Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Return to Albion

I can’t seem to stay away from England. After spending three months here last spring, I returned in mid-January, to stay until late March.  My secret: home exchanging. With laptop, email, and skype, many people don’t even know I’m away – or they didn’t until now.

I’ve generated a fan base here, bigger than I have at home! One school visit in Yorkshire last spring, led to four invitations this time round. The small town/village/rural environment meant that teachers spread the word quickly. I’ve got return invitations for my next visit.

At all four schools I was thrilled to see a strong emphasis on writing. I discussed all my books in all-school assemblies, but since I’ve only got one book published in England, Katje the Windmill Cat, I focused on that in the younger classes. It’s historical fiction that focuses on a true incident. I talked about writing true stories and stories from our imagination, and mixing up the two.  The children came up with great ideas for stories  – true and fictional -- and one class ended a session by making up a song and dance about Katje. This was a favorite moment, along with hearing my story acted out in Yorkshire accents: “Katje, you’re too doosty!”

At Nafferton Primary School I was given the Royal Role of cutting the ribbon the open the new school library!  

This was followed by lovely tea and cakes.

And I enjoyed my first English hot school dinner: vegetarian toad-in-the-hole.


The curiosity that spurs me to write about a subject doesn’t go away when the book is finally published, e.g. The Wind at Work.  So when I found that my London flat was a quick bus ride away from Wimbledon Common, off I went to see the Wimbledon Windmill and Museum tagging along with a school group for a wonderful presentation by Norman and Ray Plastow.  

Norman spearheaded the restoration of the windmill and the creation of the museum within.  It’s a wonderful place, chock full of great artifacts and exhibits.  And the Windmill CafĂ© next door serves delicious hot soup, most welcome on a cold January day. 

 Another treat was meeting Paul Sellwood, a windmill-wright who travels the UK and abroad restoring old windmills.  It’s so much fun to meet people to natter on with, about one’s own arcane interests!

Stay tuned for a report next month on the Biographers Club meetings in London.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

R is for Rot (or Happy Anniversary)

I’m not certain how this can be true, but this month marks the 5th Anniversary of the I.N.K. blog. It’s unclear what we’ve accomplished, if anything. Maybe we should just keep going until we figure that out.

I do know that it’s not that easy to commit to writing a post every month when it steals time from other pressures and deadlines and actual paying gigs.  Thanks to those hearty few who were brave enough to respond to my awkward email all those years ago and have continued blogging with us: Anna, Vicki, Sue, David and Steve (with a hiatus). Special thanks to Loreen for sharing her time and expertise on the technical side of blogging and helping me with the dirty work of making the blog look pretty (or at least prettier) and to Steve for designing our spiffy logo. Thanks to every I.N.K. blogger, past and present, who posted their thoughts about non fiction, without editorial advice, and contributed to our community these last five years.

And the Rot? My daughter and I were having a tangential conversation about rotting apples and I said, “Well, rot can be interesting you know. David Schwartz wrote a blog post about a favorite manuscript he’s been trying to sell about a rotting pumpkin.” “Oh, I know,” she replied. He’s written about rot before. Remember? R is for Rot in his Q is for Quark book.” Somehow this conversation sums up the value of this blog to me. The import of quality non fiction kids books can be seen through the college student who still remembers much that she read and learned in those books and, as far as I'm concerned,  I’m just glad to at least be in the conversation benefiting greatly from having read many good I.N.K. books myself and every single one of the blog posts.

Happy Anniversary to I.N.K.!

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Panama Numbers, Panama "Wow!"

I've been wondering: Can raw numerical facts be the raw material for creativity in the minds of children? If we just set  them loose on a set of data as if it were paint or clay, and we encourage them to find ways to use that data, will they come up with something that will make them, and you, say "Wow!"? 

Today I went to the Panama Canal. Sounds like a nice Sunday excursion, doesn't it? I am in Panama for school visits next week, and thanks to the generosity of Kathryn Abbott, her husband Tim and their son Alan (an International School of Panama student), a visit to the Gatun Locks was on today's itinerary. Here's proof:
So here are some numerical facts associated with the Panama Canal:

-- Twelve to fifteen thousand ships per year pass through the canal.
-- The 22.5 mile passage takes two hours and saves the ship 7,872 miles and three weeks of sailing around Cape Horn.
-- The London-based ship called CMA CGM Blue Whale, which I watched pass through Gatun Locks, held 5,080 containers. On the basis of its capacity, it paid a toll of $384,000.
-- the lowest toll ever paid was 36 cents. It covered the passage of author-adventurer Richard Halliburton, who had an appetite for publicity stunts. He secured permission to swim the length of the canal in 1928, but no exemption from the toll, which was assessed on the basis of his "tonnage." (I wrote about Halliburton in the March, 1989, issue of Smithsonian magazine.) He swam alongside a rowboat manned by a sharpshooter who kept an eye out for crocodiles. It took him 10 days to complete the passage.
-- 1.8 million cubic meters of concrete were used to construct the Gatun Locks, one of the three lock systems of the canal. 
-- About 5,000 workers lost their lives building the canal in the early 20th Century. Eighty percent of them were Black.
-- The locks lift each ship 85 feet to the highest elevation of the canal (Gatun Lake) and then back down again. Many of the ships weigh 60,000 tons or more.
-- Filling each lock chamber drains 26.7 million gallons of water from Gatun Lake. When the chamber is emptied, the water goes to sea. (The ongoing Panama Canal Expansion Project will change the system so that the water will be recycled.)
-- The width of the locks limits the size of ships that can pass through the canal. This distance, 110 feet, is called "Panamax" and it dictates the dimensions of ships worldwide.  CMA CGM Blue Whale is 106 feet wide. (Locomotives called mulas, mules, ride on tracks alongside the lock, pulling the ships with taut cables that also center the ships in the passageway. These seagoing behemoths must never, ever touch the sides of the lock!) 

There are many, many more but that's enough to run my experiment. The question is: can students take these figures and run with them to discover something interesting, something "Wow!" They can make assumptions. For example, they could assume that the ship I saw is typical of those that pass through the canal. Thus, to use a simple example, they might calculate the annual revenue of the canal by multiplying the toll paid for the Blue Whale by 12,000 or 15,000 (or something in between). Then they could put that into some kind of context. (How many teacher salaries would that pay?)

Here's what I did as an example, using the last bulleted item listed above:

The ship I saw is 106 feet wide and the lock is 110 feet wide, so the clearance is four feet, or two feet on each side. What does that mean in terms we can relate to?  

I scaled the Blue Whale to the size of my kayak, which is about two feet wide. The ship is 50 times as wide as the kayak. So I divided the ship's clearance of 2 feet per side by 50 to find out what my kayak's clearance would be: about half an inch! So... a 110-foot wide ship passing through the lock with two feet of clearance on each side is like my kayak passing through a concrete-walled chamber with a half-inch of clearance on each side, not touching either side, not even once, not even for a zillionth of a second! Is that a "Wow!" moment or what? 

I find it way cool that math can turn a raw fact into a wowful wonder. Of course I'm already planning a book. Maybe teachers of upper elementary, middle school or high school students can plan a class around this. Make it open ended. Give the kids facts, calculators, internet access to look up information, and the time to play. Show them books that turn facts into "Wows!" (May I recommend my If Dogs Were Dinosaurs and How Much Is a Million? for starters, but don't stop there.) See if your young mathematicians can be creative artists. Wow!

Friday, February 22, 2013

Just the Facts, Ma'am

“Just the facts, Ma’am. Just the facts.” Isn’t that what Sgt. Joe Friday would say on Dragnet? Actually, no. Sgt. Friday’s actual lines were "All we want are the facts, ma'am" and "All we know are the facts, ma'am".

The writer's mind is always working - always questioning, always wondering. Last Saturday night, I sat down for some TV time and the movie Hysteria was on. I love that time frame, the actors in the movie, and the subject. In my last book, I touch upon the diagnosis of hysteria that was used to describe the feelings of women in the late 19th century. It’s a topic that interests me, so I settled down to spend a few hours watching the movie.

The beginning of the movie starts with “1880” at the bottom of the screen. I’m enjoying the movie until Maggie Gyllenhaal’s character, Charlotte, rides down the street on her bike. “Wait, a second”, that voice way back in my head says. “That’s a safety bike, they weren't invented until 1885.” I know, the director was trying to show that the character of was a strong, independent woman. The bicycle in the 1890s was a very instrumental in the woman’s rights movement. In fact, Susan B. Anthony told the New York World’s Nellie Bly in 1896 that bicycling had “done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.” But, the safety bike, though it is very cool, wasn’t invented until 1885.
 The next day, as I am wont to do, I researched the movie, the characters, and the story. The movie totally changed the actual facts and characters for Hollywood’s version of the story. I was okay with that. I was not okay with the appearance of the safety bike. Actually on IMDB in the goofs section, it states: “The character Charlotte Dalrymple is shown riding a safety bicycle. The film is set in 1880, but safety bicycles weren't invented until 1885.” IMDB not a valid source, but a good jumping off point, I soon plunged into my own quest for the truth. After swimming through the pages and pages of research, images, and such, I narrowed down the manufacturer of the bicycle in the movie - who may not manufactured this particular style until many years past 1885. Before I could continue, to squelch my excitement, that little voice in the back of my head asked, “Don’t you have a manuscript due in a few days?

The manuscript I just finished contains about 200 "things" about Chicago. Since it is for kids, I thoroughly researched every fact and yelled at my computer when I found twisted information. For example, several sources said that rainbow sherbet is a Chicago thing. The truth is "rainbow cone" is a Chicago thing, not rainbow sherbet.

In my description of the 1893 Chicago Columbian Exposition, I wanted to show the many inventions from the fair. Many sources said that the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair introduced the world to the Pledge of Allegiance, Cracker Jack, the Ferris Wheel and Juicy Fruit Gum. The Random House site for The Devil in the White City says: "The World’s Fair introduced America to such classic favorites as Cracker Jack, Shredded Wheat. and Juicy Fruit and was the birth of historically significant symbols like Columbus Day, the Ferris Wheel, and the Pledge of Allegiance." In actually, what Erik Larson wrote about Juicy Fruit was: “They sampled a new, oddly flavored gum called Juicy Fruit and caramel-coated popcorn called Cracker Jack.” Evidently, what Erik Larson writes is fact. Many sources now state, crediting The Devil in the White City as the source, that the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair introduced the world to Cracker Jack, the Ferris Wheel, and Juicy Fruit. Cracker Jack was actually sold at the fair, the Ferris Wheel no one can doubt was a hit at the fair, but Juicy Fruit was not officially at the fair.

Other products that receive second billing as introductions at the fair had actual booths; Aunt Jemima Pancake Mix, Shredded Wheat, Pabst Blue Ribbon, and others. The Wrigley website reads: "In 1893, during an economic depression, he introduced two brands that would become company icons: Wrigley’s Spearmint® and Juicy Fruit®."

Going straight to the source, I sent an email to the Senior Vice President of Wrigley Corporate Affairs. We went back and forth a few times but I didn’t get an official answer to my question:
  "In time for the fair and the millions visited. It would have been sold by salesmen and women to the crowds attending may of whom visited Chicago for the first time. There will not have been a Juicy Fruit pavilion I'm pretty sure it was launched in time for the worlds fair rather than at it.” "It was as I thought. It was launched in Chicago in time for the World’s Fair but it wasn’t an official part of the Fair.” “The fair bought many people to chicago so lots of footfall for the brand." "But in 1893 Wrigley was a small business and remain so for another 15 years or so.”

In the end, what I finally wrote as part of the 1893 Chicago Columbian Exposition: William Wrigley Jr. introduced Juicy Fruit gum. (And, people wonder why writing takes so long.)

I started this piece by quoting Sgt. Joe Friday, I thought I’d end it by sharing a few fabulous fact quotes by some very wise folks.

“If the facts don't fit the theory, change the facts.” ~Albert_Einstein

 “Facts are stubborn things, but statistics are pliable."  ~Mark Twain

 “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.” ~John Adams

“The truth is more important than the facts.” ~Frank Lloyd Wright

“False facts are highly injurious to the progress of science, for they often endure long; but false views, if supported by some evidence, do little harm, for everyone takes a salutary pleasure in proving their falseness; and when this is done, one path towards error is closed and the road to truth is often at the same time opened.” ~Charles Darwin 

And, finally,
"Never trust quotes you find on the internet." ~Abraham Lincoln

Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Next Big Thing: Nonfiction Edition

For my INK blog this month, I am doing something a tiny bit different, although all the content is still nonfiction, and it is in honor of my new picture book about Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman doctor in America, which came out this Tuesday. But I digress. What is the Next Big Thing? It is an author blog tour. What’s a blog tour? A blog tour gives those on the tour a chance to meet different authors by way of their blogs. The Next Big Thing began in Australia. Each week a different author answers specific questions about his or her upcoming book. The answers are posted on author’s blogs. Then we get to tag another author. On and on it goes.

The tour came to me from Manhattan. I was tagged by my friend Elizabeth Winthrop. She was tagged by her friend Eric Kimmel. I’ll tell you whom I’m tagging at the end.

Now for the questions.

What is the title of your next book?
Who Says Women Can’t Be Doctors? It is the story of Elizabeth Blackwell, who was the first woman doctor in America.

Where did the idea come from for the book?
I have done, and do, a lot of research on women’s history—especially in America. Elizabeth Blackwell’s story was one I came upon again and again. It was also one of those stories I tried to sell more than once but met with some resistance because Blackwell’s name is not instantly recognizable. I felt that was exactly why there should be a book about her!

What genre does your book fall under?
Most definitely picture book.

What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?
Keira Knightley would make a fabulous Elizabeth Blackwell, who was also British—although she is too tall in real life. But Knightley captures the spark and fire of Elizabeth well. Blackwell was a petite blonde, studious and serious, but a real risk-taker.

Who is publishing your book?
Christy Ottaviano Books/Henry Holt and Company (Macmillan Kids Books)

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?
I never know how to answer this question! With picture books, especially, I tend to write a draft and stick it in a drawer for quite a long time, then pull it back out and work on it again, and repeat. A few years inevitably pass in this way.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?
Elizabeth Blackwell inspired me to write this book! There are older books about her, but it was time to get younger kids excited and let them know who this trailblazer was.

What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?
I love Blackwell’s fire. The details I discovered about her toughness as a kid were a delight to find and kids will, I think, really be able to relate to some of the things she did as a child. Who Says Women Can't Be Doctors? hit bookshelves this past Tuesday, and I couldn't be happier.

For the next Next Big Thing, I am tagging the amazing and talented Deborah Heiligman. Her answers will be up soon.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Why Do Books Publish on Tuesdays?

Why do books get published on Tuesdays? I have a book coming out in June, The Boy Who Loved Math, and yes, it's June 25th, a Tuesday. I looked back to when my novel Intentions pubbed--August 14th, a Tuesday. I didn't always know this; in fact I just found it out this past year.  I wish I could remember who told me. But the other day I was talking to Ziki, the man who sticks needles in me to make my back and leg pain go away. We made an appointment for the next week (tomorrow) and I told him that afterwards I would be going to a book party for my friend Marguerite's new book:

"But it's not a Tuesday," he said. I told him a book party doesn't have to be on the release date--but wait, how did he know that?  He wasn't sure, he just did. He said that albums always had a day to release (he thought Fridays, and maybe it used to be so, but now it seems CDs and DVDs of movies release on Tuesdays, too).

I asked a few people, and no one seemed to know. I posted my question on twitter and got these answers:

Tradition based on coverage in Sunday papers and getting books on shelves is my understanding.

I asked: 
Are they reviewed the Sunday before or after. 

The answer: 

Before. So that booksellers get to spend Monday explaining why people can't buy the books they just heard about.


Other people chimed in with links:

And other answers: 

I've heard shipment was a factor--UPS boxes come Monday, scan & put out CDs, etc., Tue.

Probably a less busy day for most stores too. But no one seems to know for sure.

I'm 99.9% sure books are Tues b/c of Music release on Tues. So ? would be why music on Tues.

This might answer that question: 

I read all of those (you don't have to) and it still seems to me that no one knows for sure... I asked some friends who are publishers and editors: nope. They didn't know.

And so I started thinking two things:

1. In the old days, I would have called a reference librarian. My old friend from the Doylestown library (where I used to live) would have found out for me, I know that for sure. So I decided to call the New York Public Library. Oops. I waited too long. It's Presidents' Day. Library closed. But it took me almost a week to remember that I used to talk to reference librarians for this sort of thing. Yes, kids, before the Internet. I used to go to the library, go up to the desk and say, "Jan, how do I find out the answer to this question?" And sometimes Jan would just find out for me, and sometimes she would teach me how to fish. I did this for a long time, even after there was The Internet, until it became more or less part of my right hand.

2.Will this change? Whatever is the cause, will Tuesdays as pub dates change if there are more ebooks and fewer bricks and mortar bookstores? Then will people release books willy nilly? Do people who self-publish books follow the Tuesday rule?

I'm really hoping that someone will post here and tell me... Why do books publish on Tuesday? I've just spent so much time on this... as so often happens when one (me) gets stuck on a research treadmill. I just want to know the answer!

Uh oh. Wait a minute. I just looked up Marguerite's book and it officially published YESTERDAY. Which was Monday. According to Amazon. And B & N. Her publisher just says February. Okay, now I'm really confused.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Presidents Day

     So, today's the 497th anniversary of the birth of England's Queen Mary, Elizabeth Tudor's miserable, "bloody" half-sister and golly, what a sad and dreadful, star-crossed bunch there's was. How sane and lucky many another family is by comparison, no?  It was on this day in history that physicist Alessandro "Mr. Battery" Volta was born, in 1745, a good 103 years before Louis Comfort Tiffany came into the world.  February 18 marks the deathdays, too, of lovely painter  Fra Angelico  and revolutionary Martin Luther, who exited the world through the celestial door marked 18 Feb, in 1455 and 1546, respectively.  Just for you to know. A pair of the best character actors ever to glower down from the silver screen, Edward Arnold and Adolphe Menjou, were both born on the 18th of February, 1890, two years before that glad-hander Wendell Wilkie was born, only to be well and truly thrashed by FDR in the 1940 election.. 

And speaking of Franklin D., it appears to be Presidents' Day, splitting the difference as we do between the commemorations of the great No. 1 and No. 16.  In the stores, the tired Valentine candies are discounted. Soon there'll be green shamrocks, pastel eggs and bunnies. Here's a slim window in the culture's cavalcade; today there will be a pause in the beleaguered postal service. There will be silly Abes and Georges in advertisements for furniture, cars, and appliances. Behind and beyond it all were the steadfast pioneer of untrodden ground, of revolution and dare I say it: nation-building.  And the grievous, complex stalwart who held it all together for a little while longer. I cannot help but think of all of the other gents who've held the office, each of whom represents a chapter in our ongoing, bumptious experiment in self-governance.  And anyway, so the world turns and the calendar continues,  And every day of it is a chance to remember those who've gone before. So let there be books, all of our books in which the stories of those vanished lives are shown and told, pictured and explained, again and again for our young readers, for our ever-renewing citizenry. Long live the republic.

Thursday, February 14, 2013


As I write this on Tuesday afternoon, it’s just a few hours before President Obama’s State of the Union Address—yet the internet is already buzzing with discussion.

I’m not a tweeter myself, but on occasion I mosey over to twitter and take a peek at what others are tweeting about. And #SOTU is hopping.

Lots of folks are chiming in about how excited they are to hear the speech. Lots of other folks are passing snarky judgment on what Obama may say. Many organizations are expressing their hope that he tackles an issue dear to their hearts. (I have my fingers crossed—as do the folks at the Union of Concerned Scientists—that “bold action” on climate change is on the agenda.) 

The mood is anticipatory. My favorite tweet so far comes from Dr. Jill Biden: “Joe is practicing keeping a straight face for the #SOTU. He is allowed to roll his eyes at John Boehner, though.”

It will be interesting to look back at the end of my career (hopefully several decades in the future) and see how today’s kids—who have grown up in the age of social media—view knowledge and scholarship. (There are, of course, already lively discussions about the effect of the digital revolution on the writing of history. Take a look at this site to see some of the issues raised.)

Social media—especially blogs and tweets—are changing the way we view current events.  We all have opinions, and social media is giving us an easy way to express them.

I hope this leads to a more engaged citizenry. (I’m not sure it will. Perhaps if you’ve tweeted your displeasure about a situation in the news, you’ll then feel like you’ve done your bit and won’t have to actually DO anything to help fix it.)

Will history feel more relevant to tomorrow’s adults, if they were more actively engaged in current events as kids? I don’t know.

I do know that tweets and blogs will give tomorrow’s historians a heck of a lot more information to work with—more eyewitness accounts; more access to how everyday people were feeling ‘back then.’

For now, it’s interesting to be swept up along for the ride. Whetting my anticipation (along with the opportunity to see if Joe Biden behaves) is this terrific video, created by the White House, about how the 2012 State of the Union Address was created. While it discusses last year’s speech, it doesn’t really matter as it’s a video about process and craft—the speechwriters discussing how they work with President Obama to write and revise an important speech.

It’s perfect to share with students—and you’ll find it, of course, on YouTube.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

On Challenging Words

Spectrometer, assembly, operations, basalt, meteorite, satellite, communicate, atmosphere, hematite, mineral, jarosite, sulfate, surveyor, orbiter, reconnaissance, thermal, emission, aeronautics, navigation, panoramic, phyllosilicates, abrasion, silica…

Are these words that you think will pull kids into a book and get them excited about science or space exploration?  I think not. But they are words that were absolutely essential to telling the story of the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity.  I think one of the biggest challenges in writing nonfiction for children, especially science, is how to introduce very sophisticated, sometimes technical, words to young readers without intimidating or losing them.

With the Common Core’s emphasis on integration of knowledge and increasing text complexity, I thought it might be interesting to explore some techniques that I use to handle challenging words.

Start slowly: I deliberately try to avoid throwing a lot tough word in the beginning of my books. Instead I try to grab readers so that they won’t give up when they hit something challenging. So The Mighty Mars Rovers opens with a page about life on Mars (Martians…that’s a word kids know and love). Chapter one introduces scientist Steve Squyres as a boy who gets a telescope for Christmas and later watches the Apollo landing. I don’t really start hitting readers with the tough stuff until I describe the making of the Mars rovers in chapter two, starting on page 16.

Space it out: If possible, I try to spread out the most difficult words, so kids aren’t reading a bunch of technical terms all at once.

Follow with short definitions: When I introduce a tough word, I try to follow it with a quick definition, something as short as possible. (I describe a Microscopic Imager as a cross between a camera and a microscope.)

Define and define again: For a really challenging word, especially one that is central to understanding the story, I will define the term not just on the first mention but the next several times as well. Sometimes I use the same definition; sometimes I offer different ways for kids think about the word.

Use visuals: If I can show a reader what a word means with a photo or graphic, I do. There is no better way for kids to absorb the importance of silica on Mars than showing a photo of silica uncovered by a dragging rover wheel with a caption that explains its significance.

A spoonful of sugar: If there is a funny or clever way to define something, I do. Take one of the tools on the rovers. I wrote:  “The RAT was not a furry gray creature, but a rock abrasion tool, a drill to bore holes into soil and rock.” When I talk about land deformation in my volcano books, I describe how magma swelling underground is like a mole pushing up a lawn. (These examples makes me wonder why furry mammals keep ending up in my hard-science books.)

I often include a glossary. I know glossaries are important. But my hunch is that a glossary is not the way most kids learn the difficult words in a book.

What do I think is really the key to helping kids handle sophisticated vocabulary? Amazing, gripping, can’t-put-it-down books that don’t dumb down the language. I really believe that kids who are captivated by a story will not let a five-syllable word stand in their way. And as they are swept away by a fascinating true story, they will absorb some rich, challenging vocabulary as they go.

I hope I’m right because my next Scientist in the Field book, which comes out later this year (Eruption: Volcanoes and the Science of Saving Lives,) includes these doozies:  Dormant, tectonic, lahar, pumice, pyroclastic flow, seismograph, spectrometer (again, can you believe it?)…

How to best handle challenging words will be an issue I face in other books I’m working on, so I want to toss out a few questions:

For the writers out there: How do you handle challenging vocabulary in your books? I would love to learn more ideas and techniques….

For teachers and other readers: What do you think writers of nonfiction can do to help readers master tough words? What works? What doesn’t?

I’d love to hear from you!

Elizabeth Rusch

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Man

I was eight years old, it was 11:30 at night, and I was in bed spinning the radio dial trying to find a talk show.  Radio talk shows were always lively and fun, extended bits of lighthearted talk with some music tossed in here and there, accompanied by the happy background clink of cocktail glasses.  But instead of clever chatter I found a baseball game.
This caught my attention.  It was late and the local teams (the Yankees, Giants, and Dodgers) had all finished their games.  This radio broadcast must be coming from someplace way out west, I thought.  Like Pittsburg.  Or maybe even Chicago.
The first thing I remember the announcer saying was: "...he's digging into the left side of the plate and settles into his familiar corkscrew batting stance...."
A corkscrew batting stance?  Odd.  I knew about strange batting stances, by the way.  My friend, Bobby, from across the street, would choke up on the bat, then hunch over and lay the fat end of his bat on the dirt behind him in the batter's box.  He wouldn't lift up the bat until the ball was sailing toward him.  His way of hitting made me nervous, but, miraculously, he always seemed to make contact.
But this corkscrew stance?  In professional baseball?
As I tried to picture this weird stance in my head, my father poked his head in my room and asked what I was listening to, so I told him about this batter's (I hadn't heard his name announced) weird stance.  "That's probably Stan Musial," he said.  "He's with the Cardinals and he's a very good baseball player."  He was about to head downstairs to read his newspaper, when he turned to say something else.  Now, it's important to know that my Dad was a diehard Yankee fan who could rattle off the names and stats of every Yankee great.  Every so often he might drop in a nice mention of a Giant (Willie Mays, especially) or of a couple of Dodgers.  But for him the Yankees were where baseball royalty ruled supreme.  So it got my attention when he added, "Musial is one of the greatest players in baseball history.  He's so good a hitter that he's known as 'The Man.'  Stan 'The Man' Musial."
As my Dad went downstairs there was a distant cheer from my little plastic radio as Stan Musial rapped a pitch into right field for a double that scored a run.  A perfectly timed moment in my life.
The next morning at breakfast I told my parents about the game and how this guy Stan Musial seemed to have won it single-handedly, with two hits and several great fielding plays.  I said I wanted to know more about him.
Getting more information wasn't easy way back then.  No internet connection to Amazon or Barnes & Noble; no finger tip computer buying of used books or magazines or whatever.  But by the end of the day my Mom had managed to find a book about Musial (at the library) and my Dad came home with a magazine that had an article about him.  Both with photographs that included his famous corkscrew batting stance.  And his smile.  He seemed like a thoroughly nice guy from what I read and the photos I studied.  I was completely mesmerized by Musial, a non-Yankee and on top of that a National league player for the St. Louis Cardinals.
St. Louis?  I looked up where St. Louis was.  Then I read about the Cardinals, their history and who else was on the team with Musial.  I even bagan to appreciate cardinals (the birds) and found some glorious colored pictures of them.  In the weeks to follow my parents found other books and articles about Musial, all of which I gobbled up.  Then I started reading about other great players of the time (Ted Williams and Willie Mays, for example) and even read the official major league baseball rule book.  Don't ask me why because I don't remember wanting to read it, just that when it appeared on the kitchen table I grabbed it and read it cover to cover.  I was probably the only eight-year-old who could get into a screaming argument over a disputed sandlot baseball play and cite and explain rules between cusses, comments on the other kids vision problems, and other insults.
Stan Musial's recent death had me thinking about this unusual (for me at the time) quest for information that clearly boardered on the obsessive.  From Musial, to his baseball team and teammates, to a city and then on to other players and hundreds and hundreds of arcane rules.  And birds!  It was like a weed growing and expanding and taking up more and more terrain (in my mind, at least).       
This began as a desire to know more about one of baseball's greatest ever players.  But then I found myself hooked by the gathering of details and the way it shaped and informed my understanding of Musial and baseball.  The more I learned the better I felt I knew Stan Musial.
The funny thing is that I now do research for my projects in much the same way.  I begin with a topic that interests me and then start reading about it.  I constantly ask myself if any readers -- kids who probably don't know much about whatever the subject is -- will be interested enough to pick up and read the book.  The research monster grows and grows, taking up months and years of time, and often wandering off into lands that don't have much to do with the focus of the project.  If I get bored with the project, I assume my readers will, too, and I give it up (something that, sigh, has happened all too frequently).  But in most cases I press on with the research until I can 'see' the time and people and situations in my mind and, hopefully, will be able to transcribe these images onto the page so that readers can experience history as if they were actually there.  And maybe be curious enough to carry on their own search for more information.
Stan Musial was 'The Man' who led me down this research path.  When I heard that he had died I took a baseball from a dusty office shelf and put it on my desk.  It was signed by Stan Musial in a steady, sure hand with "H of F 69" proudly written underneath  It's the only autographed ball I have.  I never met Stan Musial in person, but for some reason I feel as if I knew him very well. 

Monday, February 11, 2013

Common Ground, Common Core

In 2004, my book Skyscraper was published.  In 2010, it went out of print. I wrote a post about it, Skyscraper RIP, a eulogy for a book that was well received, but really because I loved the experience of researching and writing it.

Lazarus, you aren't the only one.  I'm happy to say that Skyscraper is alive once more, in some classrooms at least. The story of its resurrection, however, is also the story of how some publishers and school systems will be handling Common Core.

Scholastic has published a series called Math Reads. Marilyn Burns, whose resume in teaching and designing math curricula seems impressive, headed a team of other teachers to create it.  Here is a description of their product:

Math Reads is the NEW math and literature program from Marilyn Burns. Designed to support the Common Core State Standards for K–5, each grade-level collection of books brings math alive and serves as a springboard for math instruction.
Each grade-level Math Reads program includes:
  • 25 children’s literature titles (5 copies of each)
  • Lessons written by Marilyn Burns and Math Solutions authors
  • eBooks of select titles for interactive whiteboards
  • Math Solutions’ Math and Literature professional development book

If you look at the curriculum for Math Reads' 5th grade, you'll see Skyscraper has been included and is in some very good company, including Hottest, Coldest, Highest, Deepest by my I.N.K. colleague Steve Jenkins, Pennies for Elephants by a friend Lita Judge, Wilma Unlimited by the always good Kathleen Krull, and Mordicai Gerstein's The Man Who Walked Between the Towers, an extraordinary book I've blogged about before.

So this Math Reads series contains good fiction and nonfiction books (although only 5 copies of each per classroom), additional titles in eBook format, and lesson plans to use all these books to satisfy Common Core. Hopefully, teachers and students will be exposed to good literature they might not have ever seen.  Hopefully it will spur a greater interest in reading as well as a better understanding of math.  It will help overworked teachers adapt to the demands of Common Core quickly and, again hopefully, once they get their bearings, they will feel confident to use their own ideas and own favorite books to enrich their teaching. These are possible positive outcomes of this series--along with good profits for Scholastic.

It also seems to be a model we will see more and more as publishing and education fulfill both the needs and opportunities that Common Core has created in terms of nonfiction in the classroom.  I'm not advocating for this model, I mentioned it to start a discussion of what other models and reactions we'll see.  What we think about them.  What we realistically hope to see.  What we think are practical and will work.  

What do you all think?  I'm particularly interested in what all the teachers, librarians and other educators who read our blog have to say about the matter.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Taking Note of Note-Taking

     Ever notice people who scribble constantly while attending a talk?  I do because I don’t take notes well.  In fact, I hardly take notes at all.  I find note-taking gets in the way of attentive listening.  I’m afraid I’ll miss something if I divert my attention to writing something down.   Note-taking is a different activity than actively listening.  So when I interview an expert to learn about his/her field for a project I’m working on, I bring along a tape recorder.  The only notes I take are about specifics—the spelling of a name, or a particular recommended reading, or a website I should visit.  Later, when I am synthesizing material in my own writing, I can always double check my memory about what I heard with the tape recorder.  I have come to understand that my memory is quite good. And, as a result, I’ve come to rely on it.  If I’m worried about forgetting some of the details after listening all day, I write my notes in the evening.

     It seems that Socrates also noticed this.  He worried about the technology of his day, the stylus, which allowed people to write in clay.  He was afraid that “[Writing] destroys memory [and] weakens the mind, relieving it of…work that makes it strong. [It] is an inhuman thing.” In other words, if you could easily make notes (now carved in clay), you no longer had to remember what you wrote down and so you could now forget it.  Listening and writing are two different and, perhaps, competing verbal activities. Modern research into multitasking indicates that we really don’t do two or more things at once, but simply shift attention back and forth from different tasks. But in college, we were all encouraged to take notes, not only from lectures but from our readings as well.

     For my first term paper when I was in college, I learned from a graduate student that 3”x 5” note cards about the research were the order of the day and I diligently wrote them.  But, today, when I’m reading to learn, I find it disruptive to write notes.  That’s why I found Deb Heiligman’s post A Modest Proposal (for Doing Research  with Kids) from three years ago so memorable.  When I’m trying to grasp concepts the best way for me to learn is to read several different sources on the same subject. It is only when you can articulate a concept in your own words that you truly “own” it. So I also use Deb’s technique of only making a note when something jumps out at me and I know that I’ll want to revisit it. 

     But doesn’t the act of writing also strengthen memory?  The many times I forget to bring along the grocery list I had recently created makes no difference at all in collecting every item on that list into my shopping basket.  We authors are verbally articulate about the material in our books because we’ve thought about it and written about it and, as a result, remember it better.  The many pundits who speak so well on news talk shows are all excellent writers.  Good speaking comes from having written and practicing by engaging in substantive conversations.
     The Common Core State Standards  “…..require that students systematically acquire knowledge in literature and other disciplines through reading, writing, speaking, and listening.”  To become an articulate, educated person requires interaction of all four of these activities, which I’ve bold-faced in this post. I’m not sure where note-taking fits into this process.  I have a hunch that it’s one of those highly individualized quirks that everyone has to discover independently. In other words, we each have to figure out what works best in our personal acquisition of knowledge.  This could be a sub-text of the CCSS. Although becoming educated involves all four activities, how you make it work for yourself can be discovered only empirically.  There is no one right way, one size fits all.  It is this process of self-discovery that needs to be communicated to teachers and students. 

Tuesday, February 5, 2013


I write a lot of books about history because history’s cup runneth over with the best stories of all time.  So with an ocean of great tales to choose from, picking something fabulous and delicious and unusual should be as easy as pie, right?  Well, guess what.  It ain’t.  Why not?  Some Restrictions Apply.

Restriction # 1:

Since publishers want to make a buck, they strongly encourage children’s nonfiction authors to write about famous heroes and events from American history, especially when these topics are covered in the school curriculum.  That’s because the vast majority of nonfiction books for kids are sold to schools. The heroes and events in history books have already been covered a gazillion times, but (in my experience, at least) whenever we authors suggest new topics that are off the beaten path, our publishers Just Say No and we have to file for unemployment.

Possible solution that keeps us in business and (we hope) keeps us from selling our souls at the same time: 

Uncover something entirely new about the same old same old.  Do we have to focus only upon heroes and heroines?  Who says that all stories from history have to be uplifting?  They are not.  So sometimes I cover a period in history by sidetracking the good guys and writing about the bad guys instead.  (Surprise—kids actually love that.)  Sometimes I focus on just one small part of a famous person’s story, especially if it has been overlookedSometimes--lots of times, actually--I use humor.  Sometimes I tell both sides of a story. And sometimes I tell the entire story via my artwork or use the art to set a mood in ways that words alone can never do.

Restriction # 2:  


In nonfiction, you can never EVER embellish the truth or make anything up, so every single detail in every single book has to be accurate and every single word your protagonists utter has to come straight from the horse’s mouth.  Them’s the rules, period.  The problem is that this is a hard row to hoe. It can take months or even years to ferret out the accurate material. 

Possible Solution that speeds up all that research and helps us retain our sanity:

Guess what.  There is no solution.  I have written books of fiction in two weeks or less, and they have sold as many or more copies than my nonfiction books.  You just have to love being the detective who ferrets out the juicy details nobody else has found.  You just have to get a kick out of traveling around the world to find new material.  You just have to be the spy who gets a kick out of reading dead people’s private letters and diaries. You just have to be a glutton for punishment.  I highly recommend it.