Friday, November 29, 2013

Fresh Angles Create Interest

One of the big advantages of using nonfiction trade books in the classroom is the variety of approaches we authors use for our topics.  We don't just write the usual straight and often boring chronology of events the way a textbook does.  We choose a fresh angle on a familiar topic, which allows us to integrate the basic information into a new framework that can inspire a child's curiosity or lead her into an important fundamental topic through a different door, one that she wants to open because of her own interests.

Vicki Cobb's book, "Science Experiments You Can Eat," teaches children fundamental principles of physical science through something everyone is interested in, their food.  This book has been so popular that it has remained in print since its first publication in 1972.  Readers discover that science doesn't need to be serious or daunting--it can be lots of fun, and the book encourages them to pursue the subject matter even further.  Vicki is hoping to expand and revise the book within the next year.  With this book, readers can have lots of fun as they learn about important principles that they won't easily forget.

Elizabeth Rusch's book, "For the Love of Music," informs children about life in Europe during the last half of the 18th century and about classical music through the story of Mozart's older sister, Maria Anna, who was also a child prodigy.  She had to live in Wolfgang's shadow once she was of marriageable age.  She did her best to stay in touch with music even after marrying and taking care of stepchildren as well as her own children.  Girls today who struggle with traditional family expectations will identify with Maria Anna and enjoy reading about her life and times. learning about music in the process.

Rosalyn Schanzer's wonderful book, "George vs.George," presents the historical facts behind the American Revolution through the personalities of George Washington and King George III, which gives readers the historical context of this pivotal event in our history.  They learn the British point of view as well as the American one, which helps anchor the revolution in its times and deepens understanding of what life was life back then.

Because I'm a zoologist by training and interest, my history-related books often present a topic through an animal-related theme.  For example, my two books exploring western Native American Indian culture and how it intertwined with the Westward Expansion Movement both use iconic animals for their focus--"The Buffalo and the Indians: A Shared Destiny" and "The Horse and the Plains Indians: A Powerful Partnership."  The curiosity of a reader interested in wildlife could be stimulated by the buffalo book while a horse lover would pick up the horse book instead.  Both would learn a great deal about Native Americans and the Westward Expansion Movement as they learned more about the animals they love.

These are just a few examples of nonfiction trade books teachers can pull off the shelves of their school libraries to engage their students with learning by way of books that take a fresh look at subjects that can seem boring when approached by way of textbooks' dry and uninspiring approaches.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Eureka! Awards for Nonfiction: How They Came to Be

But first, I can’t resist…..

Plus ça change…..

A few weeks ago a buzz went around about a book from a major publishing house that neglected to include Israel in a map of the Middle East.  The buzz increased when it was reported that a “bored out her mind” intern proofreader was probably responsible.  Well, the buzz reached England where the Guardian newspaper coolly put it all in perspective:

“Pity the poor publisher of the "Wicked Bible" which, in 1631 contained the most famous proofing error of all: "Thou shalt commit adultery." 
On its first appearance, the errant publishers were fined £300 and had their printer's licence revoked. King Charles I was furious, and George Abbot, the Archbishop of Canterbury, thundered:
"I knew the tyme when great care was had about printing, the Bibles especially, good compositors and the best correctors were gotten being grave and learned men, the paper and the letter rare, and faire every way of the beste, but now the paper is nought, the composers boyes, and the correctors unlearned."
How tymes change.”


Now back to our regular program.

Dr. Helen Foster James has recently changed hats.  She used to be Coordinator of LibraryMedia Services for the San Diego County Office of Education and a supervisor of student teachers for San Diego State University, until her recent retirement. Now she is a fulltime children’s author.  She is also the creator of the Eureka! Awards for Nonfiction, given each year by the California Reading Association

I like all things about the Eureka! Awards, not the least of which is that one of them hangs in my office.
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.

Here is all this came to be.


Dr. Helen Foster James: 

As a former supervisor of student teachers and coordinator of library media services, I noticed teachers always seemed to direct students to the fiction shelves of the library. In fact, sometimes they insisted students check out only fiction books. I even noticed some teachers wouldn’t allow their students to wander through and browse the nonfiction shelves. Some teachers only allowed fiction to be read for book reports. Other teachers only read fiction during read aloud time. Our state children’s book award, the California Young Reader Medal, is for fiction, not nonfiction.

All of these observations made me wonder.

I’m a big-time, nonfiction lover and have always been. This focus on fiction to the exclusion of nonfiction concerned me. Surely there were students, just like myself, who would love to read nonfiction and they weren’t having the opportunity.

I have very vivid memories of reading a biography of Molly Pitcher when I was in third grade. This book set me off in the direction of reading many biographies. Truth is awesome! Real lives are amazing!

I decided it was time to help both teachers and students find the nonfiction shelves of their school and public libraries.

I thought creating an award for nonfiction books would help shine a spotlight on nonfiction books. As a long time member of the California Reading Association, I reasoned that CRA would be the appropriate vehicle for sponsoring the award. I developed a plan for a nonfiction award program and took it to CRA’s board of directors. My plan was immediately and completely embraced! I was so thrilled. CRA rocks!

The Eureka! award for nonfiction is open to all books that are not “fiction.” That is, all the books shelved on the nonfiction shelves of a library which include expository text, biography, memoir, poetry, folk tales, reference books, joke books, cook books, and more. There is a stunning array of fabulous finds waiting for readers on those nonfiction shelves.

It’s my hope the Eureka! award helps teachers get a variety of genres into the hands of their students. I hope it also helps students realize there is a fabulous variety of books waiting on the shelves of their school and public libraries. Additionally, I love that the Eureka! program gives nonfiction authors and illustrators a chance to showcase and celebrate their books which are so frequently overlooked or ignored in other award programs.

The Eureka! award program has just completed its fourth year. Each year a different committee works to identify a list of fabulous books and each year the list has been fabulous. The list is presented at the California Reading Association’s annual conference and posted on the California Reading Association’s website.

It’s my pleasure to be a part of a program that focuses on the joy of nonfiction books.

Gretchen: Next month I’ll review some of the 2013 Eureka! Award books.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

On Boys, Rainbow Looms, and Non Fiction

If you know any kids in the K-5 set, you've probably seen them making and wearing bracelets and necklaces made out of small colored rubber bands.  Like this: 

 You might notice those are two boys in the first picture. Boy participation has made this phenomenon of the moment get an extra share of attention. Articles are being written about how this craze has single handedly caused boys to do what they have never wanted to do before: arts and crafts.

Nonsense. Boys like to do crafts. They always have. And there is something that inspires them to do so more than anything, even more than brightly colored little rubber bands. And that something is interesting non fiction books for kids. 

A few months ago when I started working with five year old boys, I worried I wouldn't know how to relate to their needs and interests. But then I learned that crafting and creativity was just as palpable to them if presented in the right way.  So “arts and crafts” and “making something nice” was no longer spoken. Now we were doing “projects” and “constructing things”, “making replicas”, "figuring out how things go together." Now we were cooking with gas.

Here are a few examples of how I used nonfiction books to inspire boys to happily become serious crafters.

We read a couple of different books on jellyfish (Jellies. The Life of Jellyfish by Twig C. George, Jellyfish by Rebecca Stefoff). The books they were drawn to had detailed photographs. Luckily one of the photos was of the dangerous Australian box jellyfish, known to have killed numerous people. Intrigue, poison, possible death: perfect. So when I gave them their paper plates, paints, and streamers they spent 45 minutes trying to recreate the most accurate version of the deadly jellyfish imaginable.

Ken Robbins books have the kind of photographs that these five year old realists truly appreciate. We used his book on leaves (Autumn Leaves by Ken Robbins) to try to identify some leaves we had collected on a nature walk. Then we made, constructed, and assembled some of our own trees with branches and leaves that we could now recognize by name and shape.

Look! Look! Look! At Sculpture by Nancy Elizabeth Wallace. We talked about sculpture and looked at the many different examples this interesting book offers. Then I gave them some recycled materials and some model magic and let them make their own sculpture. Bones can be sculpture? That’s great, I never would have thought of that. But never underestimate a five year old with a good book and a project idea.

Monday, November 25, 2013

A Book is More Than Pictures and Words — Even When It Rots

 ‘Tis the season, the rotting season. As far as pumpkins are concerned.

My new book, Rotten Pumpkin, was billed as a Halloween book, but really it’s a post-Halloween book, a paean to decomposition, pumpkin-style. With gloriously disgusting photos by Dwight Kuhn, it documents the demise of the pumpkin after its glory night on October 31st. Each of the characters in the drama  — the pumpkin itself, the slugs that scrape away at its skin, the flies that help dissolve pumpkin flesh, molds that take hold and never let go (including that celebrity mold, Penicillium), and many more — all tell their stories from their own voices and point of view: “My vomit dissolves pumpkin nutrients so I can lap them up,” declares the fly. “A delicious, nutritious morning smoothie!”

So that’s an overview of the book, but to me a book is more than its words and the pictures. Holisitically, it includes the effect a book has on its readers. In a hyperlinked world, I wish I could include an appendix that expands in real time to include the questions, observations, experiments and projects that the book has generated. Regrettably, there is no way I can ever know but a fraction of them. Yet knowing that a book has a life beyond its own pages is one of the joys of the authoring life. It says to me, “This was worth doing!”

And so, last week my heart soared to  heights of decompositional joy as I entered the multi-purpose room at Summit School of Ahwatuckee in Phoenix. Waiting for me on the stage: big jars. It was a little difficult to see through the clear plastic containers clouded with moisture, but I knew the contents immediately: the remains of rotting pumpkins! Classes at this school had done more than read my book. They had taken it to heart (and they had managed to stomach it). They’d read the suggested investigations at the back of the book and on the Creston Books website: and (In addition to the science experiments, there’s a reader’s theater script on the site - And they had rotted some pumpkins. Yum! Classroom discussions had focused on the concept of experimental variables  — changing one factor but not others so that any differences in effect can be attributed to the changed condition (variable). Hence, at Summit School, one container was marked “Water” and its companion “No Water.” I noted with interest that the mold growth in the container with added water was hardly distinguishable from that in the one without. I don’t know if the class had speculated on why this might be, considering that molds require moisture. (I would guess that in a closed container, the pumpkin’s own moisture is sufficient.)

And their rotting romp extended beyond pumpkins. In the school library, I saw a jar containing an entire lunch covered thickly in greenish gray fuzz. Somewhere in there is what’s left of PB&J, Cheetos and grapes. I hope they keep it there to see what becomes of it.d

British author C.S. Lewis, who died 50 years ago on the same day that President Kennedy was assassinated, once said, “You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me.” I don’t know about the tea, but one way to extend the length, or at least the reach, of a book is to use it as a jumping off point for observations, speculations and experiments  — even if they rot.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Engineering and STEM fields are for girls

For those who haven’t seen the latest video to go viral, here it is:
The media has gone wild over this fun and empowering video. The New York Times, The Huffington Post, The Ellen Show, and many others have been sharing the "Engineering is for Girls" message. I had planned another topic for today’s blog post, but shelved it for another day. After watching all the new hype, I felt a calling to jump on the band wagon and make yet another shout out for GoldieBlox by Debbie Sterling, as well as talk about girls in STEM fields. As some of you may know, my other role is as a toy inventor, having created award-winning toys for a major toy company in the girls and preschool departments. Play and toys are dear to my heart.

When I wrote my initial proposal for Women of Steel and Stone, one of my selling points was Architect Barbie and Computer Engineer Barbie need role models. I wrote,
"In 2011, Mattel announced the new Barbie for the “I Can Be…’ line--the Architect Barbie, dubbing it the “Career of the Year.” In 2010 half a million Barbie fans picked Computer Engineer as the new profession for Barbie. Female architects and engineers rejoiced to finally be getting the attention they deserve, but the role models for these young girls have been hidden from the public eye. Men dominate many lists of top architects and designers; one popular list has one female out of 100. Girls need to read about their role models in the architecture and engineering fields—their last role model was Mike Brady, the Brady Bunch dad! Girls see other professions on television or in life, i.e. doctors, teachers, lawyers, law enforcement, but they have no knowledge of what an engineer or architect does. There are over 900 million Barbies sold each year, 10% increase in sales last year. All these girls who have played with their architect or computer engineer Barbie will be looking for books to read about the architecture or engineering fields."

Here’s part of the Women Engineers Introduction in Women of Steel and Stone.
     "Before engineering was recognized as a formal profession, women with engineering skills turned to inventing. One of the earliest women inventors was Hypatia of Alexandria. In the early 15th century, Hypatia invented the hydrometer, an instrument used to measure the specific gravity of liquids, as well as several other scientific instruments. Englishwoman Sarah Guppy patented a design for safer suspension bridge foundations in 1811 and had 10 other patents. 
     In 1813, Tabitha Babbit, a Shaker woman from Massachusetts, invented the first circular saw after watching her brothers wasting energy with a two-man saw. She invented other items but her strong religious faith did not allow for her to apply for patents. The word “engineering” was first used in the 15th century as a military term to describe the creation of devices for war, such as launching projectiles. During the Renaissance, engineering took on a more civilian role and involved the construction of Italian canals, and roads and bridges in France; hence the creation of the civil engineer. Engineering began to be taught in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. In 1747, The École National des Ponts et Chaussées (National School of Bridges and Roads) in France was created to teach military and civil engineering, which was modeled after the curriculum at the US West Point Military Academy created in 1802. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) introduced civil engineering in 1824. 
    In 1876, Elizabeth Bragg graduated from the University of California with a degree in civil engineering and became the first woman engineering graduate. In 1893, Bertha Lamme became the second woman engineering graduate with her degree in mechanical engineering from Ohio State University. As with architecture, engineers started societies to professionalize their practice. In 1880, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) was founded. Nora Stanton Blatch Barney was the first woman to become a junior member of the American Society of Civil Engineers in 1906, but it wasn’t until 1927 that Elsie Eaves became the first woman to achieve full membership rank. A rise in the number of women in engineering didn’t occur until World War II, when men went off to war and industries needed professionals to engineer planes, ships, and supplies for the war effort. Like Rosie the Riveter in the machine shops, women engineers were needed on the drafting tables." 

Debbie Sterling is quoted by Claire Cain Miller in the end of the November 20, 2013 The New York Times blog post, “It’s O.K. to be a princess,” she said, “We just think girls can build their own castles too.” 
That is so true-
Who built castles? – Julia Morgan
Who built bridges? – Emily Roebling
Who is building skyscrapers? – Aine Brazil

Let’s hear it for ALL our future builders!

Note: Debbie Sterling will be at the Women In Toys Breakfast at the Chicago Toy and Game Fair this weekend, so we will finally have a chance to meet. I’ll also be signing City Doodles – Chicago. I included several pages in the book about toys designed and developed in Chicago. Chicago is the Toy and Game Inventing Capital of the World.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

A More Bearable Appendix B

Yes, I know we covered the Common Core standards in October, but here's some interesting news -- a children's literature advocates who are making a big difference. 

(left to right) Jane Gangi, Alexandria Hercules, Anthony Hazzard, Nancy Benfer, Lauren Feliciano, Jane Tejeda, Justin Lewis (missing: Peter Gangi, Gabrielle Gallinaro, Taylor Law) 

Imagine that you found fault with the Common Core standards, spoke up about it, were contacted by the authors, and convinced them to make a change. 
This is what happened to Jane Gangi, Ph.D. an associate education and literacy professor at Mount Saint Mary College in Newburgh, New York. (A little more about her here.) Like most authors, Gangi has developed a succinct “elevator pitch” for her work: “The Unbearable Whiteness of Literacy Instruction” is her summation of the battle she’s fighting to increase the number of books providing “mirrors” and “windows” in elementary school classrooms.  Gangi is the author of three books for education professionals about the best use of trade books in building literacy.  
Her emphasis is on providing children’s books of excellent quality that present a range of viewpoints -- multiple cultures, backgrounds, and abilities. Jane found such books to be poorly represented in Appendix B, the list of books recommended for classroom use in the Common Core standards. “Their text exemplars were primarily white,” she says. 
Although Jane was public with her criticism, commenting on the Common Core website, writing letters, and speaking, it wasn’t until Emily Chiarello of Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center,  heard her speak that things began to turn.  Chiarello connected Gangi with the Student Achievement Partnership, which is carrying out the Common Core. In late 2012, emissaries arrived at Mount Saint. Mary to visit Gangi. 
She greeted them with a conference room full of hundreds of books that offer, in her view, “mirror” and “window” opportunities for children -- mirrors, so that they see themselves in books, and windows, to provide a look into the lives of others. 
The SAP asked Gangi to propose an alternative to their Appendix B.  Her job was to get recommendations of books from literacy professionals -- teachers and librarians -- and to annotate and excerpt them.  This past March, Jane put together a rainbow team of ten alumni and graduate students to assess the recommended books, and soon added two undergraduates who begged to join. Together, the team assembled a revised Appendix B that comprises nonfiction, fiction, and poetry, and represents varied ethnicities, faiths, and abilities.  
Gangi’s team’s Appendix B selections are now being analyzed for level at Stanford University. Subject to that final nod, they will replace the “unbearably white” initial Appendix B. School districts adopting the Common Core may have already purchased books from that Appendix; my hope is that the books in the Appendix B will find their way to more classrooms, too. 
What follows are comments from team members. Note that their list includes all genres, including fiction and nonfiction. 

Nancy Benfer, a graduate of Mount Saint Mary College, teaches fourth grade at the campus elementary school, Bishop Dunn. 
“I have three students whose families originally came from the Philippines. One of the moms brought in the story Lakas and the Manilatown Fish by Anthony D. Robles, illustrated by Carl Angel.  The three students were so excited they gave me a standing ovation [for buying it for the classroom.] The rest of the class were very excited, too. These mirror text are more powerful than I think any of us can understand. They are personal and individual, while allowing the reader to feel like he or she is not alone.” 

Alexandria Hercules is in her senior year at Mount St. Mary, studying history and psychology, with certifications in childhood and special education. 
“I am Trinidadian-American, and I grew up in a small town with a large Caucasian population. Every day I ironed out my curls and tried my best to fit in with my peers, but I knew that I was different. Hot Hot Roti for Dada-ji, by Farhana Zia, illustrated by Ken Min,  is, in my opinion, one of the best examples of the kind of books that I want children to be reading. The overall themes in the book are things that I hold dear to me. It represents my culture and my roots. I see myself in the little boy Aneel, and my life is just like his.” 

Justin Lewis has a bachelor’s degree in information technology and childhood/special education certification and is working toward his master’s in literacy, birth to age six. 
“Being involved in this project means that I get the chance to speak on something that places importance on minority cultures.  If only 18 books out of the 150 in Appendix B are by authors of color, what kind of message are we sending to students? As a black male, I know there aren’t as many positive role models for black children. Reading books in school about other children with similar experiences shows students that they too are important. It gives students of color the idea that they are also expected to succeed and become doctors, lawyers, artists, or politicians.” 

Jane Tejeda is a senior at Mount Saint Mary working toward dual certification in special education and middle school education. 
“My mother is Dominican and my father was Columbian.  My school had predominantly white students. I could not find anything that represented me. From the portraits of white men and women on the walls to the bookshelves filled with books from white authors telling the stories of white people. To fit in, I only spoke English, and did not participate in any of my cultural festivities as much as usual, because I trying to be accepted by a new culture that I started to believe was better than mind. No child should feel this way.”

More examples from the new Appendix B: 

Crazy Horse’s Vision  by Joseph Bruchac, illustrated by S.D. Nelson

The Last Black King of the Kentucky Derby  by Crystal Hubbard, illustrated by Robert McGuire

I Love Saturdays y domingos  by Alma Flor Ada, Illustrated by Elivia Savadier 

Waiting for the biblioburro  by Monica Brown, illustrated by John Parra 

Honda: The Boy Who Dreamed of Cars  by Mark Weston, illustrated by Katie Yamasaki

The Poet Slave of Cuba by Margarita Engle, illustrated by Sean Qualls

When the Shadbush Blooms by Carla Messenger and Susan Katz, illustrated by David Kanietakeron Fadden

Catching the Moon: The Story of a Young Girl’s Baseball Dream  by Crystal Hubbard, illustrated by Randy DuBurke 

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Getting At The Truth

I've been thinking a lot about truth. I've been thinking (often at 4 a.m.) about how to get at the real truth of a person, or an event. I've been obsessing about it because of my work-in-progress, but the search for truth has been in the news a lot lately, too.

Election season always brings out the question of truth. But these days so do extreme weather events (yes, folks, global warming is real, and yes we will be having more and more of these heartbreaking disasters like the typhoon in the Philippines unless we deal with it!).

And the past few weeks our country has been looking again at John F. Kennedy, and his truths. This Friday is, unbelievably, the 50th anniversary of his assassination. As a country we are still fascinated with the man, and obsessed, some say, with his death. I think the reasons are obvious and reasonable, though one journalist argues that our obsession with him is just our obsession with ourselves--if we are baby boomers. But there are new sources (see below, On the Media), and new insights. And so new books keep coming out, textbooks are revisited, revisions made, appraisals rewritten.

You talk to some people of a certain age and they do not budge from how they felt about J.F.K. the moment they heard the horrible news on November 22, 1963. (See below, me.) You talk to others of that age, or a younger age, and you get an emotionless appraisal of a man who was President for a very short time. For a really good summary of  how we are looking at J.F.K. right now, including some newly-released tapes, listen to this week's "On the Media." That's one of my favorite N.P.R. shows, by the way, because they are always in search of truth and how truth is reported (or not reported).  I highly recommend it.

Those of us who write know that it is darn hard to get at the truth. I mean not only the facts, but the core truth, the deep essence of a person or an event or a subject. Sometimes it takes a lot of creativity to keep it nonfiction. And sometimes, writing it as fiction is the best way to go (see below, Monica Edinger's new book).

First, of course, you have to make sure your facts are correct. This sounds like stating the obvious, but I can't tell you how many experts I know who say that whenever they read a newspaper or magazine article in their field, they scream, "they never get it right!" We who write books have more time to make sure our facts are correct, though mistakes do creep in (oy!) but, thankfully,  are corrected in future printings. (Thanksgiving is on the fourth Thursday of the month, not the last Thursday, because sometimes there are 5 Thursdays in the month,  ahem, Deborah.)

Where was I?

Getting the facts right is just one part of telling the truth.  For one thing, when you write for kids, you have to tell the truth, but sometimes, depending on the age, not the whole truth. But getting at the truth is more complicated and complex than that no matter who your audience is. To get at the truth you have to sift through your own preconceived notions, your own bias, other peoples' bias, untruths perpetuated throughout the years, lack of facts, etc. And at bottom is the challenge of understanding what facts you have well enough to convey the truthful essence of a person or an event.

Over ten years ago, an editor asked me to write a book about John F. Kennedy. I said no. I didn't want to learn more about him. I was only five when he was killed, and I knew that if I wrote a book about him, I'd discover painful truths that would ruin the kindergarten perception I struggled to maintain. The editor, apparently desperate for the book,  and fast (so it would be published at the 40th anniversary) raised the advance she was offering (I didn't mean to be bargaining!), begged a little, made a strong case, and finally I said yes. I am not sorry I did.

Writing High Hopes was a great lesson in how to find the truth--or a truth--about a historical person who was iconic in my childhood.  As far as I know there are no mistakes in that book, although one review criticized it for being too awestruck. I was too awestruck by the man--when I started. If that reviewer only knew how much of my awe was struck down by research! And still, if I wrote that book today, with ten more years of distance from the trauma and ten more years of jaded experience or, er, wisdom, I would probably write a different book. Slightly different. More emphasis on his foibles maybe?  And since it is a different world today, I might have included a reference to his dalliances. Maybe. (I decided the fact that he hid his illnesses was a truth I should tell; the affairs ended up on the cutting room floor, for, I felt then, good reason.) But does that make my take on JFK in High Hopes less true? No, I don't think so. But that does not mean it was the only way to tell the story, or that my book shows the only truths about J.F.K. for 4th, 5th, and 6th graders. Yet ten years later, I am still proud of it, and grateful for the experience of writing it. And I still believe that I captured a true J.F.K.

[A brief pause to tell you two other reason why I'm so glad I wrote this book: In order to get permission to use the lyrics for High Hopes, I had to sing the song on the phone with the widow of the songwriter, Sammy Cahn. I also got a telemarketer who interrupted me while I was crashing out the book on a tight deadline to sing me her rendition of Marilyn Monroe's Happy Birthday, Mr. President.]

Sometimes you can't, as someone once said, let the facts get in the way of a good story. Or possibly in the way of truth. For what about getting at a truth when you don't know all the facts? Sometimes, I have learned, and seen, you have to turn from nonfiction to fiction. As I wrote a long time ago here, I had to jettison a story because the facts were just too elusive and mushy. I hope to turn that story into fiction one day, telling truths, still, but not relying only on facts.

As much as we are all about nonfiction on this blog, I'd like to put in a good word for great historical fiction. Sometimes the best way at a truth is through fiction. It just happens. Take a look at Monica Edinger's story about her road from nonfiction to fiction. And then take a look at her beautiful--and truthful--new book, Africa Is My Home. In it she shows us the real story of a real person, Sarah Margru Kinson, one of four children who forced to come to this country on the infamous slave ship, The Amistad.  I think this book should be taught alongside nonfiction about slavery and the Amistad. It gets at the truth the way Laurie Halse Anderson's brilliant Chains and Forge do. Sometimes the way to tell a truth is through meticulously researched historical fiction, as both Anderson and Edinger show. 

Now speaking of the truth and getting at it--I'm taking a break from I.N.K. blog posts to focus on getting my W.I.P. down on paper in the best and most truthful way that I can. I hope to be back by late winter or early spring. I'll keep reading I.N.K., of course, as I hope will all of you. 

Monday, November 18, 2013

But I Digress

So, who were the Luddites anyway? I ask myself thus all of you, having called myself one of them after my third and, as you can see, successful attempt to give Google the code it required (so I could get into Blogger so I could write this post, which I should have done yesterday.) to ascertain that I am, indeed, myself, the sleepy woman glowering over her 
General Ned Ludd of Sherwood Forest

mobile phone, a dumb one, needless to say. According to Merriam-Webster a Luddite is "one who is opposed to especially technological change," but that's not me ('I' is correct, but how dumb and stilted would that sound? she asks, having chosen the colloquial over the correct) I swear! 

Who was Ned Ludd? Richard Conniff, in his Smithsonian article, wrote that Ned was an apocryphal apprentice from Nottinghamshire, sort of a Kilroy around whom the "Luddites" engineered serious protests. "But they were also making fun, dispatching officious-sounding letters that began, 'Whereas by the Charter' and ended 'Ned Lud's Office, Sherwood Forest.'  Invoking the sly banditry of Nottinghamshire's own Robin Hood suited their sense of social justice. The taunting, world-turned-upside-down character of their protests also led them to march in women's clothes as 'General Ludd's wives.'"  Whoa!  It's like Jean Fritz said: "History isn't boring once you know the people." And get a load of what all they did, I might add, and how they did it.  Of course I am no textile worker residing in Jane Austen's England at the time of the Napoleonic Wars. Nor will I getting together tonight with hundreds of cross-dressing buddies to go bust up the knitting machines at the local mill. Envision us all tramping along singing:

"And night by night when all is still, / And the moon is hid behind the hill, / We forward march to do our will / With hatchet, pike, and gun!"  (This from a Luddite song, quoted in another swell article I found.) Still, like them, we are living in uncertain times, in a difficult economy, rampant with technological advances, and we do desire respect and steady work with decent wages and better wages, don't we? But I digress. In fact, this entire post is a digression, a straying from the path, that being my intended subject, whatever that was.  So let it be. Here's the subject: Going off the rails, those unexpected investigations we nonfiction writers launch ourselves upon when our research leads us to a subject we'd never intended, one we'd never have known had we not been going along and got distracted.  'Let's see where this road goes!'  You start out reading about Abigail Adams and find yourself introduced to her friend, Mercy Warren.  You might well be watching one of the many documentaries this week about John F. Kennedy,
about his murder 50 - FIFTY? 50 years as in half a century ago? Even a cursory look into his short life and harrowing times will lead you to further reading about ballistics, JFK's desk with its splendid cubby and how the desk is linked to Queen Victoria and a doomed sailing vessel. Other presidents and the sad rogues who shot them,  Lee Harvey Oswald, for instance, that 'weak-chinned character' (so said Eric Sevareid), the White House's fascinating history, Richard Nixon's Cocker Spaniel, Checkers, LBJ's Beagles (especially the one with the sore ears, poor thing), t and  the Cold War, French couture/early 60s,  and Macaroni the Pony.
Should your curiosity be sparked and you dip into JFK's (and, to an extent, Ted Sorensen's) Profiles in Courage,  you'll learn more about Abigail's son, John Quincy Adams and you might be introduced to a stout-hearted Mississippian with a gloriously name and a most unfortunate beard. 

Sen. Lucius Quintus
Cincinnatus Lamar II

So it was when I was researching Clement Clarke Moore for a picture book [out of print now, the world being rotten] I was doing and I came across the fact that 'twas Washington Irving, who had originally come up with the notion of a stout, jolly St. Nick, who rode 'over the tops of the tress, in that self-same wagon wherein he brings his yearly presents to children.'  It wasn't long before I found myself doing another book. And now a couple of more, having to do with a couple of big fat anniversaries coming up next year, 2014. 
But I digress. I invite you to do the same! Oh the places you'll go, the people you'll meet, so somebody said or something like it.