Friday, February 25, 2011

Interesting Nonfiction for Kids: Dewey Decimal System RIP?

Melvil Dewey
An article in last week’s Chicago Tribune about the demise of the Dewey Decimal System has given cause to think about my usage of a library versus a bookstore, and how the general public uses both. In the article titled “Who's Killing the Dewey Decimal System?”, a local Elgin IL library is featured as a successful library that has fashioned their shelving system into a more bookstore layout. Other Chicago libraries are following suit and have demonstrated increased amounts of books checked out, aka “foot traffic”.
Basis for the change is to encourage people to read more books and for libraries to become more user friendly. Opponents to the new system have strong feelings regarding the change. Comments range from the belief that the fad is dumbing down libraries to the lack of standardization leading to chaos within the library system.
The Dewey Decimal System for me brings back fond memories of looking for a book in the Wilson Elementary Library or the Mt. Washington Library – where my mother would drop me off each week while she shopped at the local Kroger’s grocery store. Nowadays, I’ll get a text from my ten-year-old son begging me to stop by the library while I’m running errands to grab a book (with the corresponding number) for him – that he’s checked online and is at the library.
Definitely, I'm in no position to rant one way or another about the evolution of the library in our culture and economic climate, but the topic is fodder for an interesting discussion on this blog. Anyone have a comment or two? Please chime in.
Last November, Annoyed Librarian in Library Journal blogged about the library system changes in a post titled "Libraries Reinvent Themselves".

Feeling a little nostalgic for Melvil Dewey’s invention? Here’s a few Interesting Nonfiction for Kids selections:

Dewey the Library Cat: A True Story
By Vicky Myron
Little, Brown 2010
J 636.8

Melvil Dewey: Library Genius
By Jill Sherman
ABDO Publishing 2010

Bob the Alien Discovers the Dewey Decimal System
By Sandy Bridget Donovan
Picture Window Books January 2010
J 025.431 DON

The Library Gingerbread Man
By Dotti Enderle
Upstart Books January 2010
(Yeah, I know it's not nonfiction but I couldn't resist.)

*Please notice that I added the Dewey Decimal information, for your convenience.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Cranky Blog Day

Writing this blog made me sick to my stomach. I often feel this way about blog writing. Because I don't like just throwing written words out there, willy-nilly. I like having editors. Blogging is just running around nude, not even getting dressed. And believe me, you don't want me streaking.

With all the recent talk of author power, hooray, publish-your-own-books, digital freedom, I'm going to temporarily crawl in my curmudgeonly corner. Yeah, I like freedom and I'm a longtime Mac head, videographer, photographer techno-geek. But, I WANT MY EDITORS! I want their counsel, their expertise, their push which makes the work better. I want their understanding umbrella, their picky questions, finding mistakes I did not see. My name and often an illustrator's name are on the books. But our editors (and designers and others) have made our work what it is. Just because we CAN wear all the hats and create something ourselves doesn't mean we should. Or that the work would be of comparable quality.

Authors and illustrators tend to remember, and relate, the times when they were right and editors were wrong. Yes, it happens. I still have a ghost words in my head, words that I sneak in at public readings even though they were cut from the final books. (Rebellious author moments!) But, oh, the improvements that have been made in my work by editors that pushed me. Better endings. Better wording. Deeper character. Better flow. I've learned so much from them over the years. I don't think enough readers appreciate the vast teams of people that work on each children's book. I'm not sitting in offices with these folks. But they are part of my daily work life. Bouncing text back and forth with them is productive, a satisfying, sometimes humorous, give-and-take. Hair-pulling hard work at times.

Recently, there were two places in a manuscript that were excellent. Yet whenever I read over them, I felt a faint tickle in my brain. The pieced flowed beautifully, so I sent it in. The manuscript returned from the editor. She had called me on each of those spots—pressing me, asking if something might somehow be better. I laughed to realize that she was echoing an instinct I'd had but couldn't follow without inquiry and encouragement.

Having a great editor on a project frees me to do what I do best—play with language, dig into concepts, explore, and experiment. Occasionally, I need reigning in. For a sometime picture book writer, I can get awfully wordy on occasion. Maybe a bit rambling. Oh, had you noticed that? Well, what do you expect? This is a BLOG, PEOPLE!

April Pulley Sayre


This month I also have a nonfiction blog post about animals that hop, hosted on the Under the Green Willow blog. It's linked to a my fiction book, If You're Hoppy, which was released this week. (Shock! Horror! She writes… fiction?) Rest assured, the text of the blog is nonfiction about animals that hop and getting kids/educators to expand how they think about categories. It also has some links to hoppy lemurs and a nifty origami frog. I hope you enjoy that one, as well.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011


I recently attended an SCBWI workshop in Los Angeles about girl books and boy books. Cecil Castelluci (YA novelist) and Michael Reisman (middle grade sci fi) led the discussions, and everyone in the room had plenty to say about the subject. We talked about girl books, boy books, and “unisex” books. [Unresolved question of the day – without Hermione Granger, would Harry Potter be a boys’ series?]

We’ve all heard the axiom that girls will read books about girls and boys, but boys won’t read about girls, unless the protagonist is a girl in an outdoor/wilderness/dangerous setting and or/surrounded by boys. Hard-core sci fi and thrillers are seen as boys’ books. “Relationship” books about girls are for girls.

Throughout the day, not a word was spoken about nonfiction, but that didn’t stop me thinking about it. Looking at the Sibert award books and the YALSA nonfiction award books this year, (see it’s harder to assign gender categories, and it seems to me that nonfiction appears more “unisex” than fiction.

Robert F. Sibert Medal

Kakapo Rescue: Saving the World’s Strangest Parrot, by Sy Montgomery, photographs by Nic Bishop; Part of Scientists in the Field series.

Honor Books

Ballet for Martha: Making Appalachian Spring, by Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan, illustrated by Brian Floca (art/music/dance history)

Lafayette and the American Revolution, by Russell Freedman

YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults

Janis Joplin: Rise Up Singing, by Ann Angel


They Called Themselves the K.K.K.: The Birth of an American Terrorist Group, by Susan Campbell Bartoletti

Spies of Mississippi: The True Story of the Spy Network that Tried to Destroy the Civil Rights Movement, by Rick Bowers

The Dark Game: True Spy Stories, by Paul Janeczko

Every Bone Tells a Story: Hominin Discoveries, Deductions, and Debates, by Jill Rubalcaba and Peter Robertshaw


One for dance/music/art history

Ballet for Martha: Making Appalachian Spring, co-authored by our own Jan Greenberg.

Apart from the occasional Billy Elliot, ballet is usually meant for girls, but the composer and set designer were men, and so this book has hooks for girls and boys.

Two for science.

Kakapo Rescue combines biography, zoology, and conservation. All kids love animals and saving them is a challenge that attracts both genders. Unisex all the way.

Every Bone Tells a Story: Hominin Discoveries, Deductions, and Debates Forensic science, history, mystery, archaeology – the appeal is broad enough for both genders.

Two biographies

Lafayette and the American Revolution Lafayette - a male subject and war stories: boys like those; but all biographies are about relationships and girls like those.

Janis Joplin: Rise Up Singing – about a girl, but full of sex, drugs, and rock and roll – what’s not to attract any YA?

Three histories

They Called Themselves the K.K.K.: The Birth of an American Terrorist Group

• Spies of Mississippi: The True Story of the Spy Network that Tried to Destroy the Civil Rights Movement

The Dark Game: True Spy Stories

All three of these books are multi-faceted: part mystery, part thriller, part civil rights history. The first two books feature men; the third includes women spies as well. The sensationalism of the subject must surely cross the gender line.

I began this posting meaning to discuss the issue of gender in writing nonfiction. But I see that it has morphed into the multi-disciplinary approach that award-winning nonfiction authors are pursuing. Don’t you love it?!

Tuesday, February 22, 2011


A few months ago, some research led from a whim to a tangent to a total irrelevancy until I found myself at the reserve desk of my library picking up eight books I had just requested on Mary Lincoln. “Oh, someone’s got a research paper due, I see” the librarian said to me. I smiled and I nodded. What could I say? Certainly not the truth—just obsessed.

How do writers find ideas? Well, sometimes they find you. And sometimes they won’t leave you alone. And sometimes, the subject begins to manifest itself in everything in your life and your family members can become a wee bit concerned.

For example, when you realize that your daughter is the same height as Mary Lincoln and her boyfriend is the exact same height as Abraham Lincoln and you think this is the most splendid coincidence ever. You then suggest, completely seriously, that it would be magnificent to locate a large hoop skirt and a stovepipe hat for them to wear. You don’t understand why they don’t look more enthusiastic.
Or you start watching the film version of an excellent theatrical performance by Julie Harris as Mary Lincoln. While viewing, family members stop by and become interested in the movie and watch for a bit. But you keep interrupting, figuring out what Mary is about to say, because you’ve already read most of her letters and you know what line must come next.

As you read more, you take a lot of notes. But you feel obligated to write out “Abraham” and never “Abe” having now read multiple times and feeling confident in the truth of the fact that Mr. Lincoln, and certainly not Mary, could never abide by that nickname. You wonder if “A.Lincoln” would be all right for note taking purposes.

People find some of your references to Mary amusing but certainly not all of them. They don’t seem as certain as you do that everything that happened between Mary and Mr. Lincoln is interesting or relevant to understanding how we think and feel about life in general. They think, perhaps, you might be seeing into things too much.

Then one night, you’re in a noisy pizza place with a TV on behind you and suddenly your daughter freezes up and looks like she’s seen a ghost. You turn around just in time to see them.

It's not a talking gecko. It's all about Mary. As with all good non fiction, you just can't make this stuff up.

Monday, February 21, 2011

A Fine Time for a Sale

So. It's that time of year again. American kids, postal employees, and bank tellers have a three day weekend and merchants of mattresses and major appliances will post big, cut-rate newspaper ads for big sales. And it appears that I am to be interviewed on Coast to Coast AM between 10 and 11 PM, Pacific Time, tonight, 21 February, thanks to my book, Ghosts of the White House. (I asked the producer, 'Have you guys seen my book? It isn't so very dashed spooky.' I'm sure that this fact has pissed off many a kid who'd shelled out perfectly good money for it only to discover that it held no bona fide spirits who walk by night, haunting the halls of the place where they'd suffered in life then found no rest, not even in death. Ah well. Too bad, so sad. Poor kids. Sucks to be you. I'm not above luring innocent young citizens into learning more about their nation's leaders.) By the way, Abraham Lincoln is said to be the most restless of spirits.
Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands, who was spending the night in FDR's
White House, said that he (Abe, not Franklin) came and sat down on the
edge of her bed. Cool! But you think that the poor soul would be able to
rest comfortably in the Blue Beyond after all he went through. Here's what
Bess Truman, my former neighbor, had to say about the subject: "Now, about
those ghosts. I'm sure they're here and I'm not half so alarmed at meeting up
with any of them as I am at having to meet the live nuts I have to see every day."
I'd be willing to bet thatPresident Obama feels the same way.
Anyway, all of this is Presidential hoohah is because both Mary Washington and Nancy Lincoln gave birth to their significant boy babies in February. For years their sons' birthdays were set aside to honor their legacies. Back in 1971, during Mr. Nixon's administration, when I was a doofy college coed, it was decided that we citizens of the republic for which we stand might better spend at least part of the third Monday in February noting the lives and times of all of the men who've been chosen to occupy the highest office in the land. Might as well. It is, after all, Presidents Day.
I figure that each and every one of these gents stands for a chapter in the story of the nation. As I was telling a cafetorium full of young North Carolinians just this past week, if you know a little more about the life & times of President No. 8 (1837-1841), Martin "Old Kinderhook" Van Buren (1782-1850 - a span that went from the conclusion of America's War for Independence to the Gold Rush. Just think of it!), for instance, you can't help but find out a little about the Republic of Texas and our government's treachery in its treatment of the tribes living in America's Southeast. Seminole chieftain, Osceola comes to mind. Trans-Atlantic steamship service and a truly dreadful recession, known as the Panic of 1837. Expanding railroads & canals. Samuel Morse's telegraph and the murder of abolitionist/newspaperman Elijah P. Lovejoy. The growing westward movement. The Mormon War. The capture of the Amistad and the coronation of Queen Victoria. Of course, I could go on (Chopin, Mendelssohn, awesome, poofy ladies' fashions, invention of the bicycle), but you get the idea. Read up on some of these
guys. They're worth the knowing.
Sure, many a writer and/or illustrator has turned out handsome books about the Presidents, such as So You Want to Be President? by Judith St. George & David Small. I particularly like that one AND Kathleen Krull's & Kathryn Hewitt's Lives of the Presidents: Fame, Shame (and What the Neighbors Thought).
Ah well. Enough of this. I hear there's a good deal to be had on a washing machine.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Introducing Hester Bass

When Ballet for Martha: Making Appalachian Spring received the Orbis Pictus Award, Hester Bass, whose book wom last year's award, wrote me a note of congratulations. I immediately read The Secret World Of Arthur Anderson, a book about an amazing artist from Mississippi, a story that needed to be told. And what an eloquent and moving story it is through Hester's words. She agreed to be a guest blogger this month and I hope you will enjoy reading about her amazing journey to become a writer.

25 Years, a Long Weekend, and a Day
- Hester Bass, author of The Secret World of Walter Anderson

I am often asked: where do you get your ideas? I often answer: on sale at Target. (Cue the rimshot.) I am also often asked: how’d you get your book published? Short answer: Perseverance. Long answer: Every book is a journey and what propels us, as creators and readers, past every setback and distraction to reach “The End” is falling in love with an idea. My journey with one idea involves 25 years, a long weekend, and a day. (Nobody ever said that writing and publishing would be quick or easy.)

The seed for The Secret World of Walter Anderson was planted in 1982, when my husband and I were introduced to this artist by a friend who sent us an article from Horizon magazine. (We’ve misplaced our copy; if you have it, I’m interested.) We were smitten with Anderson’s art, his adventurous life, his pure joy for nature. Ten years later, we visited the Walter Anderson Museum of Art in Ocean Springs, Mississippi and four years after that in 1996, we moved our family to this art colony by the sea.

At the museum, I saw how children leaned into the tale of a man who rode a bicycle, drew expertly with crayons, and had a pet raccoon. My wish since childhood to write bubbled up, and I began to hold meetings with my computer as if we were the only two members of a secret society.

I read Anderson’s journals, books by his wife and others, talked to everyone I could find who had studied Anderson - his children, curators, anyone who might help me get the gold out of this mine - and wrote the first draft in 1999. In 2001, after an exhaustive publisher safari, I sent the manuscript to a hand-picked editor whose personal background and list seemed a perfect fit. It was returned unopened.

I moped around for a while, then promptly joined SCBWI and moved on to other projects, which included applying to game shows. In 2002, I was a six-figure winner on “Who Wants to Be A Millionaire” and decided to make that life-changing money, getting seriously serious about writing. My first book, So Many Houses, was sold to Scholastic in 2004 and came out in 2006. I was positively giddy to be published.

I was about to spend some of that Millionaire money to attend the 2006 SCBWI summer conference in Los Angeles because my favorite writer was going to be there when I won an all-expenses-paid trip to California, where I met him by the pool. (Sometimes I think that when an idea’s time has come, a writer has to hold on for dear life; things can happen pretty fast.) A gracious conversationalist, this Newbury winner asked me a fateful question: What was the one book I most wanted to publish? I had a ready answer.

Long story short, this celebrated author offered to read my Walter Anderson manuscript and, if he liked it, help get it into the right hands. I can scarcely believe this actually happened to me but believe me when I tell you that this could happen to you. If you are bold and brave and speak the unrefined dreams of your heart, you may get to watch the wheels of the universe pivot on ideas, and the world will be better for your efforts.
Back at home - which by now was Huntsville, Alabama - I spent a long weekend revisiting my manuscript and the work was so intense that I was consumed by it; literally, I lost 8 pounds. I was attempting to remove the safety equipment and dive into that deep well where my truth dwells, pouring 25 years’ worth of ideas onto the page once and for all.

Something worked. Within two weeks, I had a culmulative tale of a mentor and an agent and an editor and a contract. Illustrated by E. B. Lewis. Published by Candlewick Press. Dreams do come true. Mine. Yours. Make it happen. Go there.

Then on a January day in 2010, The Secret World of Walter Anderson won the NCTE Orbis Pictus Award for Outstanding Nonfiction for Children. I screamed when I found out. All kinds of new readers would now discover Walter Anderson and could be encouraged by how he struggled to follow his dreams and the beauty he left behind. The book received other accolades and 2010 turned into a full calendar of interviews, travel, and appearances. Somehow I couldn’t seem to get much writing done until the year was over.

Now the torch has been passed. The 2011 winner of the NCTE Orbis Pictus Award is Ballet for Martha: Making Appalachian Spring, a gem of a book by Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan, illustrated by Brian Floca. I wrote to offer my congratulations and Jan invited me to write a guest blog for I.N.K. Thank you, Jan! (I’ve never written a blog post before so thanks for sticking with it till the end here.)

The world of ideas is so rich and full and beautiful, and I’m deep in the fertile mud at the moment. I’m still finding out what kind of writer I am. I concentrated on one story for quite a while, and now I’m working on five at once! Insane or inspired, time will tell. The important thing is: when an idea grabs you, hold on and don’t let go, for no matter how long it takes, there’s me and countless others who want to know everything you know about it and why you love it so. Best wishes in all you do.
THE SECRET WORLD OF WALTER ANDERSON illustrated by E.B. Lewis from Candlewick Press
WINNER of the 2010 NCTE Orbis Pictus Award for Outstanding Nonfiction for Children
WINNER of the 2010 SIBA Book Award for Children's Books
- Bestseller in Southern Independent Bookstores
- NCSS Notable Social Studies Trade Book for Young People
- Bank Street Best Children's Books
- CCBC Choices: Best-of-the-Year List compiled by Cooperative Children's Book Center
- Kirkus: Best Children's Books and Starred Review
- Nominee for 2011 Magnolia Award - Mississippi Children's Choice
"True art consists of spreading wide the intervals so that imagination may fill the space between the trees." - Walter Inglis Anderson=

Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Nuances of Oral History

This post is by Tanya Lee Stone. She couldn't log in today so I'm posting it for her.

I recently had a long conversation with an old friend of mine from high school. A few things came up that I was surprised to hear. “I don’t remember it that way at all,” I said. She laughed. “Boy, for a writer, your memory is terrible,” she said.

The events we were talking about were things we lived through together, experienced deeply, and yet came away with different recollections. There were even details she recalled that I did not at all, and vice versa. As I am once again immersed in a project that relies heavily on oral histories, I began to look at my materials from a different angle. Many “what if” questions presented.

What if a subject is being interviewed too long after an event occurred? How does interviewing someone too soon impact the retelling? What about a subject’s mood on the day of an interview? Did they get enough sleep? Are they cranky? Is there more than one person involved? Do their stories mesh?

Of course, I have always factored these questions in when evaluating primary source materials, but somehow coming face to face with the flaws in my own memory has given me new insights into how I am feeling about the whole notion of history this morning.

I always tell kids that the best any writer can do is to be as responsible and accurate as humanly possible—but—and I stress this, human beings are imperfect. Therefore, all history is imperfect. Our job as nonfiction writers, reporters, journalists, is to do everything within our reach to get the best version of the truth straight that we can. Sometimes this means being perfectly up front with the reader. I did this in Almost Astronauts. There was a critical piece of information in that story, and the way the information came to me was just as important as the information itself. What to do? I incorporated the information about the source into the narrative and then I explained to the reader under exactly what circumstances I was given this information so that they could form their own opinions about it. Full disclosure. For me, that’s the way to go.

Stories will vary on any given memory of an experience when dealing with oral histories. This is natural. If you have seven different people involved with a historical event, you may be told seven slightly different versions of that event. Some details may not mesh. But common truths will emerge.

In the book I’m working on now, Courage Has No Color, there is one anecdote that has been told three times by the same subject. Even with one interviewee, some small details change from telling to telling. But what is most important to me is that the emotional truth of what happened to him stays the same. And that’s what I am always on the lookout for—the emotional truth of the story.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Digital books: Will form affect content?

In last month’s post I sought to summarize many of the issues authors and illustrators face when putting their work into digital form. One goal for many of us is to bring new life to our out-of-print (OP) titles. It’s a costly and logistically-complex undertaking to have a book reprinted (cardboard boxes filling the garage comes to mind.) But an ebook? Seems much more feasible. Choosing which format and ebookstore to focus on is harder than it might seem at first. As a picture book creator, the need for full-bleed images eliminates some contenders such as the Amazon Kindle.
 Let’s start with the easiest format, Adobe PDF. The good news is the original picture book can be made into a PDF that looks basically the same, even including double-page spreads. To the left is a screen shot of test PDF I made the other day of The Shocking Truth about Energy (which is in print, just to clarify.) The front jacket and an “about the author page” were added to the beginning. My understanding is that Follett Library Services is selling PDFs of trade children’s books…more info about that plus how the PDF was made is here.

The bad news is that PDFs like this must be viewed on a fairly big screen on a desktop computer or the reader would have to do a lot of scrolling and zooming. It would be better if each page could be viewed singly, but as you can see with the lightning bolt image, the spreads in this book are often continuous and won’t work as single pages. This issue affects most of my books, where some images fit on single pages and some run across both. Who knew this would ever be an issue?

And what if people want to buy the ebook for a tablet ereader such as the iPad or NOOKcolor?

You could fit two pages in this rectangle, but they would have to be tall and narrow, which is not the shape of most picture book pages. Getting back to one of my OP titles, here is a photo of the printed version of Tracks in the Sand, which tells the life-cycle story of sea turtles:
The spreads are a lot wider than the tablet screen. One solution is to letterbox the artwork:
If desired, the text could be placed in the non-image area (which doesn't have to be black.) You could try zooming in and trimming the long ends off:
I like this much better, but it would have to work for all the spreads in the book because the page size should stay the same throughout the digital version. One reason this book is more adaptable to a tablet-size ebook is that it has a fairly simple layout without a lot of text. Many of my other books have artwork that couldn’t be cropped at all and/or have text all over the page, such as There’s a Frog in My Throat.

So, should I give up double-page spreads? And busy layouts? It’s something to think about, anyway. The term of art for this general idea is to “future-proof” your content.

Last but not least, if anyone would like to hear an interview with me
on the weekly children’s literature podcast Brain Burps about Books about a variety of related issues, please check out Eeeek! Ebooks! You can listen right on this page, or there’s a link to download the podcast.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Beautiful Back Matter

As children’s book writers we know that we are not writing only for children. We are also writing for the “gatekeepers”—the parents, teachers and librarians who help to put the right books in children’s hands. This is true less if we write for older kids. I think books for YA readers often, though not always, bypass the gatekeepers. But I would venture to say that with nonfiction we are almost always writing for more than one audience, as it is rare—not unheard of—but rare, that a teen will pick up a nonfiction book on his or her own.

In any case, this business of writing for multiple audiences is nowhere more important and challenging than in writing the back matter for nonfiction picture books. Especially, I think, picture book biographies. Because of the limited number of words, and the level, a picture book biography has to leave out all kinds of information not only about the person’s life but also about the world around that person. Often the writer has a lot she wanted to say and didn't.

So when we write back matter we seek to fill in some of the holes, to answer questions that kids might have. And also just to tell more because, as others have written about here on I.N.K., we research picture books about as much as any other book, and then do the hard work of paring down. It hurts to let go of so much good stuff!


I love back matter. Love reading it. I'm a nerd that way. (O.K., in other ways, too.)

Some picture book biographies are written at a second or third-grade level but then the back matter is written at a fourth or fifth grade level. This is because kids use them for reports—and although the main part of the book gives the story, the timeline or the author’s note gives them more—specific dates, or background information. Often, though, back matter is written for adults so that they have more information to share with their students and children.

Take, for example, Dave the Potter: Artist, Poet, Slave by Laban Carrick Hill, illustrated by Bryan Collier. Hill's text is simple, beautiful: a poem. It is a paean to this wonderful artist. Young readers know all they need to know from Hill's poem. But there are no dates or place names in the main text. It's not that we miss these facts in the text at all, in this case, but I can imagine a child, perhaps an older child, asking questions. Hill wonderfully uses the back matter to give us, the grown-ups, as much of a picture of Dave's life as he can. The back matter is so rich and complements the front of the book so beautifully that we come away feeling as though we have read a much longer book.

Back matter also shows how you did your research—which is almost always for the gatekeepers. It gives an idea of where the reader can go if he wants to learn more. Usually that’s called a Bibliography, or Selected Sources. (Selected because we use so many sources—both books, articles, and web sites, you might need a whole other book—or really, really small type—to list them all.) When you say For Further Reading instead of Selected Sources or Bibliography, that means these books are (or should be) appropriate for kids. Some picture book biographies have both—Selected Sources and For Further reading, or designate which books are good for which ages. I like back matter that has both.

We authors live (not a typo) to put in the back matter the stuff from the Cutting Room Floor. Often an editor (or even sometimes the author herself, or a critiquer) will pull things out for flow, level, or space. But fortunately you can put at least some of those juicy tidbits in the back. If you’re lucky, your illustrator will put some of the stuff you had to leave out into the art. Look at, for example. A River of Words by Jennifer Bryant, illustrated by Melissa Sweet. There is so much in the art! I don't know if these are things that Jen left out, or things that Melissa found out on her own, but the bits of poems and other details in the art greatly deepen the book. And Jen and Melissa also give great back matter: A timeline of William Carlos Williams’ life, an Author’s Note and an Illustrator’s Note (which I adore!) and a For Further Reading.

In M.T. Anderson’s Handel Who Knew What he Liked, a book I love, Tobin includes a discography of Handel’s music. Roxanne Orgill's biography of Ella Fitzgerald, Skit-Scat Raggedy Cat (illustrated by Sean Qualls) also includes a "Listening" section, which I love. I also like in Roxanne's back matter that she includes documentaries a DVD of a concert of Ella's as well as two web sites. (I love this book, too. I also love Ella.)

I love fun stories about the writing of the book, and notes about the author’s and illustrator's personal connection to the subject or person.

Some back matter seeks to extend the experience of reading the book, by having readers go back and look at math in the art, such as in Blockhead by Joseph D'Agnese, others have activities for kids to do on their own or with help.

I like back matter that shows the biographical subject in context of his or her world. I love how in Thank You, Sarah: The Woman Who Saved Thanksgiving Laurie Halse Anderson, tells us, in her very deep back matter, what else was going on in America in 1863. (She calls this section Vintage America, 1863.)

As you might have guessed, I'm looking at back matter for a reason. I have a picture book biography of a mathematician coming out in 2012 and while the artist is doing the sketches, I'm pulling together back matter. I'm looking at many books, including the ones I've mentioned here. (I have, on purpose, not included other I.N.K. authors only because I'm trying expand the coverage here. Trust me, I have a pile of's books right next to me!)

Dear Gatekeepers: Would you please suggest other books that have back matter I shouldn't miss? And also please tell me: WHAT DO YOU WANT TO SEE IN BACK MATTER? Also what level would you like it to be: the same as the text in the book, slightly older, much older, or a mix? As always if you don't want to comment here, feel free to email me through my web site, or my name at gmail.

Now, I'm going back to The Cutting Room Floor.

Monday, February 14, 2011

On and On and On

I’m still thinking about Barbara Kerley’s post from February 10, Done. She was writing about being dum-diddly-um-dum done with her latest book, but I’ve been thinking about certain books where I never really felt finished. For example…

The first children’s book I sold was Unseen Rainbows, Silent Songs. It was born out of the trippy desire to let kids know that parallel universes exist all around us. Other animals on Earth have very different senses, so on some level, we co-exist but on very different planets. We think we know the world, but we only really know our world. There are others dancing around us we’ll never see or touch or hear.

That book definitely had my best title, perhaps the best idea, but not my best writing. I worked so hard, and it showed. Every sentence was beautifully, lyrically crafted. Damn, Susan, give the kids a rest. Eventually I cut out a good part of the fancy language and then the editor who acquired it cut out more. The occasional times when I pick up and read a page, I’m cutting it still.

I’m also writing it still.

About a year from now, I have a book coming out called It’s a Dog’s Life. Its working title was The Secret Life of Dogs, which pretty much tells you what it’s about. In hopefully humorous (not at all lyric) fashion, it reveals just that. And part of that secret life is…yep, what they can hear that we can’t hear, the very different view they see when they look at the same thing we do, smells we have no whiff of that rule their world.

There are certain ideas that resonate with you. So you see their echoes in different places and different forms—and write about them.

Who knows, in 2016…

Friday, February 11, 2011

Why I/We/You Continue to Write for Kids

As a big birthday fast approaches, the gulf between young peoples’ experiences and mine has widened considerably. And yet I continue to write for kids. I went from teaching high school English to photojournalism to writing and photographing children’s books. Through the years my students’ dialogue about the great themes in literature, poetry, art – ergo life – lived inside my heart and echoed in my ears. My young cousins were often about, arguing over who would recite their latest poem first, practically jumping over one another to talk about some crazy adventure. Those reverberations were a vital part of my work. The students are long grown up, and my cousins are adults with adult dispositions. Have the voices of our current generation changed? Are their issues different from mine? I think they probably are. But I’m not sure.

I dodge the “voice” problem somewhat by writing from the perspective of the person I’m interviewing. It’s not in my voice but the young person’s voice. But my books are not 100% participants’ voices. Some parts, like choosing the subject, is me, and that’s what I question. So the choice of narrative and presentation begs the questions to us all, “Are we still asking interesting, relevant questions? Are we still cool?”

A perk writing for children is that we are generous with one another. I asked a few experienced writers and illustrators to contribute their thoughts to this subject. I made it a point not to ask INK contributors because I hope you will add your thoughts in the comment section.

The first person to respond was Andrea Davis Pinkney. She said, “We all know the cliché that says, ‘real life is stranger than fiction.’ Well – when writing for children ‘real’ can also be funny, ironic, sad, thought provoking, and cool. This is why I write non-fiction and historical fiction for children. ‘Real’ can let a child see the world in a whole new way.Real’ can change a young reader’s thinking about people, history, scientific facts, love, laws, wars, protests, rites of passage, family. ‘Real’ can show kids what’s real about themselves.”


Ellen Levine added her sharp activist’s eye, saying, “because even with all the world's madness, their eyes and hearts are still open. They understand the seriousness of injustice and also enjoy silliness with resounding laughter. Yes there are bullies and yes, dystopian fantasies are riding high now, but I'm banking on that combo of serious and silly.“

Oh yes!

When Elizabeth Levy, and Bruce Coville were about to take off for a school visit in Egypt, I asked Liz to email me her thoughts, assuming she’d have plenty of time during long plane rides. “Oh, and ask Bruce, too.” But they got caught up in a revolution, not exactly a great time to ask a favor. I’m just happy they are home, safe and sound, to continue writing for kids. [Liz recently wrote about their experiences and posted it on her Website. Bruce has been posting on Facebook.]

Then I called Vera B. Williams, who said, “I’ve been thinking about that lately, too. Let’s talk about it over lunch.” A few days later at Co Ba, a Vietnamese restaurant, half way between her apartment and mine, we ate our way through the topic. Vera ordered Pho Bo and I had Banh Mi Bo. We topped it off with yummy homemade banana coconut muffins and Vietnamese coffee. What began as “just email me a few lines,” became part of a two-and-a-half hour conversation.

Vera got right to the point, “Well, why do you write for kids? I want to hear your thoughts first.”

Hmmm, I was hoping to get everyone else to talk about this so I wouldn’t have to. I write nonfiction for kids because they want to know truths. As a child, I must have paid attention to my family’s outrage when they discussed fundamental inequalities, especially during the civil rights movement. Their comments didn’t jive with watered-down textbook lessons I read in school. I wanted to know what was real, not the propaganda poppycock being fed to us in class. There had to be a better way to provide real information, even conflicting information.

Vera says, “My books come from a close connection from my own childhood. Even as a child I felt I was an advocate for children, that children weren’t treated rightly. My ambition was to be seen as a ‘knowing child,’ and to represent those children who were articulate and those who needed a voice. What’s in my books continues to interest me – working class families who were not portrayed when I started to do books. Writing for children is complicated. You’re not only writing for the children but the people who read to them. I feel it’s a duty to explain aspects of the world.”

Writing “aspects of the world” is something we all seem to have in common as children’s authors.

Vera continues, “I drew and painted and I wrote poems all my life. But I had more education as an artist. The question that comes to me is, have I used up my inspiration? Have I used up my own childhood’s voice? Cause that’s what’s in my books. And the answer is, ‘I’m not sure.’ What does Paul say?”

Paul Zelinsky had emailed me the following thoughts and I read them to Vera: What I like to do best is to work with pictures and words to tell a story. And there is no better place to do that than in a children's book. I think everyone responds to stories in pretty much the same way, but you'll never take in a story with as much intensity or as great a belief as when you're young. I remember, in my childhood of reading, how wonderful the worlds felt that spread out before me; and the thought that my own work might have that same effect on other people, early in their lives, is an amazing one.”

Vera again, “What Paul said hits home. I can express three longtime things that I love: stories, the graphic designs in the shapes of letters, and pictures. To be seen and heard as you really are? I’m less certain that I have the voices of children right.”

When I talk with Vera I can hear the voice of a child, albeit an extremely profound and precocious child. As for me … oh hell, I write for kids! Birthdays be damned!

Thursday, February 10, 2011


I’m done. I’m done. Or in moments of giddiness, to paraphrase Pooh, dum-diddly-um-dum done. Only this time, I mean it.

You’d think you could only be “done” once, right? But I have found over the years that you get done with a book—the same book—many times before it’s really done—and it’s important to acknowledge (and, whenever possible, celebrate and take strength from) each one of those “dones”:

There’s huge-relief done when you finish the first draft. You’ve managed to choose a viable topic, get your editor and agent on board, wade through the research, cull the nugget of a story, and then build and build until there really is a story—a real story with a beginning, middle and end. The story has a beating heart. It still needs work, and lots of it, but it is its own self: cohesive, coherent, ready and able to withstand all the intervention to come.

Huge-relief done is major. It deserves a three-day weekend, dinner out, multiple emails with multiple exclamation points. It merits a movie with popcorn and no skimping on the butter—because think about what you’ve accomplished. You’ve taken a sentence, sometimes even just a phrase or word, and turned it into the equivalent of a living, breathing organism. You did it. You’re done.

Only, of course, you’re not done. Not done at all. (And this is a lesson most writers I know have had to learn from painful experience: no matter how shiny your first draft is, you are nowhere near being done with the book.)

Still, it’s important to mark the occasion with a suitable level of relief (huge) and excitement (immense), because until that first draft is done, you are never completely sure that your idea will work. So yay, it does. And that is great.

The next stage is nod-in-satisfaction done (which quickly morphs—but more on that in a minute) when you take the first draft through your critique group, sometimes more than once, filtering through their comments to pull out the useful ones—the ones the meld with your own vision for the book—and apply them to the manuscript.

Again, more reason to celebrate: you’ve taken your little draft through the first round of criticism and addressed your critics’ concerns to your satisfaction. A satisfied nod is certainly in order, after all that. (And maybe, another three-day weekend.)

But nod-in-satisfaction done quickly morphs into holding-your-breath done, because now it’s time to send it to your editor. And no matter how well you’ve pleased yourself and your critique group, from a practical/business/real-world standpoint, your editor is truly the one you must please. You hold your breath because you hope that s/he will like it, and also because you know that even if your editor does like it, you are not done. Not even close. And so you hold your breath, waiting to hear just how much is still left to do.

I always like this stage of a book because at least for this part I’ve got company for the hard slog. I have emailed my editor and said, ‘I’m stuck. Help me.’ And she does. Then there are the other times that she says, ‘Yes, this is a problem but I know you’ll figure it out.’ But she says it with such kindness and conviction that I can half-convince myself she is right.

So you work and work and work, and pretty soon you are sorta-almost-if-you-are-a-flexible-thinker done. Because once you and your editor have created a draft that is strong enough to send to the illustrator, to send to the copy editor, to present to the book designer who will lay the text down on the pages of the book, you really are sort of done except when you need to tinker and tweak to make it all come together.

Which leads to you being fingers-crossed done, which is when your editor sends the text plus illustrations to the fact checker, to make sure everything is accurate. And the fact checker always finds something, sometimes a lot of things (ack!), but fingers crossed they are not huge things and you can fix them relatively easily.

And then…after inevitably a few more stray this-and-that’s, you are dum-diddly-um-dum done. This deserves way more than a three-day weekend. It deserves, if you can swing it, a real vacation where you don’t even look at your computer except to locate the nearest ice cream parlor or to find out when the toy museum/art gallery/ski rental place/whatever-floats-your-boat opens.

In a matter of days or weeks, you’ll be working on a new book. But for a little while, at least, it’s good to enjoy being done.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011


When I read in the most recent Consumer Reports magazine that grocery stores carry 14 different kinds of Tostitos chips alone, not to mention other brands of corn chips, potato chips, taro chips, pita chips, and so on, it got me into thinking about choices. We Americans seem to relish having as many choices as possible when buying everything from pain killers to computers. And we especially like choices when it comes to our reading material. Just look at the variety of magazines at your local chain bookstore, and the plethora of book categories on the groaning shelves. We want to read the kinds of books that appeal to us as individuals. The husband of a children's YA fiction writer I know never reads fiction, including what his wife writes. My brother's shelves are loaded with the science fiction he used to read and the mysteries he's now into, while my husband has a generous collection of cookbooks and other food related books, as well as a smattering of volumes about Broadway and Hollywood. Me? I prefer nature books and select fiction authors.

Yet how many of you have, as I have more than once, observed the following scene:
An adult with a child in a bookstore is going through one bunch of titles as the child is eagerly thumbing through just one book. The adult chooses a totally different one to buy, pointing at the one in the child's hands and saying, "That's too young (or, too old) for you." Or, "This one looks more interesting."

And why is it that we expect school children all to read the same assigned books most of the time? Sometimes they are expected to choose books and write book reports, but often even those choices are restricted--I've been shocked to hear from some teachers that children in their school are not allowed to write reports on nonfiction books! But what if a child is one like I was, who wanted to know about the real world, not some writer's imaginary world?

A friend recently told me about his grandson, who didn't see the point of reading at first. But once he got into it, he plunged in enthusiastically and, at the age of 9, insisted on getting a copy of the Guinness Book of World Records, which he proceeded to devour the way his friends might do with a Harry Potter volume.

Let's all keep our educational focus on helping children become enthusiastic readers because they gain pleasure from the activity, especially during the early school years. Let them read as much for pleasure as possible; they will also learn in the process, either learn the tricks of story telling in fiction or the facts of what fascinates them in the real world. And the more they read, whether it's about fairies or tigers or motorcycles, the better readers they will become, which has to be the first goal of education.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Obsessive Compulsive Writing Disorder

I was thinking about poetry the other day, though not in a particularly pleasant way. I was recalling my first day in English 101 and how I argued (long and somewhat loudly) with the assistant professor over the interpretation of a poem. Made for a very interesting start to a very long year, to say the least.
To put myself in a better mood, I shifted my thinking to love poems. Well, it is the season, isn't it? I remember doing research on ancient flood stories and coming across what is supposed to be the first love poem, written some four thousand years ago in a region of southern Mesopotamia known as Sumer. The poem has the oh, so romantic title of Istanbul #2461 and the opening verse as translated by Samuel Noah Kramer goes:
"Bridegroom, dear to my heart,
Goodly is your beauty, honeysweet,
Lion, dear to my heart,
Goodly is your beauty, honeysweet."
According to Kramer, the poem was recited annually by the brides of King Shu-Sin, a kind of Valentine's Day wish long before there was even a St. Valentine. The poem raises all sorts of interesting and complicated questions about the Sumerian civilization, the standing and treatment of women in that culture, and of the powerful Shu-Sin, especially after reading this line from the second verse: "Lion, I would be taken by you to the bedchamber"). But I also enjoyed the poems straightforward simplicity and easy flow. It has a way of drawing the reader along in a seductive way, something I'm sure Shu-Sin happily approved of year after year.
Not many people know that I began my writing career as a poet way, way back when I was twelve. And, yes, I wrote love poems. I did them for classmates who wanted to impress a girl and I "charged" one Lionel train car per work (guaranteeing that the poem was original, but not that it would win over the girl's heart). I went on to write serious poems in high school and was reasonably good at immitating the styles of a number of famous poets, male and female, though I gave up writing poetry in college when I realized that an aweful lot of poets committed suicide. Writing poetry can be very intense.
Still, it's hard to completely give up the habits I developed over those years while writing and reworking and sweating over every line, every word, every change of beat. I still go through a similar process today when I do my nonfiction books. I see my text as a kind of flowing piece of music where the sound of every word matters and where a hiccup in a sentence distracts me and drives me crazy. I can't tell you how many times I've made a simple change on, say, p. 55, then gone back to reread the text from the start to make sure the alteration fits in seamlessly. It's an annoying obsession, driven by the fear that a clunky section, a single repetition, unclear thought -- whatever! -- will jar a reader enough to pull them out of the text. It's absolutely impossible to win this sort of mind game/torture, but it's a habit I just can't break. As painful as this is, hopefully it makes the writing a little bit better.
Since I began this with a love poem, I'll end it with one as well. I wrote this for my wife, Alison, several years ago using those refrigerator magnets made up of individual letters, brief combinations of letters, and a few complete words. It's called Sweet Dreams and was meant to be fun, though our fifteen-year-old son, Ben, was very serious when he said it needed a stronger ending. The last line is his and I think it is perfect.
My feet sigh,
My blood screams,
My shadow weeps,
Thinking of you --
and chocolate.
Happy Valentine's Day everyone.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Commemorating Lives Lost, Fifty Years Later

Years ago, when I was looking for visuals for my second book, Winning Ways: A Photohistory of American Women in Sports, I came across a Library of Congress photograph of a woman joyfully sculling on the Charles River in the 1920s. I didn’t use the photo in my book, but the confident strength of the sculler stayed with me because she seemed to transcend time. She looked like a contemporary female athlete, not like someone living decades before Title IX opened up opportunities for women in sports. I filed away her name for future reference: Maribel Vinson.

Close to 10 years later, when I was working on Freeze Frame, my book about the Winter Olympics, I came across Maribel again in connection with one of the most tragic events in sports history. On February 15, 1961, a Sabena Airlines flight carrying the entire U.S. figure skating team to the World Championships in Prague crashed, killing all 72 people aboard and one on the ground. Among those who perished were the reigning U.S. women’s singles champion, Laurence Owen, her sister, the reigning pairs skater Maribel Owen, and their mother and coach, Maribel Vinson Owen.

I was stunned. I didn’t necessarily expect the sculler from the 1920s to still be alive some 80 years later, but it seemed wrong that her story had come to such a heartbreaking end. I did some research and learned that Maribel had built a distinguished career in sports since being photographed on the Charles River. She won nine U.S. ladies figure skating titles in the 1920s and ‘30s, setting a record that has yet to be broken, though Michelle Kwan tied it in 2005. Maribel also won six U.S. pairs skating titles. She competed at three Winter Olympics, taking the bronze medal in ladies singles in 1932. (Norway’s Sonja Henie had a lock on the gold from 1928 through 1936.) While she was still skating, Maribel, a Radcliffe graduate, became the first female sportswriter at The New York Times. She returned to skating in the 1950s, coaching American Tenley Albright to the gold at the 1956 Olympic Games and shepherding her daughters’ emerging careers.

American figure skaters had won gold medals in both men’s and women’s singles at the 1960 Winter Games and in the aftermath, champions Carol Heiss and David Jenkins both had retired. So the athletes on the Sabena flight that February were up-and-comers, eager to prove themselves on a world stage. Their loss set U.S. figure skating back a generation, but it accelerated the career of 12-year-old Peggy Fleming, whose coach, Bill Kipp, also died on the flight. Fleming suddenly was America’s best hope. She would come close to medaling at the 1964 Winter Games—she placed sixth—and in 1968, she would win the first U.S. gold medal in figure skating since 1960.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Sabena crash. On Thursday, February 17, the skating community will commemorate the tragedy with a one-night-only special event. The event will include a program with a who’s who of skating royalty to be broadcast from New York City to more than 500 movie theaters nationwide, along with the world premiere of the film RISE, about the Sabena crash and its legacy. Proceeds from the evening will be used to further the mission of U.S. Figure Skating’s Memorial Fund, which was established soon after the crash as a living legacy of those who lost their lives. The fund has supported thousands of skaters at every level, including some who have gone on to compete at the Olympics. For more about RISE and to find a theater near you that is taking part in the event, click here.