Wednesday, December 22, 2010


Novelist Carolyn Marsden and I just returned from three weeks in West Africa, where we gave author talks at three schools. I love doing school visits anytime, anyplace, but these were especially memorable. A brief report of our adventures forthwith.


Students at the American School in Bamako were breathtakingly cosmopolitan, as were the teachers. Kids were enthusiastic and articulate - even the middle and high schoolers, who are often hard to reach. We had lunch, dinner, and city tours with many teachers and parents (US and European diplomats, and NGO officials engaged in all sorts of projects: orphanages, teaching, health care, nutrition, centers for homeless kids, etc.) -- all with great stories to tell. Bamako is a sprawling city on the Niger River - mostly unpaved streets with many goats wandering about. But the people are resourceful, and the kids are doing their kid stuff.

We traveled to Djenne, a UNESCO World Heritage Site - huge mud mosque and traditional mud homes. Lovely sunset boat ride (with peanuts and three cups of green tea - one bitter like death, one sweet like life, and one very sweet like love.) The boats (pirogues) are similar to those in ancient Egyptian paintings!


Drove for hours on a bumpy sandy track to a narrow spot on the Niger where Fulani herders gathered, dressed in their finest robes - and gorgeous they were. First small herds of cattle waded to a sandbar, then plunged into the river and swam to the distant shore. Boys swam with them to keep them on course (the current was fairly swift,) with pirogues alongside. Herd after herd swam across for several hours. On the other side, the cattle scrambled up a cliff to a huge grassy plain where they will roam for a few months, then swim back across the river.

Up on the cliff, women and children waited, sporting much gold and amber. I got a taste of the joie de vivre that African Americans bring to our culture. If we were just a nation of white people, life would be a lot less interesting.


We had less time to spend in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, but equally warm hospitality, fascinating life stories, and dynamic students. A visit to the school’s “sister village” gave us a close-up view of a women’s welcoming dance, with butt-bashing, drumming, and singing.


The International School of Dakar is a dream – ocean views, spacious green campus, and the same sort of cosmopolitan (and hospitable) students and faculty.

A day trip to nearby Gorée Island gave us a south-of-France feeling with pastel houses, narrow lanes, lush bougainvillea. Also tacky tourist stalls and a “house of slaves” with a tourist talk that was not very accurate. (The historian in me cringed.)


The opening of Le Festival des Arts Nègres at the national sports stadium. One whole side covered in white served as a video projection screen. The program began with a single kora (African harp) player staying alone in the middle of the pitch. Then, about five hundred dancers streamed onto the field to dance a “story of Africa” with video, music, and fireworks. They swooped together into a vast shape, then broke apart to form other shapes, with three symbolic figures (not sure who) wandering here and there on stilts, and drums beating up a storm. After that….. yawn…..beaucoup de speeches by politicians… followed by ten amazing musical acts, and then the grand finale – two hundred drummers thundering to the skies, with fireworks lighting up the self-same skies. I felt the heart of Africa beating.


Many asked me – what will you write about it all? I took dozenss of pictures and video at the cattle crossing, and bought a Fulani artifact – a small leather case that holds the kohl they paint around their eyes to protect them from the desert sun. I’ve got the setting and a character – all I need is a plot. Perhaps painting my eyes with kohl will inspire.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

In Praise of Ellen Levine

I spoke last week at the Metro NYC Chapter of the SCBWI. When Seta Toroyan wrote me and asked me if I could speak, last minute, I told her I didn’t think I could—I was swamped with work and… and then she told me it was because Ellen Levine, who was scheduled to speak, was very ill and—I said yes in a heartbeat. In a heartbeat.

Ellen Levine is one of the great non-fiction children's book writers of our time. I have long admired her, and in 2002 was lucky enough to attend a workshop, run by Carolyn Yoder at the Highlights Foundation, at which Ellen spoke. In a cozy living room, Ellen told us how she researched and wrote Freedom’s Children and Darkness over Denmark. I talked to my friend Kay Winters yesterday – and we remembered how we both sat there in despair and awe. Despair that we would ever do the great work that Ellen does. Awe at how ambitious and life-changing her work was. But when she was done, what we were both left with was determination and inspiration. We both—all of us in that room, I’m sure—felt charged up to go out and do the best work we could, work that would make a difference. I know that Ellen has inspired many authors in this same way. And even more readers.

The night I spoke at SCBWI it was freezing cold outside, but inside the room glowed with the energy and excitement of bringing real stories alive for children. We talked about primary sources and dialogue and scenes and tough interviews. We talked about Ellen’s work and how much we all admired it.

At one point someone asked, “Do you ever think of doing historical fiction instead? What makes you write nonfiction about a subject instead of historical fiction?” Terrific question. Ellen herself has written historical fiction as well as nonfiction. I hope to someday, too. But given the choice, at this moment, I would write nonfiction over historical fiction because I want kids and their grown-ups to know this stuff really happened. Ellen and others have showed me over the years how powerful this can be.

I hope those of you who know Ellen, and know her work, feel free to comment here about how she has inspired you; and how she has influenced your work. She would also love emails and healing thoughts from our community. You can get in touch with her through her website.

A friend of our family died recently. Someone posted an article about him—he donated children’s books about law to the Yale Law Library. Guess whose book was one of his favorites? Check out paragraph 5. Sending love, admiration, and healing thoughts your way, Ellen. And holler if you want soup.

(I am editing this one last time at 3:00 am because I was lucky enough to wake up an hour ago and see the solstice lunar eclipse right outside my window. What a blessing. Happy winter, everyone.)

Monday, December 20, 2010

A Season Bright and Dark

For those of us with an awareness of history, every day of the year is a cornucopia of commemorations. 'Twas on December 20 in 1192, that the Duke of Austria captured 35-yr.-old Richard I of England. You can read about this son of Henry & Eleanor [of Aquitane] in Richard the Lionheart, by Susan Sales Harkins & Wm. H. Harkins. Our nation accomplished a stellar real estate transaction on another 20 Dec., 207 years ago. The Louisiana Purchase, by Dennis B. Fradin and Rhoda Blumberg's What's the Deal? are a couple of excellent books on that topic. And it's said that the subject of David A. Adler's A Picture Book of Sacagawea, died on this day in 1812.
But of all the year, the dark winter days, coming on Christmas, pack a particular wallop. I confess that I was not aware of the fact that William of Normandy had himself crowned King of England on Christmas Day, 1066, but now that I am, I'm minded of folks huddled around smoky fires, tending wounds not yet healed, from the battle (of Hastings) some ten weeks earlier. Many of you may know that Christmas marks Clara Barton's 189th birthday (and Humphrey Bogart's 111th). Barbara A. Somervill's book appears to be a fine showing & telling of the life of the founder of the American Red Cross. And, by the old calendar, anyway, December 25 will mark the 367th anniversary of the birth of Isaac Newton, Giant of Science, about whom Kathleen Krull wrote so well. It was 390 years ago this week that those Mayflower wayfarers landed at Plymouth, Massachusetts. I think of John Adams, shivering in the not-quite-completed President's House on Christmas Day, 1800, less than a month after the death of his n'er do well son Charles; of a pair of fellows cobbling a carol together, just 18 years later. Margaret Hodges tells the story in Silent Night: The Song and its Story. It was on that Christmas night, 1818, that musicians presented G. F. Handel's Messiah to an American audience: a first. I think of those Bostonians with their pomaded hair, gloved hands, shawls, cravats, artfully tied, and dimming memories of the revolution. I think of U.S. astronauts broadcasting from Apollo 8, Christmas Eve, 1968. (...and how Charlie Chaplin had exactly nine more years to live, did he but know it.)
Think on the December of 1776, when a desperate general "led more than 2,500 freezing, starving, sleepy men plus their animals to the banks of the icy Delaware River." So I wrote in my George Washington picture book biography some years back. Louise Peacock delves more deeply into the perilous event in her fine book, Crossing the Delaware: A History in Many Voices. Only the other day I read a splendid and moving book about another Christmas, another war: Jim Murphy's Truce, when English and German soldiers when did their best to end the great and terrible First World War, in the winter of 1914. A mere thirty years later, still more soldiers were suffering thereabouts. A graphic take on this event might be found here, in Hitler's Last Gamble: Battle of the Bulge, by Bill Cain & Dheeraj Verma.
So, let's sing and dance and make good cheer for Christmas comes but once a year. That's about enough.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Learning from Benedict Arnold

By way of introducing myself to I.N.K., let me say that nonfiction for kids saved me. I’ll explain.

About ten years ago I became obsessed with Benedict Arnold. At the time I was a history textbook writer, and I kept trying sneak Arnold into the textbooks, and the editors kept taking him out. “Benedict Arnold makes me nervous,” an editor told me. Textbooks like their heroes in two dimensions, and their villains too. Arnold doesn’t fit in.

But the obsession persisted. I read every Arnold book out there, and spent weekends at historical sites and Revolution reenactments, taking photos, making sketches, all the while telling myself, “I’ve got to do something great with this material!” I think the pressure got to me. Unable to get started with the actual writing, I filled notebook after notebook with ideas and bits, and as the years went by the project got stranger and more pretentious. Next thing you know I was outlining an epic novel in which Arnold’s life is presented in parallel with that of Lancelot. I got as far as the opening line:

“Lancelot, the famous Arthurian knight, grew up beneath the waters of an enchanted lake. Benedict Arnold grew up in Connecticut.”

Then it was back to taking notes, making endless outlines. I eventually quit writing textbooks and started writing history books kids might actually want to read, and had some success with them. But I remained obsessed with my Arnold project, and even decided, as a gesture of dedication to my art, that I’d better become a hermit, possibly in the Catskills. When I met a wonderful woman named Rachel, I spent much of our first date explaining my Arnold-Lancelot theory; in brief, that Arnold, if he had lived in Arthurian times, would have been a top-ranked knight, but that if he lived today, where we don’t really celebrate jousting that much, he’d probably be a football coach. And I said this in hushed tones, not out of embarrassment, but because I was afraid the guy at the next table might steal the idea.

Amazingly, Rachel and I got married, and I never moved to a mountain shack. Yet still I wrestled with Arnold, with my vow to “do something” with his story. And then, one day, while discussion possible projects with my editor at Roaring Brook, she said, “Didn’t you want to write something about Benedict Arnold?” I said the thought had crossed my mind. So she suggested I write a biography aimed at teens. And that saved me.

Riding the subway home that afternoon, I thought about what makes good nonfiction for kids. Obviously, it has nothing to do with the tortured and gimmicky nonsense in my notebooks. What kid would stand for that? To grab and hold a kid’s attention, I told myself, I better just tell Arnold’s story, just show the furious flight and spectacular crash of America’s original loose-cannon action hero.

From that point on, the work was actually fun. I structured the story as if preparing a screenplay, dividing the rich material into short scenes, each with its own bit of action, each leading into the next. I dug into the primary sources, pulling out quotes to add dialogue to the scenes. Then, when it came time to write actual sentences, I just tried to step aside and let the story speed toward its natural climax. There was lots of very helpful back and forth with the editor, of course, and finally, just a few weeks ago, The Notorious Benedict Arnold was published.

Now, free from my Arnold obsession, I’m deep into my next non-fiction for kids, a global thriller about the race to make—and steal—the world’s first atomic bomb. It’s going well, but I have to constantly remind myself of the Arnold lessons: research like crazy, structure the stuff into a clear, tight, fast-paced story, give it a shove downhill—and get out of the way.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

A Mostly (Okay fine, Somewhat) Nonfiction Holiday Round-up

It’s gift-giving time, so think about giving the gift of reading. Everyone seems to be sending around holiday book lists, so I thought I’d make up one of my own. Here are some fairly random and extremely subjective books I cherish once the snow begins to fall and the cold nips my fingers.

First up, my all-time, bring it out every year, favorite holiday book that people (like me) who grew up in inter-denominational families may have an extra-special connection to is The Christmas Tapestry. This one is not nonfiction, but it is based on two true stories, according to Patricia Polacco’s author’s note. I am a sucker for these kinds of stories, especially when they stem from real life. Polacco’s words and pictures weave and swirl throughout this book. In my house of overflowing bookshelves and the constant need to weed books, this is one that will always remain on the shelf.

Our own Deborah Heiligman has two great nonfiction holiday books in a series called Holidays Around the World. They are Celebrate Christmas: With Carols, Presents, and Peace, and Celebrate Hanukkah: With Light, Latkes, and Dreidels. There is even a latke recipe in the back!

Eric Kimmel’s fictional Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins is illustrated by the oh-so-missed and decidedly brilliant Trina Schart Hyman. This book won a Caldecott Honor in 1994.

And okay, I have a nonfiction Hanukkah book, too, which came out many years ago. D is for Dreidel is a rhyming alphabet book for very young readers.

Nonfiction author Ellen Jackson’s lovely book, The Winter Solstice, explains the history of the solstice, how ancient peoples celebrated it, and why there are still many traditions surrounding the solstice.

Although the Day of the Dead has been over since November 2, Tony Johnston and Jeanette Winter’s book about this Mexican holiday has haunted me since the first time I saw it. It is vibrant and dazzling. Okay, it’s a fall book, not a winter one, but I love it.

And last but not least, especially since I am going in no particular order here, a book I give to children frequently around the holidays is Owl Moon, written by Jane Yolen and illustrated by John Schoenherr—this book won the Caldecott Medal in 1988.

So, if you are thinking of giving a telltale rectangular-shaped package to someone soon, consider wrapping up one of these wonderful books. Happy Holidays!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Picture book possibilities

I.N.K. readers may recall the much-discussed NY Times article about how some parents were supposedly pushing children away from picture books and towards chapter books, among other claims. I.N.K.’s own David Schwartz blogged about it recently. As was discussed in the comments section of that post, nonfiction picture books cannot easily be replaced by a chapter book precisely because the images convey so much.

If anyone needs more persuasion regarding the worth of picture books, please check out this article, Expert: Picture Books Still Work for Kids in which Dr. Deborah Pope, executive director of the Ezra Jack Keats Foundation discusses why a rush-kids-into-chapter-books strategy may backfire. Included are excellent tips about how to choose a title that is right for a particular child based on his/her learning style, current interests, a book’s potential to inspire, and several other criteria.

In keeping with the current holiday shopping season, here are a few titles that may be perfect for a young reader on your list. Titles are linked to Amazon:

O Christmas Tree: Its History and Holiday Traditions
Written by Jacqueline Farmer
Illustrated by Joanne Friar
Artwork: gouache paintings
Charlesbridge, 2010

Starting with pre-Christian practices in ancient cultures then proceeding through history to modern times, readers can find out the many ways people have used trees for holiday celebrations. A visit to tree farms and information about the different species of
evergreens used for Christmas trees is also included.

A video trailer for this title gives a peek at the lovely detailed artwork.

The Twelve Days of Christmas in Georgia
Written by Susan Rosson Spain
Illustrated by Elizabeth O. Dulemba
Artwork: digital
Sterling, 2010

There are fourteen states and two cities (NYC and D.C.) in this series so far by a variety of authors and artists (click here to see the others.) The Georgia story takes Jacob and Ava to the Martin Luther King, Jr. historic site in Atlanta, along the Appalachian Trail, and other regional highlights. Free coloring pages and other activities are available on the illustrator’s web site.

The Grand Adventure: A True Story of Survival and Determination on an Amazing River Journey into the Grand Canyon and Other Canyons of the West
Written by Mark A. and Donna E. Hicks
Illustrated by Mark A. Hicks
Artwork: watercolor and pencil
Published independently in 2010

An adventure unfolds as John Wesley Powell embarks on a 1,000 mile expedition into the uncharted territory of the Grand Canyon in 1869. Interested readers can check out several spreads of the book
using the “Look Inside” and “Surprise Me” features on Amazon.

Calico Dorsey: Mail Dog of the Mining Camps
Written by Susan Lendroth
Illustrated by Adam Gustavson
Artwork: oil paintings
Tricycle Press, 2010

Based on the true story of a stray Border collie that became an official U.S. Postal Service letter carrier in California during the
1880’s. A photo of the real dog, Dorsey, who delivered mail to the town of Calico is included.

Off Like the Wind! The First Ride of the Pony Express
Written by Michael P. Spradlin
Illustrated by Layne Johnson
Artwork: oil paintings
Walker Books, 2010

In 1860 a rider started out from Missouri on the way to deliver mail overland for the first time to the West. It took eleven days and many riders braving harsh conditions and wild animals to accomplish the feat. An excerpt and reading guide are available on the author’s website.

Draw Plus Math
Written and illustrated by Freddie Levin
Artwork: colored pencils and digital
Peel Productions, 2010

This step-by-step drawing guide incorporates math concepts including counting, addition/subtraction, sets, patterns, graphs, and much more in an appealing way. The activities are based on the standards developed by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. (I wish a book like this had been around when I was in elementary school!)

Baby Owl’s Rescue
Written by Jennifer Keats Curtis
Illustrated by Laura Jacques
Artwork: acrylic painting with digital enhancements
Sylvan Dell, 2009

A fictional story about two children who find a young owl displaced by a storm conveys accurate information about how animals can be aided by a wildlife rehabilitator. Included are facts about great horned owls, suggestions about how to proceed if you find an injured bird.
The publisher’s web site has more resources including teaching activities, related web sites, and online quizzes.

All of the above books were illustrated by members of the Picture Book Artists Association, which I also belong to. Happy reading and happy holidays to all!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

From Start to Finish

My wife Alison and I are in the final moments with our book, Invincible Microbe (a wide-ranging history of tuberculosis). You know, that time when the revision has been completed and sent to your editor and a sense of anxiety and panic begins to set in. Is the material as up-to-date as possible? Where exactly can we add a brief mention of those specially trained rats that can sniff out tuberculosis in sputum seven times faster but with the same success rate as conventional testing? Did we spell Leptomeningitis tuberculosa correctly and does it really have to be mentioned in the text?
In other word, time is running out to get it all right!
Naturally, we're also finishing up other the last elements of the project. Alison is gathering the images for the book, a complicated, time-consuming, and expensive process. Just a few days ago a huge and beautiful picture of the inside of a 500,000 year old skull filled her computer screen. A stylus was pointing to lesions of said Leptomeningitis tuberculosa, the oldest physical evidence of the disease yet discovered. Will it look this good in the book, she asked. I had my doubts; some of the best looking images often reproduce in a disappointing way. If it's reproduced big enough, I answered. And we immediately scribbled a note to suggest this to the designer.
Meanwhile, I was revising our 39 pages of quote attributions, sources, and notes, a chore (note the word) that always leaves me with a headache at the end of the day. I'm impatient to be writing the next project, not pouring over such familiar details (details we've lived with for years now) of this last one! But I know it's important, so I refocus and enter the information as carefully as possible.
And as always happens when I do back matter, I ask myself who this is really for. I've noticed in recent years that some writers take a very formal approach to this information, as if they are trying to establish their scholarly street creds for reviewers and award committees. Personally, I think most young readers (and their parents) are scared off by such a heavy-handed, academic approach.
I remind myself that most of our readers will probably not know very much about the subject. Oh, they'll have an aquaintance with aspects of it, but for most that knowledge won't run very deep. This is why our book is really a mini-course on the subject matter, a page by page layering of information and antedote that builds up the reader's knowledge and leads her to ask questions, make comparisons to other subjects, to think and -- hopefully -- want to know more. Which, of course, is why the back matter matters!
But we also want this information to be accessible and, well, as non-threatening, useful, and fun as possible. Instead of a straight, dry bibliography, we briefly describe what each title is about, pointing out its areas of strength. We explain where our information comes from, breaking it down into convenient bits (a reader can research and do a paper on, say, ancient medical practices in Egypt, if that is what interests her). And we'll add odd, interesting details that haven't made it into the main text (how Selman Waksman grabbed the credit for the discovery of streptomycin and with it the Noble Prize and was later sued by his hard working and aggrieved assistant, Albert Schatz). It's not that we're inventing anything here. But we are working to present it in a way (and with a voice) that our readers will find welcoming.
In the end, we're guides for our readers, leading them on a journey of discovery and surprise. Our job is to find the simpliest, most direct route, start to finish (which means ignoring the headache and finishing up the task at hand). Because for some readers, the back matter won't mark the end of a journey; it might just be the beginning of a long and satisfying adventure.
Happy Holidays Everyone!

Monday, December 13, 2010

Wishes for the New Year

‘Tis the season for both gifts and good wishes. Sometimes the two are one and the same. Still good wishes don’t always sound so pretty.

1. I, like so many people, am confused and outraged by the article in the New York Times about certain parents deciding to bypass picture books as quickly as possible to move on to chapter books. (Full disclosure—I write picture books.) This reported trend reminds me of a past fad using flashcards with quasi-verbal kids in an attempt to catapult them into SAT courses about the same time they finished toilet training. Hey, I’m a parent too; I worry all the time about my kids being well and happy and getting ahead. BUT COME ON!

My first wish? I wish that parents will realize that snuggling with their young child and a picture book, looking at it together accomplishes more than the chapter books I write as well. The child hears words she could never read at her age and enjoys a sophistication of story, relationships and ideas he could never read about by himself. The pictures act as an artistic dictionary, helping that young reader equate the look of a word and the word itself with its meaning via a drawing. Why be one of the seven blind men trying to define an elephant when you can just look at a picture of one? Furthermore we live in an increasingly visual age; why deprive a child of a model of using word and image together from the start?

And finally, we not only learn by doing, we learn by liking what we do. Kids love spending undistracted, interactive time with their parents (at that age, anyway) when the parent and a book are guides into new exciting worlds. They love reading picture books. And once they’ve practiced decoding letters and become used to bunches of them together with spaces between them, they love reading chapter books.

So I wish you guys would just calm down, then sit down and read a picture book to your kids.

2. Many writers here at I.N.K. have blogged about evolution and its detractors. They have been as impassioned and eloquent as I could ever be. So I’ll just start this wish/rant by saying, “ditto,” and move on to the general principal that we have never had better access to good, accurate information.

I wish we would value it more. Enough with “truthiness,” Mr. Colbert! And enough of cherrypicking facts or factoids that simply support our previously held views. I wish people would work harder to dig for this accurate information, find it, actually THINK about it, and use the results to create their opinions. Then let’s talk about how to reduce the deficit or raise our students’ math scores.

In other words, I wish we’d all start ascribing to a wise thought attributed to everyone from Bernard Baruch to Daniel Moynihan: Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.

3. I mentioned in a previous blog that I am currently an author-in-residence in a Boston school located in the middle of a public housing community. There is nothing like extended time in a school to remind you that teachers are heroes. They’ve got a hard job that is everyday and most of them try their best to do it well. I wish society appreciated them more.

As an author, I also wish they would/could use better hand-crafted books (nonfiction and otherwise) in their classrooms. I now understand better than ever how hard it is for teachers to use initiative and personalize the lessons they teach. There are seemingly endless mandated tests beyond the required state exams. Grade level curricula have units that must be covered from, say, October 11th to November 7th and others that pick up on November 8th. Where is the time for spontaneity? For the magic that comes from an inspired lesson or experiment or book?

I wish that we can somehow figure out how to slip more want-to’s in with ought-to’s. I can see from my time at the Perkins School that sparks do get kindled in kids and we just have to have a sufficient variety of kindling around to reach the future poet and scientist alike.

4. Besides all this, I wish we all could have world peace and a Happy New Year.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Stepping Back Without Leaving the Room

Last month I wrote about deciding which story you want to tell, as narrative nonfiction is more than a collection of related facts—it has to tell a story, with a beginning, middle, and end. Months of research may reveal a half dozen (or more!) potential book ideas on the same topic. One of the greatest challenges an author then faces is to decide which idea resonates most deeply and tells, for them, the most compelling story.

In picture books, especially, there is no room for side-trips, interesting asides, meandering down this path and that—a picture book needs a tight focus and a clean storyline. And because a picture book is illustrated, the story you tell has to be dramatic—people have to do things, and, ideally, do them in different places. (No matter how great, say, a scientist’s accomplishment is, you can’t have a whole picture book of your scientist, page after page after page, sitting in a lab looking into a microscope. S/he needs to get up and move around.)

So you choose your story, the one you want to tell. You’ve been researching for months. The salient facts are in your head. You’re so immersed in the topic that you can often remember not just the facts but the source—book, article, interview—for each one.

You’re in the zone. You’re living, breathing, eating, sleeping, and boring your husband every night at dinner with Whitman or Roosevelt or Twain. You’re there, baby, and you’re writing your book.

You’re also in a bit of a bind.

Because after you’ve laid down the first, rough draft, after it’s there but still a mess, with huge gaps, incomplete thoughts, and fascinating but totally irrelevant details, you can’t really see what you’ve written. The story is in your head, but so is all the other stuff you’ve been reading for the past four (six? ten?) months. How can you possibly hope to see what’s really on the page—how can you tell if you’ve actually written the story you want to tell—when Walt tags along when you go to the grocery store, and Teddy shows up in your Zumba class?


Getting the story out of your head enough that you can see what’s actually on the page.

Time, of course, is a wonderful tool to gain perspective. Setting the manuscript aside for a while, even a few weeks, can do wonders. (Although the way to be disciplined and effective, oddly enough, is blow off the manuscript. You can’t expect those two weeks to give you distance if you spend them reading those last three Twain biographies still sitting on your shelf. You need to take walks, clear out your email inbox, make spaghetti, even start work on a new project.)

But what if you can’t take two weeks off? What if a deadline is looming? What tricks can you employ to bring fresh eyes to your manuscript?

*Since I compose at the computer, simply printing out the manuscript helps me see it in a new way. Printing it out and taking the copy somewhere else—say, a coffee shop—helps, too. It’s even different reading it sitting on the couch, instead of at my desk.

*I have a wonderful critique group that meets every two weeks, and sharing the manuscript with them is extremely helpful. Your critique group has not been reading about Alice Roosevelt for the past six months, and they can hear the story in a way you can’t. In addition, simply reading the story out loud to them is illuminating. (I don’t find reading the story out loud to myself to be particularly helpful for big picture items, like structure, although it works beautifully once I’m at the line-edit stage. But boy does it become painfully clear where the story drags when you are reading it out loud to an audience.)

*In the class I took in October, Stephen Roxburgh offered a couple other tips I’ve never tried but plan to, next go round, and both these tips address the problem of reading on automatic pilot, so to speak (you know—when you’ve read something so many times that you’re not fully engaged while you read it, your brain is elsewhere). One is to print the manuscript out triple-spaced. The other is to print it out in a wildly different font, not a font that is a pain to read, but just a font that makes the manuscript lay down differently on the page, waking your brain back up, making you slow down, and giving you a fresh read. (Since many of us tend to write in Times New Roman, which is a serif font (the kind with the little feet), he even suggested switching to a sans-serif font like Arial.)

Whatever method (or methods!) you choose, the goal is the same—to see the manuscript as it really is, to see what works and what doesn’t, so you can begin to process of revising and turn it into the story you want to tell.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Secrets of Nonfiction Illustration

Today we have a special treat. We'll hear from a guest blogger who has made skilled use of white space in her recent nonfiction picture book Born to Be Giants.
Welcome, Lita Judge!

When I first set out to create Born to be Giants, I didn’t plan to illustrate the dinosaurs against white space. My previous nonfiction books were historical and I thought the settings and background of each illustration was as important to telling the story as the main characters. But I quickly realized when creating this book that I needed to re-think the design for this topic.

My first challenge was that I wanted to show the scale of baby dinosaurs to their parents. The world of dinosaurs is filled with extremes, where parents are often thousand of times heavier than their babies. How could I show this if I painted them within a scene? The tiny babies would be lost next to their parents.

I realized, with the use of white space, I could tackle this problem in exciting ways. I could show just how extraordinarily large a parent Argentinosaurus was by drawing one alongside 17 elephants.
Then in another illustration, show how tiny the baby was in comparison to its parent’s foot. With the use of white space, I have a visually unified page spread and can create multiple illustrations that communicate more information than if I had just set the dinosaurs into a single background scene.

I continued to fall in the love with a design based on white space because it gave me the opportunity to illustrate every clue in the book. I wanted young readers to have visual information for each clue as well as text. Some of the concepts in the book can be challenging for young children, but knowing how enthusiastic my readers are for this topic, I wanted illustrations to guide and enhance their understanding.
The use of white space around each of the spot illustrations helps focus the reader’s attention and keeps the book from feeling cluttered or confusing.

And yet another reason I felt strongly about the use of white space came directly from my journals. I’ve been keeping a journal since I was a little girl, observing and sketching animals, and writing brief passages of text around each drawing. Recording animals in a journal taught me to capture how they moved, their gestures and expressions.

When I created this book, I wanted readers to imagine young dinosaurs as they were—hiding, stalking, running, and playing. I wanted readers to realize baby dinosaurs must have had large eyes, and wobbly necks, just like baby animals today. I felt the white space around each of the dinosaurs emphasized their gestures, making them more lifelike.
I think white space can be a beautiful and practical way to portray a lot of information in a clear and simple way, and at the same time, create an elegant beauty.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010


If you scroll on down to last Thursday’s blog, you’ll find Steve Jenkins’ lively rant about the pseudo-scientific gibberish and censorship surrounding the Theory of Evolution. Since 5 (yes, five!!!) of our INK bloggers have written books about Charles Darwin, and since I’m one of the perps my own self, I cannot help but chime in.

Ladies and gentlemen, the evidence is overwhelming. Now that DNA has vindicated just about everything Darwin ever wrote, evolution is a proven fact—you can take that message straight to the bank. And as the unifying underlying principle of all biology, evolution should be taught in schools just as surely as we teach kids about gravity or the fact that the earth revolves around the sun (another maligned “theory” that got a scientist in trouble).

To put it very simply, Darwin showed us how all living things are shaped over time by Natural Selection; if any random change in a plant or animal made it more likely to survive in a given environment, its offspring might end up with the same trait and would therefore be more likely to survive too. And any plants or animals that randomly developed unhelpful traits would be likely to die out.

For example, Darwin discovered that the most spectacular birds of paradise and the most colorful butterflies were likely to lure the best mates and therefore have the most offspring. He saw how pumas that ran too slowly couldn’t catch enough game to eat, while their faster, stronger brothers would capture the most prey and live to reproduce in the bargain. He noted that mammals like bats which had gradually developed wings over a long period of time could catch prey—and escape from predators—better than their wingless ancestors. And anteaters with the longest snouts could reach deeper into an anthill to eat the most ants. And the strongest alligators or rams or stag beetles could win a battle for the best mates and pass their great strength along to their children too. And certain drought-resistant plants would survive to reproduce when the rains disappeared. And so on.

The world continues to evolve right before our eyes every single day. Are there any examples kids can see today? I’m sure that the young contestants Steve blogged about who are writing and drawing their thoughts on evolution have thought of plenty. I've been gleaning a few more:

Hi kids. Did you ever have a horrible earache, but when the doctor gave you an antibiotic, it didn’t work? Whoops. That’s because the kind of bacteria that caused your pain has evolved; back when your medicine was first invented, it used to kill almost every trace of bacteria and kids got well again right away. But a tiny number of bacterium were resistant to the drug and refused to drop dead. They multiplied over and over instead, and by now, millions of their evil offspring aren’t affected by the medicine one bit. And guess what? The ten most dangerous microbes on the planet are now resistant to everything we can throw in their direction. Watch your head.

Hi kids. Did you happen to watch yesterday’s TV show about African elephants, and did you notice their teeny little tusks? Well guess what. Male elephants used to have gigantic tusks so that they could fight each other to win the best looking girlfriend. But poachers killed all the elephants with the biggest tusks and made a bundle selling the ivory. The only elephants that survived to breed had teeny little tusks. They had evolved.

Hi again. Remember how global warming has been killing off our coral reefs and all of the astonishing undersea creatures that live there? Well guess what. There’s actually a small glimmer of hope because some scientists have figured out that certain reefs in the Western Pacific Ocean and near Australia evolved in warm water and might be protected from global warming. Hmmm...if you ever become a scientist, maybe one of these pretty days you can visit these paradises, figure out the reefs' tricks, and use their secrets to protect the dying ones.

Hi. Want dinner? Sorry, kids, but lots of the plants you eat already got eaten by bugs instead. Seems that the pesticides we always used to kill them off don't work any more. The pests have evolved a resistance to such poisons. And is there a bird feeder in your yard? Then guess what else? A certain species of European songbirds that visit bird feeders in the UK have evolved rounded wings and long narrow bills and are busy turning into a new species as we speak. Scientist are trying to figure out why. Any ideas?

I’ve got a million more evolutionary examples concerning fossils of extinct giant mammals and fossils of extinct human beings. I've got stories about invisible guppies that used to be gaudy and mice that have most of the same genes as men and more...much more. They're fun to learn about, and they offer important keys that can link us to our past and our future. Not to preach or anything, but….oh, never mind. Even though there are entire school systems that refuse to mention the “E” word, we shouldn’t short-change our budding scientists and leaders by leaving such key information about the planet out of their curriculum. Let’s not censor or ignore the massive amount of solid science behind Darwin’s “theory.” We do so at our own peril.