Tuesday, October 9, 2012

It's All Personal

1:  If you are fortunate enough to get a book published it will be reviewed.

2: It might be reviewed by a 'major' reviewer (you know, the folks who sprinkle stars around), or by a national, regional, or local newspaper or magazine, by bloggers, or by family and friends around the kitchen table.

3: Sooner or later, someone will say something about your book that doesn't sit well with you.

Number 3 happened to me a few weeks ago.

I was feeling a little anxious and aimless, so I decided to visit children's literature blogland.  I generally do this by visiting Betsy Bird's Fuse #8 blog at the SLJ site.  She has a list of favorite bloggers (including our own INK) and I roam around to see what people are chatting about.  So there I was visiting and reading this blog and that blog and another, when...pow...there was a blogger reviewing my newest baby THE GIANT and How He Humbugged America, which is about the 1869 Cardiff Giant hoax.

Now if I remember correctly the blogger had very nice things to say about the book (I would provide a link but I can't recall who the blogger was, a situation I blame on the very wonderful pain killers I was taking at the time).  But toward the end of her thoughtful review she hesitated a beat and said that she couldn't see any young reader caring about the book's subject.

What! I kind of sputtered.  But, but, but...why wouldn't kids be interested?!?  There was more, but you get the idea.  I take reviews personally.  But why wouldn't I?  I take the research and writing very personally.  It always takes a few minutes for me to calm down, but eventually I do.  Which is when I begin to blame myself for whatever a reviewer has criticized and I think back on the decisions I made about the book in question.  I this case, I began thinking about why I decided to do THE GIANT in the first place. 

Way back a few years ago, I began wondering if it would be possible to do something for young readers about Bernie Madoff and his fifty billion dollar ponzi scheme.  I quickly rejected the idea, mainly because all of the details of his fraud weren't in (and still aren't).  I'm leery of "ripped from the headlines" ideas.  Yes, they have an instant recognition factor, but usually only part of the story has been unearthed, so the result wouldn't be a truly satisfying or complete book.  It would be more of a glorified magazine article (and probably not worth the price of a book).  I then thought about doing something on Charles Pozi himself, but realized that neither he nor Madoff were very interesting guys and their schemes involved a lot of paper shuffling and ledger entries and not much that was either active or visual.  Then I remembered the Cardiff Giant.

Here was a story filled with unusual, colorful characters.  George Hull, who conceived the idea of carving a giant, lifelike human, was a serial fraudster (he not only came up with a second 'discovered' ancient human years after the Cardiff Giant, but he hired a man to write his biography, took that text and gave it to another person to clean up, and took that version and gave it to a third person, never bothering to pay anyone for their work).  P.T. Barnum tries to buy the Giant, fails in his bid, then has his own immitation Giant made and exhibited (and actually outdrew the original CD in NYC); Barnum was sued by the original CG owners, but the case was heard by a drunken judge who refused to rule against Barnum's Giant unless the original appeared in court to testify.  It don't get much better than that.

There's also action (making the giant, transporting him secretly from Chicago to NY State, burying and digging him up, exhibiting him and moving him around in his retirement years until he winds up in a leaky shed), and some decent visuals as well, both photos and drawings.

And themes and story lines.  Why the Giant captured so many people's imaginations that it literally knocked the upcoming 1869 November elections from the front pages of the newspapers, how people clamored to buy shares in the giant, how shareholders continued to insist the Giant was real even after they knew it was a fake, how educated individuals and scientists were fooled into believing the Giant was authentic, to name just a few.  Oh, yes, and how men put a 'fig' leaf over the Giant's private parts to shield women from naughty thoughts and how women were the one's to insist that was nonsence and insisted it be removed.  A lot is going on in this relatively short-lived piece of US history, some of it downright silly and some very serious. 

Still, I had to admit that the blog-reviewer had a point.  THE GIANT probably doesn't have instant and obvious curb appeal.  It will need strong reviews (and, happily, has gotten a number already) and skillful selling by teachers and librarians.  When I finally sat back and thought about it, I came to the conclusion that I wanted to do the Cardiff Giant's story (and in fact wrote it without a contract or publisher lined-up) because it grabbed my attention, made me chuckle as well as think, and seemed like a complex story that kids could understand and follow and get involved in.  I guess in the end it was personal.  



Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Kathleen Odean said...

I loved this book and I think the blogger is wrong about its appeal for kids. Will a kid walk into a library or bookstore and ask for a book on the Cardiff Giant? No. But if a bookstore displays it face out so the big word "GIANT" shows, some kids will pick it up. I know that if I booktalked it even off-the-cuff, some kids would be intrigued. Hoaxes are appealing. Big things are appealing. Money is appealing (I love the way money is translated into current amounts so readers understand how much it is). In my experience, nonfiction like this has an audience but an adult may need to make the connection.

Steve Sheinkin said...

Whenever I'm in doubt about a subject I picture myself standing before a group of students and telling them the story. So imagine telling kids this crazy giant story, about digging him up and the fig leaf over the crotch and drunken judge... Obviously, you'd have their attention. That's how you know it's good!

Melissa Stewart said...

I love that suggestion, Steve. And Jim, as soon as I saw the title for THWE GIANT the first time, I knew I had to buy it for my nephew (and read it myself before gibing it to him).

Reviews can be hard, but in the end, they are only one person's opinion, and not every book is going to resonate with every reader. I guess that kind of exposure is the price we must pay for having one of the best jobs in the world.

Unknown said...

Thank you, Kathleen, Steve, and Melissa for your comments. Part of my problem is that because I invest so much of myself in the project I am always doubting its potential, or at least testing my opinion of the idea to make sure I really, really want to do it. The good news is that I do all this in my little office on the 3rd floor and don't usually bother anyone else about these doubts (except, of course, for this post).

Unknown said...

Jim, there have been many instances where the critic just doesn't get it. Some people make judgments based on what they already know is true and when something appears that doesn't fit into their personal experience they are quick to condemn. My first big book was Science Experiments You Can Eat. It teaches basic science concepts through culinary activities. One early critic nailed it for neglecting to include nutrition. Always be suspicious of a critic that dislikes a work because of what it is not. This is the risk you take when you write on a subject that is truly new and original.
BTW, SEYCE is still in print (once revised) after 40 years! If I ever get to revise it again, I will include something on nutrition.

Unknown said...

A quick congratulations to Steve for his National Book Award nomination.

Mary Ann Cappiello said...

Jim, your back story on the book is exactly what teachers need to frame and consider the book in a variety of ways with kids. We can mine the back story and set up comparisons and contrasts that we might not normally if we don't have the story behind the impetus, the research, the nugget that got the whole thing rolling. We are all the richer for it. Thanks for sharing.