Monday, December 26, 2011

Join Our Facebook Page!

Our bloggers are on a little holiday vacation. In the meantime, please join our brand new Facebook page

 Click the "like" button on the top of the page to get updates in your newsfeed. Feel free to post about nonfiction kids books you find interesting, ask questions or tell us your own nonfiction news.

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See you with a new I.N.K. post on January 3, 2012!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Reviewing Books for Space Facts

If I were an editor publishing a book about space, or a writer producing a book about space, I wouldn't think about releasing it without first passing it through the fine-toothed comb that is Marianne Dyson's brain. I'm a fan of her book, Space Station Science. The writing is pitch-perfect. Energized. (The book editor is the highly regarded Nancy Feresten who's over at National Geographic now.) Marianne Dyson was once a flight controller for NASA and has a degree in physics.

But the reason I'm blogging is that I think educators could really draw some meaty lessons from the reviews on Dyson's website. She covers the space science of both fiction and nonfiction books. I feel deep sympathy for the authors of these books. They had their work pulled apart. But the lessons are important for us all. It's easy to get things wrong about outer space.

The reviews are not only illuminating; they're kind of a hoot—especially the ones about fiction. Her most recent review is of The Three Aliens and the Big Bad Robot.

She says, "The third brother builds his sturdy safe house on Neptune. But Neptune, being a gas giant, has no surface to build on. Its large moon Triton would have made a more logical choice."

"In the story the kids travel in essentially no time from place to place and communicate with each other and their mother instantly as well. None of that is possible in real space. It takes light 8 minutes to reach Earth from sun…"

She must have a really hard time, as my brother-in-law does, with suspension of disbelief while watching sci fi movies! Fiction, of course, has license for departure from reality. But we often embrace its background information as probable truth. So it's intriguing to find out just where fiction book worlds depart from scientific fact. I can imagine educators having fun with 3rd-6th grade students and these book reviews. The students could learn a pile by reading the reviews and discussing them. Or, they could read the books first, review them, and then see what Marianne Dyson picked up in the texts.

In the spirit of fair disclosure, I used to be on a listserv with Ms.Dyson, am her facebook friend, and have met her once with several Texas writers for a meal. Although we share a passion for science, we're vastly different. She has a black belt in karate and I have a black belt that holds up jeans. I just know when I don't know something and I don't know space and Marianne Dyson sure does.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Pinterest for nonfiction (and everything else)!

If you’re a visual person and haven’t yet found, you’re in for a treat. The name of the site is a combination of pin and interest and is pronounced as if the latter word has a P in front of it. Which it does. Anyway, the pin comes from pinboards, known as bulletin boards in the USA. After you get an invitation (more on that below) you can create your own boards. When you see an image you like online, you can “pin it” to one of your boards. A link to the original source blog or web site is retained. Where is really gets interesting is that other Pinterest users can repin the image, and it still keeps the link to the original source.

What distinguishes Pinterest from Google Image Search (for example) is the social media aspect of people Liking or Repinning your images. You can see who has done so and go look at their boards. If you see one or more boards you’re interested in, you can Follow them. And they can follow you. You can enter a search term and see what people are pinning on that topic.
Or you can randomly scroll around in the various categories such as Education, Art, History, and so on…it’s fascinating to see what comes up. Which leads me to one caution: Pinterest is addicting!

Your boards can have any theme you choose from Neurons to Grizzly Bears, Recipes to Venn Diagrams or anything you’re collecting information about that has some visual component. It’s a terrific tool for researching, collecting, and networking all at the same time. For a nice tutorial with plenty of screen shots, check out this post on the If You Ask Me blog. You can browse the site without registering, but if you want to start pinning right away, you’ll need an invite. It’s possible to request an invite, but apparently the Pinterest powers-that-be prefer invitations, because requests tend to just sit there not being acted upon (ask me how I know). Once you get an invite email from somebody, click on the link and within minutes you’ll be ready to start pinning! If anyone wants an invite, please email meATLoreenLeedyDOTcom and I’ll send you one. They do require that you have a Facebook or Twitter account to register.

Happy Holidays, everyone!

Loreen Leedy
My Pinterest URL

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

A Few Treats From Me To You

I can't imagine anyone has any time right now to read a long blog post. So I thought I'd take the opportunity to share with you some wonderful pieces I've read lately. Most of them are on a theme--nonfiction storytelling. I hope you take a minute or two between shopping, cooking, last-minute writing deadlines, last-minute paper-grading, etc., to sit down and treat yourself.

First, here is a lovely piece by Henning Mankell, whose books about the Swedish detective Kurt Wallander I love. It's called THE ART OF LISTENING. I adored this piece and if I could wrap it up and put it in a box and deliver it to each and every one of you I would. Well, maybe I just did.

Next is a piece that was in Friday's New York Times that might not have made it to other parts of the country. It's about a theater group that pairs teenagers with people over 60. It's inspiring for nonfiction writers and lovers, and a great idea for other communities. Sort of a twist on StoryCorps (always a good place to visit!). This one is called TRUSTING SOMEONE OVER 60. (Don't let the headline deter you.)

Another piece that walloped me from the Times was this one, WHAT WASN'T PASSED ON.  I won't say anything more about it so you can experience it for yourself.

Last week Jim Murphy wrote a great post about Recharging Batteries, and I referred in the comments to an article about the novelist Richard Ford that I loved. Read both when you can!

And because I can't help myself, I'm leaving you with my potato latke recipe. Happy Hanukkah, Merry Christmas, and here's to a wonderful New Year -- 2012. That number seems like science fiction.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Picture This

My fellow INK-ers have been writing some well-considered, provocative, and inspiring posts about the travails of writing and keeping the inner fires stoked. Blowing on the coals. I'm reminded that it surely is and has been a whole lot easier to get down to work when the work to be done involves the illustrations. Mainly because, for me, one needn't have silence when one is drawing. When writing, let all be still, which requires the will to turn off the radio, the discipline to do that every day until the manuscript is done. Only then can I be considering the knowledge gained from research, distilling it down, and combining it with my imagination. So I can let my informed daydreams speak and report on what they say. A romantic notion, but there you are. You have to ponder: What did they know? What was it like for the Adamses of Braintree, for instance?
Sure, the text comes first, book-wise. As it says in the Bible, 'in the beginning was the Word,' NOT the pictures, but of course I'm ever mindful of the images as I've written my manuscripts. I'm figuring out what elements of the story they will show and tell. So, by the way, it came as a shock when recently I was told, having sold a manuscript, that some art director preferred anyone's illustrations but mine. But that's another story, one that a discreet person would not disclose, in the spirit of not letting others see one pout.
Kids often ask me, 'which do you like better, writing or illustrating?' I'll tell them that writing is harder, requiring, as Mr. Murphy and Ms. Stone and the other INK-ers have pointed out, constant recharging, offering up your daily silence, flowers, and boxes of chocolates to the Muse. You have to be quiet and think, but it's ever so satisfying - shoot, it's a thrill! – when that discipline is repaid in those moments in which you find yourself having typed out words that sing, that are smarter than you know yourself to be. Thanks, Gracious Muse.
Then the pictures. I tell those little squirts, bless 'em, illustrating's easier for me because I've had so much more practice, but that's not the whole story. As it is in the writing, I have to be still when I'm composing the rough drawings. It involves a lot of staring at a blank pad of tracing paper on which I've ruled out the borders. I'm surrounded with library books, propped, kept open with bulldog clamps. Photographs of the Adamses' homestead, of their old portraits, of 18th century costume, reenactors walking about at Historic Williamsburg. You do a great deal of scribbling, tracing over and refining those scribbles. Ah, but then comes the painting. It's rather like driving across town and having arrived at your destination, you don't remember the mechanics of driving, those thousands of decisions made with a different part of your brain.
Painting a picture makes for a long day, a week's worth of long days for just one spread. Charging up for that requires only this: Fix a cuppa coffee. Fill the water jar. Open up the battered paintbox I bought for Mr. Ellis's watercolor class in the summer of 1971. Pop a cassette or CD of whatever recorded book I'm listening to and go into a dream. Paintbrush in the water, in the scumble of paint, into the penciled outline on the pristine, bleached cardboard. First a wash of color then another darker bit where the imagined sunlight does not fall. And pretty soon there are people there, at least their images, of what storied John and Abigail, their four children, their uncomfortable, smelly, candlelit world might have been like.
At the end of the day, often well past midnight, my hand hurts, that upon which I've sat hurts as well, and I look pretty dreadful, but the blank rectangle of illustration board is filling with color. I can't wait to get back to it next morning. It's as if the lights go down in the theater and the imagined world comes alive.
Gosh, I've loved it.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Why We Do What We Do

I think about this a lot. Writing is hard. Not coal-mining hard, but hard. And thrilling. And hard. And endlessly fascinating. And hard. To reach down into your gut and heart and say what you really feel. But wait, this is nonfiction, right? Just the facts, ma'am, and all that? Well, if you've been reading this blog for any length of time, you already know most of us here don't feel that way.

One of the things I love about being a writer is having a community of writers. Community with a capital C is important in any field. In our field, it's a particularly shiny gift. I find so many writers I know to be fantastically different than I and deliciously the same. There are crucial things we share. The way we feel about literature and literacy and readers and words and why we are compelled to keep writing. Why do we do what we do? We've talked about a desire to express ourselves, to get the story right, to shine the light on someone or something extraordinary. It's all that. And more. It's passion.

Just the other day, right here on INK, Jim Murphy was agreeing with me (even though he wasn't talking to me!). He wrote: "Years ago I realized that if I can't sustain a passionate interest in a topic over the years required to research, write, revise, and revise again and again, collect images, answer editorial and production questions, that the text would reflect this."

Exactly. And it's not only the text that would reflect this absence he's referring to--it wouldn't satisfy our drive to do what we do. And when it gets hard--and telling a real story as accurately as possible while infusing it with passion and meaning (for reader and writer), is hard--we have that community to nourish us.

I guess what I'm really trying to say is: Thank You to all who make it possible for us to continue to do what we love to do. The community within, the greater community. It is community in all forms that make me thankful year-round, and reflective at year's end.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011


Children’s nonfiction continues to shine, and if I had to choose one word to define its glory, the word is VOICE. That voice ranges from whimsical to witty to irresistible “sit-down-and let-me-tell-you-a-story.” The “voice” or style of picture book illustrations is just as diverse. Here are a few new books I’ve enjoyed.

Jingle Bells in Savannah? Who knew? John Harris, that’s who. On a visit to Savannah he learned the genesis of the popular holiday song, took scraps of history, added a bit of social commentary and ‘what if?’ and came up with Jingle Bells: How the Holiday Classic Came to Be, illustrated by Adam Gustavson (Peachtree.) The composer, John Pierpont, was a Yankee Unitarian minister in the 1850s, presiding over a congregation that included a few African Americans, so we get a brick through the church window to point out the atmosphere of the time and place. But overall this is a story of nostalgia and celebration.

How do you write a biography about someone who spends his life sitting around making up languages and writing fantasy stories? If you’re Alexandra Wallner, you elicit the help of your husband, illustrator John Wallner who creates a board game that runs through the pages filled with magical creatures, strange letters and words, and playing cards that portray the real and fantasy worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien (Holiday House.) The “game” is the life and books of the author, born on the South African veldt filled with scary animals, raised in the bucolic English countryside (think Shire,) and ending up as an Oxford don creating the vast world of The Lord of the Rings. It’s a good story, made fantastical by the artwork.

[Aside: Reading Tolkien’s wonderful Father Christmas Letters became an annual tradition in our house. These letters written over twenty years to the Tolkien children are filled with elves and goblins and the clumsy but lovable North Polar Bear. Tolkien illustrates them as well.]

The story of Belle, The Last Mule at Gee’s Bend, is told to a young boy in the voice of an older woman, Belle’s owner. It’s a poignant history of the people of Gee’s Bend, Alabama, and how Martin Luther King inspired them to vote and march for civil rights back in the 1960s. And Belle? When the sheriff closed the ferry that took the people to the polls, Belle and her colleagues hauled wagons the long way around. Then, in 1968, she pulled the cart with King’s coffin during his funeral procession. The voice here is slow and steady, just like Belle, and mesmerizing too. Belleis written by Calvin Alexander Ramsey and Bettye Stroud, illustrated by John Holyfield (Candlewick.)

The Christmas Coat: Memories of My Sioux Childhood, told in third person, is author Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve’s own story, illustrated by Ellen Beier (Holiday House). We enter the bleak frigid Midwestern winter world with children wearing drab clothes that don’t fit anymore, waiting for the “Theast” box of used clothes to arrive from New England at Christmas. We also see the joyful and colorful indoor life of these Sioux families, as Virginia’s family dresses up to dance to music on the radio, and young Three Kings wear Sioux feather headdresses in the Nativity play. Will Virginia get a new coat that fits her from Theast box this year – that beautiful silver fur, or a red one with a hood that she longs for?

How about this for a new twist on an old topic – Green Bible Stories for Children by Tami Lehman-Wilzig, illustrated by Durga Yael Bernhard (Kar-Ben.) The linkages are ingenious – Noah and biodiversity; Abraham, Lot, and sustainable grazing; God, Moses and crop rotation. The tone is colloquial: “One day God told Moses, “I’ve decided that the Sabbath is not only for humans.”” Activities are added to each story – sprouting seeds, recycling, saltwater experiments and more. Green Bible Stories illustrates that ecological problems and solutions have a long history.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Recharging the Batteries

Had lunch with a friend the other day and he told me he had signed to get his social security payments. He's been out of work for over a year but despite numerous interviews he hasn't gotten one offer. Not even a second interview nibble. Since it seemed that his career was at a deadend, he decided to throw in the towel and retire. This was sad, of course, and I did try to think of ways to revive his energy and will to carry on the search. But it also got me thinking about my writing and those times when it just seems so hard -- too hard -- (which seems to happen more frequently these days) and how I get beyond that.*
Well, for starters I know perfectly well that I can never really retire. Kids in school, debts, no handy pile of cash, etc., etc. In other words, the typical writer's life. So I begin by knowing I have to write until my publishers retire me.*
But how to put that scenerio off for as long as possible? *
I begin with the projects I work on. Years ago I realized that if I can't sustain a passionate interest in a topic over the years required to research, write, revise, and revise again and again, collect images, answer editorial and production questions, that the text would reflect this. So I am constantly analyzing how I feel about a project. And if I sense an emotional letdown -- that feeling that something's not right, those worries about whether anyone will want to read what I'm writing, whether I've really figured out how to say what I want to say properly -- I think over causes and solutions and totally re-evaluate the project. And sometimes I have to admit defeat, back away from a project, and get cracking on something I truly love.*
There's also the changing nature of publishing and the world in general, that notion that things are passing me by and might even be leaving me far, far behind. No self-pity here; just an attempt to analyze a situation as objectively as possible. This notion of dislocation I decided to attack head-on -- or as head-on as my ancient brain can handle. It's one of the reasons I was happy to be a part of INK and do this blog. A once a month post is not heavy-lifting in the blog-world (how does Betsy Bird have the energy to do what she does at Fuse #8 every day, I'm always asking myself). But this blog is a start. And then we have our video-conferencing and publishing arm and more. And we just added a iPad to our household, a gadget that we'll be playing with and trying to figure out in the days ahead. Yes, these are tiny steps, but they're headed in the right direction and with some effort I can keep it moving forward (this week, for instance, is "read all of Vicki's recent e-mails and figure things out!" week). In short, these little learning moments help ease those annoying times of self-doubt enough to help me focus on the work at heand*
Finally, I draw energy from my fellow nonfiction writers for kids. I am always reading other folks' books, studying how they shaped their texts, guessing what some of their decision making was like, looking carefully at the images and design, and admiring numerous other aspects of their books. Jim Giblin has a real knack for establishing themes and developing them throughout the text; Susan Campbell Bartoletti manages to make some very nasty subject matter work for kids (think Hitler Youth and They Called Themselves the K.K.K.), Russell Freedman writes in a clear, concise, direct way that obviously engages readers; Deborah Heiligman's Charles and Emma is multi-layered and complex, but also extremely readable. I read these authors and many, many others and feel challenged and renewed. What a great subject they took on, I tell myself. Unusual, not necessarily curriculum focused, but still immediate and riveting. How can I get that element of drama, that level of passion or emotion, that depth of character development into my own work? I might brood a while over all of this, might even have a flash of inspiration or insight about something I'm working on. What I do know is that after a while my negative thoughts, my personal demons, have evaporated to some degree, my head feels clearer, and I'm ready to plunge back into my own writing.*
I wondered if anyone else goes through similar highs and lows and what sort of process you use to work through these rough spots? Right now I have to charge up the iPad and start noodling with it, but I'll be back and hope to learn more about how others deal with these darker moments. *
P.S. If we don't talk again soon, I hope everyone has a great and happy bunch of December holidays.

Monday, December 12, 2011

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

My friend Carole Horne, general manager of the Harvard Book Store in Cambridge, MA, told me a story about this man who came into her bookstore last summer to browse. He thumbed his way through their “recommended” section, then came up to the cashier seemingly empty-handed. Nope. He put a five dollar bill on the counter and said that he was going on a trip and would download his books but had spent a lot of time browsing and felt like he owed the shop some money.

The story is definitely a mixed bag, but there still is a measure of good in it. The guy recognized the intrinsic worth of the local bookstore. This time he forewent its paper products that would weight down his luggage. But he did value the expertise of independent bookstore buyers, the taste of those who curated that special section of books worth his attention, the opportunity to look into familiar books to see if they appealed and browse unknown ones to find a treasure. And at least it translated into some value for the store as well.

A worse story. This week I was picking up a book and a calendar (yes, I still write down my appointments in little white squares) at nearby Brookline Booksmith and noticed a shopper jotting down titles on a list next to people’s names. Wanna bet that list is going home to a computer and

The WORST story. Quite simply, the Amazon app. For those of you who haven't heard or read about it, Amazon has created an app called, “Price Check.” People go into stores, enable the app’s location feature, scan products using their phones and are immediately offered 5 percent off 3 identical Amazon purchases for up to 5 dollars. In other words, the app is turning brick-and-mortar stores into unwilling showrooms where consumers can check out the product and leaf through a few pages before they click a button to save five bucks (plus, don’t forget, the sales tax!)

Right now, Price Check (or as I see it, the Death Star) is using consumers as its foot soldiers to do reconnaissance on products like electronics, toys, music, sporting goods, and DVDS. Then, with a click, it sucks up this market. How long before books, the product that defined Amazon, will follow? Then how long before all our favorite bookstores will no longer exist?

People in all parts of the book business know something about death by a thousand cuts. But writers—especially kids’ book writers, especially nonfiction kids’ book writers—know that losing local bookstores is more like the Sword of Damocles. The pricelessness of booksellers has been written about so often, I’ll just print the keywords and you can fill in the blanks: know their stock, standards, take chances, word of mouth, hand sell, actually read, actually care.

Let's not lose all those beautiful keywords for five dollars and some sales tax.

Come on everybody, it’s the Christmas buying season. There will be one more next year and the year after that. Let’s always have a place to browse; surely that worth a lot more than five bucks.

Friday, December 9, 2011

My History

Last week, I took a trip down memory lane when I attended the annual convention of the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) in Washington, D.C. It was my first NCSS conference since 1977, when I was a recent college graduate doing research for an American history textbook that Scholastic was planning to publish. The book was written and field tested, but never saw the light of day, due to the company’s change of heart about entering the basal social studies market. I soon moved on to Scholastic Newstime, a newsmagazine for sixth graders, and eventually, to the company’s math and science publications.

My excitement at being surrounded by social studies teachers again after going to a few dozen math and science teacher conferences was tempered by the news I received on Saturday that a former Scholastic colleague had passed away. Eric Oatman was the editor of Search magazine in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and he was the first person to pay me to write about American history. Besides hiring me as the freelance writer of the teaching guides and reproducibles that accompanied the magazines, Eric also assigned me the articles and history plays that nudged me toward my current career as an author focusing on history. I wrote articles about men who hauled freight across the Old West; an oral history project with World War II Rosie the Riveters; the influenza epidemic of 1918-1919; and the spirit of exploration in America. My classroom plays dramatized the exploits of a former slave who spied for the Americans during the Revolutionary War; the kidnapping of Daniel Boone’s daughter in 1776; and a family’s westward journey during the Gold Rush.

Writing for Search allowed me to indulge my endless curiosity about the people who were left out of the American history textbooks I read when I was growing up. It also gave me the chance to earn a little extra money as I established my independence. (I still have the reclining chair, lovingly called my “Search chair,” that I bought with my first $300 check.) Eric was a wise and enthusiastic editor, offering a guiding hand but letting me go where the stories took me. I also appreciated that he was not without a sense of irony. In 1983, when Search and Senior Scholastic were folded into a new publication, Scholastic Update, Eric assigned me to write the magazine’s last play. It followed Amelia Earhart’s preparations before she set out on the 1937 flight from which she never returned.

Fortunately, Search did return when Scholastic resurrected it a few years later for another run under three different editors. By then, Eric had moved on to start the company’s sponsored publishing program, setting the standards that guided it in its early years. (He later became a news and features editor for School Library Journal.) And I had become entrenched in math, thrilled to be part of a dynamic editorial team dedicated to making number sense and problem solving relevant to young lives. But the seed had been sown. I longingly read the new Search, occasionally contributed short articles to it, and wondered if writing history was what I was meant to do. I guess it was, because I eventually found my way back. So thanks, Eric, for starting me on my journey.

Note: The Search cover above is from 1980, but it asks a question we could very well ask today.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

My John and Tom (Part 1)

I thought I’d do something a little different for the next few months, and spend a bit more time talking about a single project: where I got the idea, how I developed it, and what I hoped the story would accomplish. A beginning-middle-end, if you will.

It wasn’t hard to choose the topic, as my latest book is a story I’ve been waiting most of my life to tell.

So today, I’m beginning the first of a three-part discussion of my latest book. But first, let me introduce my dear friends, John and Tom.

I was first drawn to the story of Adams and Jefferson because I grew up in the suburbs of Washington, DC. My father worked at the State Department, and so I think I was more aware of government than a kid living somewhere else might have been. I went in to DC and saw places like the Capitol and the National Mall pretty often.

I turned sixteen the summer of the country’s bicentennial, and I remember going downtown: it seemed like there were a gazillion tourists and even more of those sidewalk stands selling little American flags and patriotic t-shirts.

But even before then, I was tuned in to celebrating America’s independence, and that was because my mom and dad were big musical theater buffs. They had a whole cabinet full of Broadway recordings, and they listened to them almost every night. The musical “1776” was one of their favorites.

“1776” is the often funny and often quite moving story of the Continental Congress as they grappled with the enormous question of whether to remain a British colony or to declare independence—committing treason in the process.

The musical premiered on Broadway in 1969, and I think my parents must have bought the record shortly thereafter—when I was about ten years old. Many nights at bedtime *it* was the album I’d ask my dad to put on in the living room downstairs, so I could listen to it upstairs. I fell asleep listening to John urging Congress to “Vote YES” and to Tom wooing his wife on the violin.

I fell in love with the musical “1776.” It was my first glimpse that history could be just as exciting and engaging as any novel or movie.

So, in a sense, I grew up with John and Tom, and it’s not surprising that one day I would tell *my* version of their lives: Those Rebels, John and Tom.

Next month, I share a bit about researching and writing the book.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

A Call to Action

Last Wednesday evening I did an interactive videoconference with Marc Aronson’s Ebook and App class of graduate students at Rutgers. It was a terrific opportunity for me use a technology medium to elaborate on what the Authors on Call group of Ink Think Tank is doing in its pilot project with Bogert Elementary School. (Some of the results are starting to come in and if you want to watch them unfold, you can go to the project’s wiki.) Since Marc is a vocal advocate for nonfiction literature in his SLJ blog, I was somewhat surprised to find that so many of his students seemed unaware of the struggle to get schools to use nonfiction literature in classrooms as the primary reading material and to use its authors in a timely and productive way to enhance the learning of both teachers and students. We, readers of this blog, who are committed to nonfiction literature as authors and educators, are all inhabitants of a “bubble” where the use of nonfiction literature is prevalent. And, since we mainly talk to each other, we can delude ourselves into thinking that it is more widespread than it actually is.

This month, I’ve also been travelling—first to Doha, Qatar where I attended the World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE) as I did last year, and then, a week later to Israel with a delegation of school superintendents. (50 hours in the air, don’t ask!) At WISE I attended a workshop where a study was presented to see how the delivery systems of reading material—i.e. print vs digital—affected literacy. Conducted by, the results, it seems, are equivocal. In some countries kids learned more from books and in others they learned more from a screen. I finally raised my hand and asked, “What were these kids reading?” No one seemed to know. I then made the point that not all books are equal and not all digital materials are equal. I gave them an example of how to write to engage readers. At the end of the session a number of people asked for my card.

I was at WISE wearing my journalist’s hat, covering the conference for Education Update. I did a video interview of Dr. Jeffrey Sachs, head of the Earth Institute at Columbia University. He was extremely interested in what iNK (not a typo, we’re getting new logos, thank you Steve Jenkins) is doing in its pilot project. His organization is tackling some major issues world wide—like poverty, disease, ignorance and global warming. I asked him, “What can be done to accelerate change?” I
n a nutshell, Sachs said that networking is very important but, in addition, you must act—do something to prove that it works and acts as a model for others to follow. (You can see my three minute interview here.)

In Israel, we visited schools that are making breakthroughs in serving minority and impoverished children and in technology in the classroom. But, again, nowhere did I see evidence that there is attention paid to the quality of classroom instructional material. The lessons I observed seemed very pedantic and traditional. It’s almost as if no one is taking a hard look at instructional material.

At the end of my session with Marc’s class a student asked me, “How can I help?” I see very clearly that a movement for change needs organization. This blog is a start, but not if the only people who read it are already converts. The iNK database is a tool— to let people know about our books how the fit into their curricula and meet Core Education Standards. And when we start getting results from iNK’s pilot project, they will be newsworthy. Today, Dorothy Hinshaw Patent is doing the very first videoconference with the kids who are studying her book Shaping the Earth. (The book was chosen by the fifth grade teachers because it fit into their scope and sequence.) Dorothy is connecting from Hawaii to the school in New Jersey. A local NJ reporter will be present to cover the event. To be continued—and we’re counting on you to help spread the word

Tuesday, December 6, 2011


The best novels in the world of fiction tend to be page turners that tell a gripping story. You can’t put them down until you finish the last page, you can’t stop thinking about them after you’re done, and you become so entangled in their various webs that you can remember entire story arcs and even small details for a very long time.

The best books in the world of nonfiction are equally fascinating. Their details are memorable and the ideas they present are truly compelling. With some notable exceptions, though, they aren’t gripping page turners like novels and their story arcs (if any) can be pretty tenuous because the real world is so messy and unpredictable. The result? Readers might put nonfiction books down for a few days without staying awake at night wondering what happens next.

So when I sat down to write my latest book, I wondered if I could combine the best of both worlds by shaping it into a gripping YA novel; every word would be true AND the book would be a page turner with a story line that you couldn’t put down. That’s exactly what I’ve tried to do with Witches! The Absolutely True Tale of Disaster in Salem. If I could pull it off, it seemed to me that this terrifying episode in America’s history had just the right ingredients for cooking up a thriller, a mystery, and a literary mind-bender all rolled into one.

After all, the things that happened during the Salem Witch Trials were too jaw-dropping to ignore. Who wouldn't wonder why a four year old girl, a heroic minister from afar, a beloved grandmother, and three dogs were demonized and accused of being witches?

And why were most people who confessed that they had committed the crime of witchcraft set free while just about everyone who proclaimed their innocence was imprisoned? Did a shadowy beast really spring up into the sky and split apart into the spirits of three different witches? Wow. Surely I could write about such goings on in a story with a beginning, middle, and end.

The more material I uncovered about this incredible 100% true story, the more curious I became (and the more curious I hoped my readers would become too). Back in 1692, the Puritans thought that the devil and his witches lurked in every nook and cranny, just waiting to afflict innocent children with a dread disease. Screaming witnesses swore they were being pinched and pricked with pins by the invisible spirits of the accused witches, who flew across the courtroom to attack them. Black hogs, gigantic dogs, and a winged creature with the head of a woman apparently urged pious Puritans to sign the devil’s book in their own blood. Unearthly phantoms supposedly claimed they were murdered by a woman who stared at them with her evil “eye beams.” And the judges believed every word. Or did they? How could such things have happened in real life?

Fine fiction often features a nuanced good-verses-evil scenario. Think of Shakespeare, whose tales portray tragedy, madness, secret scheming, and trickery. Boy, does Salem’s harrowing true story cover those areas in spades (not that I’m comparing my work to the Bard’s).

In the world of fiction, readers can read the minds of the protagonists. Since I can’t allow myself to put made-up words or thoughts into my protagonists’ heads, I did the next best thing; I searched out tons of original source material to glean the thoughts of book and letter writers who were on the scene in 1692 and I added lots of testimony from the trials themselves. Let me just say that in this case, truth is most certainly stranger than fiction. And by the way, in books of fiction, the text is not polka-dotted with footnotes that can halt the flow of a story, so I put my voluminous notes at the end of the book and cited the page numbers they came from.

To illustrate this astonishingly tragic tale (a nice extra plus for a YA novel), I designed some dramatic black, white, and red scratch-board artwork to enhance the mood and to symbolize the chilling outlook so prevalent in that faraway time and place.

Other YA authors have written long scholarly analyses of Salem’s witch trials that assume people already know the basic story. It ain’t necessarily so…at some point, the story in its entirety is brand new to young audiences (and probably to most adults). Then there’s The Crucible, a play by Arthur Miller that’s studied regularly in middle school, high school, and even in college. Excellent but totally fictionalized. Coincidentally there’s yet another new novel about Salem, but it’s fictionalized too. But it seems to me that Salem’s true story is so strong and so powerful that it can easily stand on its own two feet. So I stood it up and gave it to you straight. I hope I got it right.