Thursday, February 27, 2014

Growing from our Work

At the end of March, I’ll be flying to Michigan to receive the Mitten Award from the Michigan Library Association.  The award is for a book (“Dogs on Duty: Soldiers’ Best Friends on the Battlefield and Beyond”) that does a good job of communicating information to its target audience.  I work hard to achieve that goal, so I feel honored to receive this award.  At the conference I will also be giving a keynote address, which has gotten me thinking: What topic is especially appropriate for a keynote?  This question has been wandering around in my head for a while, and I’ve finally decided on the answer for me, at this time in my career.

A nonfiction writer is a person who loves learning new information and feels the urge to communicate the fascinating information she/he has learned to other people.  We go through the years finding intriguing topics, enjoying our research, and putting it all together in a form we hope will inspire and engross our readers.  We learn a lot, meet all sorts of experts, and probably visit some fascinating locales.  But I realize now that we do so much for ourselves in the process of being dedicated to looking for truth and communicating our knowledge to others.
This work helps make us be more open in a number of ways.  We learn to explore all sides of a topic, to investigate different versions of the “facts,” and to communicate the complexities of “there are no simple answers” to our audience in clear, nonjudgmental language.  I think nonjudgmental is a big part.  Years ago I wrote “Where the Wild Horses Roam,” about wild horses in the West.  There were, and still are, big controversies about these animals.  To some, they are a symbol of wildness, an integral part of the history of the American west that must be honored and protected.  To others, like ranchers who purchase grazing leases on the public lands that house the horses, these equines are not just a damn nuisance, they steal the vital and sometimes sparse food their cattle need to fatten up and provide income for the ranchers.

I did my best to express the concerns of both sides and shrugged.  “If both ranchers and horse advocates hate me after reading this, I’ll know the book is good.”  But I was wrong—both sides appreciated what I wrote because I stated each side of the story accurately and without any evaluative language.  They just wanted to be heard.  I try to keep that lesson in mind whenever I write about a potentially controversial topic.  “Just the facts, ma’am” has become my mantra.

That's just one example of the unexpected bonuses I've received from this work. Now, after more than 40 years in this business, I realize how much of value I’ve learned, not just the facts and theories, the interactions and exceptions, but also the variety of it all—so many cultures, so many ways of seeing the world and of being in the world, so much glorious variety in Nature.  So, as you can imagine, I’m nowhere near finished yet.  I want to continue learning and communicating as I keep finding more and more intriguing stories available for exploration.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Alix Delinois

Last month  I promised an interview with Alix Delinois, the awesome illustrator of MUMBET’S DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE. But first I need to brag a bit about the review we got in the New York Times recently. Here it is

Now here’s Alix:

Illustrating Mumbet was a truly great experience for me. I was honored to be part of a truly inspiring story about an American pioneer whose story has been rediscovered.  I would like to thank/dedicate this interview to New York Public Library librarian Maira Liriano. Without Maira’s love, support, and professionalism I would not have been able to produce the level of work I did for Mumbet. Thank you Maira.

What attracted you to the story of Mumbet?

I was immediately attracted to the story of Mumbet because of her courage, the courage it must have taken for her to approach Mr. Ashley’s own lawyer to represent her against Mr. Ashley who happened to be the richest man in town. I was also attracted to Mumbet because she did not see her life as less than, even though she was born a slave. To have the imagination to secure her freedom was a great inspiration for me to be part of this amazing story. 

You traveled to Massachusetts to research the story. What you look for?

After reading the story I started to research Mumbet’s life and discovered that the home she was a slave in, has been turned into a museum. I thought the best way to bring authenticity to her story was to visit the place she called home. I also went to the cemetery to see her tombstone. I wanted to take in as much of the landscape as possible to incorporate the natural environment that I imagine Mumbet experienced.

How did you come up with the idea for the cover?

The cover was a joint effort between Carolrhoda editor Andrew Karre, art director Zachary Marell, and myself. We agreed that the cover should depict a strong and determined portrait of Mumbet. I painted the cover portrait with the words resilient, intelligent, brave, pioneer, and humbled in the back of my mind to try to illustrate Mumbet’s personality and character.

Nearly every page has at least a bit of landscape in it. What were you trying to express with this? 

I think the landscape of Massachusetts was particularly important in Mumbet’s story. I feel the landscape represented her strength, vulnerability and hopeful spirit. The words in the story also influenced my decision to include a lot of the landscape in Mumbet: references about how Mumbet associated the water flowing down the river with being free, and references about how the ice, snow, etc could not wear down a mountain. It seems to me that nature was a big inspiration to her to be free.

Your colors look so Caribbean! Are you influenced by your Haitian heritage?

I love colors and love to paint colorfully. My colors are influenced by my Haitian/Caribbean heritage, but also from living in Harlem. I grew up in Harlem in the 1980’s. In those days colors were everywhere and I must have absorbed a lot of the colors that I saw. I loved to walk through Harlem’s 125 Street and take in all the African/Caribbean styles and colors that were all around me.

Who are your favorite artists?

The list of artists that influence me is endless. But some of the artists that stand out immediately to me are Aaron Douglas, Edward Hopper, and Claude Monet. I love Edward Hopper’s compositions, and love the use of colors in the works of Aaron Douglass and Claude Monet. Some of the illustrators I am influenced by are John Steptoe and Leo & Diane Dillon. 

You’ve lived in New York City since you were a child. What do you think of New York and the opportunities for an artist there?

I think many opportunities exist for artists in NYC, even though there are many artists here. Ultimately you have to learn how to make your work stand out and be true to yourself. While there are many opportunities here in NYC for aspiring artists, artists have to make their own opportunities as well. For example, my first book deal came as a result of going to different book fairs and following up with contacts I was lucky enough to make with some of the editors. Opportunities exist in NYC, but hard work and flexibility is ultimately what worked for me.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Inspiring Future Girl Engineers: Ruth Gordon Schnapp Memorial

The topics of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) and Girls in Engineering have received a lot of press this past year. Yes, we need more girls participating in STEM industries. Yes, we need more girls studying STEM topics in high school and college. Yes, parents, schools, and society need to support all young people pursuing STEM fields. I continue to be amazed every time I hear the facts: “American students score 23rd in math and 31st in science when compared with 65 other top industrial countries. In math, we are beaten by countries from Lichtenstein and Slovakia to the Netherlands and Singapore. In science, we are beaten by countries from New Zealand and Estonia to Finland and Hungary.” (From a CNN 2012 article).

Tomorrow, February 22, 2014, a memorial service is being held at the Golden Gate Yacht club in San Francisco for Ruth Gordon Schnapp who died on January 1, 2014. My heart is filled with great loss - as well as pride, in the fact that Ruth's amazing life story will live on in my book for young readers. Also, today marks the last day of Engineering Week, with the exciting Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day this Thursday.
Discover E explains it best on their website:
Engineers Week—the only event of its kind—is a time to:
  • Celebrate how engineers make a difference in our world
  • Increase public dialogue about the need for engineers 
  • Bring engineering to life for kids, educators, and parents 
Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day:
  • Girl Day is a movement that shows girls how creative and collaborative engineering is and how engineers are changing our world. With hundreds of events happening each year, together we are driving the conversation about girls and engineering.
  • Host a Girl Day event and make a difference to the girls (and their moms) in your community.

Ruth Gordon Schnapp is one of the 22 inspirational women that I wrote about in Women of Steel and Stone. As we talk about the lack of women in STEM fields, we should be supporting and promoting the achievements of the women who have paved the way. Beginning my research, I googled Top Architects. What surprised me was that on one particular list of Top 100 Architects there were only two women. Two women out of 100 architects? Those odds seemed shockingly way off. In my further research, I uncovered several amazing women in architecture, engineering, and landscape architecture whose stories needed to be told and were over looked. Young readers needed to hear about these inspiring stories. As Ruth’s health was failing, the family asked me to write an obituary for their mother. The press did not pick up on the news story of her passing. So, to celebrate Ruth Gordon Schnapp’s life and to promote Engineering Week, I thought I’d share the obituary that I wrote.

Ruth Gordon Schnapp 

First woman structural engineer in the state of California and women’s rights advocate

Ruth Gordon Schnapp, the first female structural engineer in the state California, played pioneering roles in increasing 
the number of women in engineering fields, as well as improving the safety of hundreds of hospitals, schools, and other buildings.

Mrs. Schnapp, 87, who had a passion for math that led her to a 41-year structural engineering career that included building safer schools and hospitals in California, died January 1, 2014, in Los Banos, Calif.

Her first job was with the San Francisco structural engineering office of Isadore Thompson, after being rejected by several companies who told her, “We don’t hire women engineers.”  Thompson told Schnapp that he didn’t care if she was green, just as long as she could do the job. Schnapp also worked for engineering firms Bechtel and Western Knapp before her 29-year career for the State of California.  Schnapp opened her own business, Pegasus Engineering, in 1984 and retired in 2001.
Schnapp’s parents, Solomon and Lea Gordon, were Lithuanian immigrants who first settled in Dallas where her sister, Clara, was born. After that, the family moved to Seattle where Schnapp was born on September 19, 1926. Excelling in school, Schnapp said she often saved her math homework for dessert because it was the most fun. She dreamed of becoming a concert pianist, but her parents cautioned her against her following her dream, stating:  “You never can tell what’s going to happen. You have to study something for which you can make a living.” In 1942, most parents were encouraging their daughters to marry and have children.
Not knowing what an engineer did except that it involved math, Schnapp chose that path. After she was accepted to Stanford, she had to first find out where it was. During her summer breaks, she worked for Boeing in Seattle, one summer participating in structural engineering changes to the B-17 bomber. When World War II ended, she was forced to take a typing job with the company at a lower pay. According to Schnapp, just to spite Boeing and its sexism, she was the slowest typist they ever had.
Schnapp was the only woman to graduate from Stanford in 1948 with a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering. With the support of her male professors, she went on to earn her master’s degree in structural engineering in 1950.
Starting in 1953, after receiving her civil engineer state license, Schnapp worked for the state of California for 29 years, designing and constructing school buildings to make them more earthquake resistant.
In 1959, Schnapp passed the test for her structural engineering license — 20 years before another woman would earn that license. Schnapp loved structural engineering, and she especially loved being out in the field. She traveled a seven-county area of Southern California, checking schools, hospitals and other construction projects. Some of Schnapp’s more high-profile projects were the San Francisco Public Library, San Francisco Asian Art Museum, San Quentin Prison, Palace of the Legion of Honor, San Francisco General Hospital, and the Marin General Hospital.
She married Michael Schnapp in 1950. The ceremony was performed in the old house of Lillian Gilbreth, the mother in Cheaper by the Dozen, another famous industrial engineer and role model for girls in those fields.  Michael died in ____.
With their mutual love of boats, the Schnapps bought a 26-foot-long sailboat and started racing. In 2001, she received the Yachtsman of the Year Award from the Pacific Inter-Club Yacht Association. For many years, the Golden Gate Yacht Club has held the Ruth Gordon Schnapp Regatta.
Schnapp’s daughter Madeline explained, “One of the reasons my mother was able to do the things she did was because she had a wonderful support system at home and didn't have to worry about how her children were faring while she was away at work. Nydia Rosa was part of the Schnapp family for over 50 years, first helping with the children, and then more administrative tasks as the children grew. About six years ago, Nydia returned to the family to take care of my mother during her declining years.”
Some of Schnapp’s many accolades include being named the first woman member of Structural Engineers Association of Northern California in 1953; the first woman president of the Bay Area Engineering Council in 1982-83; and the first woman to receive a Tau Beta Pi’s Eminent Engineer Award in 1995. A staunch advocate of women’s rights, in 1980, Schnapp took part in a public demonstration at the Pacific Stock Exchange, during which she chained herself to the building for five hours to protest gender discrimination.
After retiring in 2001, Schnapp traveled the U.S., lecturing students about at a long list of schools. She said, “I became very much interested in helping women and encouraging women to be sure to study math and science.”
 Fittingly, Schnapp’s story will continue to serve as a role model in a new book for young adults just released last week, Women of Steel and Stone by Anna M. Lewis. Schnapp is one of 22 inspirational women architects, engineers, and landscape architects profiled in the book, excepts from that book have been included here.
 Her sister, Clara Gordon Rubin, who died in 2002, was also a supporter of women’s rights and fought to improve gender equality among civil service workers in Seattle for four decades.
 She is survived by her three children, Madeline, Marcia and Michael, and several grandchildren.

Thank you, Ruth, for all the girl engineers that have followed your lead and for the young girls you will inspire to build great things. 

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Photographing Beyond Magenta

After four years in the making, I’m absolutely thrilled to announce that my new book, Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out has just been published. I’ve been waiting for this month with anxious anticipation. Now that it's here I’m walking on air, soaking in all the love, care, and respect sent out to the six teens that participated in the book.

Usually my YA books have black and white photographs peppered throughout the text. But this time they are mostly in color and are a finely integrated part of each chapter.

Each teenager in the book is individual and distinct. They know who they are and what they need. They certainly know who they are not. My role was to represent these awesome kids through words and photographs.

One person in the book preferred not to have photographs at all, and another person’s mother did not want her son’s face shown. That left four chapters that needed separate photo essays.

The first teen I met was Jessy, who had just begun taking hormone therapy. I thought, and he agreed, that it would be interesting to photograph him every two weeks as his transition progressed. This is the first photo, taken with my cell phone because it never occurred to me that our first meeting would include a photo shoot. I referred to Jessy’s photo essay as  “Transition.” They are very casual and mostly shot in natural light.

This is from the final set of photographs of Jessy's transition at the time I turned in the book. In my view - and the art director’s - camera and lighting are somewhat better than the one with my iPhone.

The second person I interviewed was Christina. Christina loves to shop and is very, very good at it. I trailed along, feeling quite dumpy, as she methodically, elegantly went through every rack. We did two shoots, one when she was a strawberry blond and another when she was a brunette. This essay is called “Shopping Spree.”

Cameron, the third photo essay in the book, did a great job explaining gender fluidity. We decided that it would be best to “show AND tell.” I set up my studio with a crumpled white cloth background and large strobes that I usually use when photographing dancers. Cameron carried bags of clothing to my sixth floor walk-up studio. We did two sets of studio photography. This is “Variables.”

Nat, the fourth essay, is a fine artist and a wonderful violinist. We wanted to do something that married intellect and art. And that to me is Black and White photography. I suggested that I photograph them [Nat’s pronoun of choice] in the tradition of André Kertész, 1894 -1985, a photographer whom I greatly admire. Kertész focused on patterns, angles and space. Nat and I went up on the High Line early in the mornings when all the tourists were asleep in their beds. We did our interpretation of a Kertész photo essay. It became “The Long Road with Musical Interludes.”

The last chapter is devoted to Luke, [not his real name] a marvelous poet and actor. Luke’s mother did not want her son’s real name or face revealed in the book. When Luke is onstage he’s a whirlybird.  So I slowed down the camera and let his movement compliment his personality. Although his is not a true photo essay, the images are not like the other chapters.

This structure is not explicitly described in Beyond Magenta. But it's layers like these that add (subliminal) depth to our books. No one knows it, unless posted, but it's there. One of the pleasures reading INK is to learn the backstory, the layers, that go into creating books. 

I do love writing. I love being an author. But let me say, it feels really, really good to be back behind the camera. I continue to photograph Jessy and Christina as they grow into stunning adults.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Presidents' Day: Facts & Fantasy

Oh, I know how it is -  so soon after Valentine's Day, but here it is: Happy Presidents Day, INKsters! Insofar as it celebrates our nation's history as represented by our unbroken chain of elected executives, this holiday is second only to Independence Day in its importance to our democratic republic. 

An esteemed gaggle of early presidents
by way of Currier & Ives
Whether or not you'll be playing and marching in a band or doing last minute touches on your float or costume, enjoy your community's parades today and the fireworks tonight! Before this special day comes to an end, it's likely that you'll be gathered with your dear ones, sharing the usual Presidents' Day delicacies, such as hot dogs, like the ones FDR offered to Great Britain's royal couple in the summer of 1939, but if I were you, I'd skip the cottage cheese-and-ketchup, a favorite of Richard Nixon. For dessert? Maybe Ronald Reagan's jelly beans, but there's got to ice cream and of course,  cherry pie, which has come to represent our presidential pathfinder, George Washington 

But mind your portions - else you'll wind up like President Taft!   And if you're inclined and of age, do be having a celebratory sip of hard cider. As John Adams wrote in 1765, "I drank this morning and yesterday morning about a gill* of cider; it seems to do me good."   Harry Truman felt the same way about his breakfast shot of bourbon and FDR about his late afternoon martini. But I digress
      *about 1/4 of a pint 
"Big Bill" Taft - more to him than a big belly! 

It's become customary for Americans to have their P. Day dinner while watching the annual White House Concert. As usual it will feature live broadcasts from some of the nation's many lighthearted and colorful Presidential/First Family Look-Alike contests, as well as the much-awaited announcement of this year's winner of the Presidential Essay Competition. Who will be covered with glory, patriotic and intellectual honors, the $5,000 cash prize, AND the invitation to the White House?  

Knowing that you share my love of American history – and if you're reading this, I'd bet money that you do – you may well have long since written and contributed your own entry,
dated, but still a popular primer
on the presidents, their
House, and the presidency itself.
your own considered take on this year's topic:
The President We Most Need Today. If I'd written one - if there was any such event - I reckon I'd lean toward presidents who championed public education. Ike, for instance, the steely ex-general with the sunny smile.

For further thoughts on this issue, here's a good start. 

Because it's a worthy topic in this, our real, anxious, too-cool-for-school world, that has no such festive Presidents Day and never shall. Maybe just as well, given how money-corrupted the whole elective and legislative process has become, how it has so tarnished the Founders' Dream. Doesn't mean it's to be discarded, not celebrated. It only means it's to be clung to and fought for all the harder. The topic's been a hot one even before there was a republic for which we stand and throughout the days and years of our ever-contentious nation  What should be the role of our central government in our lives, in our classrooms?  
What are we prepared to do in order to be what we intend to be, as
individuals and as a nation? For one thing, read. Know what and who we've been, those whom we've championed to hold the standard.

Meanwhile, I need to go make sure to display my American Flag (the subject of my next book - did I tell you that? Did you know that 2014 makes 200 years since F.S.K. wrote his ode to the S.S'd. B.?), out by my front door because it's Presidents Day. 

And long live the Republic. Read on.

Monday, February 10, 2014

A-HA! The Eureka Moment

As the story goes, for Archimedes, it was the moment he sank into his tub.  For Newton, it was that falling apple.  Eureka!  Aha! In a flash, the answers (displacement and gravity) became clear.  To Archimedes and Newton, anyway.  For them, that lightning bolt of understanding was accompanied by joy and amazement.  Other people, half as brilliant or educated, might have simply thought, “Oy, I hope the water doesn’t overflow” or “Ouch, that’s what I get for sitting under a fruit tree.”

I’ve been mulling over Eureka moments lately.  Products of pioneering thinkers like Archimedes’ and Newton’s may corner the market, but epiphanies come in all shapes and sizes.  It doesn’t always have to be and original discovery that leads to Eureka.  A gifted explanation can go a long way to create an aha moment for others.  

An example was when physicist Richard Feynman appeared before the Senate Committee hearing convened to figure out what caused the Challenger Disaster.  If you remember, the
space shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after liftoff in 1986, killing all aboard.  The question was why and everyone dithered about it for months.  During his testimony, Feynman revealed the problem in moments.  He used a C-clamp to bend the type of rubber O-ring used to seal joints in the rocket, then plunked it into his glass of ice water.  He pulled it out, unscrewed the clamp and showed how the now 32-degree rubber was too cold to bend for valuable seconds.  It had been 32 degrees on launch day.  No effective seal, leaking gas, fire, death.  

Was this an epiphany for Feynman?  I have no idea; it might have just been a satisfying, logical conclusion.  But for the people who wanted to know what happened and couldn’t assemble, sort and understand all the factors, it was a mind blower. QED, game over.

As nonfiction writers, and especially as nonfiction writers for kids, wouldn’t it be great to be able to create aha moments for our readers and open up new parts of the world to them? Sorry, I wish I could simply print the recipe at the bottom of the page.  

The best I do is guess about the necessary ingredients.  Here are a few I’ve been thinking about:

1.  Curiosity—not just coming up with facts, but also a compulsion to flip them over in your mind and study them from every angle.  

2. Wonder—wondering about situation and having a sense of wonder about it so you might be able to get some poetry into the mix when you try to get the idea across.  

3. Expansion—somehow leaving enough room for a reader to get invested and involved and find his or her discovery amidst your own.

Anybody have a few more suggestions?  I’d love to hear (and use!) them.