Monday, May 30, 2011

The Snake on My Desk, and After That

I came out to the barn where I work at about ten o'clock this morning. So what if it's Memorial Day? Writers work when they need to, and I had two blog posts to write. Past the gorgeously blooming hibiscus plant that props open the door, up the stairs past my son's Hess trucks and a painting I did once of the moon, as it looked every day for a month, past color printouts of my work-in-progress, an illustrated book about my dives in the submarine Alvin... I hit the button on the radio, preset to WFUV, and I set my glass of water on my desk.

That's when a five-foot garter snake uncoiled itself from somewhere, scooted across my desk toward me (I leapt back. Duh.), slid down the front of my file cabinet, and skedaddled into the dark corner beside the desk, where it found safety amid two open canvas boxes of files.

Holy BATS. Hell's bells. Crikey! Why me, why this, why now? Lord, don't you know I'm BUSY?

Okay, okay. I have resources. My friend Tucker is nineteen, studies zoology, and is known for his extreme joy upon discovering a fer-de-lance snake in the boot of a bunkmate during a stay in Costa Rica. I knew Tucker would come over and get the snake out for me. But Tucker's mother tells me he is away for the weekend, saying sadly, "He'll be so sorry to miss this opportunity." Uh-huh.

I get my park ranger friend Noonie on the phone at her house in Pennsylvania. Noonie is famous among my family for having introduced them to several fine examples of snakes, including Harry, her Burmese python; a water snake at our swimming hole; and a couple of mating snakes that made beautiful music -- well, if you want that story I'm going to post it on The Doodling Desk under Good Little Snakes.

Noonie suggests I construct a barricade using bed sheets, planks. and blankets and, having created a channel for the snake to run along, begin to remove the files boxes and other stuff that is shielding the snake. Then I can just pick it up if it doesn't go in the right direction and take it out. "It's going to try to bite you, but just remember you're not small enough to fit inside its mouth." From the background, her partner Steve shouts, "Wear gloves!" All this is the kind of advice I find difficult to follow, and besides I have WORK TO DO, did I mention that? At last Noon admits that just leaving the snake behind the desk is definitely an option.

So I do, for now. Yes, I do have work to do, but this situation has presented me with a different approach to that work. The earlier idea for the blog post has gone straight out the window (where I wish the snake would also go) and an interest born of necessity has overcome it -- not just the necessity to feel comfortable in my work place, but a fascination with learning enough about this situation to write about it. Yes indeed -- step into my office! Digging around for individuals, advice, and information -- and then writing and drawing about it -- is what I love to do.

Next I'm on line looking for a regional wildlife center Tucker's mother mentioned, and before long I'm talking to Pete Reid, who actually works in publishing (he writes about the beer industry) and moonlights as a "naturalist by vocation." His wife, Dara Reid, is a wildlife biologist who directs Wildlife in Crisis in nearby Weston, Connecticut. Wildlife in Crisis was organized in this area in 1989 to assist with the situations that arise, as one has in my barn this morning, when people and animals live in proximity. They know what to do if an animal is hurt and needs rehabilitation, if baby birds fall out of their nest, or if a coyote takes up residence under your shed.

Pete knows about every animal that lives in our area, whether it's native or introduced, and how it's doing. It seems that Connecticut is seeing strong numbers of beavers (I saw one walking down the street recently), fisher cats, otters, coyotes, and many more. And snakes are doing dandy as well. My garter snake, a mild-mannered type, most likely came into the barn intentionally, says Pete, and does not need my help to get back out. "He's there probably because there are insects and crickets or something else attractive in the barn. He'll slither around and find a gap, going out the way he came in." In the meantime, Pete suggests I wear closed-toed shoes and keep a broom handy so I can sweep the snake out the door if I see it again.

Pete tells me some other snake stories, confirming the existence of the state's legendary copperheads -- of which I've heard many stories but seen no evidence -- and which have been a topic of heated debate among some of my friends. And he reassures me that the garter snake behind my desk is "just part of the natural order of things in the barn."

I hang up the phone, determined to be philosophical about my deskmate. By now I've been sitting here working in near proximity to a snake for some four hours, with nary a slither or other sign of life from the dark corner. I admit that my feet aren't on the ground; I've propped them up on the handles of my file cabinets. I'm kind of jumpy, too. But I've also learned a lot, done an interesting drawing (I'm going to try another snake another day, but for now here's what I've got, see above), talked to some great people, and heard about different approaches to the situation that started my day. Not bad for a day at the office.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Sweet! Interesting Nonfiction for Kids

Looking for a great interesting nonfiction topic for kids? Candy!

As I write this, I have candy on the brain. Today was spent wandering the aisles and aisles of treats at the Sweet and Snack Expo at McCormick Center in Chicago. So, going to have to make this short and sweet.

A few months ago, as I am wont to do, I had to check out what has been recently published for kids on the subject of candy. Here’s another category of nonfiction books for kids to get them to read more nonfiction. I mean, who wouldn’t want to read about candy?

Pop!: The Invention of Bubble Gum
By Meghan McCarthy (Author, Illustrator)
Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books  May 2010

The Mars Family: M & M Mars Candy Makers (Food Dudes)
by Joanne Mattern
Checkerboard Library Jan 2011

Candy bomber : the story of the Berlin Airlift's "Chocolate Pilot"
by Michael O.Tunnell
Charlesbridge 2010

Candyfreak: A Journey through the Chocolate Underbelly of America
By Steve Almond
Harvest Books April 2005
One of my favorite books. A perfect YA nonfiction read.

Sweet! : the delicious story of candy
By Ann Love
Tundra Books 2007

I feel that many reading this are coveting their swag from Book Expo in New York this week, but check out my sweet sweet haul from the Sweet and Snack Expo.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Biographies Galore: Doing My Homework

I’m teaching a children’s writing workshop this quarter at UCLA Extension, where I cover all genres and all elements of story, give massive reading assignments as well as writing exercises, writing their stories, and critiquing their classmates.

Sidebar: In the past I used a textbook – Anatasia Suen’s terrific Picture Writing, which is now, sadly, out of print. It is the only one I’ve found that gives equal time to writing fiction and nonfiction. (Most textbooks give one chapter to nonfiction). Suen relates every topic and genre – plot, character, picture books, middle grade, etc – to both f and nf. Now I don’t use a textbook, but rely on my lectures and web essays, including some from INK. Even though nearly all of my students write fiction, I still discuss nf when talking about each genre (pb, early readers, middle grade, etc.)

Rather than the obligatory one class, I devote two weeks just to nonfiction, including one on biography. Students choose a person and read three biographies of him or her – picture book, middle grade, and YA – then discuss how authors, illustrators, and book designers treat the subject differently.

Prompted by two new picture book biographies on Jane Goodal, I decided to do this assignment myself. She is a perfect subject for children: pioneering woman scientist, animal lover, environmental activist. The LA Public Library lists fifteen children’s biographies of Goodall going back to 1976, but no picture book biographies.

Me…Jane, written and illustrated by Patrick McDonnell (Little, Brown: 2011) is for younger children and beginning readers. It describes Jane as a child, bonded to Jubliee (a toy chimpanzee,) observing squirrels and spiders, drawing animals, (the author shows Goodall’s actual drawings), climbing a favorite tree and reading Tarzan of the Apes. We see Jane sitting in a chicken coop for hours, to see a hen lay an egg. I confess a bias for picture books with very few words – and this one is a stunner, with 228 words. The ending, stretched over six double page spreads, is superb:

Jane dreamed of a life in Africa, too…

A life living with, and helping, all animals.

At night Jane would tuck Jubilee into bed, say her prayers,

and fall asleep

to awake one day…

to her dream come true. [photo of grownup Goodall and chimp in the forest.]

This biography shows that the child is the mother of the woman. It leaves out all sorts of intermediate stages, but communicates clearly to a young child that dreams can come true. The subdued watercolor illustrations are accompanied by old engravings of leaves, flowers, animals, and such, which hint at Goodall’s scientific bent. All in all, a beautiful book.

Jeanette Winter’s The Watcher: Jane Goodall’s Life with the Chimps (Schwartz & Wade:

2011)begins with the chicken coop incident to establish Jane as a “watcher.” We see her favorite tree, her reading, then follow Goodall to Africa where “She knew she was Home.” Many pages show her working with chimps, watching, waiting, and taking notes. We learn of deforestation, the killing and kidnapping of chimps, and Jane’s work to save the land and the animals. Winter ends the book with a return visit years later, by Goodall to her beloved forest where she “opened a window for us/ to the world of the chimpanzees.” Most of Winter’s story takes place in the forest with Goodall as an adult. The stylized colorful paintings portray the lushness, density, and color of the landscape and the charm of the chimpanzees. This book, though it has more information than McDonnell’s, can be read by young readers who will find Jane’s and the chimps’ lives equally compelling.

Jane Goodall: Legendary Primatologist, by Brenda Haugen (Compass point Books: 2006) is part of their solid Signature Lives series for middle grade readers. Here we read about Goodall’s English childhood, and the Alligator Club she started with three friends to study nature. We hear of her various jobs before travelling to Africa at age twenty-three. Winter’s book shows Goodall alone in the forest. Haugen’s tells us that she was accompanied at first by her mother, a cook, and two game scouts. We learn about her PhD studies at Cambridge, her two marriages and her son. We hear about human and animal epidemics, about her unsavory discoveries – she saw chimps make war on and eat each other. We learn details of environmental destruction, a horrible (human) kidnapping incident, her non-profit foundation, and her Roots & Shoots children’s organization. We get a full picture of her accomplishments and her difficulties in the bush and in the world at large. Many quotes from Goodall’s writings, black and white photos, and sidebars enhance the text.

The Chimpanzees I Love: Saving Their World and Ours by Jane Goodall (Scholastic: 2001) is a

first hand account of her work, written for young adults. While not a full-blown biography, the first chapter describes her life, including the anecdote of four-year-old Jane in the chicken coop. We learn that her mother had called to police to report her missing! We also learn that her mother was the only person who never laughed at her childhood dream of Africa. This large-format book, filled with color illustrations of chimps describes her work in Africa, as well as her efforts to improve the lives of chimps in zoos and science laboratories. Her passion shines in describing setting up chimp sanctuaries in Africa and humane conditions beyond. Back matter includes facts and resources about chimps, Goodall’s books, and her work.

Goodall’s life and achievements are well-served by the new picture books and the more comprehensive books for older students. As a biographer, I found this assignment enlightening, showing several different ways to tell a life. I look forward to seeing what my students come up with next week.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Books on a High School Graduate's Shelf

When my daughter graduates from high school next month, there will be no looking back. As someone thinking about majoring in astrophysics, she feels like the opportunities to explore her interests will really just begin. So how does a kid learn enough about a subject to think they might like to major in such a field before college even starts? Well, it certainly wasn’t in any of her middle school or high school classes. The answer won’t surprise most of you: nonfiction books for kids.

I can still see her walking over to the library desk, half the size that she is now, with her weekly stack of Seymour Simon books. If space is your thing when you’re a kid, Seymour is the man. He’s written a book on every planet and then some, with great information well beyond the usual elementary level of standard science fair basic styroform model stuff. She was happy to read and soak up as much as this prolific writer could tell her.

One particular book was so important to her that she mentioned it in one of her college essays. It’s called Voyager to the Planets by Necia Apfel and it describes the travels of Voyager 1 and 2 with amazing accompanying photographs. The story of spacecraft and planets enthralled her immediately and was her first real introduction to astronomy.

When I first started this blog, one of the first people I asked to join, based on my kids level of interest in their books, was David Schwartz. Science and math go hand in hand and David’s books, G is for Googol and Q is for Quark succeed in showing how interesting they both can be. These are the books that make scientific and mathematical concepts readily accessible to the elementary set well beyond what the average educator usually believes a child is prepared to understand. Alphabet books, indeed!

Another book my daughter loved because it focused on the fun and delight of an intellectual challenge is Ivan Moscovich’s 1000 Play Thinks. Puzzles, Paradoxes, Illusions & Games. This book has chapters on everything from numbers to logic to topology as well as perception and solutions. A book to promote the fun of thinking. Who would have thunk it.


There are quite a few more. This might necessitate a Part II. A kid can appreciate a lot of good books in eighteen years. She’s already wondering how many bookshelves she’ll have in her dorm room. Some gems just can’t be left behind in childhood.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Apocalypse -- Not Now, Maybe Later

It’s Sunday, May 22nd, and as f
ar as I can tell from looking out the window, the world and its human inhabitants are still here and going strong. Yesterday was supposed to have been the end, or the beginning of the end. This prophecy emanated from Family Radio Worldwide, a Christian broadcasting company headquartered on a grungy street of my home city, Oakland. Head prophesizer Harold Camping must have messed up his math again. He issued a false alarm a few years ago but later retracted it after the apocalypse failed to materialize and the Earth failed to dematerialize. The math was quite complex, he explained, and he had simply miscalculated. Well, even Einstein had problems with his math, by his own admission, so Camping's faux pas is understandable, although dignifying his bizarre numerology by calling it “math” is a little like calling astrology “astrophysics.”

This wasn’t the first time the Earth did not self-destruct as scheduled. In the 1950s, the Seekers, a Chicago-based cult, received interstellar communications predicting a cataclysm and promising their own rescue in a flying saucer. They were ready for the spacecraft that didn’t show up (some had quit their jobs and sold their homes). Accompanying them as they waited for extraterrestrial transport was Stanford University psychologist Leon Festinger, who wanted to see how people react when their belief system is demolished by irrefutable facts. Festinger found that the non-destruction of the earth and non-arrival of their spacecraft led the Seekers to strengthen their belief system and rationalize the prophecy’s failure: they decided that their willingness to believe it had saved the Earth!

A few weeks ago on this blog, Vicki Cobb wrote about “motivated reasoning” — how our pre-existing beliefs influence our thoughts and color our conclusions, even when we think we are reasoning impartially. As explained in the current issue of the magazine Mother Jones, there is a neurological explanation and an evolutionary basis for self-delusion. In pre-industrial societies, it could improve one's survival ability. Now it has some curious manifestations. One of them is that the major factor people use to decide on the credibility of a scientist is how much agreement they find between the experimenter’s results and their own pre-existing beliefs.

This leads me to education. Providers of professional development for teachers are supposed to draw upon research-based teaching practices. But does it matter when the audience (teachers) must answer to higher authorities (administrators, school board, parents) who bring so many biases to the decision-making table?
Does it matter that Denmark and other Scandinavian countries where schoolchildren begin school reading programs at age seven, not before, are the countries with the world’s highest literacy rates? You might think that it would inform those who want to push high-stakes reading tests on seven year old American kids, but don't kid yourself! (Nor should you let Denmark’s top rating in a survey of the “world’s happiest people” fool you into inferring a cause-and-effect relationship between the age at which reading is first taught in school and later happiness. Instead the Danes attribute their contentment to Carlsberg beer.)

In Singapore, children are taught math through a deep understanding of numbers and concepts. Visual aids and hands-on items known as manipulatives are staples of math class. First graders spend a great deal of class time talking about ways to understand each one digit number, and Singapore 5th graders whop ours in comparative international studies. I once saw a video of a typical Japanese middle school math class in which the teacher presented a difficult geometry problem; after many minutes of thought, every student in turn proposed a solution to their peers and defended it. It was not at all the drill-and-kill rote learning many Americans have come to associate with math class.

Yet very few U.S. school districts have tried to adopt success
ful Asian techniques that often don’t “feel” right to American sensibilities. Perhaps we can be encouraged by the small number that have given it a try. (See “Making Math Lessons as Easy as 1, Pause, 2, Pause…” in the New York Times, Sept. 30, 2010.) We can hope that their success will foster wider acceptance — if teachers get adequate training and parental support. Those are pretty big “ifs” these days.

Someone just handed me this message, printed on a slip of paper:

“WARNING! As of Friday, Facebook will automatically start dragging the Earth into the Sun. To change this option, go to Settings > Planetary Settings > Trajectory > then UNCLICK the box that says ‘Apocalypse.’”

Friday, May 20, 2011

Spring Has Sprung!

We nonfiction writers tend to live more in the real world than in the world of the imagination. I know I feel very grounded in place, wherever I am, and I’m experiencing what goes on around me—the sun, or not; the breeze, or the heavy dense air; the soft forest path under my feet or the hard concrete sidewalk. Roz Schanzer expressed this feeling very well in her recent blog about her Costa Rican photo safari. At times, like during a drab, hard winter, our way of being so intimately in touch can be perhaps more difficult than for those who can escape into their heads with flights of fancy.

But when spring finally does break, as it did just a week ago at my home in Montana, the natural perception and appreciation of the real becomes an energizing joy. With a bedroom window open, my house soaks up the amazing smell of spring—of growth, life, fruit trees in bloom, whatever goes into that heady concoction that proclaims, “Spring is here!”

I haven’t discussed this idea with my fiction-writing friends, and maybe I’m wrong; maybe they find a gray, cold winter just as oppressive as I do. It depresses my creative juices, and nonfiction writing is a creative art, as we nonfiction writers struggle to recreate the real world through words invented by humans. We struggle especially hard to describe sensations like smell and taste, for which our language has few useful words. And when I see the amazing variety of color and size and shape in natural beings like these flowers in the garden of my friend, I’m overwhelmed by the idea that I might even try to express their beauty and variety in mere words. Then I remember that doing is not only my job, it’s my passion and my great challenge.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

What's Song Got To Do With It?

Picture this. You sign up to take a cabaret workshop in which you are going to work on a song with an acting teacher and a vocal coach during the day, and perform it at night. You choose a song. You learn it. You attend the workshop and sing your song. After you sing, the other attendees clap, but the acting teacher (the brilliant Alan Langdon from famed Circle in the Square) quietly waits for the applause to stop. He then smiles at you and says, “So how was that? How did it go?”

One by one, each attendee experiences something similar. The reactions to this question include wiggling, giggling, saying “Ummm” a lot, or “I don’t know,” or “Pretty good, I guess.” People talk about the notes they missed or the lyrics they forgot. The teacher presses on. “No,” he says, “I’m not talking about that. I want to know if you feel you expressed yourself fully.”


After moving past the initial discomfort, you start to answer truthfully. “I think I expressed some of what I wanted to, but not all of it.” Great. Then the questions get harder. They have to do with why you chose the song you did, what drew you to it, what is going on right now in your life that you can draw on to express what you really want to express. Is it pain, anger, sadness, joy, abandonment?

Sounds like character work, right? Some people answer “she feels this” or “he feels that,” referring to the character singing the song from whatever musical or show the song hails. No. “I’m not interested in what the character is feeling,” the teacher says, “I’m interested in what YOU are feeling.”


Well, that’s harder, now isn’t it? And what I have found is that this pertains to my writing—both fiction and nonfiction. The first, second, third steps, and so on, are learning as much about my character as I can, of course. But the gem I’ve taken from these acting/singing workshops is that if I can then extend the thought process to include discovering similarities between what the person has gone through and something I can relate it to for myself, I might be able to put myself in their shoes that much more. It can deepen my awareness of that person and understand somewhat more about their motivations.

Give it a try—the results can be illuminating!

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Our Choice: a new way to showcase nonfiction

I heard about Al Gore’s new ebook app* Our Choice: A Plan to Solve the Climate Crisis a day or two after it was released, and as a newbie iPad 2 owner could download it right then and there. No trip to the book store, no waiting days or weeks for a shipment. The amount of info packed into it is amazing and a pleasure to explore. The video below shows one of the co-founders of Push Pop Press, Mike Matas, giving a demo during a TED talk. Whatever you do, don’t miss the windmill at around 2 minutes and 40 seconds. (Thanks to April Pulley Sayre for this link):

As one or two of my recent posts reveal, I’m very interested in the creative possibilities of digital books and along with a group of authors have been investigating ways to make them myself. Book apps are intriguing because they can take advantage of the touch interface available on tablets and smart phones. While most of the book apps available so far appear to have been made by a separate-from-the-author team of developers, that doesn't especially grab me. Personally, I’d rather be hands-on, figuring out the content and interactivity on the fly. Having a developer create an app from my ideas feels like having an artist ghost-illustrate my books. Or like trying drawing with a pencil on a broomstick. It can be done, but I’d rather not.

Which is not to say that I’m in a hurry to learn how to do this:

From the Complete Idiot’s Guide to iPad and iPhone App Development
No, no, wrangling code is not going to be my thing in this lifetime. I want the GarageBand of book publishing, and I want it right now. (Speaking of GarageBand, have you played with it on the iPad yet? You can strum guitar strings, play piano chords, sample yourself doing a Tarzan yell, and much more.)

Fortunately, several developer groups are working on the digital
book-making software that I hope to soon add to my regulars...Photoshop, InDesign, Scrivener (an awesome word processor/novel-writing/research organizing program), Illustrator, et al. Check out this quote about Push Pop Press from a Wired article:

Gore’s book is just the first of what Matas and Tsinteris hope will be a series of similarly interactive e-books. The pair are planning to release Push Pop Press as a piece of Mac software for anyone to create a book app in the future.

The programmers did not disclose an estimated ship date or price for the Push Pop Press publishing software, but they said the goal was to make it “very affordable.”

That certainly sounds promising. I am already looking at software still in development from a couple of other sources... it’s too soon to say which system(s) will work for me. What I am sure of is that fairly soon it will be possible for non-developers to make interactive books with not just words and images but also motion, audio, video, animation, and who knows what else...

I can hardly wait!

@Loreen Leedy (on Twitter)
my web site

*There are print and audio editions of Our Choice, more info is here.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

A Writer's Stack O'books

My younger son is graduating from college today so while you read this I will be trying womanfully not to cry too hard in public. I will probably not be succeeding, so wish for me, please, that he does not witness my blubbering. It's all I can ask for.

That said, I do have a life beyond hankies and graduations and B and his brother, I swear I do...and in that life I am a writer and …

********** ********** **********

Lately people have been asking me to recommend good books to read about writing narrative nonfiction. I have a few personal favorite books about writing that I read years ago and dip into now and again. I couldn’t find all of them (I tend to lend them out), but here a few of my favorites among the many I have looked at (or at least bought) over the years:
If You want to Write by Brenda Uleand
One Writer's Beginnings by Eudora Welty
What If? by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter
Writing on Both Sides of the Brain by Henriette Anne Klauser
Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
Becoming a Writer by Dorthea Brande

I would say that out of all of these books the one that I go back to most often is Writing On Both Sides of the Brain because Klauser taught me something I need to be reminded of often. She says we have a critic inside our brains (no, really?) and that critic should be given her due, but not while you are in the creative process of writing a first draft. During that time you kick out the critic (send her to a relative's house) and tell her you will let her back in later. Then you write happily and uninterruptedly without a nagging voice telling you what's wrong with what you're doing. Later you invite that critic back (notice that this is by invitation). The critic is very helpful during your editing phase, but should be sent away again when you need to tap into the creative, UNcritical voice again. It does work that way for me: creative brain needed (right side) then analytical brain (left side) called in to help. Knowing this process makes it easier for me to silence the critic when she gets in the way. This simple piece of wisdom has saved me, my sanity, and my books many, many times.

I also go back quite often to What If for Bernay's and Painter's great writing exercises. Although these writing exercises are meant for fiction writers primarily, they are useful for nonfiction writers as well, especially those of us who want to use the techniques of fiction in our nonfiction: scene, character, plot arc, detail, where to place and how to use (real) dialogue. I often feel I should write those two woman a thank you note. So here it is: Thank you, Anne and Pamela!

I am rereading One Writer's Beginnings right now because we just read The Optimist's Daughter for our book group. I love this memoir. When you read it you not only learn about what it is to be a writer, you also come away feeling privileged to know Welty. One moment from One Writer's Beginnings I think the I.N.K. audience will love: Her mother goes into the library and says to the librarian (whom everyone ELSE was afraid of): "Eudora is nine years old and has my permission to read any book she wants from the shelves, children or adult." There was one exception she gave: a book about a little girl who practiced piano so hard she fainted and fell off the stool. She was just afraid that little Eudora would read the book and then she'd fall of the piano stool, too. Apparently she was quite impressionable. (A future writer!)

Another book that made a huge difference to me years ago and that I look forward to rereading is by William Zinsser, called On Writing Well. It's a must-have for nonfiction writers. But I'm letting my husband to take credit for that one.

I asked said husband, the Professor of Science Writing and master of narrative nonfiction writing, to weigh in for this post. He literally weighed in, bringing home from his school office a bag o'books--most of his favorites about writing narrative nonfiction:

On Writing Well by William Zinsser
The Art of Fact edited by Kevin Kerrane an Ben Yagoda
Telling True Stories edited by Mark Kramer and Wendy Call
Writing for Story by Jon Franklin
Literary Journalism edited by Norman Sims and Mark Kramer
The Triumph of Narrative by Robert Fulford
Writing About Your Life by William Zinsser
Writing to Learn by William Zinsser.

As I said, I loved On Writing Well by Zinsser, and have read parts of his other two books here. You will notice, by the way, a preponderance of books by Zinsser in Jon's pile. He is a master at the art and also an incredible teacher and nice guy. I once talked to him for five minutes and came away inspired for weeks.

I dipped into Telling True Stories a few months ago, and let me tell you this book is a gold mine! There are essays in there by Melissa Fay Greene and Katherine Boo and Nora Ephron and of course Tom Wolfe. There is advice about how to structure a piece, how to research and report, and even whether or not to tape your interviews. The rest of these are books I'm going to be dipping into this summer as I work hard on my current nonfiction project (when I'm not talking about nonfiction at ALA--come say hello if you're there!). I have been told by the professor that these books can live in my office for the summer.

So yes, that's my stack o'summer writing books.

I also have a stack and a wish-list of both nonfiction and fiction books for the summer. If you want to write great nonfiction for kids you should read nonfiction for adults as well as for kids. This should go without saying, but there, I said it. On my adult to-read list is the new Stacy Schiff book about Cleopatra, Jame's Gleick's Information, fiction titles that include Room and A Visit From the Good Squad, and of course, the shelves of books I'm reading for research for my project. I promise I will sneak in a beach read should I make it to a beach, or the equivalent.

In closing I would like to pass on a piece of advice from the Other Part of My Life. As a senior at Columbia my son was asked to answer some questions and give advice as part of the "Senior Wisdom" feature on bwog. Here's one of my favorite things he said:

"When someone asks you how it’s going, don’t tell them how much work you have, or how little you’ve slept. Tell them what you’ve eaten recently. They’ll be overjoyed."

Fresh strawberries and oranges with Wallaby vanilla and plain yogurt, topped with granola.


Monday, May 16, 2011

This Writer's Life

So, as I write, very few hours remain of the 15th day of May and my own monthly bit of typing is due to be posted here by early on the 16th. Some hard-working editor back east is expecting a manuscript from me in approximately nine hours and is it done? Decidedly not. Oh well, not two days ago I caught myself quoting some crabby scribe to a writer friend, that old wheeze about writing being the price one pays for being able to live the writer's life. As it is, sometime betwixt now and dawn, I'll get sufficient words in order, take Mimi out into the cool for a walk, then come in and collapse; fall asleep listening to the BBC - makes for some odd dreams, I can attest.
And it occurs to me, as it is growing very late, that this nights's moments would dazzle and perplex the folks about whom I've been writing all day, early Americans who never pressed SEND. Never flipped a plastic switch by the doorway and have a room go bright. Turned a key in the ignition or flushed a toilet or picked up a phone or cranked up the AC. Their whole lives were spent in the first half of the 19th century in an endless power failure, from a certain p.o.v. Calls to mind David McCullough saying something about how difficult and inconvenient and uncomfortable a regular day could be for those living in the long ago. All the more remarkable, the things and thoughts they accomplished, when nothing but fire stands between you and cold, hungry dark, when nothing goes faster than a horse can run.
An minute now I'll go pop a soda (Would Dolley Madison even like a Diet Coke?) and get back to this manuscript (tic-toc tic-toc and I still haven't explained the Missouri Compromise.) The book's about America's "westward expansion." There's a big fat, boiled down euphemism for a gritty, gut-wrenching, back-breaking, optimistic, multi-faceted, unstoppable and glorious/courageous, sucks-to-be-you-Indians nightmare if ever there was one. Not something I'll say to the next set of little faces, arrayed before me, their owners sitting, 'cris-cross applesause' on a hard shiny floor. No, you can bet money that I'll be absolutely entertaining as I tell the little squirts that "a nation is like a person. Don't you guys feel like if other people knew more about your past, what all you've had to put up with and the good things about your life, that they would treat you better? Cut you some slack? Understand better why you're the kind of person you are?"
They nod, bless their hearts.
"Well, a country is like a person. A nation, whether it's the United States or Nigeria or Mexico or Japan, is more than borders, boundaries, and a fluttering banner. A nation is a combination of all of the stories of all of the people - not just the famous ones - back upstream in the living past.
I mean, history is more than just a bunch of dead people's birthdays and factoids and one stupid war after another," I say, as little by little, I work on my big scribbly drawing of Abraham Lincoln. ("Do you guys want his with his beard or without?" "BEARD!" At Christmastime I draw reindeer antlers sprouting out of his stovepipe topper. )
Now school visit season is over and writing must be done, if I want to stay in the game, that is and I do.
All yesterday and all today and well into tomorrow morning, I expect, I'll be alternately paging through books, then typing, then staring at what I typed, deleting, typing some more about the mountain men (oh baby, what a smelly bunch for a scratch 'n' sniff book), the [Amazing Impossible] Erie Canal (gone into another printing, praise all that's holy), Tecumseh of the Shawnee and early travelers on the long trail to Oregon, Narcissa Whitman, for instance, who made much of the trip, balanced upon her horse's sidesaddle, lest she appear unladylike (oh, her aching back!). I wrote about her and her missionary/physician husband once. (Are stories really inside those boxes of unopened books?) Thank goodness this particular book ends around the time of the Alamo so I needn't go into what happened to the Whitmans and all the reprisals visited upon the 'ungrateful' Cayuse Indians for doing what they did. I'll leave the folks on the Trail, the trappers at their rendezvous in some mountain meadow, and let the future be a surprise for them all.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Playing with Layout

Ever since desktop publishing software became available in the early 1990s, the visual appeal of nonfiction books for young readers has grown by leaps and bounds. These programs make it easy to experiment with a book’s layout.

As a result of this new freedom, many books now include multiple illustrations per spread and make clever use of white space. Examples include Ballet for Martha: Making Appalachian Spring by Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan, An Egg is Quiet by Dianna Aston, and Born to Be Giants: How Baby Dinosaurs Grew to Rule the World by Lita Judge.

One of the true masters of nonfiction book design is Steve Jenkins, who often works with his wife Robin Page. Books like How Many Ways Can You Catch a Fly?, Never Smile at a Monkey, What Do You Do with a Tail Like This, and Move! are all about animal adaptations. The fun, innovative design of these books couple with the brief, clear text is irresistible. Jenkins does a remarkable job of selecting animals with unique adaptations and organizing them into clever categories to create books with a game-like feel.

A current trend in science-themed titles for the picture book crowd is layered text. Books like Beaks by Sneed B. Collard III, When the Wolves Returned: Restoring Nature’s Balance in Yellowstone by Dorothy Hinshaw Patent, Meet the Howlers by April Pulley Sayre, and my own book A Place for Butterflies feature two kinds of text that serve different purposes and that is distinguished visually by size and font.

For the most part, a larger, simpler text provides general information and can stand on its own. The smaller text presented in sidebars provides additional details to round out the presentation. These books are perfect for the Reading Buddy programs popular in many schools, and they also work well as family read alouds.

Can you think of other nonfiction books with innovative, eye-catching designs? I’d love to hear your recommendations.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Keeping and Letting Go

We’re getting ready to move again—no, not from Portland (we just got here, practically!), just from our itty-bitty downtown condo to a sweet, little (but a little big bigger) house across the river, in a neighborhood of antique stores, coffee shops, and a very lively branch of the Multnomah County Library. (Every time I go by, the place is hopping.)

We’re doing all those little repairs that one never seems to get around to for oneself (as in sheesh, why didn’t we fix that while we were living here to enjoy it???); we’re collecting boxes; the movers are scheduled.

Even though we culled through our belongings 1½ years ago, when we first moved from California to Oregon, and got rid of tons, I am still looking around now to see what we are holding onto that we really don’t want/need anymore.

Some stuff is easy to get rid of. A book I read and don’t plan to read again? Sure, no problem. Off it goes to the Friends of the Library booksale. Other stuff is harder to let go of, however: a gorgeous sweater that I have only worn a few times because it is too fussy to clean easily? Hmmm. I think it will be making the move with me.

Trying to decide what to get rid of and what to hang onto has even leaked into my writing life—literally. I have multiple files of partially-explored book ideas. And I’ve been going through them all, asking myself: keep or let go?

It’s been interesting to look back over these ideas, some that were generated over fifteen years ago, at the start of my career. I can recall the enthusiasm with which I dove right in, reading and collecting information. But for each of these projects, at some point, I hit a roadblock. And I set the idea aside, to think. And then didn’t pick it back up. These are the ideas that have accumulated in my drawer full of files.

The roadblock, in most cases, is whether the idea works as a picture book—the genre I’ve been exploring for most of my writing career.

For some ideas in my files, I’ve come to understand, there’s not enough there there to warrant a 32-page book. These ideas could successfully be turned into nonfiction articles, however, which often run as tight as 400 words and are enhanced by perhaps two or three illustrations.

Conversely, for other ideas in my files, I now see that there is too much there to cram into a picture book. These topics are too complex, too nuanced, too layered to be told in a 32-page illustrated book. And, most likely, they are not ideas that would interest the six-year-old who would pick the book up. These ideas would be better served in a middle-grade or young-adult nonfiction format, with multiple chapters to explore the idea in depth.

And finally, even for the ideas with just the right amount of there, there is still the issue of illustration potential. The lovely beginning-middle-end structure that works so well for the picture book format still needs a story that can be enhanced by a variety of compelling visual images—and for some of my fledgling ideas, that variety it lacking. They may be stories that could be told, but not necessarily stories that can truly be illustrated.

A drawer full of stalled ideas might seem like a failure of sorts, but I see it as an accomplishment. By exploring these ideas and trying to write them as picture books, I’ve learned a lot about what works for that genre, and what doesn’t. Learning how a dozen (or more!) ideas don’t work has helped me shape the ones that do.

So what am I keeping? The ideas that, after all these years, still speak to me. I do write articles on occasion, so the modest ones may still find a home; and I might one day decide to tackle a longer work.

And what am I letting go? The ideas for which I no longer have any passion. They deserve—and will be better served—by authors who do. And letting them go allows me to move, focused and energized, into my new office—looking full-steam ahead.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011


My husband and I just took a nonfiction trip to Costa Rica. We were doing a photo shoot in places where everything was real—no virtual high tech made up stuff or computer games for us! The toucans and macaws and magnificent quetzals and anhingas and hummingbirds were all real. The strawberry poison dart frogs and red-eyed tree frogs were real and the bright yellow poisonous eyelash vipers were real and the caimans’ sharp pointy teeth were very real and the white-faced Capuchin monkey that stole all the sugar packets at a lodge where we stayed and ate them one at a time was real and the slovenly sloths and the huge rhinoceros beetles and the blue morpho butterflies were real and the hot steamy jungle was real too. Even the spider bite on my leg was real. I know this for a fact. It’s still there.

Guess what. In case nobody has been outside for a long time, there’s a whole nonfiction world out there waiting to be explored in real time. You can see everything in 3-D and living color and surround sound. You can smell its wonderful and terrible perfumes. It is so incredibly real that we had to read a lot of paperback fiction to bring us down from our nonfiction high.

Most of the time we were able to photograph the wildlife from mere inches away, but sometimes we had to stalk it patiently for hours at a time like hunters on the prowl. We do photo shoots like this all the time, but they never cease to amaze me. When we go to other countries, I like to follow in the footsteps of some of the people I write books about by writing my own journals (think Lewis and Clark or Charles Darwin or even the gold seekers who flocked to California during the 1840’s). Of course I get to use all of these photos and journals as research to enhance and enliven my books. But I love photography for its own sake too. I love it big time.

So go outside, people. Take a gander at nature while it’s still there to see and touch and smell and taste. Trust me—all that biodiversity is fading fast, so let's get a move on before it’s too late.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Trust Me

Several weeks ago I received an e-mail from my editor at Clarion Books, Dinah Stevenson. In it she said she knew I was working on a project for her, but would I put it aside to work on another newer one (so new that the contract hadn't yet come through). She worried, she told me, that someone else might beat us to the topic.*
The request made me sit up straight in my chair in panic. I had already begun writing the first project, which meant that I'd done the research, interviewed experts, thought about the structure of the text, played with themes and second guessed every decision I'd made several times over. And I'd gotten into the text enough that I felt I'd almost (but not quite) found the zone, that place where I feel I've finally worked out the right voice and writing rhythm. If I stopped now (I didn't think I could work on both projects simultaneously and meet the proposed deadline) I worried that I might lose emotional energy and have to go back to the very beginning and puzzle out the problems all over again.*
And then there was the problem of pushing the second project forward at (for me) what would have to be break neck speed. I wanted, for instance, to search out as many as twenty individuals for indepth interviews and follow up questions, a task I'd calculated could take a year to accomplish. To stay on schedule I'd now have to do this in less than six months. Which did not include the time it would take to write and rewrite the text or gather together images. My head was spinning a little as I imagined all sorts of other disasters that would delay or undermine the project.*
And then there was the simple matter that I felt the first project was much more likely to be done by someone else because it had begun to appearing recently in numerous newspaper and magazine articles. Why abandon a project that was just gaining momentum and launch into another that had more questions associated with it then answers?*
So I called Dinah and told her my concerns. She listened and then she worked her magic. Don't worry about the first project, she told me. There's no rush about getting it done so you'll have plenty of time to solve any new issues that arise. And what's more, she didn't think anyone would beat us to the first topic. As for the new project I asked if she had heard of anyone else working on or even considering the subject; no, she answered. She just had a feeling that we needed to move the second project ahead of the first.*
I know what you're thinking: this doesn't sound altogether reassuring. It didn't come with a guarantee of any sort; it was a hunch, pure and simple. But then I thought back to the many years I've known and worked with Dinah -- the way she made thoughtful and strong comments and suggestions about my texts, but never tried to force her opinions on me, the way she guided each project through its many phases and resolved one knotty problem after another with seeming ease, even the way she celebrated whenever a book received a nice review or got some other sort of positive notice. Book making has always been a partnership with writer, agent (yes, my agent does more than just pushing contracts through), editor, designer, production and marketing departments all working toward a common goal. But with Dinah I've always felt another deeper level of energy and committment -- first, to helping me do the best job possible, and, second, to making sure the book has every chance to succeed. *
When I write I let my instincts lead me down many paths, most of which don't turn out to be deadends. And I had a feeling that Dinah was doing much the same thing here. For some combination of reasons she felt the newer project should be done before the older one. In a way she was saying "Trust me." And I, relying on my writer instinct, did. It will be an interesting (to say the least!) journey and I'll report on it at some future date. Wish me well.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Creativity--On the Couch

This past Saturday, I attended a seminar at the Boston Psychoanalytic Society and Institute called Three Poets on “Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming.” It was a blockbuster lineup: Poets Gail Mazur, Robert Pinsky and Louise Gluck (two of them Laureates) and Sigmund Freud, who was abundantly present in spirit, within the audience of 60-odd analysts and in his essay, “Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming.” Each poet read a poem and talked about how his or her writing related to points made by the Master in this essay about creativity.

Evidently Freud was both fascinated and puzzled by artistic invention. The program notes said creativity was “a mystery he admired, and likely envied as well. Freud wrote that poets had always known what psychoanalysis had discovered, and that it just fell to him to systematize and theorize it.”

And theorize it he did in this essary that searched for its underpinnings. As best as I could tell, Freud believed that creativity's roots lay in childhood (Duh. Where else did he ever look?). Specifically in childhood play. The child constructs a fantasy world in which the elements of the real world are reordered to please him, in part by defusing or dealing with unsatisfactory realities. And since the child is the father of the man, the adult writer continues on the same path.

Here’s the problem, Sigmund. This hypothesis—right or wrong—addresses the poet, novelist and playwright. What about the writer of creative nonfiction? Our job is to deal with, often even embrace the realities of life, not avoid them. And to do it creatively. Take the facts and make something new of them—or why bother?

So do we get our own developmental theory?

Is the creative nonfiction writer born as the kid who is just burning to know? Maybe she watches the first snowfall and wonders what happens to the butterflies. She asks her father who changes the subject because he doesn’t know and induces trauma by answering NO questions. Then she gets sent to a shrink who asks the little girl TOO many questions instead of answering any. Then she asks a librarian who hands her a copy of Under the Snow by Melissa Stewart. Just like Goldilocks, everything is finally just right. Anxiety over. That feeling of relief and its cause is imprinted upon her psyche and determines her future.

Or maybe he started on the Freudian track, building a world filled with purple dragons. Then he discovered that once the world was home to animals called dinosaurs. Everything changed. Yes, yes, he’d say dismissively, I know dragons can fly. Pterosaurs can too—and hey, did you know that a T Rex had teeth the size of bananas? The idea that dinosaurs once walked the Earth, that his wildest fantasies could be REAL, is what fueled his creativity.

Maybe one of these children grows up and asks another question. This time she can search for the answer herself, talk to people who’ve spent their lives wondering about the same thing. She asks enough and they know enough so she can know enough too. And she finds the way the world works so beautiful that when she explains it, she makes music.

Or when he seeks the truth, he finds a sliver of a story that manages to tell the whole thing. His creativity is to hone in. His tale uncovers the core and it echoes and reaches so far that questions his readers don’t even know they have get answered.

Perhaps they even answer yours, Dr. Freud.

Friday, May 6, 2011

A Taste of History

As we approach Mother’s Day this weekend, I’m thinking of one thing: food. The most immediate reason is a practical one. I invited my mom over for brunch on Sunday, and I haven’t yet decided what to make. (If anyone out there has a recipe for a killer brunch item, please share.) But I’ve also been ruminating about the place of food in women’s history generally and in our family’s history in particular.

Food is a commodity that interests everybody on one level or another, but a chance encounter last week inspired me to look at it from a less personal and more global viewpoint. The encounter was with Professor Maria Trumpler, who teaches a course titled “Women, Food, and Culture” at Yale. The course is an interdisciplinary exploration of food production, preparation, and consumption, covering everything from the history of dieting in the United States, to home economics as a feminist pursuit, to the evolution of kitchen design. It’s just one sign that the field of food studies is booming as our current eating habits and food supply are subject to new scrutiny and concern. Food studies is a subject you can really sink your teeth into, pun regrettably intended. In the last year alone, academic books have been published on the development of the grocery store in the 20th century, African-American women who served as cooks in the South from 1865 to 1960, and how women today are helping to shape the sustainable food industry, among other topics. Later this year, Berg Publishers, which already publishes the journal, Food, Culture & Society, will come out with A Cultural History of Food, a six-volume compendium.

I love the idea of using food as the entry point for a study of social history, but I’m just beginning to explore how to do that. (I know that I usually write about sports, but food is, after all, the fuel that athletes use.) In the meantime, I’m getting some measure of inspiration from the memories of my own food history: the extraordinary banana cake, Toll House cookies, and mandel bread that my dad’s mother, Rose Macy (above), baked every Sunday morning, the only day she didn’t spend running her women’s clothing store; the unmistakable taste and smell of the yeasty babka that my mom’s mother, Adel Narotsky, made by hand, using the same long, thin wooden rolling pin that I have in my kitchen today; and the meals that my mom still makes: gefilte fish from scratch—a Passover staple, Southern fried chicken covered in corn flake and Rice Krispies crumbs (and actually baked, not fried), chicken fricassee, linzer tortes, and the best pies and brownies anywhere. How cool is it that my mother is both a great cook and a great baker? Now you know why I go to the gym.

Our memories of food are at the core of who we are. Familiar tastes and smells can be powerful reminders of a distant place or a time gone by and help us remember people who are no longer with us. I’m looking forward to figuring out how to bring my enthusiasm for the topic to the printed page. In the meantime, Happy Mother's Day to my mom and all the other moms out there. Bon appétit!

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Voice, Verse, Veracity

I'm delighted to introduce today's guest blogger, my friend Debbie Levy, whose wonderful book The Year of Goodbyes has been tagged fiction by some, nonfiction by others. Debbie has a blog of her own, and she's also created a very cool Poesiealbum Project, which invites readers to create and contribute their own "poesies." This would be a great class project. And now to Debbie...

Voice, Verse, Veracity

After years of trying to find a way to write my mother’s story of living as a Jewish girl in Nazi Germany in the 1930s, the universe gave me a gift: the discovery of Mom’s poesiealbum from 1938. A poesiealbum (po-eh-ZEE album) is like an autograph book or friendship book. Poesiealbums were popular among European pre-teens and teenagers in the mid-20th century.

This wasn’t one of these up-in-the-dusty-attic discoveries. No, my mother herself brought the poesiealbum out of her bedside table when she got together with six of her childhood friends from Germany for the first time in 62 years in 2000. (You can read about how that reunion came to be here.) I was there, too. Without even knowing what the poesiealbum entries meant—they’re mostly in German and Polish—I was moved by this beat-up little book full of handwritten poems and proverbs from my mother’s friends and relatives that she brought across the Atlantic Ocean when she left Germany at the end of 1938.

I had the album translated (some entries more than once), studied it, and laid out photocopies of the pages on the floor. What I found was that each entry contained a truth or sentiment that related directly to the goings-on around my mother, from January through November of 1938. And so, nearly every chapter in The Year of Goodbyes (Disney-Hyperion 2010) opens with a poesiealbum entry. Arranged chronologically, these poesies give shape to that one fateful year in Nazi Germany and in my mother’s life.

Now here comes, from the I.N.K. perspective, the interesting part: I wrote the book in my mother’s 11- and 12-year-old voice, narrating the last year of her life in Germany. In this, I was fortunate to have my mother—who has an outstanding memory—and I have her still, as a living resource behind the book. And I wrote the book in free verse. An introduction explains the book’s “voice” and structure. Back matter tells what happened to those who make an appearance in the poesiealbum, includes a timeline, photographs, and other historical information, and discusses my research.

What with the free verse and the first person and the poesiealbum excerpts, the book has been categorized in a variety of ways. It’s been called “historical fiction” by some, including the good people who gave it a Parent’s Choice Award. It’s been called a “verse novel” by some reviewers. It was nominated in the “poetry” category by the ALSC Notable Children’s Books Committee. But Kirkus included it on its list of best children’s “nonfiction” books of 2011, and many others also refer to it as nonfiction.

I, too, say it’s nonfiction. The book tells a true story, based on scrupulous and redundant research. (I believe in redundancy in airplane safety systems and in research.) This is not simply my mother’s memoir channeled through me. The events, interactions, people, places, and documents are not made up or dramatically enhanced. But I’m not distressed by the variety of labels attached to The Year of Goodbyes—so long as readers understand that the book depicts actual events, and is not an invention “based on,” “inspired by,” or “adapted from” them.

Recently, I’ve read thoughtful articles here on I.N.K. and elsewhere sparked by the Horn Book’s March/April 2011 issue, “Fact, Fiction, and In Between.” I’ve read about “new” and “old” nonfiction,” “speculative,” “straight,” and “creative” nonfiction. What resonates most for me in this debate is Tanya Lee Stone’s description in her Horn Book article of the work of nonfiction writers:

“We balance the role of historian and storyteller by making sure we don’t interject tension or emotion or events without thorough knowledge. We do it by employing fiction techniques without ever making a single thing up.”

By writing The Year of Goodbyes in the first person, I intended to make the reader feel as close as possible to the tension, emotions, and events experienced by my mother as a pre-teen. I wanted the reader to experience this real-life person as someone with a young person’s voice. I think this is consistent with nonfiction. I’m not sure I would have felt comfortable doing this if I had not worked in close collaboration with my mother. But I was lucky enough to have her at my side.

As for the technique I employed—writing in verse—this was a way of mirroring and honoring the poesiealbum entries. I also think that free verse excels at capturing something essential about the way we think and react, especially under stressful conditions. And I think that verse is perfectly compatible with telling a true story in which nothing is made up.

I didn’t write The Year of Goodbyes the way I did for the sake of novelty. I just tried to find the most immediate and accurate way to depict my mother’s last year under the Nazi regime, which in turn, I hoped, would illuminate the shared experience of others who have been persecuted.

Fellow nonfiction writer Cathy Reef recently shared with me this wonderful pithy quotation from V.S. Naipaul:

“Great subjects are illuminated best by small dramas.”

Some of those dramas will be nonfiction. Some will be fiction. And we writers will keep on parsing the two forms because of a shared commitment to bring our readers truth (as we understand it) as well as also art.