Friday, June 29, 2012

Field Trip/ Artist Date

This month, after spending these last few months combing through research, I felt like I needed a little break. Needed a little fresh air. Needed to stretch my legs. I needed, as Julia Cameron calls, an “Artist Date”.

In my current book, one of my “ladies” is Marion Mahony, Frank Lloyd Wright’s first employee. In fact, Marion was the second woman to graduate from MIT with an architectural degree and the first licensed woman architect in Illinois.  An original member of the Prairie School, she was the primary designer at Frank Lloyd Wright’s office for over 14 years.  (There is no documentation that Mr. Wright even graduated from high school. Whoops, got off topic there for a second.)

Even though I’ve lived in Chicago for over 13 years, I'd never been to Oak Park, the location of Frank Lloyd Wright’s home and studio. I decided that it was about time to check it out. And, who better to go with than my trusty partner in crime, Sarah, who just happened to live in Oak Park for many years until she moved way out in the suburbs with me.

In previous posts here, I’ve raved about Professor Rebecca Alms, my fabulous Design History teacher at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. While writing this post, I dug out my very old notebook from that class and found five pages of Frank Lloyd Wright notes and copies of slides. But for me, the style never really sunk in. I needed to see the actual houses to really get a feel for the design style. And, that experience hit me like a ton of bricks, especially juxtaposed next to what was the design style that was the norm at the time. I was on a design high.

In preparation for our field trip, I watched the two-disc special edition DVD Frank Lloyd Wright’s Home and Studio. So, I thought I knew everything I needed to know about the home and studio. But Sarah talked me into taking the tour with her, even though she’d been through it before, and I was so glad she did.
Looking at a Mahony drawing

Sarah and I 

My epiphanies were:

  • I finally got the Frank Lloyd Wright design concept. Watching a video or looking at pictures does not put you there. 
  • In my head, I now have a true image of what makes a Frank Lloyd Wright house. 
  • I was standing right where one of my ladies worked and created. When I thought about this later, this totally floored me. Of the other 21 women who I’m writing about, I won’t be able to stand right in their footsteps. How cool is that? 

Of course, I had to visit the gift and book store. (That’s where the tour ends. Surprised?) I casually wandered over to the children’s section and had to check out the shelf where I hope my book will sit. Yup, right there, between Iggy Peck, Architect (author, my friend, Andrea Beaty) and Chicago Review Press’s Frank Lloyd Wright for Kids (author, Kathleen Thorne-Thomsen). And, I may have said something to the assistant store manager.

After all that walking and coming down off that design high, I needed some munchies. Sarah and I ate some fabulous Argentinian food while chatting about writing and the kids. And, then we got our prerequisite coffee drinks and boarded the train for home. I came home all refreshed and renewed to pound out yet another chapter.

Have a great summer.
My next post will be after I send my son off on his first year of college, my daughter off on her third year of college and a few days before my manuscript is due. Have a feeling it's going to be here before we know it.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

INK Photo Gallery at ALA

American Library Association (ALA) conferences are like Christmas (or Hanukkah) and birthdays rolled into one.  Christmas (or Hanukkah) because everyone is celebrating something we all love: children’s books!  Not to mention great presents from publishers: advance copies of their latest books, along with posters and pencils and bits of chocolate. And birthdays, because when you do a signing, people fuss over you, tell you how special you are, and buy your books, perhaps the best present we can get! An added bonus at ALA – the upper body strength one acquires toting all those freebies around the hall for hours and miles.

Here are a few pictures of INK authors at ALA in Anaheim, California last weekend.

 Loreen Leedy and I schmooze at a Holiday House reception.

Steve Sheinkin hard at work, signing his latest book, Bomb: The Race to Build—and Steal—the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon.

Loreen Leedy, with Holiday House editor Mary Cash, signing  Seeing Symmetry

Roz Schanzer and editor Kate Olesin channel Vanna White at National Geographics’s GEOPARDY party.

My editor, Carolyn Yoder, and I show off Write On, Mercy! The Secret Life of Mercy Otis Warren.


Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Finding Our Way to A New Audience-- Part II

I wanted to report back about my efforts to use non fiction texts with adult English Language Learners. Our attempts to use the latest technology were a total failure. Nonetheless, I figured out a way to do what I really wanted to do in the first place: use actual books.

I went to my library and found that I could indeed request multiple copies of books, as if for a local book group, if I gave them a couple of weeks notice. I also realized that asking my students to try to borrow a copy of a book was an excellent way of introducing them to their local library, practice their English a bit, and learn how to borrow a book.

 I used a few different nf picture books and they were largely successful. One book that everyone enjoyed was, “Sixteen Years in Sixteen Seconds” by Paula Yoo. I think this  worked for several reasons. It was at a reading level that was comfortable for the class, the subject matter of Korean-American was interesting to the students, and there were multiple themes to explore including discrimination, work-ethic, the history of the Olympics, and heroes. I even asked them to guess what the title meant. One of my third grade students had reasoned it out really well, but no such luck in this class. Go ahead and guess in the comments if you are up to the challenge!

I was surprised at how much these same students enjoyed Barbara Cooney’s, “Eleanor.” Although the language was a bit difficult for them, they muddled through, asked questions and really got an understanding of Eleanor Roosevelt’s early life. There was much to discuss here from her mother using the insult of “granny” to her lineage and family relationship with Teddy Roosevelt. We had an interesting discussion on respecting elders, family affection, and even alcoholism.

 I’m keeping track of the books I’ve used and have already added a few possibilities to the list. Two of my students told me that they’ve enjoyed the books and have learned a lot. One went to the Museum of Modern Art to see some Matisse paintings we had read about. Mission accomplished; one reader at a time.

Monday, June 25, 2012

The Little Darlings

I was going to call this post "Kill the Little Darlings." It sounded oh so ghastly that I decided to drop the first part, but killing them is what this is about. Don't worry, I'm talking words, not people.

Years ago, someone told me that Somerset Maugham, the British novelist and playwright, had said, by way of advice to writers, "Murder the Little Darlings." I've referred to this quote many times but always with the caveat that I have not able to confirm the source or the exact wording. The only Maughamism I could find on writing, courtesy of, is this: "Habits in writing as in life are only useful if they are broken as soon as they cease to be advantageous." Well, I guess it's true but it doesn't have quite the shock value of the non-quote I've been attributing to him all these years.

Shock value is certainly the provenance of a contemporary American novelst, Stephen King who, I've just discovered, has admonished authors to "kill the little darlings." Who better than Mr. King for that? Some say that William Faulkner beat King to it by a few decades, that the iconic Southern writer has been quoted similarly. Who knows. What's more important than attribution right now is the murderous concept at hand.

The "little darlings" are those favored words, turns of phrase, even entire paragraphs or chapters that do not earn their keep, no matter how they may please the ear or eye. They might do wonders for a 64-page book of 4,000 words, but not for a 32-page 600-word picture book. They might stimulate the reader's intellect, which is fine but could be a problem if the intent at that moment is to make her laugh (or cry) -- or vice versa. They might sound good but just not quite fit or they might needlessly extend the text into the realm of verbosity when nothing else can be cut. There are myriad justifications for killing the little darlings, but kill you must.

This all came to mind recently in the editing of my book about what happens to the pumpkin after Halloween. My editor and publisher (and friend), Marissa Moss, committed homicide on my title. I had called it I Rot: The Fall and Rise of a Halloween Pumpkin. All authors realize that titles are tentative but I rather liked it. I thought the "I Rot" part (since the book is written the first person from the voices of the characters in the drama, starring the pumpkin itself) was catchy. And the "Fall and Rise" bit seemed a nice twist on the usual phrase by reversing it. No, I wasn't in love with it, but I was pretty satisfied. And then Marissa came along.

"I think we should call it Rotten Pumpkin," she declared.
"Rotten Pumpkin? That's all?" I said. "Do you mean we should just refer to it as the "rotten pumpkin" book?" I'd been doing that all along.
"No, the title. Rotten Pumpkin. That says it all, don't you think?"

Well, I hadn't... but maybe I could. Maybe I would. Maybe Rotten Pumpkin would jump off the shelf and grab the browser and say "READ ME!" in a way that my ten-word title would not. Maybe it would make a potential reader into a reader who wants to know why in the world a book would be called Rotten Pumpkin. "What kind of rotten book is that? I have to find out!" By contrast, my ten-word title probably doesn't have much jumping power. Maybe it just says, "Here's something for you to think about if you happen to be in the mood to think about it. Which might be tomorrow. Or the next day. Or maybe in time to write that report."

So I've been killing little darlings for the past few days. It's a hard job but someone's got to do it. And once I get through the mourning, it feels really good.

Happy summer everyone. My all your edits be satisfying, whether or not they are murderous.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Writers as Athletes

Whenever I do a school visit, the teachers invariably ask me to be sure to mention the editing process.  Seems children are almost unanimously resistant to changing the golden words they write once they have put them down.  My interaction by videoconferencing with third graders at Bogert School in New Jersey for Authors On Call was no exception.  I thought long and hard about a way to address this problem beyond just saying it had to be done.  Could I think of an analogy that would work, something that might crack the shell of resistance to revision and editing?

Then it came to me—the Summer Olympics are coming up.  We look upon Olympic athletes as the epitomy of perfection of their craft.  When we watch them they make it look easy, as if what they’re doing just comes naturally.  Yet even the most elite athletes have coaches and trainers working with them right up to the last minute to help their performance become ever closer to perfect.  There’s my analogy!  When we read good writing, it flows along so easily and the stories are so compelling we don’t even think about the effort that went into making them that way.  But the truth is that even the very best writers, just like athletes, work hard to make their work better, closer to perfect.  If those athletes aren’t perfect, shouldn’t the kids realize that their work isn’t perfect right from the start?  Here’s what I said to the students:

“We writers have learned to welcome comments and suggestions from other people.  At first, it’s hard not to feel you’re being criticized when a teacher or another person suggests that what you’ve written needs work.  But remember that even those of us who are experts need help.  Writers are like athletes.  Just think about all the training that athletes get to prepare for the Olympics.  Their coaches and trainers work hard with them to improve their performance so they have the best chance of doing well.  And even the athletes who know they don’t have a chance of winning medals strive to improve their performance so they are the best they can be.  So think of yourselves as “writing athletes”, with your teachers and others whom you get help from as your coaches and trainers.  That can help you when it comes time to revise your work.”

I hoped that the students could internalize this metaphor, and perhaps at least some of them did; teacher Danielle Andersen wrote this in a follow-up email:
“The athlete analogy was perfect, as was the rest of yesterday's Skype session.  The suggestions that you gave were fantastic, and we already are implementing some of your strategies in our writing.”

I know there’s no magic bullet that can get young people to look askance at their own work and improve it, but I feel that I may have helped the teachers at least a little in their struggle to convince their students to take the revision process as a challenge rather than an odious chore.  And we writers can also keep these ideas in mind.  If athletes keep at it and sweat the small stuff, so should we, to make our work as appealing and compelling as possible.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

INK Authors at ALA in Anaheim

INK authors will be signing, speaking, and receiving awards at the ALA Annual Conference in Anaheim June 22-25.  Do come by and say hello!

• is one of twelve authors in the Nonfiction Book Blast, Saturday, June 23 1:30-3:30.
• is signing Seeing Symmetry at Holiday House Booth #2550, Saturday 4-5 p.m.

is taking part in a Geopardy game show with National Geographic on Saturday, June 23, 5:30-7 pm.
• is signing Witches! at the National Geographic Booth #2525 on Sunday, June 24, 12:30-1:30 and Monday, 1-2 pm.
• is receiving her Sibert Honor award for Witches! Monday, June 25, 10:30 am.

is at the Macmillan Children’s Preview event on Saturday, 7-9 am presenting his new book Bomb: The Race to Build – and Steal – the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon.
• is signing The Notorious Benedict Arnold and Bomb at the Macmillan Booth #2534 on Saturday, 10-11 am.

• is signing All the World’s A Stage: A Novel in Five Acts  at Holiday House, Booth #2550, Saturday, 11:00-11:30 am.
• is signing Write on, Mercy! The Secret Life of Mercy Otis Warren, at Boyds Mills/Calkins Creek, Booth #2435, Saturday, 12-1.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Writing Is....Fun!

When I was a kid growing up in Allentown, PA, we had a swimming teacher who would, as I remember it, start and end every class with, SWIMMING IS..... FUN! (And we were all supposed to shout FUN with him.) I think he did that for the kids who thought swimming was not fun. I loved swimming (I was terrified of diving, though) so I thought Mr. McGinley's salvo was kind of embarrassing. Why would you state the obvious? But for the kids who were scared of the water, or who thought the lessons were a chore, I hope that his declaration made a difference. 

I doubt it did. If you are scared of the water, swimming will not be fun until and if you are not scared any more. You might be glad you did it, afterwards, but while you are doing it, you are just trying to, you know, stay alive. 

Some people wake up happy in the morning. Usually I wake up feeling like it is the end of the world. (Except on vacation, after I've adjusted to the new place.) I don't know why, because after about half an hour and a good cup of coffee, I feel fine. But most of the time..well, Ray Bradbury said it best: 

"Every morning I jump out of bed and step on a landmine. The landmine is me. After the explosion, I spend the rest of the day putting the pieces together." 

(I'm glad it takes me only a cup of coffee!)

Some people think writing is fun. I actually do, a lot of the time. I am less happy with the whole publishing process. As in, putting your work out there for other people to see. To me that's like diving off the high dive. I'll do it because I have to, but I am terrified. Other people think writing is torture. And yet they do it, day after day, year after year. Of course one cannot let fear get in the way.  

Ray Bradbury, again (and thanks to Judy Blundell for these quotes; she knows me well): 

"I don’t believe in optimism. I believe in optimal behavior. That's a different thing ... Action is hope. At the end of each day, when you’ve done your work, you lie there and think, Well, I’ll be damned, I did this today. It doesn’t matter how good it is, or how bad - you did it. At the end of the week you’ll have a certain amount of accumulation. At the end of a year, you look back and say, I'll be damned, it's been a good year."

I am, with some degree of pessimism and promises to myself of optimal behavior, looking to the summer as a productive researching and writing time. Vincent needs my attention, and he will get it. Recently I came across two quotes of Miro's that spoke to me about my writing and researching process. He said them both in 1933: 

"A painting must be fertile. It must give birth to a world." 


"Regarding my expressive means, I try to achieve maximum clarity, power and plastic aggressiveness every time--in short, to provoke first and foremost a physical sensation before reaching the soul." 

Both of these apply to nonfiction writing, I think, as well as to painting, and to fiction writing. Because what are we trying to do as nonfiction writers but give birth to a world by achieving maximum clarity, power, and even plastic aggressiveness--to, yes, provoke a physical sensation? 

So this summer I will be putting myself back together every morning, and jumping into the writing pool. I will also be diving off the high dive (or maybe I will jump feet first, which seems easier) with the publication of my first YA novel, Intentions.  

And I will also be enjoying life and my loved ones as much as I can. As I write this, a friend is fighting for his life, with his wife, my dear friend, by his side. Last month my husband and I took a sublime trip to Rome to celebrate our 30th anniversary. We walked and walked, ate and ate, drank and drank red wine, and revelled in our good fortune. We also saw some things (including a Miro exhibit, hence those quotes). One of the highlights was a personal tour (thanks to INKer Susan Kuklin!) of the Etruscan Museum by the former director. There we saw inscribed on plates, bowls, wine cups, one of their favorite sayings: “Today we will drink, tomorrow, who knows.”

Yes. Today we will write, swim, dive, drink, and love. Life is Fun. Happy summer, everyone. 

Friday, June 15, 2012


I recently received the sketches for a picture book schedule for publication in 2014. This book, which I’ll call FEATHERS doesn’t have an agreed upon title yet.
For this book, I’m working with a new illustrator, Sarah Brannen. Sarah’s artwork isn’t new to me, though. We’ve been in the same critique group for . . . well, I can’t remember how long, but I’m going to guess 8 years. We were introduced to one another by a librarian at the Goodnow Library in Sudbury, MA. (Hooray for librarians!)

I visited Sarah’s studio, saw her work, and got really excited. There were paintings of insects everywhere, and she even had a taxidermied insect collection. How cool is that?

When Sarah pulled out her children’s book portfolio, I was gobsmacked. It was wonderful. I told to my critique group and we HAD to ask her to join. It turned out another member also knew Sarah and heartily endorsed her. And Sarah has been part of my life ever since.
Her picture book Uncle Bobby’s Wedding came out the same season as my book When Rain Falls, and we did a lot of events together. It was a blast. And it’s been a pleasure to see Sarah grow professionally, from an unknown name to an artist with a steady stream of children’s book illustration work.

So back to my new book—FEATHERS. I worked on the manuscript for four years. Each time I brought it to my critique group, Sarah said how much she loved feathers. Some weeks she brought feathers she’d collected during walks in the woods.

About two years into the revisions, Sarah started painting feathers. Then she painted an illustration to go with one of my spreads and gave it to me. It’s been hanging in my office ever since. (It’s interesting to note that nothing in that spread remains in the final book.)

When the manuscript was accepted and the editor asked me if I had any ideas about who might illustrate it, you know what I said. Sarah.

The editor and I talked about a concept for the art, and I was happy with it. And then I found out they had, in fact, hired Sarah as the illustrator. Hooray!

At our critique group’s annual Christmas party in 2011, Sarah started talking about the sketches. She said just enough for me to realize she wasn’t doing what the editor and I had discussed. So I literally put my fingers in my ears and sang la, la, la, la. Sarah stopped talking, and we agreed not to discuss what she was doing. I knew anything I might say at that point could stifle her creativity, and that was the last thing I wanted to do.

I was nervous, but I trusted Sarah and I knew how passionate she was about the book. And I knew that my editor and art director had approved Sarah’s concept. So I waited and waited. I hoped I’d like what she was doing because I wasn’t sure what would happen if I didn’t. Would the publisher say tough noogies to me? Would I lose a friend? I just sat on my hands and hoped for the best.

So it was with trepidation that I opened the package of sketches from my publisher. My hands might have been shaking, just a little, as I opened the oversized sheets of paper. And then I took a look. Wow! They were beyond my wildest dreams.

Sarah’s sketches had brought the book to a whole new level. She hadn’t just drawn art to match my text, she’d added a whole new layer--a strong, compelling narrative thread, a backstory that simultaneously provides context for my words AND expresses what I’m all about as a writer and a human being. Simply put, I was blown away.

I wish I could tell you more about what Sarah did, but for now it must remain a secret. I’m really looking forward to seeing the final book. Too bad 2014 is so far away.

Thursday, June 14, 2012


Back in May of 2010, I wrote about my cat Apollo and how he was settling in to his new life as a Downtown Cat in the big city of Portland, OR. He made the move with about as much grace as an aging-rural-tomcat could: after we tried a variety of cardboard and sisal rope scratching posts, and I took the streetcar over to a lumber yard to buy a 4”x4”x 4’8” wooden post, he finally stopped scratching up all the doorframes.

Apollo lived many months in his new home, but he was old, and the story’s sad, and we don’t need to go there. My husband and I were unexpectedly petless.

I was sad for a long time, and then not as sad. And then I settled into the freedom that comes from not having a pet—less to clean around the house, one less thing to be responsible for, and the pleasure of taking completely guilt-free trips. Life was easier, no doubt about it.

And then, it got maybe a little bit too comfortable. I was deeply into work, living in my head a lot, and everything was fine. Totally fine. And yet, I had a nagging itch that something was missing.

What was missing, is Seamus.

Turns out that looking for a dog has changed a lot since the last time we did it, about 20 years ago. Now, it’s sort of like on-line dating—you get a photo and a fairly objective description (since the dog is not writing it himself).

As soon as I saw those splayed feet and that shaggy beard, I was in love. I placed a 24-hour hold, we drove out to the Humane Society the next day, and we brought home our mixed-breed Bassett Hound-Terrier (or, as we like to think of him, Bassetterrier,  which I totally think should be a new Westminster entry.)

As you can see, he is the perfect size to lay crosswise on the stairs.

Oooowee, is Seamus a handful: just over a year old—not quite a puppy, but still learning to make good-dog choices (as opposed to the other kind).

The Humane Society may have stated his mission: 
To Find A Forever Home.

They did not, however, mention his motto: 
Chew First And Ask Questions Later.

He can gnaw the straps off a flipflop in about 20 seconds. He can shred a roll of toilet paper in half that time. He can pluck delicious items out of the recycling. He can pull books off the bottom shelf (giving new meaning to the term “voracious reader.”)

A few nights ago, we discovered that he can open a sliding glass door—no kidding—with his long Bassetterrier nose. (Unfortunately, we discovered this after he’d been alone in the house for who-knows-how-long, pillaging the bottom shelf of the bookcase.)

But even as we are working to foster good-dog choices (and moving all our belongings at least four feet off the ground), I can say that Seamus has been good for us.  He’s a spot of joy in the house. He is ALWAYS in a good mood (especially at 5 a.m. when he is eager to start the day). And, after getting maybe a bit too comfortable, I’ve been reminded of the value of getting out of my adult head, every once in a while, and living in the childlike here-and-now.

I’m thinking of ideas for dog books. I’m smearing peanut butter in his blue rubber Kong (a good-dog chew-toy that has probably saved several volumes of our library).

And I’m appreciating Seamus.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

No Happy, Neat Ending Here

I had planned to write about the Major League Baseball box scores that appear in newspapers and how they helped me as a kid to really focus on a subject, read better and gather in details, and even improved my math skills (you have to learn to work out percentages, for instance).  But I changed my topic after reading the Room For Debate column in the Sunday Review section of yesteday's NY Times.
The question up for debate was the future of literature and a number of writers were asked to respond.  The one writer response featured in the paper was from YA novelist Matt de la Pena (you can find the full debate at:   De la Pena said that readers want more than ever to avoid serious, sometimes depressing subjects, that they want to escape and not have to ponder potentially upsetting or thought-provoking ideas or opinions.
The column caught my attention because my wife, Alison Blank, and I were talking about this just the other night.  We have a book coming out in July called Invincible Microbe (it has a subtitle, but it would take up too much of the page).  The book has already gotten three very nice reviews (from Kirkus, VOYA, and the Horn Book), as well as some attention on blogs.  Most of the blog comments are very positive, but several stood out because they felt the closing chapters were too negative and that they didn't feel the book was appropriate for young readers.  What's so negative about that closing chapters?  Well, the book is a history of tuberculousis and ends with a discussion of supergerms (how M. tuberculosis keeps changing so that it resists more and more of the medications aimed at killing it).  We suggest that we'll never be able to actually eliminate the little bugger; that our best shot is to contain it with eternal vigilence and eternal research.
Clearly, this isn't the happy, neat ending some adult folks wanted.  But aren't we supposed to be telling kids the truth?  And the truth, sad as it might be, is that bacteria and viruses are constantly changing in order to survive.  It's the way nature has always worked and we're not going to wish it away.  Though I guess some can wish away the book that carries this message.
The weirest part of this is that kids don't seem particularly bothered by this sort of information.  They're fascinated by it.  They want to know how invisible things like germs work, what they do inside humans, how scientists are trying to combat them, and what governments, health organizations and other entities (such as private busnesses) are doing to protect us.  Kids even seem comfortable with the notion that we very smart humans might never actually figure out how to beat this nasty little germ.
Ah, well, I have great faith in kids and their ability to absorb and make sense out of complex material even if some of their elders can't.  But just to be safe and to insure future sales, Alison and I are doing research now on a light-hearted and easy to accept subject that we hope might someday make for perfect summer reading.  Yes, we're learning everything we can about leprosy.                  

Monday, June 11, 2012

An Old Dog on New Tricks

I knew that my web site was outdated years ago.  What had been cool at the turn of the millennium was looking shopworn.  Furthermore the infrastructure of my site was so arcane that I had to hire someone if I wanted to add a school visit to my schedule page.

I finally pulled it together and started looking for someone to hire.  Being a nontechno type who wanted to remain so, I couldn’t imagine anything else.  I approached people I knew.  Busy.  I asked the people I knew for people they knew.  Busy.  How could this be?  It’s a bad economy. 

Then I thought of a former MFA student who came to Lesley University to learn more about writing for kids, but was already an accomplished illustrator, photographer, animator (  Bryan graciously replied that I couldn’t hire him, but that he would mentor me through the beginning steps of building a site.  Damn, it was that old “teach a man to fish” line.  I had really just wanted to go to the fish market or, better yet, ordered my meal at a seafood restaurant. 

Wait a second, I thought.  One reason I wanted the new site was so I could be more self-sufficient.  If I knew how to build the thing, maintaining it would be a snap.  Many normal people seemed to be doing it. And I’d been blogging for a few years; I knew how to insert pictures into text, would bad could it be?

Pretty bad.  Mainly because I not only had to learn this foreign language and skill set, I had to get over my resistance and fear of doing so.  Bryan opened an empty Wordpress site for me, gave me a Skype tutorial and then it was the first day of the rest of my life.  I found something I thought I could do and did it.  Hooray.  I crept along until I came up against a wall, metaphorically speaking, with no idea of how to remove it or get around it because I had no idea why it was there.  I simply Xed out of the site—for a week.  Bryan sweetly got me back on track, but sometimes the problem of asking for explanations meant not knowing enough to understand the answers.

Here we go again, I found something else I could do and in doing so, figured out that first problem.  Happiness!  Hours went by as I slowly learned why what I designed didn’t look the same once the page was in view mode or how to line three photos up across the page.  My new skills kept growing.  Rescaling picture sizes, using Skype to get tutorials, learning enough html to do sidebars, too many colors on one page are too distracting, saturated colors make print vibrate uncomfortably against a black screen, have patience, have patience.  Writing affords you many words and choices to produce a desired result.  Html—just one—so what did I do wrong?  Obsession, then another block and shutdown once more.  For two weeks.  Again and again I’d inch my way back in.

Ultimately I guess this is how we learn most things.  If they are easy for you because you have the aptitude or temperament for them, the push/pull isn’t so painful—or noticable.

Thank you Bryan, and thank you Tim John ( who stepped in at the end to add the banners, programming, bells and whistles far beyond my pay grade.  Yes, it took an absurd amount of time to make this web site.  But maybe not so long to learn a new lesson about learning.

I proudly present to you

Friday, June 8, 2012

Connecting to the Past

 I had one of the most exciting experiences in my writing career last month when I joined a team from National Geographic at Mount Vernon--our first president's Virginia estate--for an after-hours photo shoot for my new book, Master George's People: George Washington, His Slaves, and His Revolutionary Transformation. It's coming out in January 2013.
Photo of Mount Vernon by Lori Epstein
I got the idea for this book nearly 5 years ago, when Mount Vernon unveiled a new exhibit, a 16-by-14-foot log cabin modeled on those that housed the slaves who toiled in the fields on George Washington's outlying farms. In 1798 a Polish visitor to Mount Vernon named Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz described "the huts of the Blacks, for one cannot call them by the name of houses" as "wretched" and "more miserable than the most miserable of the cottages of our peasants." I knew Washington owned African American slaves, of course, but I had never really thought about what their lives had been like. Now I started to wonder about these enslaved men, women, and children, and to ponder the irony of the fact that the man who led the American struggle for "Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness" held hundreds of people in bondage.

I kept going back to Mount Vernon (I can bike there from my house) and visiting the reconstructed slave cabin as well as the greenhouse slave quarters, where the enslaved house servants and artisans lived. I learned the names of individual slaves and some of their stories. I toured the mansion again and again and thought of the servants who cleaned and cooked and waited on the Washington family, of Caroline and Lucy and Frank Lee and Christopher Sheels. I explored the outbuildings along the lanes, and I walked through the gardens and orchards and imagined the children who once played there. I spoke with costumed interpreters--trained role players who portray Washington's family, friends, and slaves--and was blown away by the complexity of their character portrayal, by their creativity and breadth of knowledge. I kept thinking of a remark Dennis Pogue made in an interview. He's Associate Director for Preservation at Mount Vernon. He said that slavery wasn't "the brightest spot in Washington's record. But it's part of his story and America's story and one that needs to be told."
Photographer Lori Epstein, art director Jim Hiscott, and a historic interpreter portraying a slave named Christopher Sheels
I decided I wanted to tell that story for children. When I first proposed the book to my editor, I envisioned it illustrated with archival images and documents. She suggested instead that we explore the possibility of illustrating it in part with reenactment photography, in cooperation with Mount Vernon's character interpretation program. I warmed to the idea after looking at 1776: A New Look at Revolutionary Williamsburg and other children's books National Geographic has illustrated with reenactment photography. Based on meticulous research, the medium brings history vividly to life, in a way that I think can really resonate with readers. Seeing people from the past represented by real human beings, people who except for their clothing look like us or a family member or a neighbor or a classmate or teacher, can create a very powerful connection between then and now. And belief in that is what took me and my editor and a very talented photographer and art director to Mount Vernon last month.

I'm so excited about this book and the story it tells, which includes how George Washington's attitude toward slavery changed over time. I'll be blogging about it again this fall, after INK's summer vacation. But for now I have just a few more picture captions to write and a deadline to meet.
Lori photographs young interpreters playing with clay marbles in front of the reconstructed slave cabin, while I look on.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Learning How You Learn

David Schwartz’s intriguing and revealing post,  Suguaro By the Numbers. Maybe, displayed how one (his) creative mind thinks.  It generated lots of responses from the I.N.K. community of thinkers and creators.  It's a window into the mind of a life-long learner. It may well be that the most important thing any individual can learn is what their individual learning style is.  Last year I heard a speaker who had become a teacher despite severe learning disabilities.  But because she had severe learning disabilities, she knew exactly what she needed to do to learn something new and could articulate it.  I was struck by her self-knowledge and started thinking about how well I know myself in this regard. What spurred me to start dwelling on this, long before I read  David's post, was a quote at the bottom of an email.

The quote was by General Eric Shinseki, who said, “If you do not like change then you will like irrelevance even less.”   "Wow!" I thought.  Are we ever caught between the clich├ęd rock and a hard place!  Change is now hitting a number of established ways of being and doing—publishing, education, and social interaction.  With the new focus on the Common Core Standards, emphasizing the acquisition of skills that enable people to learn, educators are starting to recognize that learning to learn is a skill for a lifetime. Even we, who learn and create for a living, have to master new skills to adapt to change, or we become irrelevant.  It’s helpful to know about our own learning styles and how to be patient and kind to ourselves while we’re at it. Cuz it ain’t easy!

For myself,  I know that learning is a process.  Some concepts or skills I “get” right away.  That’s because they are only slightly different from what I already know.  But there are other concepts that are foreign to me and are not so quickly acquired.  I call these the “tearing-out-the-hair” challenges.  So I have learned that learning takes time, although I am very impatient with myself until I gain some proficiency.

Sometimes life hands you a catalyst where previously unrelated learning comes together in an instant “aha” moment.  Years ago, when I was just starting as a writer, I had worked on a couple of books with a friend and neighbor—another young mother like me.  One day she called me up and said, “Vicki, we both like to cook.  Why don’t we write a cookbook for kids?”  I replied, “Let me think about it.” (An excellent phrase to have on the tip of one’s tongue.)  I hung up the phone and started walking towards the window in my living room with an internal monologue
going on in my head that I remember to this day, forty years later: “I don’t want to write a cookbook for kids.  I want to write science for kids.”  At that moment the title “Science Experiments You Can Eat” popped into my head.  I had an instant vision of the work.  I knew enough about cooking and enough about science to immediately sit down and write an outline right off the top of my head.  As it turned out, I wrote that book by myself and it was published in 1972, revised in 1994 and is still very much in print.  (I’d LOVE to revise it again but, with the crisis in publishing, HarperCollins is not offering me a deal.)

But most of the time, before I write something, I’m not tapping into a deep reservoir of prior knowledge.  I have to learn about it. So I treat my brain like the computer it is. First I gather as many sources as I can—mostly books from the library. This is what I call the data-feeding or “gozinta” stage.  At some point, and this could be weeks later, I get inklings of the “gozoutas.”   I figure out the BIG idea behind the book, which gives me a direction for further research when I begin the purposeful research that uncovers the information I use to decorate the concepts behind the topic.

When I’m coming from a dead start, without absolutely no prior knowledge, like teaching myself how to make videos having never held a camcorder, I might peruse the manual to find out how to turn the thing on.  But I’m too impatient to stay with the manual very long.  I’m an experiential learner; I can’t wait to start using this new tool, knowing full well that I’m going to make mistakes.  So I intrepidly plunge right in.  My very first video featured my grandchildren from two different families doing a science activity together from one of my books.  These kids live far apart and see each other once a year.  That evening, I proudly showed their parents my rough footage to the delight of all.  Automatically, I rewound the tape after the screening, not thinking that the tape was in the camera.  The next time I used the camera, I erased all that precious footage.  An unforgiving  error!  But, one-trial learning.  I NEVER did that again.

I am not a scholar.  My impatient nature is not suited to dwelling on difficult texts.  So I start by attacking many books on the same subject until some author grabs me enough for more close reading.  I quit when I tire and, at the beginning, my attention span can be quite short.  But I’m persistent; so I keep at it.  I regard tough reading and writing like knitting.  I pick it up and do a little, time after time, until I get there.

I don’t like to learn under pressure.  I give myself deadlines with plenty of time and start to work right away.  I usually finish early.   I also give my brain deadlines to come up with solutions to knotty problems where the answer is not obvious.  Then, I forget about it. Amazingly, my brain does its thing and at some point, when I least expect it, the solution to the problem I gave it comes to me.  I have no idea how it happens, I just know how to make it work.

Sorta like learning how to use all this +_)(*&^%$#@! newfangled technology.  

Tuesday, June 5, 2012


 Who woulda thunk it?  Nonfiction is on a roll!  And it’s largely because of a big game-changer called the Common Core Standards. What in the world is that?  Well, it’s an educational initiative that has already been adopted by every public school in 45 of these United States and in 3 territories to boot.  In my humble but admittedly prejudiced opinion, the best part is this:  The Common Core requires that by senior year in high school, 70% of the books students read throughout their entire curriculum have to be nonfiction.  Hoo-hah!!  Ladies and gentlemen, it is about time.

And there’s more.  Instead of writing dreary papers that imitate the facts kids have to learn for testing purposes, they are now being encouraged to write some truly interesting and thoughtful nonfiction literature of their own.  Here’s just one small example.  To tempt the Youth of America to dip their toes into nonfiction waters, the New York Times is holding its Third Annual Summer Reading Contest, in which young people aged 13 to 25 are invited to submit blog posts for possible inclusion on the Times’ educational site.  Check out last year’s winning post by Elisabeth Rosenthal and tell me this isn’t a great idea.  Here ‘tis: “Answer for Invasive Species: Put It on a Plate and Eat It”

But what if students like Elisabeth get psyched by reading some truly outstanding nonfiction (insert brazen hint about INK books here).  And what if they get enough of a kick out of writing brief nonfiction pieces that they want to write an entire book of amazing-but-true tales?  Or come to think of it, what if you want to write a nonfiction book your own self? 

I recently helped a couple of fourth grade classes at Bogert Elementary School in Upper Saddle River, New Jersey, to do just that.  The challenge was to take certain bland basic material from the school’s curriculum and let the kids work together to write and illustrate an exciting (and accurate) page turner that they would actually love to read themselves.  The kids came through like champs and had a blast. And in the process, they soaked up the material in their curriculum like a sponge.

Of course there’s more than one way to skin a cat.  But maybe I can entice somebody out there to walk down the author path by offering a few small tricks of my own for writing nonfiction books that (I hope) can’t be beat. 


Whether you pick a topic that you’d love to know more about, or whether a teacher has assigned your kids to write about dry subjects from the school curriculum, any budding authors out there should try hard to write stories that fascinate.  How? One way is to find a great hook!  I write about history, and here are just a few of the hooks I’ve used ever since time immemorial for readers in different age groups: 
  • Drawing colorful, complex picture mazes in which readers have to wend their way through the accurate but amazing scenery of America’s Wild West, say, or Europe’s Middle Ages in order to reach the next pages in the story.  
  •  Telling true tales from two completely opposite points of view.  
  •  Picking a genuine hero from the past and telling his story via his 13 great escapes from danger.  


Everything in a nonfiction book has to be 100% true, and you can never ever put your own words into other peoples’ mouths either.  So to find the facts and to figure out what really happened and what people really said, you have to do tons of research.  That's when you get to become a spy!  Snoop around till you can quote from the original letters, diaries, speeches, and journals of your protagonists!  Bravely interview people who were on the scene during a terrifying event!  Or rustle your way through dusty ancient tomes written by responsible scholars until you uncover hidden clues. 

“Meat” equals the facts.  Make sure you have them down pat. “Salt” equals a tasty sprinkling of all the humor, interesting tidbits, unusual facts, and clever or creative ideas you can lay your hands on in order to bring your book to life.  I love the salt part.


Every single sentence you write has to be carefully crafted so that your readers can’t wait to see what happens next. Read what you wrote out loud to find out. Does it sound compelling enough? You may be surprised.


Everyone loves pictures, even grownups.  It doesn’t matter if you can't draw your own cartoons in a graphic novel.  Try adding a bunch of your best photos from your cell phone or create very some clever, colorful graphs with fancy lettering on a computer instead. Or if you have the chops, make Like Michelangelo. In other words, just add your best pictures to the mix and more people will be likely to read your book. 

And speaking of reading, read and READ and READ the best nonfiction books you can lay hands on.  Then pick your faves and try to figure out what it was about the authors’ writing styles that clicked inside of your brain.  That’s it.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Time to Say Goodbye

No, not to INK. I mean, to the piles of books on and around and under my desk.

This happens with every book I work on, and I’m sure others can relate. As I research and write and revise, I gather growing piles of books – real, dusty, old-fashioned books. I keep thinking I’m done researching, but then I come across another obscure source I’ve just got to have. So the piles keep growing.

But eventually, when all the revising is done, and my editor assures me I can no longer alter so much as a comma, there comes this slightly sad moment when I realize I don’t need to keep the books at my desk anymore. That’s what happened this weekend with my upcoming book, BOMB. The advanced reader copies have gone out, and at this point I don’t even want to look at them, ‘cause I’ll just find things I want to change, and it’s too late.

So why are all of these books I used as sources still lying around my desk? Because we have no bookshelf space left in our house? Yes, that’s part of it. But I think the real reason is that putting the books away feels kind of like turning my back on friends. Every book in the stack is packed with amazing characters, scenes, and details, and I only mined a tiny fraction of the riches. After I put the books away, I’ll move on, and maybe I’ll dip back into them at some future date. Or maybe not. What a terrible friend I am.

In the spirit of thinking aloud, as David Schwarz did so compellingly last week, wouldn’t it be cool if there was an INK library? That is, one central location where we could keep the books we’ve collected over the years, and make them available to curious kids and teens and teachers. I can imagine it would be an incredible storehouse of fascinating and lesser-known true stories and primary sources. And in each book there’d be an inscription by the author who donated it, saying which book he/she used it for. And it would have an online catalog, and even digital versions of some non-copyrighted sources…

Anyway, just something I got to thinking about while I was supposed to be cleaning up my desk. Now, back to work on the next book – and the new stack of sources.