Thursday, December 19, 2013

A Poem Can Be Good for a Nonfiction Girl

Poetry is the sunny spot on the carpet. It is a sea salt caramel. It is a hermit crab tickling its way across my raspberry-punch-painted toes. It is an orchestra tuning before the curtain rise.

Poetry helps me breathe. It makes me consciously calm.

Poetry is voices.

When I started writing A Bad Boy Can Be Good for a Girl, the characters talked to me in whispers, pieces of sentences, snippets of thought. They visited me when I was half-awake, drifting between late night and early morning.

As someone who most often writes narrative nonfiction, I am regularly asked why I decided to write a YA novel in verse. The answer is: I didn’t.

What I did decide was to listen.

I listened to that first voice, that first day. Her name was Josie. An orchestra began tuning in my brain. It played Nicolette for me a different day. And then Aviva.

I listened. I wrote. I listened some more. I wrote some more. Poetry had come back to me.

Maybe it came back because I went looking for it.

Like the sunny spot on the carpet, and sea salt caramels.

It visits me still, dancing into my nonfiction, adding shadows to lines of prose.

There are poems that accompany Almost Astronauts, and poetic prose that describes some of the events in that true story.

The WWII black paratrooper heroes in Courage Has No Color risk their lives to jump out of airplanes and serve their country, at a time when their country is not serving them. Poetry is there to help me share their fall.

I will always be listening as the orchestra tunes.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Photographing Dancers - Really

A month ago, November 13, April Pulley Sayre wrote a post about photographing nature, Common Core and Nonfiction Photography Part I. (Part II was posted December 11.) As another photographer-INKer, I’d like to continue the discussion by writing about photographing dancers. Capturing dance is much like photographing nature. Every part of the dancer's body must be, as April wrote, “clear and complete.” This is especially true when it comes to the very strict and formal lines in ballet. The shapes dancers make must be perfect, as defined by balletic rules. If even one finger is not in the correct position, the photograph is useless. Formal lines and movement have a little wiggle room, but that is usually the choreographer's domain. As examples, I will use photographs taken for the book, Beautiful Ballerina, by Marilyn Nelson. In order to illustrate dance books I follow the 1-2-3 Rule:
1.  Perfect ballet form
2. Recreate the choreographer’s vision or style
3. Visually express the meaning behind the writer’s words.
 You won’t find these rules on Google. I just made them up. But this is pretty much what’s involved. As you might imagine a heap of dance images end up under the delete button. Here’s an example:

Notice the ballerina’s foot resting on the barre. Wrong. The foot must be slightly elevated. Although I loved the emotional connection captured in the photograph, it would never pass the choreographer’s veto power. Here’s the image reshot with a correct line.

 [The little ballerina gets a free pass because she’s only four.] This image ended up in the B list  – I didn’t have the heart to delete the two entirely – because the two dancers at the barre didn’t fit Marilyn’s words, rule 3.

HOW PHOTOSHOP CHANGED IT All - & Opened a Can of Worms
Fortunately, today’s technology gives photographers some space to make mistakes. For this book I used large, white, diffusion screens and strong strobes to capture dancers in motion. While going for the dancer, the background often turned into an angular mess that overwhelmed the picture. With the help of PhotoShop, I got rid of the distracting background elements. Here’s what the original photograph looked like.

 Here’s what was sent to the art director.

 So here's the question ... Is a retouched, cropped, straightened photograph fact or fiction?
 As a budding photographer I would practically have a nervous breakdown if anyone cropped or tinkered with my black and white photographs. Now I’ve come to appreciate the fact that technology can help make images more real.
The curtain in the photograph above had splotches on it. Can you see them? They look huge enlarged in the computer. If I kept them in, they would be a distraction. So out they went. In order to show the entire body of the dancer I sometimes ended up with slanted curtain tops. By taking the dancer out of her environment via layers in PhotoShop, I was able to get rid of the angled spotted curtain and keep the focus on her. Is it still real? More real?
In the middle of shooting the book one of the dancers arrived with a small canker sore on her lip. It was hardly noticeable. But under powerful lights, and a camera that records every little pore, it looked enormous. Out, damned spot! Out, I say! [I just saw Macbeth at Lincoln Center.] The book was about ballet, not pimples. I PhotoShopped it out. Then I decided to get rid of the curtain and slightly change the background colors. Does that mean the image is less true than had I left it in?

Like research and writing, photography includes choices. What to leave in/take out?  We make choices while creating narratives, building arcs, and describing a subject. I don’t know about you, but when I do an interview, the subject usually has repeat quirk words such as, “you know,” “okay,” “right.”  Right? I once counted seven “likes” in one transcribed sentence. Leaving in those involuntary quirks detracts from the read. The quirk then becomes the subject rather than what the person is saying, or who the person is. Sometimes I leave one or two “you knows” or “likes” scattered throughout a chapter for flavor. Just like sometimes I leave in a small pimple or two. But I take out blemishes, visual and syntactic, because I don’t want the distraction. 
Another element when photographing dancers is rule 2. The image must, must, must reflect the choreographer's unique vision. Arthur Mitchell, the founder of Dance Theater of Harlem, where the book was shot, insists that his dancers have perfect, classic, balletic lines. His view is what makes this book distinct from other dance books I've done in the past.
One more thing ... rule 4. After all three rules are met, the photograph must also represent the vision of the photographer. For me dance is not just about body and form. I want to show the emotion, the individual je ne sais quoi, that turns dancers into artists. Adding to the emotional content is historical context in at least one image per book. No one notices this but that's okay. Arthur Mitchell became famous as a lead dancer for George Balanchine’s New York City Ballet. As homage to Mr. B, the first photograph in the book had to be a ballet shape that he created. 

Next February, I plan to write about photographing people for my new book, Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out.  
Happy holidays everyone. May we dance into a beautiful New Year.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Some of the Eureka! Award Books

Last month I blogged about the Eureka! Awards for Nonfiction, given each year by the California Reading Association.  A recap:

I like all things about the Eureka! Awards.
I like that they honor many types of nonfiction – those closely tied to the curriculum and those that are not.
I like that all age levels receive Eureka! Awards: K-12.
I like that small presses are liberally represented among the prize winners.*
I like that awards go to books with clever, often multi-disciplinary approaches to a subject.

*Small presses with 2013 winners include Annick Press (4 awards,) Scarletta Junior Readers, Mountain Press, Dawn Publications, Lee & Low, Bearport, Calkins Creek, and Wordsong, as well as big NY-based houses.

A list of all the 2013 Eureka! Winners is here

Bones Never Lie: How Forensics Helps Solve History’s Mysteries by Elizabeth MacLeod (Annick Press) blends history and science into a mystery format as it explains how old and new forensic science has solved age-old mysteries about the deaths of Napolean, King Tut, Anatasia Romanov, and a recent King of Thailand.

The Great Bicycle Experiment: The Army’s Historic Black Bicycle Corps, 1896-97 by Kay Moore (Mountain Press Publishing), uncovers an obscure bit of history. This group of intrepid athletes rode primitive bicycles on wretched roads over mountains, through rivers, and broiling prairies. Period photographs show just how challenging the rides were. Subsequent history of the corps reveals racist injustice that was not overturned until the 1970s.

Cowboy Up? Ride the Navajo Rodeo by Nancy Bo Flood (WordSong) takes us out West, and gives us a multi-layered day at the rodeo. We hear a voice in verse of a young rodeo rider; the announcer rousing the crowd, and a narrative that explains the intricacies of each event. Stunning action photographs complement the text.

Here Come the Girls Scouts by Shana Corey (Scholastic) is a wonderful example of how illustrations and book design can add to the power of the text. Hadley Hooper’s paintings bring Daisy Low’s energy and enthusiasm alive.

Potatoes on the Rooftop: Farming in the City, by Hadley Dyer (Annick Press) also uses book design to make an impact. This book combines nutrition, geography, zoology, botany, with lots of go-out-and-get-your-hands-dirty activities. Urban gardens at home, in schools, and communities all around the world are presented.

It Can’t Be True  (Dorling Kindersley) is for readers who are interested in how big, how tall, how much, how fast. Chapters on the universe, the earth, living things, and feats of engineering are presented with photos, graphs, drawings and wacky analogies. (“An adult heart pumps enough blood to fill 5.3 10,000 gallon road tankers every month.”)

Animals Upside Down: A Pull, Pop, Lift & Learn Book  by Steve Jenkins and Robin Page (Houghton Mifflin) Leave it to these two authors to show us yet another quirky view of the animal world. Pull, lift, slide to see some odd creatures and how they live. 

Dreaming Up: A Celebration of Building by Christy Hale (Lee & Low Books) will intrigue kids from pre-K to 12, as it relates kids’ play (stacking cups, mud pies, building blocks, sand castles, house of cards, etc) to architectural treasures all around the world, in rhyming verse. Back matter introduces the architects represented.

10 Plants That Shook the World by Gillian Richardson (Annick Press.) Some food – pepper, tea, sugarcane, cacao. Some not – papyrus, rubber, cotton, cinchona (source of quinine.) All these plants have had enormous economic, political, and social consequences through the centuries. Lots of biology info too.

Cool World Cooking by Lisa Wagner (Scarletta) gives us recipes with text and visual directions, suitable for many ages of children (with adult help.) While it certainly can offer curriculum connections, it also offers a great way to have fun with kids at home.

Happy eating and reading to you all!

Monday, December 16, 2013

Stop, Stop, You're Both Right!!!

I’m sure many of you are like me—making your lists, checking ‘em twice.  Mid-December isn’t the best time to think about writing, reading or Common Core, but here I am. 

Both on this blog and the rest of the web, I’ve read a lot about our job as authors concentrating upon our writing/thinking about Common Core or providing support materials for teaching our books. 

I end up smack in the middle.  I’m reminded of an old ad campaign for Certs when I was a kid (Do they still exist?).  “Certs is a breath mint,” one person states.  “Certs is a candy mint,” insists the other.  Then some bodiless baritone booms, “Stop, stop, you’re both right.  It’s two, two, two mints in one!"  

I believe my job is being a storyteller.  It’s what I love.  I love to dig in to a subject, find my idea of what is important and extraordinary, then do the best I can to convey my sense of wonder and hope it’s contagious.  

I also like the idea that someone will read my book (hopefully, buy my book) and have the opportunity to get caught up in its ideas.  I like the idea that teachers use my book in fun ways that introduce kids to reading or space or politics and make them believers.  In something.

Opening my computer to write this post, I peeked at my email and saw something from World Book Night, a program that organizes one day a year when participants hand out 30 free books to the unsuspecting public.  Years past, I have left them on the #39 bus in Boston and distributed them to a class in an inner city school.  It’s a great program and a great experience you might want to have.

Anyway, this email reprinted a letter the organization received: 

I wanted to tell you that I am at our local library for the first time because I received a book. I read sometimes, but not a lot. After I received and read the book I thought I could start going to our library and checking out books. I now have my first library card ever and I am 78 years old. Thank you for having this great promotion.

P.S. The library helped me do this letter on the computer because I don't have one and I didn't think you would be able to read my writing. I didn't realize that there were even computers at the library. I've learned a lot by coming to our library and seeing what is available. I would never have done this without your World Book Night.  

We never know how, when or where a person will find a book that will guide his career choice or set off her life of reading.  It is in this spirit that I'm providing the link to my new lesson plans for How Do You Burp in Space?

Happy Holidays to all--Susan

Friday, December 13, 2013


This post isn’t about the Common Core or rubrics or other pedagogical concerns. It’s about storytelling, which, when it comes right down to it, is what all great writing should be—even nonfiction.

Stubby, on display at the Smithsonian Institution
This past year I’ve had the good fortune to become an hiStoryteller twice on the same topic. My unusual escort has made the journey pure pleasure, trotting forward on four feet as he’s led me back to 1917, across the Atlantic, through the Great War, and home again. As with so many topics, accident and good fortune led me to discover Stubby, a stray dog smuggled with American troops to France who returned to the United States and became a post-war icon. I stumbled across him while doing photo research for Unraveling Freedom, another book set during World War I. Even though I was not a dog person, I could not get this intrepid creature out of my mind, and that meant only one thing: I was destined to write about him. More than that, I was, apparently, destined to write about him twice.

First I researched and wrote about Stubby the War Dog for young people and then, at the request of my publisher, I embarked on another telling of his tale, this time for adult readers. The National Geographic Society will publish both books next May.

I’ve learned a lot about storytelling from these projects. My subject left behind an historical record riddled with contradictions, omissions, and hyperbole. Just sorting out the narrative was a job. Figuring out how to share it with two very different audiences was a challenge, as well. Keeping the story fresh became a particular concern. I knew I needed to stay in love with the topic for the readers to love it, but, after writing the first book, I feared I would find myself trapped in a sort of Groundhog Day nightmare for the second one.

I follow a definite mental and physical trajectory when writing a book. Part of the challenge is pacing myself so that I don’t run out of stamina or enthusiasm before the project’s completion. Once a book is done, there is a natural let-down that shares kinship with the postpartum feelings of childbirth. Exhaustion. Relief. Satisfaction. Plus a sense of aimlessness after losing the connection to a goal long-in-the-making and now achieved. No mother would want to go right back into labor, and no one ever has to give birth to the same baby twice. Yet there I was, facing the same topic again.

It turned out that my greatest challenge was overcoming the sense of panic that gripped me at that prospect. Once I’d slain the apparition of repetition, I found myself liberated to write in new ways, from simple things such as the freedom to construct complicated sentences and use big words to the rewards of writing for an audience that could appreciate a more sophisticated rendering of the history. I fell in love with my subject all over again, generating the energy and motivation required to explore Stubby’s story along new research and writing avenues.

Sometimes I think we forget that writing, at its best, is storytelling. Writers such as those at I.N.K. don’t park their passions at their office doors; they infuse their work with them, and that’s why such incredible books emerge from their fingertips. Nothing but the facts, true, but the facts can truly inspire—sometimes even twice—when we write from our hearts as well as from our heads.

In the wake of standards, and testing, and benchmarks it can be hard to remember that the best reading, the best writing, the best teaching, and the best learning come when we are most inspired. My new year’s wish for all is this: May writers, educators, and students alike be allowed to fall in love with facts through wonderful, wonderful storytelling.