Friday, July 29, 2011

☼ Summer Nonfiction Reading Recommendations

Once again for summer, we're reposting some of our favorite pieces. Since so many people asked me for Anti-Summer Slump Nonfiction Recommendations, I thought I'd repost last month's article adding some great nonfiction for kids.

Here's my post from June 2011~
Summer is now officially upon us.  
It’s time for playing in swimming pools, and catching lightning bugs. 
It’s time for family vacations and summer camps. 
It’s time for popsicles and s’mores.
But, hopefully for our children, it’s not time for the… Summer Slide. 

Best described by President Barack Obama, in his proclamation for National Summer Learning Day in 2009,  Obama said, "A child who takes long breaks from learning can face academic setbacks. This problem is especially prominent during the summer, when students may lose more than two months of progress."
In a 2002 report from Johns Hopkins Center for Summer Learning, they outlined, "A conservative estimate of lost instructional time is approximately two months or roughly 22 percent of the school year...It's common for teachers to spend at least a month re-teaching material students have forgotten over the summer. That month of re-teaching could have been spent on teaching new information and skills."
One highly recommended way to help avoid the Summer Slide is summer reading, fiction AND nonfiction.
This past month at Weber State University at the first day of a two-day conference for educators, the 27th annual Reading and Writing Conference, Terrell A. Young, a literacy education professor at Washington State University, further explained the benefits of nonfiction reading. Young said, "Children who are mainly nonfiction readers will do well reading fiction, but fiction readers will not do as well reading nonfiction.” Some examples of how reading nonfiction benefits the student includes: helps in learning to decode such visual clues as charts, graphs, diagrams, sidebars with specialized information and even the meaning of parentheses, learning to use an index and glossary, and learning that bold or italic words in text are of greater significance.

Don’t know about you, but I was so excited by all the support for Nonfiction books. While researching online, I found many libraries and schools, from around the country, with recommended summer books lists that contained a 50/50 ratio of fiction and nonfiction.

Let’s hear a huge “YAY” for Interesting Nonfiction books for Kids!

And, while we’re talking about nonfiction reading for this summer, I have to mention magazines for kids. Well, actually, I have to point out only one magazine: the July/August 2011 issue of Appleseeds (Carus) Magazine ~ “Let’s Play!"

Consulting Editor: Anna M. Lewis
"10 Ways to Play with Nothing but Your Imagination" by Anna M. Lewis
*I just got these delivered by the UPS guy, so I had to announce. 

So, as we set off to enjoy this summer, Let’s Play. And, I wish to you and your families lots of swinging on swings and sliding on slides – the playground kind, of course. 

Anti-Summer Slide Nonfiction Recommendations:

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

Encyclopedia horrifica : the terrifying truth! about vampires, ghosts, monsters, and more  
Scholastic 2007
by Joshua Gee

Big Book of Things to Draw (Usborne Art Ideas)
by Fiona Watt, Anna Milbourne, Rosie Dickens
Usborne Books January 2007

Toys! Amazing Stories Behind Some Great Inventions  
Don Woulffson (author)
Henry Holt 2000
(My 11YO's favorite NF book for a NF unit at school last year.)

200 Projects to Strengthen Your Art Skills: For Aspiring Art Students
Valerie Colston
Barron's Educational Series 2008
(Love this book!)

38 Ways to Entertain Your Parents on Summer Vacation
Dette Hunter (author)
Kitty Macaulay (illustrator)
Annick Press 2005

Her Story: A Timeline of the Women
Who Changed America
Charlotte S. Waisman
Jill S. Tietjen
Collins April 2008

How Bright Is Your Brain?
Amazing Games to Play With Your Mind
Michael DiSpezio (author)
Catherine Leary (illustrator)
Sterling 2006

AND, of course, check out the fabulous books by my fellow INK blog writers. Follow their links and books on the right side of the INK site. 

Thursday, July 28, 2011

One Book's Roots

In 2006 I watched British chef Jamie Oliver's 4-part BBC documentary, "Jamie's School Dinners," in which he interviewed children and found that many didn't know the names of vegetables. As a girl who grew up picking vegetables on her grandparent’s farm, that shocked me. I had to do something.

I’d already been worrying about childhood obesity because of my work as a visiting author in schools; I see about 17,000 school kids each year. I’ve noticed that some audiences are sluggish, having a tough time brainstorming, asking questions, and responding quickly and creatively. It just seems like they’re not feeling good. These audiences also seem to have the highest numbers of kids struggling with obesity, and the worst time to speak with them is soon after a greasy school lunch.

After watching the BBC show, I wondered, how could these kids change their eating habits? How could they find, choose, or prepare healthy foods such as vegetables if the entire vegetable aisle was a foreign country to them?

I knew from my work, and from my previous chant books, that kids can easily learn new words if they are in a chant form. Then, when kids are out in the world and they see a chant word, they connect with it. Perhaps I could do something in this small way.

Rah, Radishes: A Vegetable Chant (Beach Lane Book/S&S, release June 14, 2011) is about having fun with vegetables—and with delicious words, colors, and shapes. I photographed the book at our local South Bend Farmer’s Market over the course of four years. The farmers are so excited about the book. (They know which carrot or celery is theirs!)

Once kids read the book, I hope they'll have vegetable names, colors, and shapes in their heads. Perhaps they'll stop and actually point at a potato, laugh at a rutabaga, try broccoli for the first time.

Of course, this book is just a tiny piece of what needs to be done to help kids have healthier lives. So many people are putting their hearts and hands into the work of providing kids with better food choices. My hope is that folks doing this important work will find the book—and any joy and conversation it sparks—helpful in their efforts.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Give them the Books They Deserve

I originally posted this in May 2010. This summer I am tutoring kids in small groups using Interesting Nonfiction for Kids. Look for my blog about this experience in September.

The situation is frightening. Teachers are being laid off, libraries are losing their state funding and choices are being made (in the great state of Texas and elsewhere) that negates the importance of reading, learning, and thinking to our society as a whole. The harsh budget cuts have been telling. In my town, for example, while the sports teams remain intact, the high school library does not. The school librarian has been laid off and they are removing the library books from the building. This is the decision made by the board of education in the name of doing what is best for their highly touted school with the motto, “A Tradition of Excellence.”

The overall outlook is indeed so grim that I was happy to have the chance to refocus my thoughts on my small little corner of the planet—a fifth grade classroom with eighteen 10 and 11 year old children. I was in charge of the classroom for two weeks; I concentrated on doing my best to get them thinking and stretching their minds in that short amount of time. I piled up my favorite nonfiction from my collection and then I went to the library and borrowed even more. I chose mostly books I had read by authors I admire. I knew they were quality books and I knew my students would enjoy them. Now I just had to figure out how to convince them.

At first, I selected a book for each student that I hoped would generally match both their reading level and their interests. I told them when they finished that book, they could come up and make their next selection from the heaping piles that I had placed on the desks. Then we engaged in a conversation about how to choose a book and going beyond the overwhelmingly favorite method of judging a book by its cover. Our motto become front, back, blurb, pictures, captions.

Well, I certainly got my share of begging, pleading, deep sighs, and eye rolling when I handed out the books. I gave the history buff a book on Barbarians and the girl who never stops drawing Jan Greenberg’s book on Vincent Van Gogh. OK, so far. But I got a long argument from one boy about how he already knew enough about Edison and wasn’t much interested in reading a whole book about him and I got the death glare from the girly girl when I handed her a book called, “Bull’s Eye” by Sue Macy with the picture of a girl with a gun on the cover. “You’ll like it. I promise,” I said as she sulked back to her seat.

Over the next two weeks we talked a lot about main idea, interesting facts, and nonfiction in general. We made a big chart to post the books they had read. They wrote the main idea down on post it notes and gave the book a rating. I’m happy to report that every book (except one about Pirates) got a good or great rating from the fifth grade readers. When I asked them to share something about the books they had read, hands were raised enthusiastically to be the first to share. Kathleen Krull’s “The Boy Who Invented TV” was a favorite among many. From Marfe Ferguson Delano’s book “Earth In the Hot Seat” one girl quoted statistics about how many cans of soda the average American drank in a lifetime and we were all duly grossed out. One boy was so enraptured by Jim Murphy’s “Truce” that I actually had to ask him to stop talking after a while and let someone else have a turn.

There were some great moments of book sharing and enjoyment. The Edison know it all wound up loving the book and explaining to everyone Edison’s role in the early days of movie making. The artsy girl read only the Van Gogh book for two weeks. On the last day she told me she had almost finished it last night but her Dad had made her turn the lights off and go to bed. And, yes, girly girl stood up proudly to share her new found love and appreciation for Annie Oakley. She even gave a great mock demonstration on how Annie used a mirror to shoot over her shoulder and behind her.

I loved to hear and read what the kids thought of their books. But more than that, I loved to watch them come over to the piles and sort through to make their selection. By the second week, they came to believe they’d find something they’d like. They had learned from experience that this was a chance to read some things they might not have known how to find or probably would not have chosen for themselves on their own. I was glad to have the opportunity to give them access to some really interesting book choices. They deserve nothing less.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Saving Lives -- and Math Education -- With Statistics

This month, we are all selecting one blog entry written over the past year to re-post. In light of Friday's tragic mass murder in Norway, I have chosen the essay I wrote in January after the Gabrielle Giffords shooting. I know it's not a lightweight confection for your summertime enjoyment (I did that last month) but it received more comments than any other post of mine during the 2010-11 school year.

Despite the unhappy news I wish all INK readers a happy summer.


Once again, a child at a school assembly asked me where I get my ideas. As usual, I said ideas are everywhere. This month I’ve been getting ideas from the newspaper, particularly coverage of the Tucson tragedy. It’s given me the idea that it’s high time to write a book that will go some small way to make our country a better place for people’s lives, not just a better place for people’s math. In fact, I’m thinking of a book that can do both because they just might be related.

We live in an era and a society where dogma trumps evidence and the drama of one trumps the experiences of many. The tendency to generalize from single examples seems to take over the minds of those (and there are many) unwilling or unable to recognize the relative insignificance of the examples they flourish. Show a gun-rights supporter statistics demonstrating unambiguously that families with guns in their homes are far more likely to suffer an injury or death from gunshot … and they’ll come back with an anecdote about one exceedingly rare instance where someone defended his family with a gun. Talk about Columbine or Virginia Tech or Tucson and they’ll tell you an apocryphal story about the arms-bearing citizen who stopped a potential shooting.

Statistics let us distinguish data from anecdote. Maybe some day (how’s this for wishful thinking?) a society that is statistically literate will create laws that actually help protect people from madmen instead of absurdly lax laws that protect the madmen until it’s too late to stop them.

And we need to understand probability. If you tell a gun supporter that we need better background checks on gun purchasers, she might point out that the checks are no better than 50% effective. But if prospective purchasers have to go through three successive screens, nearly 90% of the mad shooters would be stopped. One more screen and you’re up to almost 95%. It’s in the math.

Would quality children’s books on statistics and probability make any difference in our laws or attitudes? I don't know but can we afford to wait any longer to find out? Let’s see… if 10% of the people had a better mathematical basis for interpreting the information and misinformation that bombards us daily, and if each of them told 10 people who told 10 people...

One of my math heroes is Dr. Arthur Benjamin, a math professor at Harvey Mudd College, and a world-renowned “math magician” who astonishes audiences with amazing mental math calculations that he can do faster than any of the eight volunteers who come to the stage with their calculators. Prof. Benjamin did a short Ted talk about his formula for changing math education in America. You can find it here: It’s only three minutes long and it might change your view of math education which, Benjamin believes, is on the wrong trajectory.

In every school system in America, math starts with counting and arithmetic, goes through algebra, aiming squarely for calculus. The genius of calculus and its importance to physicists and engineers is not to be denied, says Benjamin, but the vast majority of us will never use it. Instead they get lost and disillusioned with mathematics long before they face their first derivative. Benjamin believes that math education should point math users towards probability and statistics instead of calculus. You'll use your understanding of statistics and probability every day, whether you're a physicist or a farmer, whether you work in a factory or in front of a computer monitor (or both). And, I hope, you'll use it when you read the newspaper.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Passion and Sympatico

This is the month that we choose our favorite posts. I love this one because it symbolizes a friendship that developed through being a nonfiction writer.

ORIGINAL POST: I will open with an anecdote that, I promise, is on point. On May 18, I spoke with a writer friend who, quite unprompted and out of the blue, said, “You have to meet Deb Heiligman, you two would really love each other.” I thought that an interesting comment as Deb and I had recently connected via Facebook and had been instant chatting with a chummy ease. The very next day I logged on to INK and literally had to read the first two paragraphs of Deb’s blog entry twice. I could have written those two paragraphs, verbatim. Truly.

And so, in the spirit of nonfiction togetherness, I will see Deb’s Thoreau quote (scroll down to May 19) and raise her a Blaise Pascal. I had long and incorrectly attributed that “I would have written a shorter letter but I did not have the time” quote to Voltaire, but it seems that this quote actually comes from one of the Provincial Letters of Pascal, which definitely influenced the thinking of Voltaire and possibly also Thoreau. I say possibly, because we have no specific knowledge that Thoreau read Pascal’s Letters, and even though Pascal pre-dates Thoreau by approximately 200 years, it is perfectly within the realm of reason for two writers to think and write similar things without being aware they are doing so. Sympatico, yes?!

The other thing I related to in Deborah's post was the anecdote about aspiring to write for adults. I have likewise been frequently challenged, and indeed it is almost always put forth as a challenge, as if we are merely on the beginning stepping stones of the path that must surely lead to writing for adults. A friend of mine battles this heckle by saying, “Can you imagine asking your pediatrician if she aspires to take care of adults!” That’s the comeback I keep in my arsenal and fling forth whenever necessary.

Now, to the topic at hand. I recently did a school visit during which a teacher asked me, in front of an audience of 140 students, if I think the sale of nonfiction books will start to suffer since anyone can find out anything on the Internet. Ah, I thought, rubbing my hands together, what a great setup for a teaching moment!

Educators one and all, we don’t really think that an Internet search on a topic can replace the book, do we? No, I didn’t think so (and I’ll give that teacher the benefit of the doubt that he was leading me to the promised land via the last question of the day). On the Internet, to be sure, one can learn a little bit about a lot of things. But it takes the skill and craft and research and patience and love of a writer dedicated to learning every possible piece of a story to put it together with context and meaning in a way that kids will find engaging.

And why do we do it? I think it’s because we are compelled to. We are driven to find out why, what was the motivation, what else was going on behind the scenes, who else was involved, how else could this be viewed, and what does it all mean as we try to make sense of this vast world and hand our small part in it over to kids. It’s a passion. If you're interested in reading more about this quirky brand of passion and the desire to put the pieces of the puzzle together that nonfiction authors share, I've delved into both ideas in more detail in two recent articles, one for SLJ and one for VOYA. Both pieces laud a variety of authors and their brilliant nonfiction books that craft stories from the many facts spinning all around us, and they are gifts to young readers.

Take that, Internet.

And Deb, we are ON for coffee!
(NEW) We've come a long way, baby! ;-)

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Writing Short, Writing Long

Since this is the month of reruns, I thought I’d give you an update on this column that ran in December 2009. We authors are often circumspect about our books before they actually appear, and so I didn’t identify this project by name. But now, since it’s only months away from publication, I proudly introduce….

WRITE ON, MERCY! THE SECRET LIFE OF MERCY OTIS WARREN, written by me, illustrated by Alexandra Wallner, (Calkins Creek: Spring 2012)

Here is the cover art, in the process of final design. I’ve also added some further details about Mercy in brackets below.

I’ve written picture book biographies and chapter book biographies for middle grades and young adults, and the research required is virtually identical. For my middle grade biography Jeannette Rankin: Political Pioneer, I read biographies, histories, scholarly articles, and primary sources. That book weighed in at over 21,000 words.

For a forthcoming picture book biography, I did the same amount of reading. I visited my subject’s hometown [Barnstable, MA] and the town where she lived most of her married life [Plymouth.] I ordered microfilms of her papers from her state historical society [Massachusetts] and had them delivered to a nearby public library [Santa Monica, CA,] where I squinted and printed decades of her handwriting. My first draft of the book came in at 7100 words. Draft #2 was 2400 words. Draft #6, the one I sold, had slimmed down to 1232 words. Just like losing those last five pounds, the last draft was hardest to write.

What happened between 7100 words and 1232 words?

• I figured out what my story was about. [Her audacity to become the first woman to write and publish political poetry, plays, and history.]

• I decided which parts of her life illustrated what I wanted to say about her. [You’ll have to read the book to find out!]

• I ruthlessly expunged all kinds of wonderful details that didn’t enhance that story. [See below.]

• I did all that again and again, in each draft.

The advantages of writing longer is, of course, that I could include more of those wonderful details. I could bring in a larger cast of characters. I could quote the vitriolic tirade between my subject and a longtime friend. [John Adams excoriated Mercy in, count them, TEN letters for not praising him enough in her history of the American Revolution.] I could talk about her brilliant brother and how he went mad. [James Otis, called The Patriot, already mentally unstable, never recovered from a Loyalist beating.] I could discuss and quote more of her writings. I could talk more about her children and their tragedies and her grief. [Three of her five sons died before her, including her favorite, Winslow, killed in an Indian massacre.] I could discuss her friendships with women and what that showed about her era. [Intelligent women who remained offstage while their men played leading roles.]

What did I gain by choosing to write a shorter picture book? I could use a livelier voice and more colloquial language. This works better in a short form than it would in a more detailed and documented treatment of her life. And of course, I’ll have [Alexandra Wallner's delightful] pictures to help me tell the story, describe the setting, and create an atmosphere.

Writing long, writing short – each has its charms and challenges.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

A Teacher's Wish List

This is my post from January of 2011. It got a lot of comments because it hit a nerve. We are in this business, all of us, to help children, and to help ALL children. So even though most teachers and school librarians are taking a well-deserved vacation right now, and writers are taking off here and there (next month we're going to the Galapagos to revisit those gorgeous islands, and to speak), our hearts never take a vacation, do they? Speaking of hearts, knock wood, no more problems with that organ here. See you in the fall!

A Teacher's Wish List

When I was thinking about what I would write for this post, after a month filled with family medical stuff, which included intense nerve pain for a month (me); a middle of the night dramatic collapse (husband) followed by 34 hours in a NYC Emergency Room (if only I wrote for grown-ups I'd have enough material for the rest of my life just from the set of rotating characters in the bed next to us), I decided I would take the easy way out and ask some teacher friends of mine to give me a list of books they wish someone would write.

[By the way, so you pay attention to the rest of my post and don't worry too much about us, as I write this, my husband is walking around the apartment strapped to a portable heart monitor, which I've named Halle Berry so he doesn't hate it so much, and which I am convinced will show as that his AFib was not a common occurrence; and my pain has, in the first words of ?John Stuart Mill? (someone else?), somewhat abated. I have every reason to believe we both are going to be o.k., though I must say the most commonly used word around our place lately is "vulnerable"...]

Anyway, thinking I'd let some teachers do the work for me (which in no way reflects my history with teachers, I swear), I started with my friend Jane Ribecky Geist, whom I've known since fourth grade. Jane teaches fifth grade in Allentown, Pennsylvania, where we both grew up. Her school is Union Terrace Elementary school. I visited there as an author many years ago and then volunteered in the reading lab, where I got to know the dedicated teachers and the circumstances of much of the student population. I have decided to start and stop with Jane today because what she wrote to me was so moving--and, incidentally, fit emotionally in a profound way with our last month (think vulnerability)--that I don't see the point in going farther right now. But I do hope teachers will chime in with their own wish lists and suggestions.

I asked Jane what was her wish list for nonfiction books for her kids, and here is what she said:

"I wish there was more nonfiction for kids on the unsung heroes in our history. I am just finishing Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand. I was telling my kids about it and they were enthralled! I even brought the book to school and selected sections for some of them to read. Any time we talk about history - and I mean truly talk about it, no Hallmark card renditions allowed - they don't want to stop! From the explorers to present day (thank you, Miss Laudenslager, for giving us background knowledge), there are people who made our nation what it is today, but they are not written about enough. [Note: Miss Laudenslager was our fifth grade teacher.] Spies, women who did their part, tales of defiance and survival - even the tricky strategies of the known people....when Washington decided to attack the Hessians (Valley Forge) and ignore the generally accepted policy of abstaining from battle on holidays...are excellent topics. My kids don't want to hear that everyone was smart, motivated, and morally sound. Let them know that these people may have been a lot like them. But they were passionate! And that is what allowed them to persevere - something kids in the Allentown School District must do everyday - continue to continue despite the hugely unfavorable conditions of their lives."

What Jane means about the "hugely unfavorable conditions of their lives" is this:

"Most of my kids are emotionally deprived, lacking almost any kind of attention - almost an after-thought by their parents....(due to their parents' struggles)

socially deprived

living at the poverty level


severely lacking in life experiences/background knowledge (some never heard of a groundhog, in 5th grade!!!)

very below grade level

lots with learning disabilities (due to mother's choices while pregnant or lack of nutrition when young or experiences sustained - eating lead paint chips - ??? who really knows...there's just soooo many of this type of child in our school)

often very street-wise

severe lack of boundaries within the home

First hand experience with a lot of violence - seeing dad burn mom, seeing sister shot in gang-related issue, shots outside of their homes, beaten/cigarette-burned themselves, often by those they 'love'

people doing drugs/drinking while kids are right there...."

And yet, they go to my friend Jane's class and she brings the world of history to them. However she can. And those kids, kids who get free breakfast and lunch at school, kids who probably have no books at home, have parents who work two jobs, or don't work at all, kids who have close relatives in jail, etc., these fifth graders are hungry to hear about success. They are captivated by heroes, real-people heroes with foibles and hard lives; people who make bad choices, who struggle and ultimately achieve success.

Let's see what we can do to help--fellow writers, publishers, librarians and teachers. Please, first of all, suggest some books you think Jane might be able to use in her class. Remember that although she teaches fifth grade, she needs books that are written on lower reading levels. (A quick aside, my friend who teaches fourth grade in a private school said she also needs books on historical and scientific topics on lower reading levels.) Second, let's all look for ways to write and publish books, on lower reading levels, about people these kinds of kids can relate to. As I finish this post (on Monday morning) my son just put "Shed a Little Light" by James Taylor song on the stereo--

Let us turn our thoughts today
To Martin Luther King
And recognize that there are ties between us
All men and women
Living on the earth

Ties of hope and love
Sister and brotherhood
That we are bound together
In our desire to see the world become
A place in which our children
Can grow free and strong

Monday, July 18, 2011

Stories All Around

So, this post appeared hereabouts on the 21st of September, 2009, coming up on two years ago. Cool it is (only figuratively, unfortunately. it's wretched stinking murdering hot outdoors and promises to be so for the next week, hot as the inside of a fevered cow and every bit as humid), rereading this, having spent the last few weeks researching and writing about the westward movement, very much the big deal here in Independence, MO, my hometown, this jumping-off town, once upon a time. How brave they all were. Would I have gone west? Would you?

Ah well... in any event:

Stories are under me still, under the cellar, in the soil and animal-vegetable- mineral layers down, down, down. Stories all around me, here in this upstairs office, here in this house, Osage and other native peoples lived, farmed, and hunted hereabouts, long before the 1820s, when Easterners of an adventurous nature came to this Blue River country south of the Missouri. Those streams knew washed out banks, yanked out trees, bullboats, rafts, canoes, flatboats. Pirogues plied by French fur trappers. Keelboats, too, one of them a 55-footer, carried tough fellows dispatched by the President to go check things out. Bring back a report. Rough, colorful types with their mules, oxen, and trade goods came through here, bound for Santa Fe. Paddle steamers from St. Louis dropped off folks busting to outfit their wagons and head out just as soon as there was grass for their stock. Gone they’d all get in a smelly cloud of dust and racket, into the West. There were terrible troubles around here, too, in the Border War years, opening act for the main event back east, 1861-1865. Thousands scared, mad, killed, run out, burnt out, locked up. Widows and strangers walking down the roads, no home to go back to.

Long ago, some years after the bad times, there was a college right here on my block. Young men and tightly-laced women with tall collars used to stroll the leafy campus where now there are houses, including mine, built when Herbert Hoover was the President, when another sort of troubles were overtaking the nation. A couple of blocks south is the big white house where Harry Truman lived with his wife, daughter, and cranky mother-in-law. Two blocks north is a wilderness path-turned-wagon-trail that’d be a dirt road, a blacktop, then four lanes of asphalt.

Oh yeah, stories are all around me – and you. We breathe them in. History and memory infuse our surroundings with associations and meaning.

Not far away from where I’m typing is the library in what used to be the A&P Supermarket. On one of the shelves there is most certainly a copy of Little House in the Big Woods. Despite all that has happened in the world in the 75+ years since it was written, the Ingalls family and their dog, still live in its pages to a tune from Pa’s fiddle in that alternate universe where they lived, where we can never, ever go.

The places – Minnesota, Kansas, South Dakota.. . – I could visit and have done and imagine as I please. I can walk about Theo. Roosevelt’s Sagamore Hill at Oyster Bay, avoiding the sightless glass eyes of all trophy animals that remarkable fellow blew out of this world into the next. I can peer down at Plymouth Rock or walk with the tour group through the rooms of the White House. Places I can visit and have done. And it’s a rich, essential deal, experiencing history, walking where others walked, armed with knowledge and associations. Looking through wavery window glass that who-knows-who looked through. Standing in a field where armies clashed; decades, even centuries later, loud silences still vibrate with the horrors and heroics of the dead.

Places are powerful, but the times – I can go where, but how do I buy a ticket to when?

We humans are capable of dreadful, marvelous, amazing things. A few of our kind managed to walk on the very moon that shone down on the Mayflower Pilgrims, Tecumseh of the Shawnee, the Roman emperors and the Egyptian pharaohs, but none of us can see the faces of those people or hear their voices. They’re as gone and as unreachable as last Tuesday.

Any old orange cat walking along a slate path in Washington, DC, in 1862, could cast its yellow eyes on President and Mrs. Lincoln riding in a horse-drawn carriaged through their un-airconditioned world of kerosene lamps, clipper ships, and Civil War. Not us, though.

At malls and airports, I find myself mentally redressing passersby in past-time garb. That stocky woman over there in the tank top and capris – perfect in 17th century Dutch garb as in a painting by Jan Vermeer. Pair of funky teenage girls? Total high-waisted Jane Austen. Or that hollow-cheeked fellow in the cargo pants and tee shirt: Black felt topper, black cravat, artfully tied. White linen shirt, tall collar, embroidered waistcoat (gold/olive/plum), bottle green frock coat, fawn trousers. Believe me, most people look a lot better when I get done with them. And in many a gym full of elementary school students I have had almost too much fun, pre-senting in my hoop-skirted gown. One tends to sway and swirl.

All that, of course, is the frosting. For me, history-wise, making books has been the cake. Really, it’s a sedentary, mental form of re-enacting, representing a horse-powered world of canalboats, carriages, stagecoaches and sailing ships. The people need to look as real as anybody who got up and got dressed – in the latest fashion? Not likely. In the end, it's only me, aiming to help the kids who experience my books to do their own mental-time-traveling so they can better understand their world. After all, our history = our heritage – and theirs.

“In what green valley of the Nile does Cleopatra still despair / For Antony, the debonair;

Time has washed them all away, / The good, the bad, the foul, the fair –

Where are the snows of yesteryear?” (…ou sont les neiges d’antan?)

Fran├žois Villon, the vagabond, wrote that, not quite 600 years ago. He's gone forever, too, just as is the instant in which I began typing this sentence. Time’s flying like a runaway train, taking us all into the mysterious future and so it’s ever been.

“Mark how fleeting is the estate of man: yesterday in embryo, tomorrow a mummy or ashes. So for the hairbreadth of time assigned to thee, live rationally and part with life cheerfully, as drops the ripe olive…” Marcus Aurelius (A.D. 121-180)

Here we are, more than two thousand years off in that Roman emperor’s unimaginable future in a world that would be as incomprehensible to him as his would be to us. But we have a lot in common with that emperor of Rome.

The world in which he lived was no more “ancient” than ours is to us. Like us, he felt time sifting through his fingers. He squinted up at the same sun that glinted and flashed on the bayonets of 18th Century British soldiers sweating into their red coats, that cast long shadows behind the emigrants tramping alongside their oxen and wagons, out on the Oregon Trail, that has us turning up our air-conditioning [and thank God for it].

So, if you’re at the store and $14.92 rings up on the register, do you think ‘Christopher Columbus’ or is that just me? I cannot be the only one who thinks ‘Battle of Hastings’ if the cashier says, “That’ll be 10.66, please.” Yikes. I probably am...but life is richer for the knowing.

Some years ago, when I had a lot fewer miles on my little car, I drove it up to Minnesota. Just past Bethany, a Missouri town just south of the Iowa border, 1836 appeared on my odometer and I remembered the Alamo. It was on March 6 that year, you know, that the Mexican Army finally got the better of Davy Crockett and those besieged Texans in that San Antonio mission. Twelve miles up the road: 1848, popping with revolutions in Europe and President Polk’s war with Mexico. Between the state line and Des Moines, with every revolution of my tires, I covered the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the Civil War, the bitter ends of President Lincoln and the Sultana, Reconstruction, the Golden Spike, Edison’s light bulb, clear through to FDR’s first term. North a ways,1951; between there and Owatonna, Minnesota, the LED dashboard digits had to have formed the year of my death, if the actuarial tables are to be believed. So yes, believe me when I say that a sense, an awareness of history can fill your surroundings with meaning. Stories resonate all around.

Thursday, July 14, 2011


July is the month that we INK-ers look back over the year and pull a favorite piece to repost. This piece first appeared in February. So much fun to write!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Showing Information: The Periodic Table of Visualization Methods

If you’re interested in how to create and use graphical ways of displaying information, the mother lode of ideas can be found at The e-learning site’s mission is to focus on “the ability to evaluate, apply, or create conceptual visual representations.” The periodic table shown above has a pop-up image of each visualization type such as mind-mapping....
...or an organigraph.

Examples of familiar options such as pie charts and venn diagrams are included, but many of the others aren't as well known (to me, anyway) such as a failure tree, a heaven ‘n’ hell chart, or an argument slide. Naturally, I’m thinking about how one or more of these might work in an informational picture book. Have fun exploring and then creating your own visual communications!

Loreen Leedy
my web site

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The List Keeper

I know everyone is posting previous blogs, but I haven't been around here that long and don't have anything very memorable. So I thought I'd do a quick new entry.*
I think I'm like a lot of people; I make lists all the time. I was just doing a new list of summer goals when it struck me that these are a record of my failures, but also a hopeful sight that things will get better. The pesky past meets the optimistic future.*
My lists are a combination of personal and family goals, plus work and writing goals. For instance, on this list is: "Lose 20 lbs." And I'm happy to say that since I began this diet, I've dropped 9 plus pounds. Will I make it? So far, so good...but whenver my son comes home with a giant, delicious smelling pizza, whenever I pass the bread section at Whole Foods, whenever I'm within a mile of something being deep fried...well, tempation is all around me and I have a real desire to surrender. But I'll try to be strong.*
The first work-related item is: CLEAN OFFICE. Every list I've ever done has this on it and my last list even included several !!!!! to signify its importance and my deperation. This time around, I've added subdivisions. They are:*
Clean and organize desk*
Clean bookshelves*
Get rid of unwanted/unneeded books*
Get rid of old mss., first pass pages, etc*
Answer correspondence*
Paint rm*
Check rug and maybe replace?*
When I make some headway with anything on a list, I put a check next to it to indicate how many attempts I've made. If I actually accomplish something, I draw a big, thick line through it, a bit like a knight striking a pose while putting his armored foot on the head of a dead dragon. Unfortunately, for these particular items, I only have a smattering of checks to show some forward movement. And with that last item, I have penciled in: "have to see rug to decide this."*
Below this, there are two similar entries. One says "write massacre bk," while the other says "write heart bk." The latter already has several reassuring checks next to it (it will be about the 'blue baby' heart operation from the 1940s and I'm having a weird amount of fun trying to figure out how to do a very complicated, but very dramatic science story and keep kids interested). But here I feel the tug in my brain every morning to open the file and dig into it. Almost 1/3 of the book is done already and I haven't even seen the first half of the advance (not only does it take longer to push contracts through, etc., but I just felt compelled to get this one in gear).*
The former is about the Boston Massacre and I have to admit I've been stalled on this for several years (and my publisher isn't happy and neither am I). The problem? Well, I began with certain themes in mind, but every time I started writing they begin to morph after a chapter or two. And then I have to go back and rethink everything, start to finish. It's very weird; the material keeps 'talking' to me, insisting that it needs to be presented in another way (though that voice rarely gives me detailed directions). I may have these things puzzled out now (I hope I do anyway), but the key is to make real headway before September. Wish me luck on this*
There are more items on this list, of course. Many more. But the little checks are also multiplying, which is reassuring, especially since a hot, humid summer can be a real work killer for me. But I'm hopeful, just as a "to do" list is hopeful; I want to put solid lines through every goal so I can start my fall list with fewer familiar items. We'll see what has happened come the fall.*
I hope you all have a safe and happy summer. Oh, and if you have a list, too, I hope you can knock off a lot of those pesky items as well.

Monday, July 11, 2011

The Dog (and Sunny) Days of Summer

Here's my summer rerun. Although it moves on to more serious literary matters, this post begins with a love song to days long with sunlight. An appropriate post for July as well as its original pub date in March. Have a wonderful summer!

In my somewhat new Monday slot, more of my posts fall on holidays (duh!) and I have just let them pass. Last month, for example, Valentine’s Day came and went, but my heart wasn't in it.

Today, however, I’d like to celebrate this week’s unofficial holiday that, in my opinion, deserves to become official--the onset of Daylight Saving Time (DST). What an emotionally lifting gift—especially to New Englanders who have been battling the suicidal impulses that accompany a 4:30 sunset. For months we have tried to keep our spirits up as the light inched back a minute at a time. Then PRESTO CHANGO! In just one day, arbitrary magic multiplies the jump times 60. We get a whole new hour of light—and life becomes brighter in every way. If only Zoloft worked so well.

As nonfiction writers we are obligated to tell the truth and nothing but the truth, right? What about the whole truth, though? In this case, I would have to admit that DST causes increased danger of traffic and pedestrian accidents during its first week because of sleep cycle disruption. It was never created to help the farmers or reinstated more recently to save energy. In fact, farmers hate it and many experts believe it increases energy costs: electricity for air conditioning and over $100 million a year for the airlines.

Why did this idea gain purchase? Some British golfer in 1907 realized that if one hour of sunlight was switched from the sunrise side to sunset, he’d have time to get to the back nine. In fact, when the 1986 Congress debated the issue of extending it into March, the golf lobby went to town. According to Michael Downing, author of Spring Forward: The Annual Madness of Daylight Saving Time, the golf industry estimated the extension of DST would increase their revenues by 400 million 1986 dollars, the barbecue industry over $100 million. In other words, if you give Americans the chance to go outside at any time, they will spend money.

Telling the whole truth about DST is not a horror. An ironic example of one of America’s worst traits, perhaps, but not a deal-killer. In the unlikely event that I ever wrote a book about DST, I’d “out” its origins with relish.

But what about other times, when telling the whole truth in our books for younger children is a lot more painful? Then how far do we go? I just attended a conference on sustainable energy this week where everyone had already accepted the devastating long range consequences of climate change as inevitable. Nobody was talking about getting better gas mileage or "clean coal." The focus was on how to think about reconfiguring communities in the Brave New World. I'm not considering a book about this subject either; but how do you give kids hope and this kind of information at the same time?

When I wrote See How They Run: Campaign Dreams, Election Schemes, and the Race to the White House, part of my goal was to provide the good, bad and ugly aspects of our electoral process. This included cutting a few Founding Fathers down to size. Washington buying an election for the Virginia State legislature by treating voters to 160 gallons of alcohol? No problem. Letting kids know that Jefferson paid a newspaper editor to write propaganda against Adams--a touch worse.

But when I read an accusation that Lincoln only granted passes to Republican soldiers to leave the battlefields to go home and vote, I felt sick to my stomach. At that moment I understood that the adult me had gotten more sophisticated, even cynical, but my feelings about certain subjects or heros had remained frozen as developed in childhood. I thought about burying that Lincoln fact for a few weeks, then started looking for the evidence. You don’t know what a relief it was to talk to the curator of the Lincoln Library and several scholars, who convinced me it wasn't true. But if they hadn't...????

Anyone out there have examples of times when you agonized over what information you included in a book—or excluded? Do you have second thoughts about how you handled it?

A short self-promotional announcement:
Perhaps some of you remember that I am currently an author-in-residence in an urban school right across the street from construction that’s renovating Old Colony Housing Project in South Boston. Last week and this one are a particularly exciting time on our blog. The kindergarteners have been given the opportunity to name a huge crane (ala Mike Mulligan and Mary Anne) and are learning the democratic process in the bargain. It’s a good time to check it out and subscribe for a week (or more!).

Thursday, July 7, 2011


Here's my Summer Rerun from days of yore. I think the unintended consequences are still in play almost 2 years later, although things seem to be a bit less politically correct and a lot more polarized than they used to be:

Back in Part One of this blog, we had some fun uncovering ways that old children's books tried to teach good moral values by distorting reality. First George Washington chopped down a cherry tree and got kudos for admitting it. False. Then came tales of white male heroes rescuing dim-witted damsels and dealing with evil or dim-witted minority groups. False too. And how about Dick and Jane and their exemplary perfect white family? False pretenses all over again. Finally there was the hilarious 1970's attempt to overcompensate for all past injustices. Unintended Consequences from each of these examples ran amok.

So what's the new game in town? These days, the very best adult books are as honest and even-handed about history as can be, and they regularly win big awards and top the best-seller lists. I'm delighted to report that there are plenty of first-rate history books on the market for kids too. But! Picture books still follow a politically correct agenda that discourages the inclusion of certain important stories from our past. Let's follow this thread.

In 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King said "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." We've come a long way since 1963 and so have the books we write for children like Dr. King's. I was thrilled to see barriers crumble when I voted for a black man for president and he won so overwhelmingly. But our nonfiction books don't always judge people by the content of their character, and the reason is not at all what you'd expect.

Sure, today's picture books are filled with positive tales about heroes and heroines of every color, and that's exactly as it should be. Stories relating the woes that women and minorities have overcome are lauded even more. More power to them...they deserve the accolades. But here's the rub.

The playing field still isn't level. If it ever flattens out, we'll be able to judge every single individual on his or her merits alone. But lots of picture book folks are so afraid to offend minorities and women or to alienate their audiences in any other way that they end up censoring important true stories from the past or leave them out altogether. After all, who wants to be accused of prejudice, especially when no prejudice is intended? This mindset causes two big fat Unintended Consequences:

1) Now don't shoot me, but one unintended consequence is that only white males can do foolish or terrible things in the world of picture books. The rest of us (including yours truly and my family) are still off limits. Nobody sought this result on purpose, but most picture books about history don't judge people of every race, religion, and gender by the content of their character--especially when their character is not picture perfect by today's standards (though as we know, definitions of morality change significantly over time and from place to place and culture to culture).

2) By omitting anything that's the least bit negative about non-white "minorities" and women, we simultaneously dumb things down for our children and distort their entire perception of history.

What might this politically correct mindset mean in practice? Let's use our national icon George Washington again as a protagonist to understand this fear of alienating anyone. Consider these inflammatory examples:

~In George Washington's Teeth, a funny picture book that tells how George lost his choppers, everyone gets the humor, and they don't think any less of our great first president either.

~ But if there were a book called, say, George Washington Carver's Teeth, no one would get the humor. Folks would think it was racist. We still cannot yet laugh at ourselves as equals.

~It's perfectly legit to say in a picture book that George Washington had slaves. You can also show Super Fierce George fighting hard to conquer his enemies, and you can even paint pictures of his generals massacring innocent Indian women and children in their homes. George gets to show extreme anger and fatigue and every other human emotion, whether it's positive or not, just like any other human being. Every bit of this is a genuine part of history and people should know about it. Your book will get good reviews for its honesty.

~But check this out; in picture books, anyone who tries to say that Indians had slaves, or anyone who shows Super Fierce Indians fighting hard to conquer Europeans, or depicts Indians massacring women and children in their homes will be thrown from the parapets for such "negative" and "scary" portrayals, even though this is a genuine part of history too. Unlike George, Indians cannot show extreme anger or negative emotions in picture books about history, and explaining that their actions were provoked or were culturally legitimate is not enough to keep this very real part of history ensconced in school libraries and bookstores.
Indians are real people too, just like George. Yet the one and only portrayal of Indians that does not create a firestorm is as a romanticized ideal, which is yet another stereotype.

See? You're probably already mad that I've thrown such a politically incorrect football. Why stoke these fires when there are plenty of important, entertaining, and fabulously interesting-but-safe topics to write about? Besides, you could sell more books in the bargain. The current attempt to set only "good" historic examples for younger children sounds noble, I guess. But do we really need a bunch of scolds, moralizers, and hypocrites censoring history for kids? I think not. What we do need is to be aware of history in all its complexity so that we can handle the present with knowledge (and not malice) aforethought. Some day when prejudice becomes a distant memory, our history books and our sense of humor can finally become even-handed and honest about the content of people's character, whether it happens to be sterling or fatally flawed or just plain human.

So what do you think out there, people? Fire away--it's your turn.


Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Voice from the Page

This post was originally published on October 6, 2010 and received many comments. It is even more relevant today as next year, in NYS, 40% of a teacher's evaluation will depend on how his/her students perform on assessment tests where the readings are excerpts of our writings, although most teachers are not aware of this fact.

I ’m becoming a part of the movement to save education. I went to see “Waiting for Superman” two days after it opened. I go to webinars. I was invited to hear Geoffrey Canada speak at a McGraw-Hill function last week and I used my phone to take this picture and so you can see I was really there. What has become increasingly clear is that in spite of all the clamor about literacy and whether or not kids can read, there is no mention about the quality of what kids are reading. In an online #edchat (# refers to a group on Twitter) last week teachers were slamming textbooks right and left. Did you know each textbook costs $80+? That’s not only a strain on school budgets; it’s also a strain on kids’ backs! So teachers were talking about putting together their own reading materials for their classes from free open source materials, both print and digital. The underlying premise: one source of information is interchangeable with another.They are if you substitute online info for textbook info. They are both equally bad. I tweeted (peeped? piped up?) “I left teaching to write. No time to do both well.” Don’t think anyone heard me. I was not retweeted.

There is a consensus about what makes a great teacher—it takes mentoring, experience, constant professional development, passion, commitment, discipline, sacrifice and TIME. Guess what, folks—it takes the same thing to become a great writer. Our editors are our mentors, we write, write, write, we get feedback from our readers and critics. It’s tough but we stay with it despite no union, no safety net, no regular paycheck.(And, let me tell you, there is attrition in the ranks.) The qualities that make a great teacher are evident in their personalities, in their intense interactions with their students, in their deeds. What reaches their students is WHO they are as human beings—their humanity. Guess what folks—the same thing is true of us writers. We all have learned how to put who we are as human beings behind the words on the page. It’s called “voice.” Literature has voice. Can you feel how hard I’m hitting these keys right now? I want you to HEAR me. I want my words to shout not tweet.

The #edchat I participated in was my first. I was a little handicapped by my lack of experience with Twitter. Tweets flew by so fast I was breathless trying to read and type (and think) simultaneously. (So many tweets, so little time…..) I was amazed at the way some tweets got answered directly by others. (How’d they do that?). And that there were so few typos!!! Finally I wrote a tweet that seemed to resonate with the group: “Where is it written that every kid has to read the same book on a subject? Why can’t they read different books and discuss?” I used up all my 140 characters on that one but it got me noticed. That tweet was retweeted by quite a few and afterwards a lot of people tweeted me directly (it’s like an email but very short) to thank me and invite me back next week. (A major Twitterer, Shelly Terrell, with almost 9,000 followers sent me her
TweetDeck tutorial to be better prepared next time.)

Maybe we delude ourselves with our awards and blogs and conversations with each other that we are making a difference. The bottom line is that the people who read this blog all get what we are saying; we’re preaching to the choir. It feels good to have that validation. But it’s becoming increasingly clear to me that our task is to reach the people who aren’t listening to us—mainly teachers. I don’t think that they know or have even thought about the difference nonfiction literature can make in their jobs and in their students’ lives. So we have to show (not tell) them. I’ve asked my brilliant colleagues here at I.N.K. to send me two paragraphs on the same subject: one written strictly for information and one written by them. I’ve posted them on our new wiki
. On the left you’ll see a hyperlinked page listed with the title “What’s the difference between literature and traditional informational writing? See for yourself.” Since it is a wiki, we can keep adding examples. Also, at the top of this page you’ll see a tab for “Discussion.” Click on that and hit “New Post” to register a comment about the page that can become a conversation. It takes many voices to make a difference and a chorus to be heard.

Now learn how to use Twitter and tweet the h… out of this blog!!