Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Obsessed with Science

“In time you can turn these obsessions into careers.” -- Elvis Costello

I apologize if I’ve used that Elvis quote here before. It’s quite possible. It’s something I’ve learned to live by, since I am obsessed. Volkswagens, dogs, foreign terms for “sprinkles,” vinyasa yoga, the public option, moray eels, drawing pens – it’s an exhaustive list.

Sometimes obsessiveness can lead to business, and sometimes it doesn’t.

When my kids were in elementary school I became obsessed with science fair. It rolled around as predictably as late-winter mud every March, and consumed my family from January on.

January was when my little science students had to submit their science fair proposals. This took the form of a hypothesis– a what-if question – and a plan for answering – also known as reaching a conclusion about it. Silly me: when my children asked what they should do, I asked, “What do you want to find out about?” They considered, wrote up their proposals, and went off to school. . That’s when the rejections started rolling in.

Sam wanted to find out what kind of animals inhabited our stone patio. Bethany wanted to know whether she could get our dog Yogi to notice any kind of music. Emily wanted to study the infection rate of people who got their ears pierced.

“What would that prove?” asked Mr. Seventh Grade.

“It’s not an experiment,” said Mrs. Fifth Grade.

“It’s not scientific enough,” said Ms. Fourth Grade.

If you’ve been to a science fair, you know the kind of experiments that some science teachers do consider to be legitimate: analyzing which toothpastes whiten best; making a tornado in a bottle; blasting different levels of rock music at goldfish, hamsters, and houseplants; and – somebody shoot me, please – demonstrating how a carnation channels water, using food coloring in the water.

At first, I applied for a grant, titling my research and writing proposal “Death to Science Fair.” I wanted to find out what scientists thought kids should be doing in science fair. My idea was to come up with ways that parents could help their kids shape their interests into science fair projects. My grant proposal was rejected, and I daresay the problem had something to do with my title – and the obvious anger behind it.

By this time my kids were in high school, and I had stood in the hallway outside the regional science fair with them and all their classmates, waiting for the climactic moment when the cuts were announced. When the cheering erupted, it took me a moment to realize that the kids who were cheering were the ones who’d been cut; so jaded were they with science fair that the winners were pitied for the extra time they’d have to spend on science.

The time had come to channel my obsession positively. I began working on the series of books that eventually would be called Science Fair Winners. The first two books, Bug Science and Crime Scene Science, have just been published. The next books, Junkyard Science and Sibling Science: Experiments on Your Brothers and Sisters, are due out in March: mudtime, science fair time.

The titles of these books reflect my purpose: to start with things kids are interested in and help them figure out ways to make science projects out of them. Each book has 20 workshops – projects, observations, experiments – that put kids to work on real science, while also helping them shape their work for science fair.

To do this, I went to scientists who were working in each of these areas, learned about their work and methods, and asked for their guidance on how to get kids’ feet wet in their area: simplifying lab or research or experiment techniques. I hope that kids will consider sociology, physics, biology, forensics, anthropology, economics, and the other sciences included here as potential careers, and that they take their own obsessions into these areas. I hope they’ll realize that whatever they’re interested in can be used as science fair inspiration.

Just a sampling:

In Sibling Science, a social psychologist tells how to observe families in a mall food court, as a study of favoritism.

In Junkyard Science, an engineer suggests ways to experiment with garage junk to make musical instruments.

In Crime Scene Science, a forensic detective teaches you to train your dog to track your cat.

In Bug Science, a biologist shares ways to assess the bug population of your backyard – and provides his email address, should you come up with something unidentifiable. When he surveyed his own yard – as only a biologist OR a budding biologist would do – he found a new species of moth.

Obsessions…careers…good business…and maybe, good grades at science fair, and cheers for the winners. Science Fair Winners. New from National Geographic and me. Please check it out.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Celebrating 40 Years and Testing the Ice

Last week, at a lunch meeting of the Children’s Book Guild of Washington, D.C., I had the pleasure of hearing Andrea Davis Pinkney, honorary co-chair of the 40th birthday celebration of the Coretta Scott King (CSK) Book Awards, and Deborah Taylor, the current chair of the award committee, talk about the history and winners of these prestigious awards, which recognize outstanding children’s books by African American authors and illustrators. Pinkney, a vice president and executive editor at Scholastic, received a 2001 CSK author award for her book Let It Shine! Stories of Black Women Freedom Fighters. Taylor is coordinator for School and Student Services for the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore. Both women are passionate about the awards, which Taylor credits with bringing “deserving children’s book authors and illustrators to greater public attention, while inspiring new writers and artists to enter the field.”

Taylor noted that in 1985, only 18 out of the 2,500 children’s books published in the United States were eligible for the Coretta Scott King Book Awards. By 2008, that number had grown to 83 books. Taylor is most proud that the awards have helped to boost the careers of several young authors and illustrators, including Kadir Nelson, whose fascinating history of Negro League Baseball, We Are the Ship, was this year’s CSK Author Award Winner and a CSK Illustrator Honor Book. It also won the 2009 Sibert Award, making it the first book to claim both CSK and Sibert awards.

Nelson was a special guest at the Guild lunch, along with author Sharon Robinson, the daughter of baseball pioneer and American hero Jackie Robinson. They brought along their brand new picture book, Testing the Ice: A True Story About Jackie Robinson (Scholastic Press), which Sharon wrote and Nelson illustrated.

In an engaging first-person narrative, Robinson tells a story from her childhood that interweaves family lore with civil rights history—and is also a metaphor for her father’s legendary breaking of the color barrier in major league baseball. She starts with the year 1955, when the Robinson family moved to Connecticut. Sharon and her two brothers and their new neighborhood friends enjoy swimming and boating on the lake on their property, but her father always keeps his distance from the water. When the youngsters play inside the Robinsons’ house, they get Jackie talking about his historic career.

That first winter the lake freezes, and the Robinson kids beg their dad to let them go ice-skating. He agrees, but makes them wait while he tests the ice. With a shovel in one hand and a broomstick in the other, he inches out onto the snow-covered ice. In a flash of understanding, Sharon understands why she's never seen her dad in the water—he doesn't know how to swim. As she watches in fear, he taps his way to the center of the lake, then calls out, “It’s safe! Put on your skates!” The children cheer and Sharon thinks, “My dad is the bravest man alive.”

Nelson’s radiant paintings are magnetic. The baseball scenes throb with muscular energy and the family scenes glow with warmth. Many of the family scenes are based on Jackie Robinson’s personal family photographs. In one of my favorite spreads, we see the back of Jackie’s head and in front of him the rapt faces of his kids and their friends as he tells them the story of his entry into major league baseball, how he had to struggle to keep his temper from exploding amid the insults being hurled at him, and how sweet the victory was when he stole home in one especially tough game. I felt like I was one of those kids looking up at him, and I bet young readers will, too. This book is an inviting introduction to the man whose talent, courage, and perseverance on and off the field made him a hero to Americans of all colors.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Messing About in Libraries: The Delectable Art of Browsing

To many of us, it’s almost unthinkable to imagine researching anything before the advent of the internet. Discovery of information before the era of google seems as onerous as hauling water out of a well. So seduced have we been by the simplicity and effectiveness of entering a few words into the rectangle at the top of the screen and — wowza! — dozens, hundreds or thousands of “hits” come up. If none is quite right, just change the search terms a bit and try again. For researchers, it’s like winning the lottery again and again.

But. . . you knew there would be a “but”. . . are we depriving ourselves of anything worthwhile when we boil the art of research down to finding 30,000 google hits in 18 microseconds? I would maintain that we are, for several reasons, and I am going to write about one of them: browsing. Sometimes there is both pleasure and success to be found by poking around in the shelves of libraries or bookstores, just to see what we might find.A few years ago, I wrote G is for Googol: A Math Alphabet Book, a potpourri of enjoyable mathematical ideas in an ABC format. Unlike the many alphabet books written for young children, this one is directed at readers in the intermediate and middle school grades (as is its sequel, Q is for Quark: A Science Alphabet Book). So how am I going to fill 26 slots with delightful math? Many entries popped into my mind right away. “A” is going to be for “abacus” because I love the fact that proficient abacus users can calculate lengthy addition or subtraction problems faster than the fastest calculator user. “Z” is going to be for “zillion” because it’s not a number at all but people often don’t realize that, so by discussing the difference between real numbers that end in “illion” and fake ones, I can discuss the actual meaning of number. As for what’s going to come in between A and Z, I had lots of ideas but not enough to fill out the book, so. . . let’s browse the library!

And so it was that I stumbled across Maps, Tracks and the Bridges of Königsberg: A Book About Networks by Michael Holt, a 1975 picture book that was one of many in the now sadly defunct “Young Math” series from the now sadly defunct publishing company, Thomas Y. Crowell. What fun! A great “K” word — Königsberg. I had heard about the dilemma that the residents of Königsberg, Germany, had tried to solve — to see if they could walk across each of their city’s seven bridges exactly once (all had to be crossed once and none could be re-crossed). No one could figure out a way to do it, but for centuries they were taunted by the prospect that a hidden solution eluded them. Finally the mathematician Leonhard Euler developed the postulates and theorems of a new branch of mathematics now known as graph theory or network theory in order to solve the Königsberg bridge problem. His goal was to figure out how to walk the bridges, or to prove it impossible. He succeeded not only in why the seven Königsberg bridges could not be walked once time each, but under what circumstances it could or could not be done for any network of bridges. Network theory not only proved to have many applications (useful, for example, in designing networks of cables) but it also laid the foundation for another branch of mathematics, topology. For me, as a researcher and writer, the cool thing is that I wouldn’t have thought of including the bridges of Königsberg in G is for Googol if I hadn’t bumped into them in Holt’s book on the shelves of a school library during a break between two assembly programs.

So that was an example of browsing, more-or-less aimlessly, to see what I could find and how I could tie it in. But there is another, more directed, way that browsing the shelves has proved fruitful in my research. It’s when I know what I’m looking for but neither google, for all its power, nor the library catalog nor anyone or anything else can tell me where to find it. For example. . .

Recently I have been doing research for an upcoming book called Where in the Wild? Mysteries in Nature Concealed. . . and Revealed, the next book in the series that began with Where in the Wlld? Camouflaged Creatures Concealed… and Revealed. One of the entries in What in the Wild? will be about the diggings of a star-nosed mole, a small mammal whose activities leave unwelcome mounds of soil on lawns and pastures. Moles, whether star-nosed or not, are usually not loved by landowners whose property they think of as their own.

Books and websites about moles turned out to be informative but a bit dull, focused on the minutia of their biology or harsh methods of putting an end to them and their excavations. So I wondered if I could find an interesting book with a section about moles. My initial searches in google and the public library catalog turned up no such book, probably because any that existed did not have the word “mole” in the title or subtitle or as one of the subject terms entered into the Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication data. Still, I figured that at least one such book must exist. I would employ a more venerable method of research.

And so it was that I found myself on hands and knees in the Rockridge branch of the Oakland Public Library, exploring the bottom shelf of the 596s just to see what I could find.

Within a few minutes, I had walked my fingers to Every Creeping Thing: True Tales of Faintly Repulsive Wildlife by Richard Conniff. The title seemed promising, and sure enough the table of contents led me to a chapter called “Notes from the Underground” — about moles. And guess what: star-nosed moles have a starring role! Conniff describes this creature in a most quotable way as a mole that “looks as if it’s got a sea anemone stuck on its snout.” And from there followed all kinds of fascinating information about the critters themselves and a colorful curmudgeon (of the human variety) who pursues them at the behest of disgruntled landowners in England. Once again, browsing trumped google!

The other day, a student at Landstuhl Elementary/Middle School on the U.S. Army base in Landstuhl, Germany, asked me the secret of success in researching books, and I told him a few things I thought of on the spot, but it didn't occur to me at the time to tell him what I am saying here. To rewrite Kenneth Grahame’s delightful line (which, as it happens, was spoken by the character Mole in Wind in the Willows), “There is nothing—absolutely nothing—half so much worth doing as messing about in boats.” In this case, Grahame’s ode to blissful aimlessness might be rewritten for researchers as “There is nothing so delightful — or fruitful — as messing about in libraries.”

Friday, September 25, 2009

National Arts and Humanities Month

October is National Arts and Humanities Month, just a few days away.
The Americans for the Arts description of National Arts and Humanities Month from their web site:
National Arts and Humanities Month (NAHM) is a coast-to-coast collective celebration of culture in America. Held every October and coordinated by Americans for the Arts, it is the largest annual celebration of the arts and humanities in the nation. From arts center open houses to mayoral proclamations to banners and media coverage, communities across the United States join together to recognize the importance of arts and culture in our daily lives.

You can also become a National Arts and Humanities Month fan on Facebook.

This week, the Americans for the Arts Artblog is hosting an Arts Education Salon:
More than 20 guest bloggers will be contributing to this national dialogue through timely and thought-provoking entries on the best way to provide children an arts education. We invite our readers to follow these posts and continue the conversation through your ideas, comments, and personal stories.

Instead of jumping on my soapbox today, I invite you to visit the Arts Education Salon and read all the thought provoking and insightful blog posts by respected leaders in the Art Education Advocacy world.

Just reaching up and grabbing a few books in my collection of books supporting arts in the schools, here's just a few:

The Arts and the Creation of the Mind
by Elliot W. Eisner
Yale University Press  2002

Arts with the Brain in Mind
by Eric Jensen
Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development 2001

Teaching for the Two-Sided Mind
A Guide to Right Brain/Left Brain Education
by Linda Verlee Williams
Simon and Schuster  1986

There are many, many more books on the subject in my personal bookshelves. I guess I have a little problem. Whenever I go to an art museum, my favorite part is the bookstore.

Love to hear what books on Art Education others highly recommend!
Happy Arts and Humanities Month!

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Teaching Nonfiction Writing

Once again, during school visit season, my mind turns to inspiring young writers. A new tool for educators teaching young writers is S Is for Story: a Writer's Alphabet, written by Esther Hershenhorn and illustrated by Zachary Pullen. This picture book, just released by Sleeping Bear Press, is a great addition to any classroom. I can imagine elementary classrooms sharing a spread each week as they develop their writing skills. Reading the book aloud would be a terrific way to get fired up for Young Author conferences and writing projects.

Each spread has a rhyming stanza about writing. But I have to confess it's the sidebars that sing for me. They give tips for better writing, historical tidbits about writers, writing quotes, and insights about authors such as Pam Muñoz Ryan and Dr. Seuss. The sidebars cover mainstream topics such as question words and revision but also embrace writing's more subtle aspects: expression and voice. "D is for drafts" is, of course, my favorite. Because I'm all about drafts. Lots of drafts. Is there a draft in here? The draft page illustration is Abraham Lincoln working on a draft. Pullen's illustrations are gorgeous. Author Hershenhorn is best known for her fiction and for sharing her knowledge of writing as a speaker, professor, and writing coach. But, hey, Esther, are you listening? Based on your warm, friendly, sidebars, I think you should have a go at more nonfiction.

Of course, the best way to teach a young writer is by giving them excellent models, as well. The books written by INK Bloggers are great platforms for reading and discussion. Teaching books such as the professional books written by Lola Schaefer and Jeff Anderson can jump start writing lessons. And for educators who dare, modeling writing is the best teacher. Don't be afraid to make your own mistakes in the process. Show your drafts to your students. Real writers make lots of mistakes. It's just that we stick with the writing, draft-by-draft, to make our final manuscripts as perfect as we can. Even then, we are glad for the support of other writers and editors who help us improve.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Turning Structure on Its Head!

When I begin writing a new book, I usually start off using a traditional structure. I might organize the information in chronological order or fall back on my journalism background—lede, nut graph, example with quotation, example with quotation, big picture, summary ending. But somewhere in the back on my mind, I’m thinking, thinking, thinking.

I’m plotting, scheming, wondering—how can I make the ordinary into something extraordinary? How can I surprise and delight my readers? How can I give them something special that will make the content more appealing and more memorable.

That’s the question. That’s the challenge. That’s the puzzle to solve, and I love solving puzzles.

I’m not the only author asking these questions. With the Internet now being the place kids go for straightforward information, all nonfiction authors are looking for fresh, innovative ways to convey important true ideas. Here are some great techniques some authors (and illustrators) have used recently:

Frog in a Bog by John Himmelman is a circular story. It begins with a frog jumping off a fern and ends with a frog (presumably the same little critter) jumping onto a fern. In between, we are treated to a chain reaction of events that involves many different creatures living in the bog.

My own books A Place for Butterflies and A Place for Birds feature layered text. What is layered text? Multiple levels of text, usually distinguished visually by size and font, on each double-page spread.

In my books, the larger, simpler text that runs across the tops of the pages provides general information and can stand on its own. The repetitive endings add lyricism and help reinforce the idea that we can work together to save our world’s wild life and wild places. The smaller text presented in sidebars provides additional details to round out the presentation. By reading an entire spread, students gain a clear understanding of the effect their actions can have on the natural world.

Mosquito Bite by Alexandra Siy uses photos and text to interweave two storylines. One features a group of children playing hide-and-seek, and the other gives us a close-up look at a mosquito’s life cycle and behavior.

Where in the Wild? Camouflaged Creatures Concealed . . . and Revealed by David Schwartz, Yael Schy, and Dwight Kuhn is a feast for the eyes and ears. Playful poems offer clues about barely-visible animals doing their best to conceal themselves. Kids love searching for the mystery creatures. Some they’ll spot, and some they might now. But no worries, all they have to do is lift a gate-fold to view the same photo with the background obscured so that the animal is easy to see.

How Many Ways Can You Catch a Fly? by Steve Jenkins and Robin Page
This book is all about animal adaptation, but the content is presented as a fun, innovative Q & A format. Some spreads ask a thought provoking question, such as “How many ways can you snare a fish?” The following spread provides brief, clear descriptions of how a variety of animals accomplish the task. Jenkins and Page did a remarkable job of selecting animals with unique adaptations and organizing them into categories to create the book’s game-like feel.

Team Moon by Catherine Thimmesh
This book perfectly integrates text, photos, and design to create a stunningly beautiful book that is rich in information. Dozens of books have been written about the moon, but this one is special because it looks at the hundreds of people behind the scenes. The author did extensive research to gather their stories and did and excellent job bringing the uncelebrated heroes to life.

It’s a great time for nonfiction! We can be more wild and creative than ever before. We can push the limits of textual and visual presentation is so many new ways. Now it’s time to get to work.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Road More Traveled By

As Tanya mentioned in her August post, summer vacation for a nonfiction writer can be a goldmine of new topic ideas. New subject ideas ooze out of every art exhibit, bus ride, and brief conversation with a stranger. This summer was a little bit different. During our super special family trip to Italy, my senses were all thoroughly engaged but my thoughts went beyond my own writing. As I watched my kids explore a world they had become well educated about, it confirmed my belief in the delicious variety of subjects that could possibly appeal to kids.

My kids both study Latin and thus Roman history. They were especially excited to visit Rome and Pompeii, to see the actual historical sites that their excellent Latin teacher had discussed so engagingly over the years. It was fun to watch them read snippets of Latin on the old Roman walls and even on the sewer covers (there are Latin mottos on sewer covers? Who knew). It was the kids who had to explain to the rest of us non-Latin scholars the sordid details of what went on inside the Coliseum and why the Arch of Constantine was so significant.

The information they had retained was substantial. With that level of knowledge came both the interest to learn more and to share with others. Their excitement in explaining about famous events that had occurred right where we were walking was contagious. The Circus Maximus wasn’t really much to look at—a large field of dirt and grass in need of watering. But these kids could tell a great story about the chariot races that used to take place there and, despite the heat, we all gladly stood around for awhile so we could imagine what it must have been like.

Our trip wasn’t one big history lesson. The Latin scholars were also downright gleeful about the different flavors of gelato, the Pope lollipops, and the male body parts with wings souvenirs prominently on display at the Pompeii gift shops. So their answer to the question, “what was the favorite thing you saw on the trip” still came as a surprise. Even more of a surprise, they both had the same answer.

Their reply: the Appian Way. What’s the Appian Way? A road. Yep, just a road. Well, it was the main thoroughfare of ancient Rome, parts of which still exist today. And we went on it. My kids could hardly contain themselves. Because they were taught well. They understood its significance and the thrill of touching history was palpable.

Good teaching, like good books, can get to that place where kids can understand the importance of history. This happens easily when the focus isn’t on what they need to be learning but on how many different things can be fascinating to know about if you’re just willing to give it a chance. Children’s books need to take that road more often. We would certainly all be heading in the right direction.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Why I Write

As a child, I always was reading. My mother would say, “Jan, it’s too nice outside to stick your nose in a book all day.” Then she would pat my arm and smile. My taste in literature was eclectic, although fantasy novels such as Alice in Wonderland or The Phantom Tollbooth appealed to me most. I did go through a stage where I read all of what we referred to as “those orange books,” biographies of notable Americans, one of the first non-fiction series in school libraries. My favorite was Sacagawea, Girl Indian Guide. But it never occurred to me when I made-up stories to entertain my little brother that I would become a writer. I was a curious kid and noticed everything about everybody. I could mimic the way people talked, their facial expressions, tone of voice, what they wore, what we talked about….the white rabbit fur coat that my friend Sherry wore to school in second grade, a nursery school aide who made me keep my eyes closed all through rest period, the smell of ink at my mother’s easel, the lump in my throat when she left every morning for work. Always outspoken, I had such a fine sense of the ridiculous that my Uncle Rudy called me “Miss Wiseguy.” All of this has helped shape me as a writer. I can reach back into my memories and use them for characters and situations in my books.
Whether I’m writing fiction or non-fiction, I love to write. Sometimes I begin at dawn, wakened by my poodles Henri and Thiebaud, who whine to go out. Then in my sweat clothes, I hurry up to my study with a huge cup of coffee and a bowl of oatmeal and turn on the computer. I have trained myself not to check my e mails until after I’ve done some writing and taken a long walk. If I wait for an inspiring thought, I’ll never get started. So I go straight to the project I’ve been working on and plunge right in. I always end my day with an idea about what I want to write the next morning. But first I revise what I’ve already written. Aside from the clicks in my head when I read sentences that don’t work, revising puts me back into the rhythm of the language, takes me inside the skin of the main character. All around me in piles are personal interviews, research books, a bulletin board filled with photographs and drawings of my subject, and reproductions of their artworks, buildings, stage sets…whatever it is that the artist creates. Photos of Frank Gehry buildings, posters of Chuck Close paintings, a multiple by Louise Bourgeois, a print by Andy Warhol, Xeroxes of drawings of The Gates in Central Park by Christo and Jeanne-Claude. I surround myself, immerse myself in the world of the person whose story I am telling. My husband wanders in before he goes to his office. He looks around and shakes his head. “What a mess,” I can almost hear him say to himself. But he knows that eventually I will emerge from the rubble, the debris of someone else’s life, with a book.
Of-course the first draft is just the beginning of a long process. I enjoy all the stages from first inspiration to final product. One of my favorite stages is called “Feedback.” Visiting schools to read parts of my new manuscript takes me out of my study and back into the real world, the world of my readers. It also helps me to know what works and what doesn’t, what’s interesting and what’s not. But my favorite part of the process takes place when I’m alone in the room, writing. When I’m finished, I seldom start a new project right away. I rarely read books other than research material when I’m working. An explanation might be that I don’t want someone else’s use of language to somehow slip into my own. So there’s always a stack of the latest mysteries or biographies waiting for me …on the couch, next to my bed, on the night stand, on the floor of my car. I look forward spending the day with The Lincolns or Darwin. My mother’s repeated words come back to me. I know, Mom. It’s a nice day and here I am with my nose stuck in a book. Thanks for understanding all those years ago.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Boston Globe-Horn Book Nonfiction!

I am thrilled to be heading to Boston on October 2nd for the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards as Almost Astronauts is one of the two honor titles this year. One of the things I’m most excited about is being in the company of the other two authors in the nonfiction category—David Macaulay and Candace Fleming.

I have long admired Macaulay and Fleming. Candy and I, happily, have had occasions to see each other. But David I have yet to meet, even though we share a home-base state. The closest I have come is hearing him give a downright brilliant speech several years ago in New York. I have been a fan of the mind and the man (and of course, the books) ever since.

It was actually my son, an avid non-fiction reader from a young age, who first brought Macaulay’s books into the house. Underground and Unbuilding were both eye-opening for me. They showed me that however I, as a writer, wanted to look at a topic, was just fine. The old rules didn’t apply. These books have a perspective unique to the author and that was a revelation to me. He also helped me think of my writing in visual terms even though I am not an illustrator. His newest book, The Way We Work, is his latest gem, and the other honor title for the BGHB award.

The winner in the nonfiction category this year is Candace Fleming’s The Lincolns, a book that I have pulled off my shelf over and over again this past year, always to discover some new tidbit or interesting item. I thought The Lincolns was by far one of the most outstanding nonfiction titles of 2008 and literally let out a “Hooray!” when I read she was the winner. Candy’s skill shines out from the pages of this book. But that’s no surprise to me. I became a fan back in 2003 with her Boxes for Katje picture book. Not only did I love the story, I admired the way she took a real story about adults (based on her Mom’s experience) and transformed it in a way that captured the essence of its meaning so kids could better relate to it.

So why am I using my monthly blog spot on INK to gush about my fellow BGHB nonfiction colleagues? It is not simply because I am a fan, but also because it’s important to recognize the lessons we continually learn from our peers as we grow and evolve as artists. Whether it is conscious in the moment or not, there are nuggets we respond to in other people’s work that tells us something about our own truths. And for that I will be forever grateful.

And now…I have to go buy new shoes!

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The greenest book: paper or electronic?

I’ve been pondering this topic quite a bit and found several online articles (listed at end) plus insightful reader comments that helped me to make this list. Without getting into heavy number-crunching to calculate carbon footprints, here are some pros and cons of traditional paper books vs. electronic books. Some of the items aren’t necessarily energy-related, but impact the reader’s experience and thus the desirability of one form over the other.

Paper book pros:

Trees are a renewable resource.

Paper books require little energy to read (aside from a lamp and some cookies, perhaps.)

Browsing is easy.

Paper books...

can last for decades or centuries

are often lent to many readers (via libraries as well as informal passing around.)

are generally not thrown away but are donated or sold.

are a carbon sink.

are pleasant to read in bed, in the bath, on the beach, or atop Mt. Everest.


Paper books...

are heavy to ship.

become dated very quickly and can’t be directly updated.

are an all or nothing proposition. You either buy the whole book or none of it.

can be made from recycled materials and printed with non-toxic ink but often (usually?) are not.

Paper manufacturing requires a great deal of water and energy.

Pulp trees are often grown in an unsustainable way.

Many (most?) books are printed overseas and shipped long distances.

Because book returns are allowed, many books are shipped twice... to a bookstore, then back to the warehouse.

Excess books that are returned may ultimately never be sold and instead get recycled or destroyed.

Bookstores, libraries, and warehouses must be heated, cooled, and otherwise use energy.

Now for electronic books... first, a definition. For my purposes, a book in digital form can be a PDF that is downloaded from the Internet, a book published on a web site, read via a Kindle or other portable device format, on a CD, or hidden inside stuffed animals, etcetera.

E-book pros:
take almost zero physical storage space... say “bye-bye” to bookshelves loaded with books nobody reads!
can be very inexpensive or free (depending on the economic model.)
can be easily subdivided so readers could buy only the portion they really want.
can easily be revised and updated.
Text and images that have been turned into electrons require little energy to “ship.”

Hundreds of books can be stored in one easy-to-carry package.

Various enhancements such as dictionary access, easy searching for terms, sound, animation, and who knows what else already are (or soon will be) possible.

Creative possibilities such as multiple endings, non-linear reading, internal and external linking, reader collaboration, and other multimedia mash-ups are possible.

Narrow interest publications are more economically feasible.

E-book cons:

They can’t be read without electricity.

Reader devices (e.g. computer, Kindle) take energy to manufacture and ship, and often contain toxic or nonrenewable materials.

Device life spans are relatively short.

Current devices are expensive.

Some technologies allow the seller to delete the book from a purchaser’s device (yikes!)

Readers can’t share a book under copyright (legally, anyway) except by lending their device.

Many titles are not currently available in electronic form.

Many people just don’t like reading on a screen.

Browsing e-books is a clunky experience compared to swiftly flipping through books in a bookstore.

I haven’t reached many firm conclusions, but one thing is for sure; it’s highly desirable that both paper and e-books be as green as possible, period. The trend is for “we the people” to be more demanding about how the products we consume rate in terms of their sustainability. As authors and readers, these issues are a top priority for us to think about now and in the years to come.

Innovation and the Future of E-books by John W. Warren (downloadable PDF)
The New York Times: Are E-Readers Greener Than Books? by Joe Hutsko
Cleantech Group Report: E-readers a win for carbon emissions (summary)
The New York Times: Amazon Erases Orwell Books From Kindle by Brad Stone

Monday, September 14, 2009

I.N.K. News for September

Vicki Cobb is speaking on Tuesday at the University of Kentucky School of Education. Her topic is "Science That's Fun to Read and Teach." Her audience is elemmentary education students as well as interested faculty and area teachers and librarians.

Rosalyn Schanzer will be talking about her book WHAT DARWIN SAW; THE JOURNEY THAT CHANGED THE WORLD at George Mason University’s enormous Fall for the Book festival in the Greater Washington D.C. area. It’s free and open to the public. Here’s the schedule and site information about her presentation:

What Darwin Saw: The Journey That Changed the World
Sunday, September 20 from 2 to 3 P.M.
Prince George’s Memorial Library
Hyattsville Branch
6530 Adelphi Rd.
Hyattsville, MD 20782

You can find out more about the author by clicking here:
You can find out all about the book festival and see the entire speakers’ list by clicking here:

From Barbara Kerley: I'll be co-teaching (with Highlights Sr. Editor Kim T. Griswell) a class in writing narrative nonfiction as part of the Highlights Foundation Founders Workshop Series. The class runs from Nov. 5 - 8. For more information, go to

From Deborah Heiligman: Charles and Emma: The Darwins' Leap of Faith has been named to:Booklist's Top 10 Romances for Youth and Booklist's Top 10 Biographies for Youth

Melissa Stewart will be speaking at the New England Reading Association Conference in Warwick, RI, on September 25 and the New England Environmental Education Association Conference in Ivoryton, CT on September 27.

Booklist Webinar: The Scoop on Series Nonfiction: Best Uses, Best Practices, and Best New Books for Fall
September 22, 3PM-4pm cST
Need help engaging reluctant readers, promoting reading success, and keeping your library relevant in this era of accountability? Attend "The Scoop on Series Nonfiction" Webinar and come away with a wealth of information and ideas for enhancing your collection and engaging young readers with series nonfiction. Booklist youth editors will moderate as four top series nonfiction publishers—Lerner Publications, ABDO Publishing Company, Norwood House Press, and Cherry Lake Publishing—share their expertise and introduce a selection of their fall titles. Webinar participants will also get a sneak peek at Booklist's October 1 Series Nonfiction Spotlight, including a focus on a new trend: series nonfiction and early literacy. Reserve your seat today!

Friday, September 11, 2009

Happy New Year!

Every year around this time, I have the same thought. Forget January 1st, September is the real beginning of the new year. This is the time when things gear up and start chugging again after the slow days of summer. Of course, the biggest event of the month, of the year, is the start of school.

People always extend best wishes at the New Year, so here are my hopes for all those involved with the upcoming school year.

To the teachers—
*I wish you have an unusually painless adjustment to getting up once more at an inconceivably early hour.
*And you find a way to teach a unit or subject that really excites you with materials that excite you and still manage to teach to The Test.

To the librarians—
*I hope that you get an unexpectedly huge sum of money to buy books this year.
*And you have many of those magic moments where you put the right book in that reluctant reader’s hand and the kid returns it, proud and excited, and takes out another book immediately. It might be shameless self-interest, but studies show that often the book that delivers that response for reluctant readers is nonfiction.

To the parents—
*I hope you can calm down about school—unless you really shouldn’t.
*And your kid’s yearlong homework assignment is to pack himself or herself a healthy lunch.

To the students—
*I hope you find a few things in class you find mindblowingly interesting. And some grownup notices and encourages you.
*Since I do remember what’s important, I hope that the outfit you picked out for the first day was a total success.

To the nonfiction authors who supply the librarians (teachers, parents, and kids)
*I hope that the librarians get an unexpected and huge sum of money to buy books this year.
*I wish that Barrack and Michelle let it slip that Sasha and Malia’s favorite type of reading is…nonfiction.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Discovering the World -- And Yourself, in the Process

Like many Americans, I tuned in with great interest to watch President Obama’s Back-To-School speech on C-SPAN this Tuesday.

I loved how the speech was held live, in front of a gym full of teenagers at Wakefield High School in Arlington, VA. I loved how the crowd of kids cheered almost as loudly for senior class president Timothy Spicer, Jr.—who introduced the Obama—as they did for the President, himself. And it was great to hear the school band play “Hail to The Chief” as Obama strode into the room.

Obama’s speech was about personal responsibility and how every student must take charge of his or her own future. “I’m calling on each of you to set your own goals for your education,” he told the crowd, “and to do everything you can to meet them.”

But just as importantly, the speech was about opportunity.

“Every single one of you has something you’re good at. Every single one of you has something to offer. And you have a responsibility to yourself to discover what that is. That’s the opportunity an education can provide.”

And, I’d like to add, that’s the opportunity that nonfiction books provide.

Nonfiction books open up the world to kids. Through exposure to a wide variety of nonfiction books, kids—whether they live in a high rise apartment in a big city, a small trailer on the edge of a tiny town, or a ranch-style home in suburbs across America, can…

…peer into a tarantula tunnel in a rainforest in South America.

…pull on flippers and follow Jacques Cousteau deep down into the Mediterranean Sea.

…board the Endurance and sail with Shackleton to Antarctica.

…learn about music, art, chemistry, physics, theater, dance, history—and learn about these subjects in exciting, inviting formats.

When teachers and librarians expose kids to a variety a topics, when parents choose nonfiction books to read at bed time, we help kids begin the process of discovering what they are good at. What they have to offer.

What a gift that is.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Dual Text Helps Broaden the Market

As the market for nonfiction children's books shrinks, authors and publishers need to get creative about finding ways to increase sales of every book they create. In the past, I've often written two books on the same topic - "Looking at Dolphins and Porpoises" for younger children, for example, and "Dolphins and Porpoises" for the older crowd. Today, that strategy just won't work any more--we need to give customers the best "bang for the buck" possible in order to broaden the market for what we write.

One excellent method that is gaining in popularity is to make the books useful to more than one age level by having dual text for the same images. In my book, "When the Wolves Returned - Restoring Nature's Balance in Yellowstone," for example, each spread has two separate text areas along with several informative photos, mostly by Dan and Cassie Hartman. A box that's set off from part of the large image that covers the left-hand page contains one or two sentences in large type telling the story of Yellowstone's wolves. This text makes for a quick survey of the topic for the busy reader or a "read to" for young children. On the right-hand page, below two or three smaller images, a text of one or two paragraphs expands on the information in the short text, for older or more skilled readers. In this way, this one volume is appropriate for grades 1 through 8. I recently heard from a high school teacher that she uses this book in her classes, too.

Dual text is accomplished in a different way in "About Habitats - Mountains," by Cathryn Sill (Peachtree, 2009). Here, each right-hand page shows a painting by John Sills, with a large-type sentence on the facing page giving the information about the image and smaller text that identifies the locale of the scene and the living things illustrated. At the back of the book is a section labeled "Afterword," where an informative paragraph gives the more detailed higher level text for each spread, along with a snapshot of the accompanying plate.

If you are an author contemplating a topic for your next creation, think about whether there's a way of providing two text levels for your topic. If you're a parent, this type of book can be enjoyed by your children of different ages. And if you're a teacher or librarian, you'll find that children of different skill levels and grade levels can enjoy the same book equally, giving you more 'bang' for the bucks in your book-buying budget.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

An Invitation

Over the past year and a half, many of my fellow bloggers and I have written about the importance of photo research to our work. As I thought about what to focus on in this post, I decided to take the topic of photo research one step further and invite you, our readers, to be part of the process. It’s an unorthodox invitation, to be sure, but since I’ve been trolling eBay for people’s archival family photographs recently, it seems to make sense to “widen the net” and ask anyone who’s interested to search their own photos for possible use in my next book.

So here’s my pitch: I’m looking for photographs of your grandmother, great grandmother, great aunt, any female friend or relative with a bicycle in the 1880s, 1890s, or early 1900s. She can be riding or racing or posing with her bike, and there can be men or boys in the picture, too. But my book is about women and bicycles at the turn of the century—more specifically, about how the bicycle changed women’s lives at that time. So the main protagonist(s) in the photo should be female.

Note that the photo should be an original photographic print if at all possible—not a picture in a book, newspaper, or magazine--because reprinting a previously scanned image diminishes the quality to an unacceptable level. I’ll need to borrow the original or have you send me a high-resolution (300 dpi or greater) scan. My book will be published by National Geographic and if I use your photo, I’ll pay you an amount to be determined by the size that the picture appears in the book. But this is no get-rich-quick opportunity. No money will exchange hands until the book is on the way to the printer a year or so from now.

If you have any family stories to accompany your picture, I’d be thrilled to hear them, too. Come to think of it, if you have a great story about a female ancestor’s adventures with a bicycle during that time period, but no photograph to go with it, I’d love to hear it anyway. As I get further into my research, I’m finding that the rich history of the bicycle extends beyond the public record to family lore. So if your great aunt foiled a bank robbery by chasing down the robber on her high wheeler, please do tell.

You can comment on this post in the traditional way, but please e-mail me directly at if you have a photograph or an elaborate story. And thanks for bearing with me in this unusual request.

Friday, September 4, 2009

On Vacation

Last month I took a five-day trip to San Juan Island in Washington State. It was meant to be a vacation of cycling, hiking, and kayaking. No writing, no research, no interviews. Just a vacation. And it was – until the second day. That morning we cycled to San Juan Island Historical Park and I learned about the Pig War of 1859 that led to a twelve-year joint occupation on opposite ends of the island by British and American troops. In the end, the only casualty was a pig. But it became an International Incident that was eventually settled by the Emperor of Germany, Kaiser Wilhelm I.

And so my vacation turned into a research trip. I still went hiking and cycling and kayaking, but I also bought books at the park’s visitor centers, explored the two military camps, photographed plaques along the trails, questioned the park rangers, and began to plot a story. This is not the first time a story has leaped out at me from the bushes. And, if truth be told, I really do prefer a vacation with a focus.

Memo #1 to self: Never throw away potentially tax-deductible boarding passes and travel receipts.

Memo #2 to self: Kayak rental is tax-deductible, for how else could I experience the tricky winds and currents that drowned several English soldiers?

An old adage tells us to write about what we know. I disagree. I choose to write about what I don’t know, but want to learn. Full disclosure: I – and other writers I could name, but won’t – enjoy research at least as much, and sometimes more than, writing. Especially when it means traveling to beauty spots like the Pacific Northwest.

Is that why I lean towards writing nonfiction? Perhaps.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Collaborating Takes Work

I met Kathy Darling at a local writers group back in 1979. She had been an editor for Gerrard Publishing and said she knew my books. She was a heavy-set woman with a loud voice and a raucous, cackling laugh. Kathy suggested that we work together right from the day we met. She wanted to do a book of “bar bets” for kids. I said I would only if it were slanted toward science. She agreed. I said that since my reputation in the science book arena was more central to me than to her, I had to be first author. Again she agreed, cheerfully. With that out of the way, we began work on the book that became Bet You Can’t! Science Impossibilities to Fool You.

Kathy was bossy, argumentative and sometimes exaggerated facts to make a story better. I had a more comprehensive grasp of the science principles involved. She was a tireless researcher who seemed to enjoy the search for new material much more than I did. We made trips to libraries and leafed through piles of old science teacher magazines, popular science magazines, magazines for magicians. We prowled through novelty shops, toy stores, and second-hand book stores looking for ideas; there was no internet in those days. After we had collected a bunch of possibilities, I went to Kathy’s house to try stuff out. She had two Irish wolfhounds whose noses were always at crotch level. Somehow we got the book written. I found the whole experience difficult, to say the least.

Much to my surprise, Bet You Can’t! won the Science Book Award from the New York Academy of Sciences. And it sold like crazy! I didn’t think that the tricks were all that unusual but the writing was superior. Somehow our collaborative writing style had a higher octane level than anything either of us could produce on our own.
Since we couldn’t argue with success, we decided to write Bet You Can! “But this time let’s work at my house,” I said, “Your house smells like a kennel.” Again she agreed, quickly. So we went back to arguing, experimenting, and writing. I often found myself raising my voice and strenuously quarreling when I thought she was wrong. Kathy’s first job had been answering questions for the Encyclopedia Britannica that the encyclopedia didn’t answer. She really believed that she knew EVERYTHING. What a pain! In spite of all the laughter, and there was a lot of that, I found her irritating. Again, I did not enjoy the experience.

Then I did some work on myself. I dabbled in some of the workshops of the human potential movement. I took myself to task in a number of areas of my life. When Kathy and I came together to write our third book Wanna Bet! she hadn’t changed. She was still insistent, contentious, curious, enthusiastic and hilarious. But for some strange reason I no longer found her irritating. When we finished the book I felt sorry that it was done. Again we had produced something neither of us could do alone but this time the process was FUN! We wrote two more books after that, Don’t Try This at Home and You Gotta Try This! Thoroughly enjoyable, each time. Here’s a typical email from her:

I found an interesting body "trick." Where does the sound come from when you snap your fingers? Believe it or not, it is mostly from the sound coming from your palm. If you cover the palm with a tissue or a sound absorbing cloth you will hear only a very faint version of the snap.

For years she tried to figure out how to tattoo a hardboiled egg through its shell, leaving no marks on the shell, without success. That became our in-joke.

Our latest book is We Dare You!; a wonderfully successful bind-up of our five books; made possible after twenty-five years because, finally, all five books were out of print. (It is being released in paperback this month.) Unfortunately, when the project was about to start, Kathy was diagnosed with a particularly aggressive cancer. I asked her if she wanted to participate in putting the new book together (there was a lot of new material to add). But she bowed out. Whenever I called her to ask how she was, she cheerfully responded, “Still on the right side of the grass!” I did the revisions alone. It wasn’t the same.

Kathy died early this summer. I learned a lot from her. It was a lesson about love.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The Art Part: Drawing Readers In

We rarely focus on the artwork in our picture books, but I admit it; for me, this part of the job is the most fun. And whether my story has 500 words or 12,500 words, it’s also the most painstakingly researched and by far the most time consuming element of every nonfiction book I write. The right pictures work like magnets to draw readers in, and they often tell more about a story than words could ever do. Today I thought I'd explore some of the reasons why.

In the first place, artwork can show you all kinds of things you could never see any other way. Take illustrations about history for example. Even if you were to travel to every historical site on the planet, you could never see the action that made those places famous back in the day. Case in point: In my book HOW WE CROSSED THE WEST; THE ADVENTURES OF LEWIS AND CLARK, I got to paint the landscapes the way they really looked in 1804; populated by leaping pronghorn antelopes, black with buffalo as far as the eye could see, and dotted with lively Indian villages of every description. And the people! I could depict each explorer smack dab in the middle of his or her real adventures and I could show the same Indians Lewis and Clark wrote about in their journals too. Here are some details from a couple of bigger paintings:

York plays with Arikara kids; Mandans out hunting

Pictures can also enliven any book of nonfiction by adding humor, whimsy, drama, action, and enormous amounts of extra content. They can introduce a mood. They can include colorful illuminated maps that show all the people and plants and animals and ships in a tale of exploration. And they can clarify complex concepts that are difficult to remember any other way.
With labels this shows how Colonial Government worked
Click on picture to see larger version

It’s hard (but fun) to figure out exactly what people wore at different times in the past, what a famous person looked like at a certain age, how a specific sailing vessel was rigged, what kind of saddle and bridle a horse wore in, say, Colonial America or Eastern Europe, or what medieval Paris used to look like. But we're talking about nonfiction here, so the artwork has to be just as accurate as the text.

Medieval Paris maze; click on picture to make it big

If we do our research right, boys will know at a glance that if they had been around during certain historic eras, they would have had to wear ruffles and silk tights, and girls would know that in certain societies they would have had to shave the top part of their heads or tattoo blue goatees on their faces. Kids would find out instantly what it was like to slog through mud and hail in a covered wagon or what kinds of strange contraptions miners used to find gold. In other words, each illustration can become your own private magic carpet that transports you directly into the pages in a picture book and lets you fly straight through some very real and truly amazing scenery.