Thursday, March 31, 2011

Whither Poetry? (an update)

National Poetry Month starts tomorrow, so today's post is poetry-related, though still all about nonfiction.

One of the things I've noticed during school visits at both the elementary and middle school level is that kids really respond to poetry. The most interesting thing about that? The kids who are the school's "problem" kids often pay the closest attention. They are able to follow long poems such as "Casey at the Bat" by Ernest Lawrence Thayer, and can sort out what's going on in poems with obscure (or nonsense) words in them, such as "Jabberwocky" by Lewis Carroll.

There's no reason that poetry has to be relegated to a one-week unit, assuming that the teacher has time to get to it. And this is because there are poems and poetry collections that fit extremely well into existing school curricula.

Studying geography? Try Got Geography!, edited by Lee Bennett Hopkins. Studying the planets? Don't miss Douglas Florians Comets, Stars, the Moon, and Mars or And Then There Were Eight by Laura Purdie Salas. Studying explorers or pioneers? Try Trailblazers: Poems of Discovery by Bobbi Katz.

Studying Civil Rights? Try A Wreath for Emmett Till or Sweethearts of Rhythm: The Story of the Greatest All-Girl Swing Band in the World by Marilyn Nelson, Miss Crandall's School for Young Ladies and Little Misses of Color by Elizabeth Alexander and Marilyn Nelson, Birmingham 1963 or Becoming Billie Holliday or Dear Mr. Rosenfeld by Carole Boston Weatherford.

Studying animals and/or habitat? Try Valerie Worth's Animal Poems, illustrated by I.N.K. blogger Steve Jenkins, The Seldom Ever Shady Glades by Sue Van Wassenhove, If Not for the Cat by Jack Prelutsky, Vulture View by April Pulley Sayre (again illustrated by Steve Jenkins), Feathers by Eileen Spinelli, The Company of Crows by Marilyn Singer, The Cuckoo's Haiku: and Other Birding Poems by Michael J. Rosen, or Mites to Mastodons by Maxine Kumin (or one of many more books on the topic).

Studying natural science? By all means, pick up one of these books by Joyce Sidman: Ubiquitous, Dark Emperor: And Other Poems of the Night, Song of the Water Boatman, Butterfly Eyes: And Other Secrets of the Meadow. Or try something like Shape Me a Rhyme by Jane Yolen or Chatter, Sing, Roar, Buzz: Poems About the Rain Forest by Laura Purdie Salas.

Interested in studying biographies? There's Twelve Rounds to Glory: The Story of Muhammad Ali by Charles R. Smith, Jr., Your Own, Sylvia: a verse portrait of Sylvia Plath by Stephanie Hemphill, The Poet Slave of Cuba: A Biography in Poems of Juan Francisco Manzano by Margarite Engle, Becoming Billie Holliday by Carole Boston Weatherford, Eureka! Poems About Inventors by Joyce Sidman, or Jazz ABZ by Wynton Marsalis (biographies of jazz greats).

Is it history you're after? Try The Brothers' War: Civil War Voices in Verse or VHERSES: A Celebration of Outstanding Women by J. Patrick Lewis or America at War, edited by Lee Bennet Hopkins

The point is that for nearly any area of study, a poetry collection can be found that relates to it. And it should be found, because kids who have a hard time sitting still for prose lectures pay attention really well to poems. I suspect it's because of the use of lots of imagery and active verbs, the rhythm and, when used, rhyme, that grabs and holds the attention of kids who don't or can't always listen to prose.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Playing games with information

I’ve never been much of a video gamer, though my memory of playing Pong for the first time in the early 70s remains oddly vivid. To my high school-aged self, Dungeons & Dragons with its funny-looking polyhedral dice seemed too complicated and dorky, so I left it to my little brother to play. Other than a few episodes of playing Solitaire, Pac-Man, or Joust, my one-liner attitude about gaming for the last couple of decades has been:
“It’s a waste of time.”

Meanwhile, the video and computer game industry has charged ahead without me: over 65% of U.S. households have video games, 40% of all players are female, 26% are over age 50, and the industry reportedly brought in $10.5 billion in 2009 alone.
statistics source

What has inspired me to rethink this topic is Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World, by Jane McGonigal,Ph.D. The author and game designer explains the psychological reasons behind the popularity of games as well as discussing their potential to be used for the common good. The alternate reality games she specializes in “...challenge players to tackle real-world problems at a planetary-scale: hunger, poverty, climate change, or global peace...” Examples shown on her web site include World Without Oil, SuperBetter (to facilitate recovery from illness or injury), and EVOKE, a social network game designed to help empower people all over the world to invent creative solutions to our most urgent social problems. The book’s title is based on a common experience of many players...that reality is simply not as satisfying as gaming. McGonigal details a variety of techniques to jazz up real life in order to engage people the way that successful games do.

The connection to my own projects lies in finding the overlap between the qualities and objectives she describes and my own process of writing informational books for children and related activities. A
t minimum, a game must have these four components:
  • A goal or series of goals the players work to achieve
  • The rules that restrict how the goal may be reached yet foster creativity and strategic thinking to do so
  • The feedback system which lets players know how close they are to achieving the goal
  • Voluntary participation: the players must choose to undertake the work involved to play
Work? Yes, work. It takes time and effort to learn all the rules and strategy to play a game, find secret clues, climb to higher levels, and so on. It’s the combination of the above factors that grab the players emotionally and why it’s fun to play. Even though it takes time and effort, it doesn’t feel like like a “job.” Among the several types of work detailed in the book, mental and discovery work seem the most relevant to nonfiction. Revving up one’s mental muscles to solve a problem is very satisfying, as is the joy of exploring unfamiliar places, people, and things. It’s invigorating....and yes, fun, to be engrossed in those experiences.

Some common game elements are:
motivate players to keep going. Is there a way to tie a quest to a nonfiction book? Levels are increasingly difficult sections of the game that players reach by solving problems, dodging obstacles, or otherwise improving upon their performance. Could a nonfiction book have levels? Another factor that’s increasingly important in gaming is teamwork, where people collaborate to help each other succeed in the game. How can teamwork be brought to the nonfiction experience? These concepts, a description of a public game-based school, and much more are why reading Reality is Broken has been so inspiring.

One of the reasons I’m pursuing the gaming angle is because of an episode that happened a few years ago. Two brothers were given one of my picture books about space...
it was the weekend, they associated “books” with school, and therefore neither one even wanted to look at it. They’re both good students, but... Ouch! I hate to think that a kid has to steel himself to tolerate reading a book because he anticipates that it will be so unrewarding. Games are rewarding (that’s obvious!) so how to harness that quality is the question.
Can I come up with a game based on one of my books, say The Shocking Truth about Energy? After covering electricity generation and the main sources of energy in use today, the book ends with four pages of energy-saving ideas. How about a game that would not only help reduce the use of fossil fuels but would increase exercise time for students? For the 10,000* Mile Quest, players add up their bicycle, running, and walking mileage either individually or in teams made up of classrooms, grades, or schools, depending on how the game is organized. Players can use a phone app such as EveryTrail to track miles or calculate the length of routes using online tools such as MapQuest. There could be a group web site with a graph or other feedback so everyone can see their progress. Gasoline NOT burned because of the game could also be shown. A group chat area would allow players to exchange ideas about how to get more miles faster. Secret items could be hidden along various routes to allow players to score bonus points. The game could last a week, a month, or an entire school year, with various milestones along the way to celebrate. This needs more refining but that’s the general idea. 
*or whatever number seems appropriate

What about adding gaming strategies to digital books or apps? For the last few months I’ve been researching ebooks and apps with an eye to the multiple ways authors can utilize them and am intrigued with the possibilities of incorporating motion and other types of interactivity. A few examples...presenting information could be made much more fun and gamelike by hiding it at first, so the reader has to search for it. Wouldn’t it be nice to include a demonstration in many cases? I’m working on a math picture book right now in which it would be terrific to have a movable shape for readers to manipulate on certain pages. Or how about having the reader assemble something? To see an amazing example of an educational app that reportedly inspires students to delve deeply into the topic, check out Frog Dissection on Teachers with Apps. It’s not a game per se, but has many of the characteristics.

The typical fantasy world kind of game still doesn’t interest me, and probably never will...but using gaming concepts to showcase real information, engage readers, and even create solutions to genuine problems sounds like a game worth playing.

my web site

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Urge to "Correct" History

I don’t often quote the ancient Greeks, mostly because I don’t know what they said, but there’s one Herodotus line that has always stuck with me. Describing the difficult craft of writing compelling, fact-based history, he said: "Very few things happen at the right time, and the rest do not happen at all.” His solution, as he put it, was to “correct these defects,” by rearranging and inventing his way to a great story. Too bad non-fiction writers don’t have that luxury.

I’ve been wrestling with this problem recently, as I toss around ideas for possible book projects. It’s always fun to throw open my notebooks and let ideas I’ve jotted down over the years jump out and fight for attention. The bad part comes when I get excited about one of the stories, begin researching it, and realize I’m facing the old Herodotus dilemma.

Sometimes it’s a simple of matter of not knowing. Take pirates, for example. Everyone loves these thieving murderers (including my 4-year-old daughter), but there’s a serious shortage of primary sources, and hardly anything from the pirates’ own point of view. Even the best, most exhaustively researched adult pirate books are riddled with lines like, “Blackbeard may very well have said…” and “It was at this point that Bartholomew Roberts probably decided…” The most painful false lead of all involves an 11-year-old boy named John King. What we know is that in November 1716, somewhere in the Caribbean, King and his mother were on a ship that was boarded and plundered by the pirate Sam Bellamy. King declared he wanted to join Bellamy’s crew. His mom said no. The boy threatened to throw himself into the sea unless he was allowed to become a pirate. His mom let him go.

Shouldn’t this be the opening scene of an all-time great middle grade history book? The story has everything: a young protagonist, action, danger, glimpses into an exotic world, and, in the end, tragedy. In 2006 underwater archaeologists found the remains of Bellamy’s ship, which sank off the coast of Cape Cod in 1717. Among the wreckage were the bones of a boy of about 12. So King was on the ship for a year, and there’s no doubt his adventures during that year could pack a ripping non-fiction book. Only, we can’t know what those adventures were. With great reluctance, a writer of non-fiction has to pass on John King. Maybe put it on the list of historical fiction to write some day.

Then there’s the tantalizing tale of Elijah Nicholas Wilson, another adventure-seeking 11 year old. In the early 1850s, Wilson ran away from his frontier home (he was sick of herding sheep) to live with a Shoshone chief named Washakie and his family. He learned the language, learned to hunt buffalo like a young brave, and, best of all for my purposes, wrote a memoir called White Indian Boy, describing his years with the Shoshone.

For a brief exciting moment, I became convinced this had the makings of a fantastic kids’ history book. And Wilson’s book does have a lot of great stories, but are they the right stories? Well, Wilson comes across as kind of a jerk. He’s constantly fighting with other kids; he nearly sparks an intra-tribal war by smacking a girl in a squabble over a fishing pole. Though actually, these kinds of details make him sound like a real kid, which is a good thing.

The bigger issue is the one Herodotus spoke of, the fact that Wilson’s stories just don’t happen in the right order, or at all. That is, he gives us lots of brilliant slice-of-life scenes, but no narrative arc, no climax. He spends a couple of years with the Shoshone, then leaves for what he thinks will be a short visit home, and never returns to his Indian family. He goes on to have other adventures, including a stint as a Pony Express rider, but that’s another chapter of his life, and, quite unreasonably, not the part I care about. I really wish I could “correct these defects” by having Wilson marry a Shoshone girl, or help lead his adoptive people’s struggle to hold onto their traditional lands.

Or has my thinking become too Hollywood? Am I missing the more important point: that real life, meandering and messy, is more interesting than a perfectly structured plot? I don’t know. I just know that every time I visit a school, kids tell me they think history is boring. Now that’s a defect we definitely have to correct.

Monday, March 28, 2011

"What If?"

Esteemed non-fiction author Elizabeth Partridge recently wrote in her blog, Hot Tea and a Pencil, that she had just learned about an ancestor of the same name as herself who, in 1846, had been transported from England to Australia. Contemporary Elizabeth asked,

"What did this Elizabeth Partridge do that got her ten years in jail, swapped off for being sent to Australia? What was it like for her once she got there?

What if....

and a seed is planted. I don't know that I would ever take this any further, but it is exhilarating to have my mind tumble in a new direction.
What kind of random things have been making you think 'What if....?'"

Here is what I wrote as a comment:

Hi Elizabeth,

Since you asked what kinds of things make my mind ask, "What if?" I'll say that many of my own science and math picture books are based on "What if?" questions that I asked, going back to childhood:

"What if I could ride my bike to the Sun -- how long would it take?"

"How about if I rode to the distant stars?"

"What if I could ride to the end of the Universe? What would I find there? Would there be a wall with a sign: "END OF UNIVERSE--DO NOT GO BEYOND THIS POINT"? (I really do remember imagining that sign, not because I really thought it could exist but as a way of expressing the mind-boggled feeling I got from contemplating the idea of a finite universe.)

"What if I could hop like a frog? How far could I go in proportion to my own body size?"

"What if someone filled an Olympic-size swimming pool with ice cream and I dived in--how long would it take me to eat my way through the pool?"

"If I grew to the height of a redwood tree, how high would a basketball hoop be if it elevated proportionally?"

And so on. In various ways, these musings ended up becoming books.

When I visit schools, the kids' top three questions are:

1) How old are you? (Teachers always say, "No, don't ask that question!")

2) How much money do you make? (Teachers say, "No, no! Never ask that question!")


3) Where do you get your ideas? (Teachers say, "That's a good question!")

I answer the first question by telling them what year I was born. (I don't mind if they know how old I am. How else will they learn what a 59-year old looks like compared to a 29-year old?) I answer the second question by telling them how much (little) I make on the sale of one book. And I answer the third question by telling children I get many of the ideas for my books from questions I asked when I was their age, and that they will get plenty of great ideas themselves if they wonder about the world. In other words, if they ask questions like, "What if?"

I also point out that I wrote about my love for the word "if" in my math alphabet book, G Is for Googol, under the letter "I" which, in my book, is for "If." With the word "if," I tell readers, you can imagine anything and sometimes you can use math to figure out what would happen if it were true.

I think parents and teachers (not to mention media providers) would do children and our future a great service if they encouraged wondering and the asking of questions rather than simply consuming and accepting information and stimuli. Children need to interact, not just imbibe, what the world sends their way. Our idea of interactivity has come to mean playing games invented by someone else rather than making our own observations, asking our own questions and finding answers through experiments (whether physical experiments or thought-experiments or both).

Case in point: I once met a 6th grade science teacher who had asked her students in a well-heeled public school to put some small piece of the natural world (a few plants and/or small animals) and temporarily transfer it to a contained environment (shoebox, glass jar, etc.) for an hour of observing, speculating, hypothesizing and experimenting. Everyone in the class thought the assignment was too hard. They didn't know what to do for an hour. The teacher lamented that if she had asked them to write a 10-page report on Einstein, no one would have batted an eye.

You might say the whole class -- or a whole generation -- has a "what if?" deficit.

What if we started a nationwide discussion on what to do about it? My two cents: more wondering, not more testing.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Interesting Nonfiction for Kids: National Youth Art Month Books

March is Youth Art Month. Couldn’t let this month go by without mentioning some of my favorite art books for kids.
Youth Art Month is an annual observance each March to emphasize the value of art education for all children and to encourage support for quality school art programs. Youth Art Month was created in 1961 by ACMI, a non-profit association of art and craft materials manufacturers, in cooperation with the NAEA.  In 1984, ACMI created CFAE to administer the national Youth Art Month program and encourage funding for the program.

Harvesting Dreams: Hundertwasser for Kids
By Barbara Stieff
Prestel USA    August 2008

The Story of the World's Greatest Paintings
By Charlie Ayres
Thames & Hudson    November  2010

Art in Action 1: Introducing Young Children to the World of Art with 24 Creative Projects Inspired by 12 Masterpieces (Art in Action Books)
By Maja Pitamic (Author)
Mike Norris (Contributor)
Barron's Educational Series   April  2010

Art and Architecture (Experimenting With Everyday Science)
By Stephen M. Tomecek
Chelsea House Publications June 2010

As always, my goal is to suggest books with these criteria:
1) Nonfiction
2) Published recently
3) Not previously recommended by myself on INK

Linda asked me to write for INK the first month of it's conception based on, I assume, my reputation for promoting art-themed Children's nonfiction books. So, here I am, three years later, still talking about art books. Thanks to INK for giving me the platform to voice my love of art books... and to hang out with an amazing group of nonfiction writers.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Problem of Knowing

The Problem of Knowing

Nonfiction has, at its roots, knowing. Paying attention to the real world. At times, that causes pain for reader and writer. No better time than the past few weeks of tsunami, earthquake, nuclear disaster, bombings, and the like to bring this to the fore. It's been a challenging for anyone watching the news and taking the time to understand the pain and problems for our planet and its people.

During the first thirteen years of my career, when I wrote environmental articles and books for adults and middle grade students, full time, I faced this issue a lot. Acid rain, deforestation, global warming, endangered species—you name it, I wrote about it, while working at National Wildlife Federation, interning at Nat Geo, and, later, authoring 27 middle grade books about biomes, continents, endangered species and the like. Been there. Seen stuff. So the issue of personal grieving about the planet's issues has been an ongoing process for me.

Unfortunately, my young readers don't yet know that the world can go through these horrible things and regular life will still go on, at least for those of us not directly impacted. Only experience can really give you that, although comforting grandmas, grandpas, aunties and other elders, can help, too.

As a writer about the environment, I've built an internal wall, the same wall that most folks build with age. This past week, by dropping that wall, I could walk away from the news barrage and plant peas, and do a school visit, a teacher inservice, a young author's conference where we celebrated words and wildness and, for a time, did not try to generate anything but sheer animal joy. Thank you, wall, you come in handy. Just don't stay closed.

The act of writing and reading, fortunately, seems to heal our brains, too. For me, science has a comfort to it: the comfort of being small, of being connected to the wondrous. That was why I wrote Stars Beneath Your Bed: The Surprising Story of Dust. Or Trout Are made of trees. But on a daily basis, here's what I use for my shot of big thinking as healing:

Astronomy Picture of the Day.

My husband keeps me updated on the number of earthlike planets estimated, which seems to keep increasing. Cool!

Just thinking about this kind of stuff lifts you out of everyday.

Ted Talks. Big thinking ideas and passionate people give one hope for the world.

My husband also keeps me updated on the progression of spring, the mischief of squirrels, and what the grackles have gotten into today. It's the small things that matter; you just need to lose scale when it comes to wonder and joy. Let the smallest seed sprouting be a blast of joy. Hmmm…I think there's a poem about that. Anyone remember the name?

Time in nature is probably the best thing for nature writers and kids right now. A recent study showed that something like five minutes outdoors can lift your mood. (Should probably look up that study. Instead, I'm going outside and listen to Whit-throated Sparrows.) Anyway, an organization that supports that effort, connecting our children with nature is the Children and Nature Network.

One place to find comfort is, of course, in charity. One possibility is this to bid on children's lit things to raise money for Japan:

Charity to the Earth would be a good choice, too. More than ever, those who are not directly in contact with the recent tragedies need to tend their fields, help their part of the Earth to be healthy and productive. That could mean planting an extra row of vegetables. Or, it might mean planting extra fennel, parsley, milkweed for caterpillars and butterflies. Or helping an environmental charity such as these:

American Bird Conservancy

Sea Turtle Conservancy

I draw strength, too, from fellow nonfiction writers, I don't know Susan Campbell Bartoletti but I'm glad she exists just because she stares historical awful in the face, seemingly unflinching, and writes. If I need a relentlessly spunky person, I just call up Gretchen Woelfle. So many INKers are strong not just from life, but also from the writing life of nonfiction.

Yes, probably doing is the best comfort. Writing is part of that doing. So is planting seeds. Helping plants and ideas grow. You don't have to be strong or have a pushy voice, or even a powerful hand. You just have to be persistent. For the tender hearts of so many who love nature and who care for the Japanese people, or the suffering in Ivory Coast, or New Zealand, or Libya, the first part of the job is to endure. Walk away from the news for a while. Feed that bit of deep joy in you in whatever way keeps you strong.

April Pulley Sayre

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Janis Joplin and Ann Angel

JANIS JOPLIN: RISE UP SINGING by Ann Angel, won the 2011 YALSA Nonfiction Award. “From the cover art and the interior design to the compelling personal narrative, this is a pearl [!] of a book,” said YALSA Nonfiction Award Chair Don Latham.

I was delighted about the award, since I know Ann from Vermont College days and Joplin’s music long before that. (Just the other day I was shopping at Trader Joe’s and Joplin's “A Piece of My Heart” began playing, stopping me in my tracks in the olive oil and pasta aisle) However, I must admit, I was surprised by the award. Not because it’s not a superb book, but considering the ruckus “scrotum” caused a few years ago, how would the public respond to a plentitude of sex, drugs, and rock & roll? To Janis Joplin as YA role model? I asked Ann…..

Why Janis Joplin?

I loved her unique style and powerful, powerful voice. She just blew me away the first time I heard her and, somehow, her story has always broken my heart even as it encouraged me to be an individual. Her independence gave me the courage to be independent and her uniqueness gave me the courage to be me. When I listen to her, the experience is actually visceral in the way I fall into her blues.

What does she offer to young adults today?

I think she's a flawed hero who continues to serve as a role model for teens who are looking for their own talents, unique style, and independence. She also serves as a cautionary tale because of her death.

How did the book come to be?

I've wanted to write Janis's biography for as long as I can remember. At first, I thought she'd be a good chapter in a book about women in rock and roll. But then Susan Van Metre, my editor for Such a Pretty Face, and I were talking and I told her I'd always wanted to write about Janis. She also loved Janis. I wrote a proposal and it was accepted. I had no idea how I was going to obtain new interviews because I'd heard that most family and friends were pretty untrusting of writers who wanted to analyze Janis.

Whom did you interview about her? How close to her – family, friends – did you get?

It took quite awhile, but I managed an off-the-record interview with Laura Joplin [her sister] who said the book was a good idea but didn't want to be included in formal interviews. From there I interviewed photographers who had met Janis, Janis's old bandmates, and her road manager. Much of my interviewing was with guitarist and friend Sam Andrew, and with Janis's good friend and publicist Myra Friedman. Myra herself had written Buried Alive, which chronicles Janis's stardom and struggle with drugs. Myra and I continued to talk with one another in Sunday afternoon telephone conversations long after the interviews were done. She died this past October and I miss hearing from her. She had so many more stories to tell.

How did you decide how much to include?

I was limited to 100 pages by my contract, so that limited me a bit. My editor told me to be honest and thorough, while keeping in mind this is an introduction to Janis for most YA readers. She and I both agreed that I would include the drugs and sex and alcohol and, if it became too heavy-handed, it would be dealt with in editing. I don't think much, if anything, was removed in that way.

Tell me about the photo research.

The pictures took almost two years to research and select. I would contact photographers whose work I had seen, and they would email me with all of their Janis photos. I'd select a few that represented Janis at different periods of her life. The web was an invaluable tool here. Toward the end, I had to fill in periods of time when few photos were taken, or that were only recorded by family who had promised childhood photos, but a change in the estate's management made them too slow in coming. I spent long hours trying to fill those in. Sam Andrew helped a lot with photos he owned. But I also found some of the strongest photos though the Port Arthur Library, the Museum of the Gulf Coast, and the Smithsonian collections.

Did you have input to the book design?

I was fortunate in that Susan, my wonderful editor, asked me what I hoped to see. As I recall, I told her I wanted a book with large images that were woven throughout the book, pages large enough so that the book could be set down and remain open to the photo pages. At one point, I mentioned that I would like to see a collage effect. I'm not sure if that influenced the amazing designer Maria Middleton, or if she came up with the psychedelic collage effect on her own. But I just love it. When I first saw the page designs, I had trouble setting them down and actually found myself petting the pages.

What sort of response have you gotten from young people, teachers, librarians?

High school teachers and librarians who work with teens get it that flawed heroes are important to the teen experience. Janis can do for teens now what she did for many of us back when we listened to her the first time. In my award acceptance speech, I said that I believe Janis has a necessary place in young adult nonfiction. "Who better to show teens that theirs are not the only messy and imperfect lives?" Who better, then, to show hypercritical teens that, despite their own flaws, "they can rise up and become the heroes in their own stories." From the responses I'm getting, almost all extremely positive, teachers, librarians and young people recognize that value.

What was your reaction to winning the YALSA award?

It felt like I was walking with diamonds on the soles of my shoes for at least a month. I still can't believe it! But then I think about Janis. I used to dream about her and she loved the idea of a do-over in my dreams. I think her energy and voice -- both of which have survived over all these years --made this award possible. I'm so grateful to her influence even from the grave. And I'm so grateful to the entire editorial team that loved this book enough to give it their very best.

PS. Ann will answer comments and questions from you on the Comments page.

Breaking News from Ann: "I just learned yesterday that Janis Joplin won the 2010 Council for Wisconsin Writers Kingery/Derleth Book-length Nonfiction Award. As a YA crossover book, I'm pleased that the book was in competition with adult nonfiction, showing that it truly bridges generations. The book is also a CCBC Choices 2011 book in Biography and Autobiography.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Domo Arigato

It’s hard not to think about Japan. The people, of course, but also the culture that became warmly infused into my life when my family lived there for half a year when I was a kid.

It will be a long time before the Japanese people can resume their peaceful, everyday pleasures of slurping their soup, folding a piece of paper into an elegant animal, or admiring the beauty of a bunch of rocks placed just so.

Crisis has a way of drawing people together, as does simply getting to know each other. Today I’d like to mention a few books that can help kids appreciate the multi faceted Japanese culture.

Japan: Over 40 Activities to Experience Japan—Past and Present by Debbi Michiko Florence

The ABC”s of Origami. Paper Folding for Children by Claude Sarasas. Beautiful illustrations, easy to follow instructions.

Honda. The Boy Who Dreamed of Cars by Mark Weston. Interesting biography of Soichiro Honda. Now I want a Honda motorcycle.

Old Japan. The Hands-on Approach to History by Andrew Haslam and Clare Doran. Carp streamers, kabuki theater, laquered bento boxes—fun.

Cooking the Japanese Way by Reiko Weston Miso soup, sukiyaki, and green tea—yum.

Games People Play! Japan. By Philip Brooks Pachinko Machines, Sumo wrestlers, and Japanese Doll Festival all in one book.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Paintbox on the Frontier

As I write, the vernal equinox is mere hours away and a veritable cluster of crocus is abloom in the next block. It's late on the 19th of March, the 151st anniversary of the birth of "the Great Commoner," William Jennings Bryan. When he was but 36 years old he electrified a bunch of Democrats when he wound up his speech (on the nation's monetary policy), saying ] "you shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns; you shall not crucify mankind on a cross of gold!" This most gifted gasbag ended up winning his party's nomination three elections in a row, losing every time, but he did become President Wilson's Sec'y of State. He (or rather, a character based upon WJB as he was at the "Monkey Trial" down in Dayton, Tennessee in 1927), was portrayed devastatingly by Fredric March (opposite Spencer Tracy) in Inherit the Wind in 1960.
Early in the morning I'm off to the University of Central Missouri, where I once was an exceedingly impressionable art-dork, back when President Nixon was in office. Tomorrow I'll be expected to talk to teachers attending the school's 43rd annual Children's Literature Festival. What about? History, by golly. I'm to address these questions: How can an awareness of the past improve the present, the future, and very possibly save the world? How can you (and your students) get it? I hope I'll know the answers by tomorrow afternoon!
Then on Monday I'll gas away to several gatherings of some of the 5,500 school children, entertain and educate them to a fare-thee-well as to my books and the good old writing/rewriting process. I'll torment them with my harmonica, too, and draw pictures. It's the least I can do, seeing as they will have gotten up far too early in order to pile onto yellow busses charged with carrying them to the festival, where they'll hear four different authors in the course of their day, buy books, get them signed. Really, a pretty extraordinary deal.
To get there (Warrensburg, MO), I'll go down state highway 13, past land once farmed by my great-great grandfather, Alden Harness, and his sons, in the years before and during the Civil War, when passions ran terribly high hereabouts between largely (but by no means entirely) southern-leaning Missouri and Kansas, a.k.a. the "Free State." Farms, towns, lives - all were well and truly torn up, as shown here in a rightfully famous image entitled Order Number 11. It was created by George Caleb Bingham, another passionate politician, one who happened to be exceedingly handy with a paint brush. Had he not died in 1878, he'd be turning 200 on the 20th of March, as it was on that day that he was born, in Virginia, in 1811, the year of the great earthquake, centered near Missouri's boot heel. So fierce the quake was that the Mississippi flowed backwards, for a little while anyway - what a swell year in which to take a boat rid down the river. So Nicholas Roosevelt (great-grand-uncle of Theodore) did, along with Lydia, his bride, upon the New Orleans, their steamboat, clear down to the city by that name. A first. I learned about this in the course of doing my book, Mark Twain and the Queens of the Mississippi. In any case I'd be willing to bet that there are several fine books to be found about Geo. C. B., but a very fine one indeed is Alberta Wilson Constant's Paintbox on the Frontier: The Life and Times of George Caleb Bingham That's the very best sort of biography, don't you agree? What is a Life minus its Times, its context? Anyway, that's what I'll be telling those teachers tomorrow. That and my reasons why anyone who's anyone ought to know something about what's gone on before she or he made her or his entrance on the world's stage. After all, how can you expect to play your part if you don't know what happened before you walked out into the glare of the footlights. Ah! It's the 20th. I hope Mr. Bingham knows that he's remembered. Now, as for the 21st of March - that of course is the anniversary of the day upon which Johann Sebastian Bach was born. In 1685. In the Spring. WWewingorder.jpg

Friday, March 18, 2011

Three Schools: Six Questions

In the last week I’ve been the guest author at three elementary schools in the St. Louis area. The first school was across the Missouri River in Wentzville, one of the fastest growing public school districts in America. A fairly new residential area, pristine and suburban. The second school was in South St. Louis, a parochial school attached to a large Catholic Church. A very homogeneous group of kids. The third was a public school in the heart of North St. Louis in a neighborhood of bungalows, run-down apartments, and boarded up buildings. The majority of the students are African American. Each teacher/librarian had read several of my books to the children before my visit. It always makes a big difference if I show up at a school where the kids sort of know who I am.

A Digression: A Letter from Shane after I visited his school:

Dear Jan Greenberg, I always fall asleep during the period right after lunch. But our teacher Mrs. Poetter told us you were coming and to sit up straight. I expected an old lady with gray hair to hobble in. Then WOW, you showed up. You were pretty entertaining, even though most of your books are about girls. By the way, I was the kid in the back row wearing the letter jacket.

So OK, I received that letter-um- 15 years ago.

Anyway. In the first school, the amazing art teacher had done four different art projects, which lined the hallways: collages inspired by Romare Bearden: Collage of Memories, self-portraits based on Chuck Close Up Close, a lively group of Campbell’s Soups a la Andy Warhol: Prince of POP, and splatter paintings in a style similar to Jackson Pollock's Lavender Mist in Action Jackson. At each school I was thrilled to find the students prepared, attentive, and eager to ask questions. What I found interesting was the fact that the three groups of children, all from very different backgrounds, asked me the same questions. In retrospect, I might have been funnier, more articulate, more thoughtful. “If only I had said this,” I told myself later. “If only I’d said that.” So here are some revised responses to the most frequently asked questions from my school visits.

On Martha Graham: Making Appalachian Spring:

“Why did you write a book about that lady?”

Martha Graham was the first great modern American dancer. She didn’t wear toe shoes or tutus. (Power point: A Little Dancer by Degas next to an illustration of one of Martha’s dancers by Brian Floca.) Imagine crouching down and then with your stomach muscles leaping up, breathing in and out. The dancers often had sore muscles and bruised knees but once they understood Martha’s way of dancing, they were happy they’d stuck with it. I work with (collaborate with) Sandra Jordan on most of my books on the arts and we were fascinated by the way Martha worked with her dance troupe, the composer who wrote the music and the artist who created the sets.

“The illustrations are neat. Does the artist (Brian Floca) do the pictures for all of your books?

Only two of our books have illustrations, both in water colors, but they were made by two different illustrators. We loved working with both illustrators, Robert Andrew Parker on Action Jackson and Brian Floca. Often editors don’t want the author to communicate with the illustrator because conflicts can arise. But Brian, who spent a lot of time photographing the Martha Graham dancers rehearsing and also watching an old tape of the first performance of Appalachian Spring in 1944, wanted our input. That doesn’t mean he always took our suggestions. But he was interested in what we had to say. It was fun sitting together with Brian and our editor Neal Porter in his apartment in New York, looking at Brian’s drawings and seeing how they made our story sparkle. In our biographies of artists, we use reproductions of actual paintings, sculpture, or, in the case of Christo and Jeanne-Claude, photographs of their outdoor installations. ( Here is where I show a lot of images on the screen, wall or wherever there’s a big white space.)

On Writing:

“What’s your favorite thing about being a writer?

I love the writing process. But nonfiction requires a lot of research before you can sit down and write the story. When we wrote a biography of Vincent Van Gogh, we read hundreds of letters that he wrote to his brother Theo and more than twenty-five biographies. Finding the heart in the story is vital and sometimes it takes traveling to the places where the main character lived and worked to discover it. It was magical going to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and to Provence in the south of France where he painted. Driving by fields of sunflowers and walking down the streets of Arles where he made some of his greatest works, including Starry Night, and reading first hand accounts by people who knew him, gave us a deeper sense of the man, of the artist, than any art history text could do. Think of eating an artichoke, peeling off the leaves, one by one, until you get to the delicious heart inside. ( Power point has changed the way I do presentations. No more fumbling with transparencies in overhead projectors. No more slide machines that break in the middle of a talk.)

“What’s your advice on how to be a writer?”

Don’t leave the room. And be prepared to write a million lousy words before you get it right.

“How much money do you make?"

“How old are you?”

Hmmm. I think I’ll answer those two questions next time.


Thursday, March 17, 2011

Women's History Month, Nonfiction Style

March, as you know, is Women’s History Month. As a person who often writes about women’s history, I was asked to weigh in on the subject and have written about my personal connections to this concept over at Kidlit Celebrates Women’s History Month.

What I would like to do here is share a few of my favorite nonfiction books about women. I was going to write about Tami Lewis Brown’s Soar, Elinor! but Marfe beat me to it just yesterday! But I will add to her comments that this book is really something special—one of those picture books you want to leave on a coffee table for a conversation starter. Both Brown and Elinor Smith are names you want to know.

There are several books I love that are collective stories, pulling in many women who impacted a particular area of interest. Girls Think of Everything: Stories of Ingenious Inventions by Women, by Catherine Thimmesh, is a shining example of this approach. This book had me at the cover, and it’s a staple for any women’s history collection. Independent Dames by Laurie Halse Anderson is also a must-have. This book is so chock full of information it probably could have filled three books. And Remember the Ladies: 100 Great Women by Cheryl Harness is a book I have referred to and shared with others countless times. Wings and Rockets: The Story of Women in Air and Space by Jeannine Atkins is especially captivating for me, as is Anita Silvey’s I’ll Pass for Your Comrade: Women Soldiers in the Civil War. This little-covered area of interest long overlooked is done in stellar Silvey fashion.

In the single-female category, I have my favorites as well. There is When Marian Sang: The True Recital of Marian Anderson, the Voice of a Century, by Pam Munoz Ryan; Barbara Kerley’s What to do About Alice?, which, yes, I have written about before, but I can’t help it, I simply love it; Shana Corey’s You Forgot Your Skirt, Amelia Bloomer, Kathleen Krull's A Woman for President: The Story of Victoria Woodhull, Gretchen Woelfle’s Jeannete Rankin: Political Pioneer, Vicki Cobb's Marie Curie, Susanna Reich's Clara Schumann, and for older readers, Bull's Eye: A Photobiography of Annie Oakley by Sue Macy, and Jane Addams: Champion of Democracy by Judith Bloom Fradin and Dennis Brindell Fradin.

A few new and forthcoming books I can’t wait to get my hands on include Candace Fleming’s Amelia Lost: The Life and Disappearance of Amelia Earhart. I am a big fan of Fleming’s work and am anxious to see how she handled this topic. The other is Penny Coleman’s forthcoming book on a subject near and dear to my heart. The title says it all: Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, A Friendship that Changed the World.

So there you have it, my small tribute to women’s history in the shape of a few favorite books for kids and teens. There are many, many others on my shelves that I simply didn’t have the room to discuss here, but there’s always next year!