Monday, August 31, 2009

Ask the Author

Thank YOU to all the I.N.K. readers who have submitted questions. They are terrific. Isn’t it interesting to get a better understanding of how we all go about researching and writing?

Here are two answers to a great question from Mark Herr. Thanks, Mark. We hope you find these responses useful.

I know there is no "right answer" to this, but in your opinions, how much research is enough research before you start putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard)?

Here’s how Dorothy Hinshaw Patent answered the question:
That’s a good question, Mark, and the answer depends on a lot of things. How much background information do you have to start with? If the topic is new to you, you’ll need to do lots of groundwork before you even know what questions need to be answered by further research.

I find that after carrying out quite a bit of research, I keep finding facts I already have in hand. Less and less of the information is new. That’s a hint that I’ve mined most of what’s available. For facts and figures, you should have two or three different sources you can trust that agree on the information. Another hint you’re getting there is when you start writing the piece in your head.Once you start writing, you may come up with some new questions that you didn’t think of before, so don’t wait until too close to a deadline to begin to write.

And here’s what Sue Macy had to say:I find that when I work on a book, I do several “waves” of research, each tied to a specific stage of the process. After I have a “lightbulb moment” that suggests a book idea, I do the initial research to make sure the idea is solid and the topic really appeals to me. That usually means reading a few articles and surveying the existing literature to see what’s out there on the subject.

If I want to go ahead with the project, I use this initial research to write a proposal. It might include an introduction to the topic, an outline of the proposed book (this will likely be tweaked over time), and a page or two about the marketability of the book, including a survey of any similar volumes in print and notes on who might buy it and where (or if) it might be used in the school curriculum. Some people also write a sample chapter, which requires a whole lot more research at this early stage. So far, I’ve been lucky enough to avoid doing that.

After the proposal has been sold, I’ll start my in-depth research. That might include visits to places of significance to the topic, interviews with appropriate people, and lots of archival research at libraries and on the Internet.

I do a lot of photocopying and print out lots of scholarly papers and newspaper articles, which I place in folders labeled for each chapter of the book. If an item has material relevant to more than one chapter, I use Post-Its to remind myself to move it to the next folder when the earlier chapter is done.

Once I have organized all of the collected material, I read through what I have filed in the folder for the first chapter. Hopefully, by now I have enough material to enable me to visualize the shape that the chapter will take. I jot down the most important points I want to make in the chapter and use that as a working outline.

With this solid foundation, I begin to write. Of course, I continue to do research as I write. Often I’ll find that I still need to fill in more details or check additional facts. And even after all the chapters are finished, I continue to do bits of research because many of my captions contain material not in the text.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Games and Play in the Classroom

Once again, it's Friday and time for some fun... and games!

Here in Chicago, a new school year has begun and I have to mention a topic I've heard a lot of excitement about this year: Games and Play in the Classroom. This May, I wrote about Gaming at the Library and how popular it has become. Along with that post, I recommended some great fun and inspiring books about games.

Many of you already know that ALA in 2008 had a new Gaming Pavilion at the National Convention. This year I was lucky enough to see it first-hand. The feedback from librarians and educators was fantastic and there were several wonderful stories how successful games worked in the classroom.

Here are several new nonfiction books I found for kids that incorporate games and play in the classroom:

Math Games Played with Cards and Dice, Grades 4-6
by Charles Lund, author
IPMG Publishing; 2nd edition August 2009

Also, Math Games Played with Cards and Dice, Grades 2-3

For Kids Series
Everyone of these books in this series is filled with fun, exciting, unique activities to enrich and strengthen the lessons to be learned. Here are a few new offerings:
Heading West: Life with the Pioneers, 21 Activities
by Pat McCarthy (author)
Chicago Review Press August 2009

A Kid's Guide to Latino History: More than 50 Activities
by Valerie Petrillo
Chicago Review Press August 2009

Jumpstart! Science: Games and activities for ages 5-11
by Pie Corbett and Rosemary Feasey (Authors)
Taylor and Francis April 2009

Other Game and Play resources for educators:

Chicago Toy and Game Fair (ChiTAG) Educator Conference:
A State of Illinois accredited program (CPDU credit awarded) to assist educators on the fine art of incorporating play in the classroom. Saturday November 21, 2009 1:00. Check the ChiTAG web site for the current info.
If my schedule allows, I may help teach some of the seminars. Currently, I'm working with a few major companies on some classroom play ideas and some great free take-away items.

Games for Educators has a new, updated design and new location at
This site is very popular and has a huge following. Check it out for all sorts of information about games in the classroom. The database for finding games on particular subjects and categories is fantastic!

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Bumblebee Math

For a teacher’s workshop I gave recently, I was asked to share some ideas about using my book The Bumblebee Queen (Charlesbridge Publishing) in the context of math. Below are some of my informal notes on ideas. As you read through them, I'm sure you'll see that many of these techniques could apply to a wide range of children's books. It's just a matter of putting your math hat on and building mathematical awareness as you share literature with kids. This builds their skills for math, science, and analytical thinking in general. There's no better time to start this kind of math play (thinking) than at the beginning of the school year. This works for families sharing books at home, as well.

(A mathematical look at The Bumblebee Queen by April Pulley Sayre)

(Building number literacy and sensitivity)
After a first read of the book, as a story, look through it again, as a math detective.
Math can help you notice things and connect facts that you see.
So let’s be math detectives.
What do we notice about numbers in the book?

For younger students:
Let’s look through and write down what we see.
(Write down and honor various responses from kids counting.)
On the cover, we see:

examples that may be suggested by students:
three flowers on the left (columbine)
six legs on a bumblebee
two wings on a bumblebee
Three petals on each flower. Three trillium. They are named “tri” for three.

On the first full spread we see:
Six-sided snowflakes
Four-toed bird feet
One chamber where she lives
You could count the number of pieces of grass
You could count the number of trees

Do you notice there are lots of things to count on each page?
There are many numbers to notice on each page.
Let’s try to narrow down what we count.
Let’s stay as close as possible to the bee and her life.
What numbers that we hear or see are important to her life?
Let’s read.

For older students
1) Read the book and write down any numbers mentioned in the text. If you find them in a sentence, write down the entire sentence.
One way to look for numbers would be to scan the pages quickly for number shapes.
Try that. Does this technique find all the numbers? Why or why not?
(No. Some numbers may be spelled out in letters. So you will need to read, not just scan.
Some numbers may not be spelled out. You may need to look for clues to those numbers in the illustrations.)
Answers: examples of numbers students may have noted
250 bumblebee species
In 5 days, the eggs hatch.
The larvae spin cocoons 10-14 days after hatching
In ten days, the cocoons ripen. (Bees emerge.)
A bumblebee colony can contain 30-400 bees.
Three kinds of bees: queens, workers, drones

How many places did the bumblebee look before she found a place to build her colony?
By number, which place did she choose?
The 3rd place she looked.
Pause to investigate ordinal/cardinal numbers
Cardinal number—a number denoting quantity one, two, three, four five.
Ordinal number—a number denoting order 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th.
Take the figures you have gathered about the bumblebee’s life. Create a timeline, of the days of a bumblebee’s development.

From this kind of work you can study predictions, shapes, and geometry. Go where the students' thoughts take you! In South Carolina, teachers made diagrams of bees and other insects.

For a follow up, read some of David Schwartz's math books, of course. And have your students play with the worksheets and activities related to my book ONE IS A SNAIL, TEN IS A CRAB. Most of all, have fun with math. Make it a tool for poking, prodding, and playing with what we see in the world. Math is about exploration, not recitation.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

How Do We Know The Truth - For Sure?

As David pointed out two days ago, “facts are a squirmier subject than many people realize.”

When he was four-years-old, Iqbal Masih was sold to a carpet thekedar (employer or boss) for $12, in Pakistan. Like millions – and millions – of children throughout the world, he worked long hours in a dark, airless, carpet “factory,” sometimes chained to a loom, often beaten, poorly fed. At age twelve, Iqbal was set free with the help of the Bonded Labor Liberation Front (BLLF), a non governmental agency (NGO) whose focus was liberating slave laborers. Iqbal was a remarkable boy. He became a spokesperson for the reform movement in his country and personally helped save thousands of other enslaved children. For his efforts Iqbal received the Reebok Human Rights Award.
He traveled to The US where he spoke at a black tie gala, was “Person of the Week” on ABC, and made an impression with students his age in elementary schools. Iqbal returned home and was murdered.

Who killed Iqbal Masih?

The BLLF believed that their poster boy was a contract killing paid for by carpet dealers who were afraid that his campaign could put an end to cheap, bonded labor. Another NGO, The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, an organization that takes on a broad range of human rights abuses, also investigated the crime. They concluded that the killer was a neighbor, high on bhang, who was caught having sex with a donkey. Yes, you read that right. Try finding language to describe donkey-love to an eighth grade audience! As the report describes it, Iqbal, his cousin, and a friend were biking down the isolated road and saw the neighbor mid act. They teased, he shot. The neighbor, in fact, confessed to the crime. Later he recanted his confession.

Both NGOs came to separate conclusions. Who was right? How do we, as writers, determine truth when it is ambiguous, or when there is unsubstantiated evidence?

A breakfast conversation with my husband:
Bailey: There’s a difference between what the truth is and how we know what the truth is. We know, for example, that Darwin published The Origin of the Species in 1859. There is no reason to doubt this fact.
Susan: But when I wrote Iqbal’s story, there was conflicting evidence, evidence that constantly changed. Also, there were special interest groups who had different stakes in the outcome.
Bailey: That’s the problem. At what point do you decide to go with one version and ignore others?

Well, writers … how do you decide? This is one of those slippery slope issues we often face. When I wrote Iqbal Masih and the Crusaders Against Child Slavery, I had access to materials from both human rights organizations. I spoke with lawyers, rights activists, and people who knew Iqbal. Still, I was unable to reach a confident conclusion. This was the first time I centered a book about a person I had never met. It was nerve wracking. For me it is far easier, safer, to interview a subjects and then write in their voices. I become the conduit for their thoughts, ideas, and experiences. Their facts are the book’s truth. Evidence does not have to be weighed to make “fact” decisions. Sure, there are some issues of truth that need to be addressed – inconsistencies and contradictions – that I may not have picked up during the interview, but I could always go back to my source. After doing interviews for No Choirboy: Murder, Violence, and Teenagers on Death Row, I found a bunch of inconsistencies. But, for the most part, I did have captive subjects. Awful pun, please forget I wrote that. At any rate, my imprisoned subjects and I wrote letters back and forth until we were both certain that what was said was exactly what was meant. Their truth was the truth I was concerned about.

Iqbal was dead and my sources disagreed with one another. What to do? I decided to write both conclusions. Writing both narratives and giving them equal weight turned out to have an unexpected benefit. The readers now had opposing material for debates. And they did. In the classroom and privately. With passion and conviction.

Darwin published his book in 1889. My husband and I had cereal and fruit for breakfast. Two truths! Who murdered Iqbal? Only the killer knows for sure.

Susan Kuklin

Monday, August 24, 2009

The Truth -- But Which Truth?

I've been working on What in the Wild? Secrets of Nature Concealed . . . and Revealed (a sequel to Where in the Wild? and the soon-to-be-released Where Else in the Wild?). One of nature's secrets to be discussed is the nest holes of kingfishers, those handsome, crested birds of watery places who burrow into the riverbanks to make their nests. How deep? It turns out there is no clear answer to this question, as I discovered in my research, which led to some ruminations that will be the subject of this post.

The authors of Wildlife and Plants, 3rd edition (Marshall Cavendish Reference) write that the nest tunnels are "3-7 feet long." In Water Birds of California, author Howard L. Cogswell says "3 to 6 feet (even 10)," while World Book Encyclopedia reports "4-15 feet." So which is it?
Those who read non-fiction often seem to have the impression that facts are facts. Period. The writer of non-fiction must merely learn them and report them, and that's that. I've gotten this attitude often from children, egged on by the adults in their lives. "You wrote X, but we read Y in another book. Who is right and who is wrong?" Cheers for the author of truth. Jeers for the liars. But in reality, the depth of kingfisher tunnels (and many other facts) are unknowable. It might be instructive to consider how the figures above have come to light.
Over 200 or so years of American ornithological research, what percentage of kingfisher nests have been measured? I'd guess a sliver of a fraction of one percent. That alone tells us something: we don't have a very strong sample here. And of those that have been measured, what fraction of the locations of kingfisher nests across North America have been measured? Another small fraction. Is there a wide variation in tunnel depths? It's unlikely we know. Would different average lengths be found from Florida to Washington, from southern California to northern Maine? Possibly, but who knows? Are the tunnel lengths longer where the birds are digging into a softer material, shorter in a harder material? We don't know. Or longer in one climate than another. It's unlikely anyone would ever fund a study to find out, and probably for good reason.
So that's a point: does it really matter? I can't think of a good reason to study such a subject exhaustively. But if a question has not been studied in a statistically responsible way, we can't really know the answer, can we? We can take a stab at it to get a general idea. So any of the above reported lengths is probably as good as any other. If someone found a nest burrow 15 feet long, it's worth marveling at such a feat on the part of these birds. But overall it probably doesn't make much difference whether the tunnels usually range from 3-6 feet or 4-10 feet, and whether the maximum is 10 or 15. So no one is out there doing studies to find out... and we may never find out.
My point is that facts are a much squirmier subject than many people realize, and it would be instructive for readers and thinkers to keep that in mind. One manifestation of this uncertainty is found in the common frustration at diverse and changing health recommendations. People blame science. I think they would do better to modify their expectations.
In an article called "The Fisher King," in the August-September 2009 issue of National Wildlife, respected naturalist and author Les Line describes kingfishers and their nesting habits but does not mention any measurements for how deep their nest tunnels can be. Perhaps Mr. Line is onto something. But I do find myself wanting to hang some kind of measurement on the subject. So, I am willing to accept the varied figures I do find, knowing that no definitive numbers can be stated, and savoring a certain tantalizing deliciousness in the uncertainty.

Friday, August 21, 2009

A Pair of Swimming-Related Picture Books

When I was at my (relatively) local independent children's book store earlier this summer, I purchased the two picture books that I'm discussing today. I picked them both up for their cover art, but once I had a look inside, I couldn't help noticing their linked premise (at least in one important respect), and I had to have them to pair them up for you. Particularly when it's still so hot in much of the Northern Hemisphere and there's still swimming to be done.

First up is Mermaid Queen: The Spectacular True Story of Annette Kellerman, Who Swam Her Way to Fame, Fortune & Swimsuit History! by Shana Corey, illustrated by Edwin Fotheringham. I'll start with the cover, since that's what had me snatching this up in the first place. The colors are even better than they appear online. The lettering is white, and embossed in very shiny text, and the image of Annette Kellerman is similarly embossed on the cover, as are the whit parts of the waves, which adds both a fun feel and way more "pop" to the cover than is conveyed by pixels. Oh pixels, why do you let us down so?

Annette Kellerman was born in Australia to parents who were music teachers, and who had a house full of music and dance students. Annette wanted to dance, but alas, she had a health condition that affected her legs and caused her to wear heavy braces. A doctor recommended that she swim in order to strengthen them, and it worked. Annette felt graceful in the water. In addition to swimming laps and racing, she "whirled and twirled. She dipped and danced and dived." In point of fact, she invented water ballet.

Annette became a performer, leaving Australia for England to display her prowess, where she couldn't get booked at first because she was a woman. Stunts like swimming in the Thames and trying to swim across the Channel to France got her noticed. She was invited to perform for Royalty at the Bath Club, and Annette "the Mermaid Queen" rapidly became popular throughout Europe.

Her fame spread, and Annette was invited to swim in Boston. Annette turned up in her swim gear that showed her legs only to find that American women bathers were still wearing what amounted to full clothing. (I have a tintype of my great-great-grandparents and their friends in swim wear, and I can assure you that the men look very handsome in their striped sleeveless unitards and the women look overdressed in frilly bathing dresses, bloomers, stockings, shoes and hats.)

Annette was arrested for wearing her more form-fitting bathing suit (that showed her legs, no less). I wish that spread were available online: Fotheringham has cleverly done it as if the artist were out in the water, watching Annette enter. The background is therefore in the shades of orange that are on Annette's suit and around her on the cover, and her suit is two-toned blue like the cover's background. It's all completely made of awesome. But I digress. Annette managed to persuade the judge that attempting to swim in all the many layers of clothing women were wearing at the time was not only difficult, but also potentially dangerous, and she was allowed to proceed. Eventually, other American women followed suit and began wearing swimgear that more resembled Annette's kit.

In addition to a wonderfully understandable account of Annette's story, there's a three-page Author's Note at the end that more fully recounts Annette Kellerman's story as well as explaining why Shana Corey was so drawn to write about her in the first place. "What drew me most to Annette, though, wasn't that she succeeded at so many things - but that she didn't always succeed. Still, she was brave and determined enough to keep trying, even when the rest of the world was telling her not to. To me, that sort of conviction - the courage to believe in yourself even when others doubt you - is one of the most difficult and bravest things of all." Preach it, Shana! Can I get a "you go, girl"?

The Acknowledgments at the back of the book double as a bibliography as well, including as it does the names of researchers and biographers on whose work Corey relied, and listing the sources of specific quotes found throughout the book (including newspapers and other sources).

Next up is The Fantastic Undersea Life of Jacques Cousteau by Dan Yaccarino. Again, it was the cover that had me snatching this up in the first instance. I wish I were better able to explain what it is about the art that appeals to me, but alas, I shall just have to wing it, never having learned the proper terms, really. I liked the black and white bits, of course, but it was the style of the image of Cousteau and the colors and jumbled style of the letters that made this cover pop for me.

Yaccarino begins Cousteau's story with a two-page spread showing the adult Cousteau scuba diving over a coral reef. Boy, do I wish I could find that image online for you so you could see how the light plays in that image, but alas I cannot. The text reads "Jacques Cousteau loved the sea. He spent his whole life exploring it. The ocean was the most incredible place he'd ever seen, and he wanted to shar its beauty with the world." Also included in the spread is a small round sidebar (sidecircle?) that includes this lovely quote from Cousteau himself: "The sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever." Dear Mr. Yaccarino: You had me at this two-page spread. *swoon*

Cousteau, as it turned out, was weak and sickly as a child, and was encouraged by doctors to swim in order to build up his strength. Like Annette Kellerman, he discovered an affinity for the water. Cousteau also tinkered with machinery and cameras. As a young man, Cousteau was injured in a car accident, and told he'd need arm braces. He returned to the water of the Mediterranean for rehabilitation, and a pair of goggles from a friend changed his life forever.

Wanting to stay under water longer (and to be unconfined by the heavy diving suits of his day), Cousteau and his friend Emile Gagnan invented the Aqua Lung to allow a diver to stay underwater and have some freedom of movement.

In addition to working to develop the Aqua Lung, Cousteau also made advances in underwater lighting and cameras to allow filming below the water's surface. Says another Cousteau quote circle, "It fascinated me to do something that seemed impossible." The following image from Dan Yaccarino's website is NOT in the book, but is similar in coloring and technique to what's there:

Cousteau bought his boat, the Calypso, and sailed the sea engaged in research and filming. He shot The Silent World, the first full-length, full-color underwater film ever made. To obtain still better diving ability, Cousteau and his team invented the Diving Saucer and the Sea Flea, mini-subs that allowed one or two men to go still deeper below the ocean's surface to learn more about the sea. He explored the waters of Antarctica (about that continent, he said "May this continent, the last explored by humankind, be the first one to be spared by humankind.")

Cousteau invented underwater labs, wondering if people could actually live underwater, but he found that it wasn't practicable. Mention is made of his books, films, and his TV series (which I remember watching as a kid), The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau. In addition to being the oceans' ambassador, Cousteau became an ecological crusader. He founded the Cousteau Society, which has educational and ecological aims. Again, the following image is NOT in the book, but is similar in style to what's there:

At the end of the book is an annotated timeline presenting important events in Cousteau's life as well as a selected bibliography.

Both books present colorful, eye-popping illustrations that ground the reader in the story (sorry for the landlocked reference, but really, despite being watery tales, the reader is never cut adrift by the text or illustrations in these two books). The images enhance and add to the texts, both of which relate their stories in terms that will appeal to child readers. Both books tell the story of pioneers - Annette being a pioneer for women's rights, Cousteau for sea exploration. Both tell the story of children who overcame physical limitations through swimming, who invented new things (the sport of water ballet in one case, and a host of machines in the other) to allow for greater appreciation of the water. And both tell the story of people who were devoted to the idea of education and of shaking off limitations.

As you can probably guess from my purchase and my review, I can't pick just one. And neither should you. I hope you'll seek them both out for their inspirational stories and their excellent artwork. You won't regret it.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Accidental Researcher

Traveling is always a good thing for nonfiction writers. And I don’t mean, the traveling we do when we are aware that we are in the throes of research. No, that I call intentional research, and that is in its own category of wonderful. It’s the accidental research that I have grown so fond of; that has, in fact, become necessary to my process. The serendipitous discovery, shall we say? And serendipity, I believe, is critical component to a good story.

Accidental and serendipitous—these may not be two words that people associate with nonfiction. And yet, for me, they carry as much importance as the intentional, well-planned research tasks I set for myself. If I had figured this out at the age of 20, I might not attribute my consciousness of the importance of accidents and serendipity to being older and wiser, but there it is. It has taken a couple of decades of doing the work in a linear fashion to figure out that the nonlinear bears equal consideration in the process.

This week, I have been in Chicago, and my head is spinning. I have stumbled upon so many tidbits of information I didn’t know during visits to the Art Institute, the Field Museum, the Shedd Aquarium, the Adler Planetarium—and even sitting in the theater watching Jersey Boys. My synapses are firing. My brain is sifting through the many “wow, really?” moments that have awakened new areas of consciousness and I now know, can really trust, that at some point in time a story will begin to form in my mind from these nuggets I have filed away. Will it be another space-related topic? Or will I return to my roots and look at animals in a whole new way for me? Perhaps one of the fascinating things I learned about the relationships in the art world will trigger something.

Two things I know for sure—1) the stimulating accidental research that occurred this week will bubble in my brain and 2) at some moment in the future a serendipitous comment or action will bring it shooting to the surface and an idea will emerge.
What this means to me is that the simple act of living my life has a direct and profound impact on the work that I pursue; the work that I love. And as I scroll through my colleagues’ posts just through the past few days, I see we have this strongly in common. What could be better than that?

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Browsing for truth

The truth may be out there, but sometimes you don’t know in advance what you’re looking for. One of my favorite places to find fascinating cutting-edge information is Science magazine. Recent articles describe how an archive of spy satellite photos is giving scientists more detailed data about Arctic ice; how plant “phenomics” may accelerate plant breeding; and the use of gravity to more accurately survey coastlines (July 24, 2009 issue.) The AAAS* website has a lot to offer as well, with reports about disease prevention efforts, neuroscience issues that affect the judicial system, and how early humans treated stones with fire to make better tools. The special section for kid-friendly science news has articles such as How the turtle got its shell, and DNA does yoga (creating new DNA shapes for use in nanotechnology.)
*The American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Most people are aware of the online New York Times (free registration required) but what I find extremely handy is the email subscriptions you can choose from with headlines on the arts, books, health, technology, and much more. It’s easy for me to get buried in my work cocoon, so these missives are an easy way to stay in touch with new information that might be worked into an existing project or possibly inspire a new book.

Like most of us, I’ve accumulated bookmarks galore in my web brower, but how often do I actually return to a site? RSS feed readers have been around for a long time, but it took me a while to realize you can create your own custom “research assistant” based upon your interests. Many mail programs have an RSS subscription feature built in, or you can use Google Reader or one of many others that are available. So, let’s say you have an interest in archeology or diversity issues or music…as you rummage around on the Internet there are many blogs and sites on virtually any topic. Those with RSS feeds can be added to your reader, then you don’t have to go visit the actual site again; updated content is delivered to you instead. (One caveat: as usual with online info, you have to be careful about the accuracy of some sites!) I have built my own arts and crafts “magazine” using this technique by subscribing to the blogs of artists from all over the world... fun stuff!

What are your favorite ways to browse for the truth?

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

It's All Material: Finding the Truth Every Day

I went to a Catholic wedding recently. I’m Jewish, and I’ve gone to many weddings in my life, Jewish and Christian, but this was only my second Catholic wedding. The first was when my beloved fourth grade teacher got married at the end of the year. (She is the teacher, by the way, who affirmed my love of books by, among other things, having a bathtub in the classroom for us to read in—-dry and dressed, of course.) I remember only a few things about Miss Ryan’s wedding: it was in a huge cathedral and I sat in the back. Miss Ryan looked beautiful. When I saw her afterward she said to me, "Are you surprised to see your teacher as a bride?" I shook my head no, even though I knew that was not the right answer. She looked like a princess every day. (I have confirmed this fact with former classmates.)

Anyway, to get back on topic (see, teachers, what a huge influence you have on us kids!)--I am fascinated by religion—I majored in religious studies in college, I wrote a series of books for National Geographic “Holidays Around the World,” and I wrote about the religious differences between Charles and Emma Darwin. So maybe that’s why as I sat in the beautiful service, I knew I had to get more information. Or maybe it’s that I write non-fiction books for kids as a living, and I’m always wool gathering, always looking for the truth. So last Saturday I came as a happy friend of the mother of the groom, but I was also there, apparently, as a researcher. What was much of the assembled saying in response to the priest? What was the priest saying to himself over the wine while the soloist sang? What is that altar for, as opposed to that one? I watched as people went up for Communion and I wondered why some took the cracker from the priest’s hand and others had him put it directly into their mouths. When the service was over, and everyone else filed out, I got my husband (who writes non-fiction for grown-ups) and a (lapsed Catholic) friend to go up to the priest with me. To say we interviewed him would be stretching it. We didn’t pull out tape recorders or notebooks, though we had notebooks with us, as we always do, and I was tempted. We asked him lots of questions, which he answered willingly and with enthusiasm. (I forgot to ask him about the communion cracker taking. I will have to look that up. Or maybe someone here will tell me first.) We talked to him for a good twenty minutes, which really enhanced the experience for me. I don’t know if I will ever use this in a book, or where I will go with it, but I am so glad I asked the questions. The priest was glad, too.

When you write non-fiction, it’s very hard to turn off the need to know. And why should we? You can never tell when something might spark an idea for a book, or fit into the one you’re writing, or might write years later, or end up as deep background for something else. When I went to Down House in 1999 I didn’t know I was going to write a book on Charles and Emma Darwin. But I loved what I was seeing and so I took notes, took mental and actual snapshots, asked questions of the tour guides, and bought a great book from the gift shop. Because I had that non-fiction writer's head on that day, I had a leg up when I sat down to write Charles and Emma years later.

But to be honest, I almost always have that head on. I take notes when I go to museums, when I see something of particular interest on a street corner, or in the country. I questions of everyone I meet: scientists, painters, architects, doctors, lawyers, plumbers, cab drivers, chefs. It turns out Charles Darwin posed questions to many different people while he was figuring out his idea of evolution by natural selection. He thought it best to go right to the experts: farmers, pigeon fanciers, his hairdresser, his friends who gardened, Emma, his children, the vicar in Downe. He wrote their answers in his notebooks and used them later as examples in his argument. I'm no Charles Darwin, but if it was good enough for him, it's good enough for me. And you.

When I told my son I was working on this blog post, I said I thought it could be really helpful for teachers. They could tell their students that real authors ask questions wherever they go, and so should they. It’s a great way to learn. Aaron nodded, and said, in his 23-year-old understated way, “Some of us live our lives this way just because it’s fun.” Yup.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Can You Handle It?

"Truth is mighty and will prevail. There is nothing the matter with this, except that it ain't so." Mark Twain.

So. Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin gave one of Jack Nicholson’s characters a pretty pugnacious question to pose: “You want answers?" His interrogator (Tom Cruise), thought he was entitled to answers. In fact, he wanted the truth! What he got was the famous reply: “You can't handle the truth!”

Can any of us? I reckon we have to catch it first."Chase after the truth like all hell and you'll free yourself, even though you never touch its coattails." That was Clarence Darrow's take on the big T. 'T is B & B is T,' so said John K. And Galileo? "All truths are easy to understand once they are discovered; the point is to discover them." The subjects of one of my books [out of print, the world being a hard, difficult place], Mark Twain and the Queens of the Mississippi, said, "When in doubt, tell the truth." But our theme in this steamy month of dog days is not the handling, the telling, or the understanding of the Truth, but that chase, the search. And to my mind, no one spoke of the search more compellingly than the subject of my 2008 book, The Groundbreaking, Chance-Taking Life of George Washington Carver AND Science & Invention in America.

"Would it surprise you," George once asked a visitor who'd been noticing all of the scientific and artistic things he'd done, "if I say that I have not been doing many different things: All these years I have been doing one thing...seeking Truth. That is what the scientist is seeking. That is what the artist is seeking; his writings, his music, his pictures are just expressions of his soul in his search for Truth."

Yup. Thank you, Professor Carver. I have nothing further to add. That's about all the truth I can handle for now.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Sometimes the Truth Finds You

Another installment in this month’s theme, “Searching for the Truth”

One thing about truth—sometimes you search for it and sometimes it just finds you.

Once I was in line for a movie behind an eight-year-old girl and her mom. The girl was spitting mad, declaring every which way that she was never going to talk to Allison again. The mom and I glanced at each other with a suppressed smile. At that moment that little girl truly believed her friendship was over. It was her reality. But we adults both knew those two would be BFFs again the next day, giggling at the lunch table.

I don’t know about Mom but I wasn’t laughing at the kid. I was thinking that this shortsighted sense that “what is now always will be” is part of the human condition. I thought I’d never wear pink. That New Orleans was “The Big Easy.” That there would always be icebergs in the Arctic. Millions of people have walked down the aisle and promised to love each other forever—and meant it.

“Now is not forever” is a really important truth, but an abstract one. The old parental proclamation, “things will get better,” never reassures or gets to the heart of the matter. I wondered how you do get to the heart of it without pontificating.

That’s how my book, On This Spot, was born. It begins with a spread of skyscrapers and rooftops and the words, “This is New York City.” The next spread talks what a big and vibrant city New York is and then in the lower left corner, the words “but on this spot…,” the soon-to-be refrain starts the tale. Turn the page and it says, “175 years ago…New York was a different city,” and then talks about a place where chickens were raised in backyards.

With each spread, the spot that is now New York City transforms—becoming a home to Native American and cougars, then wooly mammoths, then glaciers a mile thick, then dinosaurs, then the highest mountain range ever, then a tropical sea, drifting back to the beginning of geologic time.

As many people reading this blog know, picture books are most often 32 pages. By the time that I had gotten back to New York As Rock, I had used up about three-quarters of book’s space allotment. And it was only then, in the second to last spread when I (mentally) turned to that little girl at the movies and answered her by writing, “Things change.”

Was she ever going to read that book? Of course, not. Will most kids who do read the book think beyond the wow factor and the fact that there were dinosaurs in lower Manhattan? No. But I wrote the thing hoping that some kid would read the story—and it would open the door, even unconsciously, to that truth that I found so important to tell.

The Essential Elements of Narrative Nonfiction

This fall I’ll be co-teaching a class on how to write narrative nonfiction—nonfiction that tells a story. It’s a subject that has engrossed me for years, ever since I began work on my first nonfiction picture book biography, The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins, over 13 years ago.

Back 1996, I hadn’t a clue what I was doing, but guided by my wonderful editor, Tracy Mack, I fumbled my way forward. Just as Waterhouse hoped his dinosaurs would bring history to life, I also hoped my story would do the same.

The book took about four years to write, partly because of the difficulty of finding information on my subject, but mostly because I was exploring a relatively new genre. I could find plenty of classes and how-to books for writing fiction, but very, very little on how to write narrative nonfiction.

And so, I revised and revised through 14 drafts, trying to shape an accurate, engaging story. Other books and magazine articles followed, and I began to get a better sense of what needs to be in place for narrative nonfiction to work:

Story structure: Narrative nonfiction tells a story and, like any story, there needs to be a beginning, a middle and an end.

Point of view: Textbooks have an omniscient narrator, but narrative nonfiction is told from the viewpoint of the characters in the story, as if we were walking around in their shoes and seeing the action unfold through their eyes.

Theme: A story needs a guiding concept, a key idea that gives focus and meaning to a story. This is true for novels, and it’s true for narrative nonfiction as well.

Strong character/s: Strong characters take action. They are in the driver’s seat, moving the story forward.

Voice: Impassioned, sly, suspenseful, comforting—a storyteller’s voice, their use of language, sets the tone for a satisfying story.

Sensory imagery/concrete details: Sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and textures help place and keep us in the shoes of the character driving the story.

These are the elements I use to tell stories and hopefully—like Waterhouse’s dinosaurs of brick, cement, and iron hooping—bring history to life.

For more information on my class (co-taught with Highlights senior editor Kim T. Griswell), or the many other classes taught by authors and editors, visit the Highlights Foundation Founders Workshops.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Nobleman: Writerman, Superman

A lot of us around here have been giving serious thought to how to get more nonfiction into classrooms. The summer has been spent (so far! It’s not over!) blogging and paneling about ways students and teachers can get into reading our nonfiction. Just in time for Back-to-School, fellow author Marc Tyler Nobleman reminds us of something vital:

Kids write nonfiction, too. They write answers to homework questions, they make powerpoint presentations, they pen letters to the editor, persuasive essays, journals, and reports. For most of them, as for most of us, in the words of Ringo Starr, “It don’t come easy.” But Nobleman can help.

His book, Quick Nonfiction Writing Activities That Really Work! (Scholastic) is a compendium of funny, clear, wry, and effective solutions to the fuzzy problems of the teller of the true story. It is the product of Nobleman’s own troubleshooting in the course of writing more than 70 books for kids, including last year’s sparkling Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman (Knopf), which was reviewed here. In addition, Nobleman is a cartoonist, whose clients include The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Good Housekeeping, and more.

“All the best stories in the world were true before people started retelling them and making stuff up,” says Nobleman. “We have to break the stigma that nonfiction writing is boring. It’s great!” Nobleman is excited about many of the original, accessible, and generally fabulous titles on the nonfiction shelves these days. Among his recent faves:

The Day-Glo Brothers by Chris Barden (Charlesbridge, 2009) about Joe and Bob Switzer, brothers who invented those bright glow-in-the dark colors.

Mermaid Queen: The Spectacular True Story of Annette Kellerman, Who Swam Her Way to Fame, Fortune, and Swimsuit History by Shana Corey (Scholastic, 2009) It’s about the woman who revolutionized the sport of swimming for women and made the one-piece bathing suit famous.

The 39 Apartments of Ludwig von Beethoven by Jonah Winter, illustrated by Barry Blitt (Random House, 2006) Most biographical subjects don’t lend themselves easily to comedy, such as Ludwig von Beethoven. But this author hit upon a great approach, using humor to teach history. Beethoven moved a lot, and he had to move his piano every time. It was winter, it was snowing, it was Vienna. The author tells the story through the lens of the moves. It’s hilarious!”

Nobleman also intrigued by new picture books about people such as Coco Chanel and Alexander Calder, who “aren’t necessarily household names but are such fun stories you’ll remember them.” And he’s excited about publishers who take chances on off-center books, as opposed to more books on say, Abraham Lincoln, who has been pretty well covered.

Nobleman’s idea for Quick Nonfiction came from a workshop he developed called “Draw a Story, Write a Cartoon” which he has frequently run for both students and teachers His goal, he says, is to get writers to rethink nonfiction by getting them to focus on just the first line of the story. “The secret is that any tip you learn for the first applies to the rest of the writing. One exercise shows how to convey a character right away. Another shows how to clear away adjectives. You start with the first line and branch out into varying wood choice, avoiding clich├ęs, cutting, and self-editing.” Another secret? This book will work for any writer, not just the grades indicated on the front of the book (4 to 6). Each page stands alone and can be photocopied so every student has his or her own sheet to work from.

“You can open to any page in the book and apply that page to any subject area.” To test this theory, I give him a topic, the activity that’s going on outside my window: lawn-mowing. Nobleman opens his book to a page on the senses. “It’s perhaps most common to write about the sense of sight, but think of the intrusive sound of a lawn being mowed with a power mower, the smell of gasoline and grass. Then there’s my neighbor who mows this lawn at six a.m. That’s a different feeling!”

Nobleman honed his nonfiction craft by writing for Nickelodeon magazine, which sadly is shutting down. “Once I wrote about pirate myths versus realities. What might be dull in a school/library book could be told in a livelier way in Nick – and that helps teach, because we remember what we laugh at.” He takes that Nickelodeon sensibility into his own writing, so it’s natural that it ends up wrinkling the starchy side of teaching writing.

“Nonfiction writers have a number of assumed roles,” Nobleman says. These include storyteller, detective, reporter, historian, teacher, and rebel. “Anyone who puts a book or story out there is a little rebellious. Anyone who writes about someone unconventional is saying ‘This person is important even if you’ve never heard of them. And someone who writes his or her own perspective on a real person takes a risk.”

So where did this idea come from that nonfiction is boring? Nobleman credits fantasy. “Kids are reading completely outlandish fiction about dragons, pirates, aliens… It transports them! They don’t realize that real people have stories that are just as transporting – and true.”

Nobleman’s purpose in writing Quick Nonfiction is to help train well-equipped nonfiction writers. That entails knowing the difference between a good story and a good story that’s well told. With the tools in his book, he says, “writers can take raw material and make something beautiful, or can take a story that others have mined and reforge them into a new ring from the same old gold, and make it their own.”

Now that Quick Nonfiction is out there, Nobleman will continue teaching writing, while practicing what he preaches on his next true story, a biography of Bill Finger, the dominant force behind Batman comics.

As for me, I’m paging through his book, picking up pointers to inspire the first line of my next nonfiction, whatever that’s going to be – plus all the lines that come after.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

A Passion for Reading

What did inventor Thomas Edison, scientist Albert Einstein, and teacher Annie Sullivan have in common? As young people they all had a passion for reading and books.

Edison said that his mother “taught me to read good books quickly and correctly, and as this opened up a great world in literature, I have always been very thankful for this early training." Of course that quotation made it into my biography of Edison, Inventing the Future. A plug for books and for mothers! (Although I still wonder what he meant by reading correctly. Is there a wrong way to read?)

As you might expect, young Tom Edison was especially interested in books having to do with science. Inventing the Future notes that: "When a book on chemistry seized his imagination, Tom set up a laboratory in the cellar of his house and gathered a large amount of chemicals to stock it. He spent many an hour mixing acids and other chemicals and alarming his parents with the occasional explosion."

When Tom was 12 he took a job with the railroad, selling newspapers to passengers on the round-trip to Detroit. During layovers in the city, he often passed the time in the library, reading all the books he could find on science and technology. "His new job on the train didn't keep him from experimenting. He just performed his investigations in the baggage car. But when a chemical spilled and caught fire one day, the conductor put an end to his career as an onboard chemist."

As a child, Albert Einstein didn't care for school. German schools at the time emphasized rote learning, which turned him off, and he didn't put much effort into subjects that bored him. Math and science fascinated him, however, and he excelled at them. He soon surpassed what was being taught at his school, so to feed his appetite for knowledge he turned to books. He later recalled that he pored over popular books on science with "breathless attention." Breathless attention! You can bet that quotation made it into Genius, my biography of Einstein. Breathless attention. Don’t we writers dream that some fine day one of our books will command this?

But back to Einstein. When he was about 12 years old, he received a geometry textbook from a family friend. He later spoke of it as a "holy book" because of the powerful effect it had on his imagination. That imagination eventually led to scientific theories that transformed our everyday ideas of time and space and the way the universe works. (And no, I’ve never dreamed of writing a “holy book.”)

Annie Sullivan, the subject of my latest biography, Helen’s Eyes, had no books as a child. Her parents, poor Irish immigrants, were illiterate. As a very young girl, Annie contracted trachoma, which began to destroy her vision. At the age of nine, half-blind Annie Sullivan and her younger brother were sent to live at the state-run poorhouse in Tewksbury, Massachusetts.

Annie lived behind the Tewksbury gates until she was 14 years old. That’s when she finally got the chance to go to school. At the Perkins School for the Blind she quickly learned to read braille. With her fingers, she read such books as The Scarlet Letter, The Last Days of Pompeii, and The Old Curiosity Shop. Then she underwent two eye operations, which restored her vision to the point that she could read with her eyes. “Although her eyes tired easily, she began to devour book after book, and she developed a life-long passion for reading and literature.” She read Shakespeare and “for the first time I felt the magic of great poetry.” Annie passed her love of reading on to her famous student, Helen Keller.

Toward the end of her life, Annie gradually lost her sight. Helen tried to teach her to read braille—the system had changed since Annie learned it—but Annie would have none of it. “Helen is and always has been thoroughly well behaved in her blindness as well as her deafness, but I’m making a futile fight of it, like a bucking bronco,” Annie told a friend. “It’s not the big things in life that one misses through loss of sight, but such little things as being able to read. And I have no patience…for the braille system, because I can’t read fast enough.” These words broke my heart. Of course they found their way into Helen's Eyes.

As an author of nonfiction for kids, I strive to write books that will “inform and entertain,” the mantra imprinted on my brain during the years I worked as a writer for Time-Life Books. Breathless attention? It would be nice, but if my books truly inform and entertainment young readers, then that's no small thing.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Finding Truth, Then and Now

Another installment in this month’s theme, “Searching for the Truth”

In thinking about this month’s theme, I immediately came back to a story I related in a post last year. When reporter Nellie Bly was 23 years old, she had herself committed to the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island in New York so she could tell the world about the horrors visited upon the inmates there. This was in 1887 and there were many horrors indeed. The living quarters were bare and poorly heated. The food was cold, tasteless, and sometimes spoiled, with spiders or other insects occasionally writhing around on the plates. The sanitary conditions were awful and many of the nurses were tyrannical, refusing to treat their charges with human kindness or to show any signs of sympathy whatsoever.

After 10 days at the asylum, Nellie secured her release with the help of her editors at the New York World. And then she shared what she had seen with the newspaper’s readers. On October 9 and October 16, 1887, Nellie took readers “Behind Asylum Doors” with a total of 17 columns of detailed prose chronicling every aspect of her incarceration. After other newspapers picked up the story, the city launched an investigation that resulted in improvements in the way the inmates were treated and a sizable increase in the asylum’s budget.

Nellie Bly pioneered this sort of “stunt journalism,” where an investigative reporter injects herself into the story by going undercover and writing about her experiences. At a time when women were rarely assigned anything but society and fashion articles, Nellie regularly put herself at risk to uncover crimes, corruption, and other abuses. Though her story has been told before, I was anxious to take my own look at what drove this woman to search for and report the truth in such dramatic fashion. The more I learned about her, the more fascinated I became. My biography of Nellie Bly, Bylines, will be out from National Geographic in October.

Though technology has made it possible to spread news (and gossip) instantaneously today, it’s fortunate that there are still many journalists on newspapers, magazines, and even TV news shows and Internet sites who doggedly investigate stories to get at the truth. One such investigation that affected me deeply was accomplished not by a writer, but by a photographer. Patrick Farrell of The Miami Herald won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Photography for his “provocative, impeccably composed images of despair after Hurricane Ike and other lethal storms caused a humanitarian disaster in Haiti,” according to the citation by the Pulitzer Committee. Shooting in black and white and using only spare captions, Farrell managed to convey the poignancy and drama of lives forever changed by nature’s violence. It’s impossible to look at his photographs and not be moved. If you're interested in seeing them, they're available on the Pulitzer Prize Web site.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

14 Cows for America: Collaborating and Blog-touring

14 Cows for America by Carmen Agra Deedy with Wilson Kimeli Naiyomah, and illustrated by Thomas Gonzalez, is a stunning new book from Peachtree Publishers. Its spare lyrical prose tells the story of a young Kenyan Maasai warrior studying in the U.S. who returns to his village after 9/11. He tells the villagers about the suffering of the Americans, and they give their most precious possessions, cattle, as a peace offering, "because," Deedy concludes, “there is no nation so powerful it cannot be wounded, nor a people so small they cannot offer mighty comfort.”

I was curious about the genesis of this book and Deedy’s creative process, especially her collaboration with Kimeli Naiyomah, the protagonist of the story and so I arranged an online interview with the author.

When did you begin writing 14 Cows for America?

On April 24, 2002, I stumbled across an astonishing story on page 1A of The New York Times. It concerned a small tribe of Maasai cow herders from western Kenya, who had responded to the attacks on September 11 by offering the United States a sacred gift-- fourteen cows. The article was in-depth, and exquisitely written, and served not only to move me deeply (most Americans were still sharply affected by any reference to the tragedy in the months that followed 9/11), but also to whet my appetite for more information. Were these the Maasai Isak Dinesen referred to in her biography? Were they still the lion-hunters of legend? Were these the same Maasai who now lived on the Mara Reserve? It was clear I had a great deal of reading to do.

Fascinated, I clipped the NYT piece, shared it with friends, and soon began to collect (and to receive from others) a maelstrom of news items, articles, and transcribed interviews. Within months I had compiled something of a dossier on the Maasai, but the true story of their extraordinary gift still eluded me. The first drafts were painfully ineloquent--in truth they were dreadful.

Then, in the summer of 2007, I was offered a writing fellowship at the Carson McCullers House. It was during this hiatus that the story, much as it appeared in the final book, emerged.

When did you begin the collaboration with Wilson Kimeli? How did you communicate?

Kimeli and I spoke electronically at first, and I had to confess to him that I found it odd in the extreme to email and IM with a Maasai warrior. I discovered Kimeli to be in possession of a lovely sense of humor. When we spoke I told him that I had written a story about his part in the gift of the fourteen cows. I wanted him to see it, and let me know if he felt he could give it his blessing. I then sent the pdf and waited. I was overjoyed to hear, in his soft-spoken voice, that he was pleased with the story and would be happy to give it his support.

I invited him, with the encouragement of our wonderful publishing house, Peachtree Publishers, to be involved with the project and write an afterword. He was happy, I believe, to be invited into the process, and the book as a whole was better thanks to his intimate knowledge of Maasai mores, and the accuracy of details he brought to the story. We spoke about the text three or four other times, and participated in creative conferences with the illustrator and the publisher.

How much information did he provide?

Kimeli served primarily as a cultural consultant on the book. In other words, the manuscript was in final draft when it was presented to him. Although he did not write any of the text, he offered suggestions regarding the chronology of events, cultural details, and particulars relating to the Maa language.

He suggested that he be shown consulting with the elders before he tells the story of 9/11 to the tribe as a body--a piece that was absent from any of the news reports. Second, that his cow, Enkarus, be mentioned by name. Lastly, he suggested we use the Maa word, Aakua, in the scene where he is greeted by his mother. I think these were all useful additions. Kimeli served as a cultural consultant as the first illustrations emerged, and provided Tom [the illustrator] with his personal photographs from the day of the ceremony.

What are the advantages/pleasures of working with a collaborator?

This was not a collaboration in which two people hacked out the language of a story together. Rather I brought the writing, Tom brought the sketches, and Kimeli brought his experience as a participant in the story, and as a Kenyan from the small Maasai village of Enoosaen. Together we exchanged views, offered opinions, and listened respectfully to all that was expressed. Then we returned to our separate creative corners to incorporate changes that came out of the exchange.

Kimeli was a wonderful person to work with and I believe his involvement enriched the book. Everyone who took part in this undertaking (from editorial, to art, to marketing) wanted to create something we could all be proud of, in memory of a gesture by strangers who appeared--seemingly from the ether--in the wake of catastrophe.

The Blog Tour

Readers, writers, and publishers have mutated from words printed on paper to words and images on screens in the form of websites, blogs, internet research, do-it-yourself encyclopedias, and you-too-along-with-your-pet-can-be-a-video-star. With these new outlets, fewer bookstores, and anemic marketing budgets, the blog tour has come into its own. Peachtree Publishers has put together a 14 Cows for America blog tour for Carmen Deed and Thomas Gonzalez this week that takes them far and wide in the blogosphere. Think about it–author and illustrator reach thousands of people all over the country the world. True, you can’t autograph books in cyberspace (yet!) but it seems like a great way to launch a book. For the full itinerary of the 14 Cows for America blog tour, go to

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Truth You Can Trust

Following up on this month’s theme of “finding the truth.”

Scientists are skeptical by nature. It is not uncommon for a scientist to challenge someone else’s assertion with, “How do you know?” The response, “I saw it with my own eyes,” is not acceptable. Anecdotal eyewitness evidence is simply not good enough. Truth, for a scientist, comes from verifiable actions or procedures that can be replicated exactly and experienced by others. It is only when such activities are shared by many that correct explanations of phenomena can be formulated.

Science arose precisely because of the limitations of human senses and perceptions. (The word, “science” means “to know.”) When people believed what they saw, heard, tasted, smelled and felt they came to conclusions about the world at large that were deeply and profoundly wrong. They believed that the earth was flat, that the sun, moon and stars revolved around the earth, and that heavier objects fell faster than lighter ones, to name a few.

It is quite entertaining, however, to learn how you can be fooled. My book
How to Really Fool Yourself exploits this fun. An illusion is not experiencing reality accurately; yet experiencing something that appears and feels very real. When you are aware of a misperception, you feel strange. You can’t help smiling. Your mind tells you that your senses are deceiving you. (The word “illusion” comes from a Latin root meaning “mockery.”) There are many reasons why illusions occur. Some are caused by built-in limits of the senses. Some are based on conflicts between senses. Some are psychological and come from false expectations. And some are in the physical world itself. There is even a science that studies how we sense the world and how we interpret our sensory experiences. I drew on this science, called “psychophysics,” in creating this book and included illusions for all the senses, not just sight, which is our dominant sense. Seventy percent of all our receptor cells are for sight and when vision is in competition with another sense, vision wins. As a result there are more visual illusions than illusions for other senses, but our other senses are susceptible. Aristotle's Illusion, for example, is a touch illusion. Cross your middle finger over your index finger. Run the crossed tips of your fingers up and down over your nose and underneath near your nostrils. You will feel two noses! I have some other amazing activities in my book, but don’t take my word for it here. See for yourself.
The experiments on fooling yourself in my book show two important things: most of us perceive in similar ways and our perceptions can similarly lead us astray. Throughout the history of science, it has been extremely useful to know how we can be fooled. By knowing our weaknesses we create tools to correct them. By knowing our limitations we create tools to overcome them. The telescope and microscope clearly extend the limits of vision. Computers have memories that make no mistakes when it comes to total recall. Great minds create models of never-seen objects like atoms and molecules that can explain the events we do experience. Such concepts create another reality that helps us to understand the universe and leads to a different kind of truth, one built incrementally on the foundation of collaboration and replicable human activities. It allows us to create the magic of technology. It's a truth you can trust.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009


August's Topic of the Month is "Searching for the Truth"

You'll never guess who used to be the two biggest heroes in America before the Civil War. Well, I take it back. One of them was George Washington, so that part's a no-brainer. But who on earth was the other guy? I think you'll be surprised.

1) This fearless he-man explored the world and won many battles against impossible odds by using his wits.

2) Better yet, he forged the Great American Dream by writing that class rank doesn't matter, and that anyone who's willing to work hard can make a better life on these shores.

3) Hmmm...I bet this will give it away.... He was also rescued by an Indian girl.

Yup, you got it! Back before the Civil War, Captain John Smith was America's first superstar, and every school child knew all about him. Yet from the time that war ended and up until recently, practically everything most Americans heard about John Smith has been false. And before I got around to "Searching for the Truth" while researching and writing JOHN SMITH ESCAPES AGAIN! I took plenty of those wrong-headed tales for granted myself. You probably remember a couple of the more recent examples:

1) Walt Disney told us that a tall blond John Smith and a beautiful Indian Princess named Pocahontas were sweethearts. (False! The truth is that Pocahontas was only a kid about 11 years old. There was never a hint of romance between the two. Almost every serious scholar now believes that the famous rescue story really did happen, though, and after studying a wide array of scholarly reports, I firmly agree. Oh, by the way, John Smith was actually a short, bearded guy with dark hair and Pocahontas would have shaved the top of her head like all other Powhatan girls her age.)

2) According to Terrence Makick, the director of The New World, John Smith was a wuss, a loser, and Pocahontas's boyfriend to boot. (False to the nth degree.)

John Smith's true story is an absolutely thrilling one, and every book he wrote about his amazing adventures and his dreams for America has been painstakingly dissected by the best and most thorough scholars and proven accurate. But let's not focus on Smith's European and American derring-do right now. Instead let's uncover a different mystery and search out another truth.

If John Smith was such a big hero, how did he fall out of favor in the first place and why did everyone and his brother lose sight of his enormous accomplishments? Here's what we've unearthed; it all began with some self-serving dirty politics and a batch of sloppy, nearsighted research.

In 1867, two years after the Civil War, a young Northern historian named Henry Adams decided that he wanted to make the South look bad by discrediting its greatest hero. Adams also hoped to make a big name for himself by causing a ruckus. He told one of his buddies that he planned to make "a rear attack on the Virginia aristocracy, who will be utterly gravelled by it..."

Then Adams wrote a pseudo-scholarly article for America's most popular and respected magazine, claiming that John Smith was a loud-mouthed braggart who lied about being saved by Pocahontas. And because the magazine was so popular, everyone believed Henry Adams. (Never mind that Smith dearly loved New England and was the first person to map it accurately. He even wrote entire books to persuade Europeans to settle there. And never mind that in his lengthy autobiography, Smith wrote only a single short paragraph about his rescue by little Pocahontas.)

To make matters worse, in 1893 a sloppy researcher from Hungary named Lewis L. Kropf quoted Hungarian sources to "prove" that Smith had lied about his great adventures when he was a soldier in Europe. Because American and English historians couldn't read any Hungarian, they believed what Kropf had said. John Smith's reputation was utterly destroyed, and false reports about his character still exist to this very day.

Luckily for us (and for John Smith), in the 1950's, a Viennese historian who was trained in Budapest reexamined John Smith's stories about his feats in Hungary and Transylvania. Her name was Laura Polanyi Striker. By re-reading stacks of original source material from Hungary chronicling battles in that part of the world, she found the names of every single person and place and event that Smith had written about. No Englishman could have made these stories up without being on the scene, and the accounts pointed directly to things Smith did while he was there. Kropf's lack of imagination was the problem; not being Hungarian, Smith had simply spelled the names of all those people and places and battles phonetically.

I'm not about to address every single false accusation made against John Smith in this short blog. But Dr. Striker ("Captain John Smith's Hungary and The Hungarian Historian, Lewis L. Kropf, on Captain John Smith's True Travels: A Reappraisal" and Virginia Magazine of History and Biography article "Lewis L. Kropf on Captain John Smith's True Travels" Jan. 1958), Philip L. Barbour ("The Three Worlds of Captain John Smith") and J. A. Leo Lemay ("The American Dream of Captain John Smith and Did Pocahontas Save Captain John Smith?") represent the gold standard of thorough research about Smith and the truth of his words and deeds.

It's a sad day when politics and sloppy research distort our history.
When I wrote JOHN SMITH ESCAPES AGAIN! my goals were to help restore his reputation as a truly great American hero and to rescue him from oblivian. By focusing on Smith's many dramatic escapes as the lead-ins to his exciting story, I hoped to entice today's young readers into discovering more about the man whose deeds thrilled other young Americans when our nation was young.