue. Really it's like sitting at that kitchen table, only you don’t have to be invisible. You get to ask the questions. You get to be nosy.

Being nosy has helped me when I’ve needed to overcome shyness to interview someone (no, I don’t ask inappropriate questions). Being nosy has kept me going through rough patches in writing. For example, when I couldn’t find the hook of, say, a biography, I just needed to delve deeper into my subject’s private life. Why didn’t Barbara McClintock get along with her mother? Because Mrs. McClintock gave Barbara away for months when she was a toddler!

Why did Charles and Emma have one more child even though she was so old to have a baby…Oh! I found a letter Charles wrote complaining that Emma was “neglecting him.”

Reading primary sources—letters, journals, diaries—is heaven to a nosy person. Reading primary sources is a fantastic way for a writer to get great material, unique insights, and, we hope, give the world valuable new information.

And it’s completely legitimate! And legal! And moral!

Unlike reading a person’s journal just because she left it lying around….

So. Be honest. How nosy are you?

Monday, June 15, 2009

Out of a Tunnel

So, one of the nicer moments in old movies is a conversation between Jean Arthur ("Clarissa Saunders") and Jimmy Stewart (new U.S. Senator "Jefferson Smith") in which one says to the other that one should always live as if "you just came out of a tunnel." Many an old movie has flickered away on my video hearth, keeping me company while I've illustrated an awful lot of books & greeting cards over the years. It was as an illustrator that I found my way into books and to this moment, writing these words.
The television is silent now, of course. Can't be writing - or drawing, for that matter - with the TV yammering. God knows I've tried.
In preparing to write about how I research, draw, and paint my pictures, how I came to write and illustrate nonfiction (because my first two books, The Windchild and The Queen With Bees in her Hair, published by Holt back in the day, were fiction, looked at by hardly anybody), I got surprised with a fresh realization of how tunnel-visioned a person can get, meaning me. I wanted to tell you about visiting Plimoth Plantation years ago, when I was doing my first historic picture book, Three Young Pilgrims (Bradbury Press then, Aladdin Paperbacks now. Sheesh.). Heaven bless living history museums, the re-enactors, and the photographers who capture their daily moments. Some winter afternoon when you're right in the middle of a drawing, you might not have the wherewithal to get a model to pose with a yoke of oxen.
I wanted to tell you about the dog-eared, raggedy Dover books lined up on my studio bookshelf. They're stuffed with good, clear copyright-free drawings: Grist for my imagination + education (research) deal I've got going on here. I don't have a time-machine. (If someone does, please contact me. Discreetly. We don't want everybody wrecking and changing everything. I mean, I've read Jack Finney's Time & Again.) I can't even tell you when my Dover Horses book was published because I've used clear packing tape to cover every spare space (including copyright info) with more horse images torn from magazines, etc. If you're going to be an illustrator, you need reference material, a.k.a. scrap. Much of the tape just keeps the pages from falling out. Could I be looking at real horses? Hey, I'm on a deadline! And look, I'm not a great artist, but I can draw two eyes and four legs and make it look like something you can ride.
Essential is good reference material such as the books written and illustrated by the brilliant Edwin Tunis, which brings me back to the tunnel. In Googling for a quick notion of the life of this spendid researcher/muralist, I was led to a posting re: Mr. Tunis, here on I.N.K. by Don Brown who posted his "Last Post" shortly before Jan Greenburg made me aware of this cyber-conversation when we were at the UCM Children's LIterature Festival in Warrensburg, MO. last March. So there you go. In talking to you, I was introduced, far-too0belatedly, to the work of one of our comrades. It's like I just came out of a tunnel.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Just the Facts, Ma'am

I’m always working to catch up on the ever-increasing pile of New Yorkers at my house (or as one of their cartoon captions once said, “How is never? Is never good for you?”). But I’ve just read a great article in the February 9/16, 2009 issue by John McPhee about fact-checking. And fact-checking in particular at the New Yorker.

The prowess of NY’s fact-checkers is legend, perhaps matched only by National Geographic. I used to work for some of Nat Geo’s publications and remember hearing the following story more than once. (Is it true or urban myth? I did hear it from an editor there, but that hearsay source wouldn’t satisfy a real fact checker!)

Anyway, a writer returned from Africa where he was researching a story about elephants. Supposedly he went to the fact-checker’s office and plunked a bag on her desk. I’ll be writing about the color and smell of elephant dung, he said, and knew you would demand verification.

It’s a funny story, but it also seems a bit hostile. I can understand that. Sometimes fact-checkers can be a little too precise. Their exacting minds can take the fun or magic out of things. In my book On This Spot, I was describing a prehistoric bloodbath and wrote, “Meanwhile a phytosaur was slipping into a shallow lake. When he opened his jaws, nearly 170 teeth swam toward a giant amphibian called a metoposaur. The fact-checker’s comment? “Must change, teeth can not swim.” (ps. Poetic license won the day.)

But I think the hostility in that Nat Geo story actually comes from the fact that it’s embarrassing to be caught with your pants down—to be wrong about something, especially when it’s your business to be right. I’ve felt that flash of embarrassment, maybe even a touch of hostility. But within seconds, I am profoundly grateful that the fact-checker has saved my butt. I pride myself on doing good research, but I’ve messed up more than once. Like the time the tour guide at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center (which houses NASA's Educator Resource Center) said that NASA had the disposable diaper developed for the space program. Sounded good to me until the wonderful Janet Pascal, fact-checking my Truth About Poop manuscript, gave me the URL for the “Diaper Evolution Time Line” and I realized babies were wearing Pampers before Alan Shepard.

Three cheers for fact-checkers! It’s expensive, but I wish all publishers used them. You can’t have too many eyes on a page.

Ps. Then there’s the other problem—NO ONE has the right fact. That book On This Spot took a place in Lower Manhattan all the way back in geologic time to the very beginning—or at least, to when the earth was just rock, water and a dusting of algae. When was it? The top guy at Columbia gave me one date. The Harvard expert gave me another. They were many millions of years apart. And it didn’t seem as if conventional thinking took one side. What do you do?

Thursday, June 11, 2009


When my husband and I were poor students living in Seattle, we rented the basement apartment of a big house one year, right next door to Ralph and Bernice.

Ralph and Bernice were this great older couple who loved to talk. They appreciated having an audience, and I liked hearing their stories. Bernice told me about the little dog she once had, so small she could carry him around in her apron pocket while she made dinner. Ralph was always puttering around the house and yard, and chatted about this and that—usually whatever he was puttering around.

Most especially, he talked about his fig tree.

Many people have only tried figs as the sweet-and-chewy main ingredient of Fig Newtons. Fresh figs are a completely different animal, more like tiny water balloons filled with honey. A lot of people really love fresh figs. Ralph did. Unfortunately, so did the birds in his yard.

When I first met Ralph, he was embroiled in a years’ long battle with those pesky birds. He had tried shooing them away. He had tried hanging pie tins from the tree, hoping the clatter and reflective glare from the sun would drive the birds away. The year I was Ralph’s neighbor, he was looping the tree with rubber snakes.

The snakes didn’t work, and when we moved to another apartment months later, Ralph was already contemplating what his next move should be.

Ralph was doing what I have to do all the time as a nonfiction writer: approach a problem from different angles, to see what might work.

Every book has puzzles to work out, and they can be devilishly stubborn. I can spend hours/days/weeks pulling out my hair. I can always tell when a solution is the right one when it doesn’t require any explanation or rationalization but instead has a clarity and simplicity that leaves me feeling a little chagrined that it took so long to figure out.

Take, for example, a problem that stalled me while writing THE DINOSAURS OF WATERHOUSE HAWKINS, the true story of the artist who made the first life-size dinosaur models and, in doing so, introduced dinosaurs to the world.

I knew I needed to explain how he had extrapolated—from the few fossils available at that time—what the whole dinosaurs might have looked like. Waterhouse talked about the process but not in language that would work well in a picture book, so I couldn’t use direct quotes. I didn’t want to bog down the text with a lot of technical details. And, I didn’t want to use invented dialog.

Days of hair-pulling later, I realized I could describe the process in the way I set up the narrative. And so, when Queen Victoria visits Waterhouse’s studio, the narrative captures the essence of a conversation-that-wasn’t (but might have been.)

“The Queen’s eyes grew wide in surprise. Waterhouse’s creatures were extraordinary! How on earth had he made them?
He was happy to explain: The iguanodon, for instance, had teeth that were quite similar to the teeth of an iguana. The iguanodon, then, must surely have looked like a giant iguana. Waterhouse pointed out that the few iguanodon bones helped determine the model’s size and proportion. And another bone—almost a spike—most likely sat on the nose, like a rhino’s horn.
Just so for the megalosaurus. Start with its jawbone. Compare it to the anatomy of a lizard. Fill in the blanks. And voilà! A dinosaur more than forty feet long.”

The solution felt so simple that I couldn’t believe I didn’t think of it sooner. But it took days of poking and prodding (hmmm…pie tins? rubber snakes?) to make it work.

A lot of my job seems to be trying one thing and then, when it fails, trying something else. Choosing not the first solution but what I hope is the best solution.

I don’t know if Ralph every found a way to defeat those darn birds. His figs were a sweet enough prize, however, that at the very least, he kept on trying.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Guest Blogger: Jean Reynolds, Some Observations on the History and Future of Informational Books, Part 1

Jean Reynolds is a veteran children’s nonfiction editor. She founded Millbrook Press and was its publisher for 15 years. It was sold to Lerner in 2006. She has also been Chair of the Children’s Book Council and served on the Board of Governors of Higher Education in Connecticut.

Recent award winning books that she has edited include: A Boy Named Beckoning: The Story of Dr. Carlos Montezuma, Native American Hero by Gina Capaldi, a five book series called Images and Issues of Women in the Twentieth Century by Catherine Gourley, and The Secret of Priest's Grotto by Peter Lane Taylor and Christos Nicola. She was also my editor for my new Body Battles Series.

She has so much to say that this post is divided into two parts. Today is about history, and on June 19, we will have her ideas about the future.


Once upon a time, children’s books weren’t considered very important in the publishing world. While some of our beloved classics were being produced, a children’s book department would be tucked into an out-of-the-way corner. The editor, inevitably female, was in charge of her little band – usually an assistant, a secretary, a library promotion person, and if she was very fortunate, her own designer. Marketing consisted of preparing a semi-annual catalog, a semi-annual list ad, and discussing one’s semi-annual output with interested librarians who accounted for more than three-quarters of her department’s sales.

Informational books were virtually non-existent. Picture books and fiction made up the list, with the emphasis on the former. Many of the books did, of course, convey information – ABC books and counting books primary among them. If a novel was set in the past, the reader picked up some history – or if it played out in another country, geography and cultural mores were conveyed. But essentially, the majority of the wonderful books published in the 50s and 60s were intended to entertain rather than edify.

When the US government put a lot money into school libraries in the late 1960s, it occurred to some of us that it might be an interesting experiment to gear a few of our new titles toward topics that children were studying in school. It wasn’t considered a very classy or even interesting thing to do at the time. Rabbits and How They Live paled in comparison to Pat the Bunny or the Velveteen Rabbit. Was there any basis of comparison between The Story of the Rain Forest and Where the Wild Things Are? I’m not even sure that those of us who were doing nonfiction in the very early days were terribly impressed with ourselves because, in looking back, I realize that our initial offerings were fairly pedestrian. The series books presented well-written, accurate information enhanced by carefully rendered black-and-white line drawings—functional but not exciting. The amazing thing was that these books began to sell, and sell very well. That enabled us to put a bit more money into the production of informational books – occasional color, an increased page count, even a name artist now and then. As the genre became more and more successful, it eventually occurred to editors that their best writers and artists could not only jump on the informational bandwagon, but make a major contribution by doing so. It was at that point we began to see charming non-fiction series with actual color illustrations. The genre became a legitimate part of the children’s book world and was set to evolve and develop as had its fictional forbearers.

There were several branches of the new family. The first of course was the straight informational book, a specialty on which many a publishing house was based. The formula was: offer the facts, preferably age-appropriate to the curriculum; make sure of the accuracy; top it off with a few diagrams and a readable typeface—and sales were assured.

Informational publishing did get overdone in the heyday of school library sales. The marketplace really didn’t need a dozen different 50-volume series on the states. On the other hand, there are an extraordinary number of different and creative ways to explain the physics of simple machines, or the migratory habits of the monarch butterfly. Good authors brought the level of the informational books to new heights and because the market was mainly libraries, and thus highly discriminatory, the best books rose to the top. The select group that was willing to write, illustrate, edit, publish, and purchase books other than fiction was happy. But then informational books entered their adolescent years, and started down the rocky road involved in establishing their true place in the children’s book world….

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Best of Summer, continued

Here's a post from Steve Jenkins, first written in March 2008, entitled Writing Children's NonFiction Made Simple

Of course, this isn’t really about anything being simple. I just thought I’d take a magazine cover-line approach and use a completely misleading headline to increase readership. I’m giving a talk soon about writing children’s non-fiction, and as an exercise I’ve tried to articulate a list of rules & guidelines I follow when writing. These are rules that apply to my own writing — I’m not suggesting that anyone else should follow them.

Well, maybe one or two of them.
• Don’t underestimate the ability of young children to understand abstract concepts.
• Put new concepts and information into a context that makes sense to children. Try to use metaphors or comparisons with something familiar. Sadly, the standard measurement unit of my childhood for things of modest size — the bread box — is unfamiliar to most kids today.
• Don’t mix different units of measurement or meaning in the same comparison. I see this all the time in adult writing, even in publications like the New York Times, and it always annoys me: “There are only 500 animal A’s found in the wild, and the population of animal B has decreased by 80%.”
• Clarify terms that seem simple but have multiple interpretations. This is a common problem with scale-related information: “Animal A is twice as big as Animal B”. What does ‘big’ mean? If it’s based on length, and if the animals are similarly proportioned, then animal A weighs eight times as much as animal B.
• Introduce a few new terms and vocabulary words, but not too many for the reading level of the audience. If possible, use new terms without formal definition in a context that makes their meaning clear. It’s more fun for kids to figure out for themselves what a word means. • Don’t anthropomorphize. Like I said, these rules are for me. There are lots of great natural science books that use the first-person voice of animals, natural forces, even the universe. But these books make it clear from the beginning that there is poetic license involved, and that the reader is being invited to use their imagination to see the world from the perspective of some other entity. I’m more concerned about casual references to the way animals ‘feel’, or what they ‘want’, in the course of what purports to be a objective examination of their behavior.
• If possible, anticipate the questions suggested by the facts being presented and answer them. This can be a never-ending sequence, one answer suggesting another question, so at some point one has to move on, but if we point out that an animal living in the jungle is brightly colored, it’s great to be able to say how color helps the animal (as it must, in some way, or it would have been selected out). Does its color warn off predators, attract a mate, or — counter-intuitively — help it hide? A colorful animal that lives among colorful flowers may be hard to spot.
• Try to avoid the standard narrative. For many subjects, a typical story line seems to have developed. Or there is an accepted linear sequence of introducing concepts. Teaching math is an example: arithmetic, geometry, algebra, calculus. There is some logic to this, but even a child that can’t do long division can understand some of the basic applications of (for example) calculus. Often the same creatures or phenomena are used to illustrate a particular point. Symbiosis: the clown fish and anemone. Metamorphosis: butterfly, frog.
• Don't oversell science as fun, or make it goofy or wacky. There is thinking involved, and work. The fun and satisfaction come from understanding new things and seeing new connections.
• Don’t confuse the presentation of facts with the explanation of concepts. • Don’t follow lists of rules. That’s it! Just follow these simple guidelines, and everything will be perfect. (Results may vary. Past performance is not a guarantee of future results. For external use only.)

Monday, June 8, 2009

Our Best of Summer Series

Our best of summer series gets off to a great start today with some of Kathleen Krull's personal favorites. Although Kathleen first wrote this in June 2008, these recommendations as the best of the best still hold true a year later.

Creative Nonfiction at its Best
...and more or less in tune with 4th of July partying.Pickers of nits may have a tricky time classifying the gorgeous new picture book about our emblem of freedom-- Lady Liberty: A Biography. What is noted author Doreen Rappaport doing with these free-verse poems, in the various voices of all who had a hand in creating the Statue of Liberty? The first poem is autobiographical, describing her Latvian grandfather seeing the statue for the first time. Then, from French sculptor Auguste Bartholdi to others famous and not so famous, the voices tell a true story-- how the statue was conceived and built and what it’s meant to immigrants ever since. Here is the voice of poet Emma Lazarus: “Soon when people arrive in the New World,/they will be welcomed/by a caring, powerful woman,” Rappaport writes, segueing into Lazarus’s own invocation: “Give me your tired, your poor,/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…” Besides being inspirational, the poems are obviously the fruit of mountains of research, and meanwhile Rappaport has collected every possible fact you could want to know into the back matter. Somber paintings by Matt Tavares swoop from unusual angles to heighten the drama. The format is large and inviting, with a “ta-da” fold-up page unveiling the completed Lady in all her magnificence. This is history, biography, and a tribute evoking genuine emotion-- all at the same time. I would call it seriously creative nonfiction (Candlewick, ages 5-8).

For older readers, the title alone-- King George: What Was His Problem?—may result in kids grabbing this book. The additional line of “Everything Your Schoolbooks Didn't Tell You About the American Revolution”—sounds mighty cool. Steve Sheinkin, the author of textbooks even he thinks of as tedious, has here amassed all the good stuff he claims his prim textbook editors wouldn’t allow him to use. That makes us the beneficiary of a clear, witty, fast-paced account that reads like a novel, even to the point of including some surprisingly clever dialog. Ben Franklin and grumpy John Adams, forced to share a bed one night, argue over whether the window should be open or closed. “I believe you are not acquainted with my theory of colds,” begins Franklin, lulling angry Adams into submission: “I was so much amused that I soon fell asleep.” Often one battle after another, this account might be more blow-by-blow than some kids will persist with (actually, this works well as a primer for adults). But it’s all good, important stuff that kids should know. The extensive back matter includes a “What Ever Happened to…” wrap-up of all the famous names—and a list of sources for every line of that dialog. Tim Robinson pops up with occasional sprightly black and white drawings (Roaring Brook, ages 10-14).

Guess what—I had other books I was going to include, but upon closer look, they have flaws. The children’s book world is so tiny (really) that I hate wasting space on negative reviews—even if it’s the infinite space of the Internet.But here’s a terrific picture book biography, as tenuous as its connection to July 4th might seem-- Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman. Possibly the most famous American cultural icon ever, Superman was born during a tough time in this country’s history. Seventy years ago, in 1938, you were either still suffering from the Great Depression or worried sick about the upcoming world war. To the rescue came two super-nerdy teens from Cleveland (who many a sensitive kid will identify with). They responded to trauma by inventing the world’s first superhero. Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster persisted through years of rejection and later bad treatment from their publishers, searching for truth and justice as they created comic books that boosted American morale. Marc Tyler Nobleman tells his story swiftly, focusing on key dramatic moments, with a detailed afterword showing his intensive research. The stylish illustrations, in an appropriately retro palette, are by Ross Macdonald (Knopf, ages 7-10).

And in the realm of self-promotion, I have a one-page piece in the upcoming Our White House: Looking In, Looking Out. It keeps company with 107 other contributors-- authors (from Katherine Paterson to Kate DiCamillo to Jon Scieszka), illustrators (from Leo and Diane Dillon to Peter Sis to Brian Selznick), and famous folks (from Charles Dickens and Walt Whitman to Richard Nixon and Dick Cheney). At 242 well-designed pages, this anthology is the mother of all tributes to American history, a multi-faceted jewel for family sharing and endless uses in the classroom (to be developed on its companion website ). A few poems and short stories and plays sprinkle the mix, but mostly this is a nonfiction account of history as it affected our White House—the emphasis on our—and a call to learn more about being an American citizen (Candlewick, ages 8 and up).

Friday, June 5, 2009

Two Roads Diverged

When I entered college, I planned to be a lawyer. I was interested in public affairs and was particularly passionate about the rights of Native Americans in the wake of the occupation of Alcatraz Island from 1969 into 1971. I took courses in history, Near Eastern studies, and politics, including one called Constitutional Law. During that class I realized it wasn’t the law that attracted me—often the reasoning seemed based on semantics rather than logic and that frustrated me to no end. Rather, I was fascinated by the stories behind the court cases, the circumstances that motivated Homer Plessy to sit in a whites-only railroad car in Louisiana or Linda Brown to fight for the right to attend a white elementary school in Topeka, Kansas. With that realization, I switched my major from politics to history and focused on social history and American studies.

Ultimately, that change in plans made me a writer. I had spent the summer after my junior year in high school studying journalism at the National High School Institute (NHSI) at Northwestern University, pounding out news stories on manual typewriters and trolling the streets of Evanston, Illinois, for feature ideas. That program gave me confidence in my ability to write under pressure, and it helped me get a job as a summer intern on my local paper, the North Jersey Herald-News, three years running. As I look back today, I realize that my career as an author of kid’s books about sports and women’s history grew from the intersection of the ongoing development of my writing skills and my emerging love of history.

There’s a reason why I’ve been thinking about this lately. It’s one of those “brush with history” encounters that’s been on my mind a lot. For while I was deciding not to go to law school, one of my classmates was building toward a career as a lawyer, and then a judge. Sonia Sotomayor and I were both members of Princeton’s Class of 1976, both history majors who took preliminary courses together. We also both were “others,” students who didn’t conform to the traditional Princeton prototype. She was Puerto Rican, I was a Jew. And we were women in only the fourth coed class admitted to the university.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that both Sonia and I embraced our outsider status when it came to our senior thesis projects. She wrote about Luis Muñoz Marin, the “father of modern Puerto Rico” who worked with Congress to gain commonwealth status for the island. I explored the achievements of Alice Davis Menken, a Jewish woman who tried to rehabilitate delinquent Jewish girls in New York City in the early 1900s. For me, at least, there was a little bit of defiance in my thesis choice. It was a good bet that Jewish women’s history was not a hot topic during the first two centuries of Princeton’s existence.

That experience of being an outsider has continued to serve me well in the topics I choose for my books and the point of view I bring to them. And despite the preposterous claims by the likes of Newt Gingrich and Pat Buchanan, I think it also will continue to serve my classmate well. Given that Sonia Sotomayor has a thorough knowledge and understanding of the law, her life’s journey can only add to her effectiveness on our nation’s highest court. I look forward to the day she takes her seat.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Why "Hands-On" Anyhow?

April Pulley Sayre’s blog on May 28, “Nonfiction and Hands-On Science,” inspired me to continue the conversation:

The word “author” means “source.” Part of the job of an author is to be able to defend one’s work. So if someone asks, “How do you know?,” an author should have an answer. For writings in history or language arts, for example, often how we know is that we read it somewhere. So authors in scholarly disciplines cite the works of others to lend credence to their own work. Most people are not studious enough to follow a chain of footnotes in a history text back to an eyewitness account, which may not be all that accurate in the first place. And, as nonfiction authors for children, we all know that there is nothing like first-hand experience to enliven our texts and add credibility to our voices. But for science, “hands-on” means something more.

“How do you know?” is a question that every scientist can answer by saying, “Don’t take my word for it. This is what I did. If you do what I did, then you’ll know what I know.” In other words, scientists must be able to provide procedures so that others can replicate the behavior that produced their results, or not. When I wrote the
Marie Curie biography, I was fascinated to learn how the scientists of that day eagerly performed each others experiments, gaining new insights into phenomena about the structure of the atom from their varied perspectives, deepening and enriching their collective knowledge. Science advances because of a community of shared experiences. Everyone who is interested can see for themselves. The knowledge accumulated this way is not merely a collection of anecdotes or hearsay, but an overwhelming body of first-hand evidence.

How we know, in science, is central to what we know. Hands-on experience in observing nature and doing experiments teaches kids how to do science, just as giving kids art supplies lets them be artists. You cannot truly understand science unless you know how it works. Last week I watched a History Channel program called
“The Link” about finding a 47 million-year-old fossil that may be a transitional specie between the primates that became modern lemurs and the primates that became apes and humans. The program recounted the various ways scientists from several disciplines studied the fossil and come to their conclusions about its life and death. It ended with the famed Dr. Leakey saying that he didn’t “believe” in evolution because evolution is like gravity. It is an indisputable fact, not something that may or may not exist so that you can choose whether or not to believe in it. When you see the nitty-gritty of how scientists studied this fossil, there is no way to make sense out of it without the fact of evolution.

The biggest problem I have with some hands-on science activities is that there is little or no connection between an activity and the questions it illuminates, or even why you’d want to know about it in the first place. So many science activity books just gratuitously give directions for things to do without giving the reader any reason to do them. That kind of “hands-on” is only fun if you’re making an explosion or a volcano. That’s why I write with hands-on activities in context. A good example is in
I Face the Wind. Catching air in a plastic bag is a “So what!” unless the reader gets that this proves that air is “real stuff” even if you can’t see it, smell it or taste it, and you can only feel it when it moves or when it is trapped in a plastic bag and you can push against it. Even the most mundane activity takes on import and drama when presented in a context that makes the outcome of an activity significant.

So it is our job as authors who write hands-on activities to create the context through language that makes these experiences meaningful for our readers. This is where our individual passions and enthusiasms shine through and make our writing distinctive.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009


Back in Part One of this blog, we had some fun uncovering ways that old children's books tried to teach good moral values by distorting reality. First George Washington chopped down a cherry tree and got kudos for admitting it. False. Then came tales of white male heroes rescuing dim-witted damsels and dealing with evil or dim-witted minority groups. False too. And how about Dick and Jane and their exemplary perfect white family? False all over again. Finally there was the hilarious 1970's attempt to overcompensate for all past injustices. Unintended Consequences from each of these examples ran amok.

So what's the new game in town? These days, the very best adult books are as honest and even-handed about history as can be, and they regularly win big awards and top the best-seller lists. I'm delighted to report that there are plenty of first-rate history books on the market for kids too. But! Picture books still follow a politically correct agenda that discourages the inclusion of certain important stories from our past. Let's follow this thread.

In 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King said "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." We've come a long way since 1963 and so have the books we write for children like Dr. King's. I was thrilled to see barriers crumble when I voted for our new president and he won so overwhelmingly. But our nonfiction books don't always judge people by the content of their character, and the reason is not at all what you'd expect.

Sure, today's picture books are filled with positive tales about heroes and heroines of every color, and that's exactly as it should be. Stories relating the woes that women and minorities have overcome are lauded even more. More power to them...they deserve the accolades. But here's the rub.

The playing field still isn't level. If it ever flattens out, we'll be able to judge every single individual on his or her merits alone. But lots of picture book folks are so afraid to offend minorities and women or to alienate their audiences in any other way that they end up censoring important true stories from the past or leave them out altogether. After all, who wants to be accused of prejudice, especially when no prejudice is intended? This mindset causes two big fat Unintended Consequences:

1) Now don't shoot me, but one unintended consequence is that only white males can do foolish or terrible things in the world of picture books. The rest of us (including yours truly and my family) are still off limits. Nobody sought this result on purpose, but most picture books about history don't judge people of every race, religion, and gender by the content of their character--especially when their character is not picture perfect by today's standards (though as we know, definitions of morality change significantly over time and from place to place and culture to culture).

2) By omitting anything that's the least bit negative about non-white "minorities" and women, we simultaneously dumb things down for our children and distort their entire perception of history.

What might this politically correct mindset mean in practice? Let's use our national icon George Washington again as a protagonist to understand this fear of alienating anyone. Consider these inflammatory examples:

~In George Washington's Teeth, a funny picture book that tells how George lost his choppers, everyone gets the humor, and they don't think any less of our great first president either.

~ But if there were a book called, say, George Washington Carver's Teeth, no one would get the humor. Folks would think it was racist. We cannot laugh at ourselves as equals yet.

~It's perfectly legit to say in a picture book that George Washington had slaves. You can also show Super Fierce George fighting hard to conquer his enemies, and you can even paint pictures of his generals massacring innocent Indian women and children in their homes. George gets to show extreme anger and fatigue and every other human emotion, whether it's positive or not, just like any other human being. Every bit of this is a genuine part of history and people should know about it. Your book will get good reviews for its honesty.

~But check this out; in picture books, anyone who tries to say that Indians had slaves, or anyone who shows Super Fierce Indians fighting hard to conquer Europeans, or depicts Indians massacring women and children in their homes will be thrown from the parapets for such "negative" and "scary" portrayals, even though this is a genuine part of history too. Unlike George, Indians cannot show extreme anger or negative emotions in picture books about history, and explaining that their actions were provoked or were culturally legitimate is not enough to keep this very real part of history ensconced in school libraries and bookstores.
Indians are real people too, just like George. Yet the one and only portrayal of Indians that does not create a firestorm is as a romanticized ideal, which is yet another stereotype.

See? You're probably already mad that I've thrown such a politically incorrect football. Why stoke these fires when there are plenty of important, entertaining, and fabulously interesting-but-safe topics to write about? Besides, you could sell more books in the bargain. The current attempt to set only "good" historic examples for younger children sounds noble, I guess. But do we really need a bunch of scolds, moralizers, and hypocrites censoring history for kids? I think not. What we do need is to be aware of history in all its complexity so that we can handle the present with knowledge (and not malice) aforethought. Some day when prejudice becomes a distant memory, our history books and our sense of humor can finally become even-handed and honest about the content of people's character, whether it happens to be sterling or fatally flawed or just plain human.

So what to you think out there, people? Fire away--it's your turn.