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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 overlooked. Sometimes--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 isno 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.
I’ve been reading — rereading, actually — Our Final Hour,
a fascinating and depressing little book by Sir Martin Rees, a cosmologist and the British Astronomer Royal. The subtitle, A Scientist’s Warning: How Terror, Error, and Environmental Disaster Threaten Humankind’s Future in This Century on Earth and Beyond, pretty much says it all.
Rees believes that civilization has no more than a 50-50 chance of making it through this century, and he gives those who are so inclined an impressive list of things to obsess about. There are the usual suspects: nuclear war, asteroid impact, nearby supernova, massive volcanic eruption, pandemic, nanotechnology run amok, and evil computers. There’s also the highly unlikely but disheartening possibility that physicists fooling around with subatomic particles and high energies might accidentally unravel space-time itself. The upside of this particular scenario is that the destruction would propagate at the speed of light, so there wouldn’t be much time for regrets.
I don’t think I’m the only one intrigued by this sort of thing. The book was published, after all, and it’s just one title in what might be thought of as the apocalyptic non-fiction genre. These books are written for an adult audience, which raises a question: where are the dystopian non-fiction books for children?
In The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales
, Bruno Bettelheim makes a convincing case for the therapeutic value of those gruesome Grimm Brother’s stories. The witches, evil stepmothers and monsters give young children a vehicle for acknowledging and externalizing their own dark impulses — feelings that they are just becoming aware of. Older children are certainly exposed to many of the catastrophic possibilities that Rees discusses, which might help to explain the popularity of YA dystopian fiction, much of which is as dark as any real-life scenario we could imagine. Personally, I would have appreciated some factual and unpatronizing information about the consequences of all-out nuclear war back in the duck-and-cover days, when we were advised to turn away from the windows and get under our desks when we saw the flash.
It’s interesting that children’s non-fiction doesn’t shy away from dreadful episodes in the past — plagues, wars, natural disasters and genocides get plenty of attention. Unless there are titles I’m overlooking (a definite possibility), I don’t see children’s non-fiction that speculates about really bad scenarios in the future. I did come across a frightening volume titled A Kid’s Guide to Understanding the End Times, by the authors of the Left Behind series, but I don’t think it qualifies as non-fiction (no link for this one — you’ll have to dig it up on your own). There are plenty of books that deal with serious social and environmental issues that lie ahead, but their tone tends towards “here’s what you can do to help fight global warming.” I don’t have anything against optimism and positive action, but if that asteroid we failed to detect does hit (giving us, Rees says, about three seconds warning), recycling won’t make much of a difference.
I’m speculating that it is reluctance on the part of the adult gatekeepers rather than a lack of interest on the part of young readers that explains the absence of these books. It makes a certain amount of sense — we are more comfortable learning about terrible things in the past, because the fact that we’re reading about them means we probably weren’t directly affected.
Now, here’s a segue I could only get away with in a blog (i.e., with no editor to point out what a stretch it is). I’ve been playing with a concept about what life might look like at some point in the distant future, and it’s occurred to me that — like attitudes toward Armageddon — opinions about evolution are not symmetrical with regard to time. (I couldn’t write a blog without some reference to this subject. Sort of like Gail Collins and that dog strapped to the roof
, at least until last November). I have no real evidence for this observation, but here it is: if asked whether at least some living things might change over time and be different in the distant future, I think many of the 40-odd percent
of Americans who deny that anything has evolved to this point would accept the premise. If it’s true, it offers the possibility of presenting an important scientific concept without the fear and loathing the subject normally inspires. Unless, of course, that asteroid makes the whole subject moot.
Where did the time go? I wrote my first I.N.K. blog post five years ago this month. That makes this one of the steadiest jobs I've ever had. But what do I do with my time? In an effort to record some semblance of an answer for posterity, I present a chronicle of one recent day.
Wednesday, January 30, 2013
8:20 a.m.: Alarm goes off. Today is a sleep-in day. I usually get up about 7 a.m. to go to the gym, but on Wednesdays I like to sleep late. I inadvertently sleep extra late when I roll over and doze again.
9:00: Finally get up. Feed the cats. Put on my computer.
9:15: Read e-mails, Twitter, Facebook, I.N.K. (Nice post, Marfe.)
9:40: Go over revised book contract for my biography of Sally Ride. We’ve been working on this for three months (the contract, not the book), and it’s almost there. E-mail my attorney with a few points that still need to be fixed.
9:55: Breakfast (pineapple yogurt and iced tea), shower.
10:30: Surprise! The morning mail has brought a jury duty notice. True to form, they’ve scheduled my jury duty for the week I’ll be in California doing school visits. Fortunately, my county makes it easy to request a postponement. I go to their Web site and fill out the form.
10:45: Skim books on tennis history for information on Alice Marble, the 1930s champion who at one time taught the game to Sally Ride. I’ve had these books for decades and feel a tug of nostalgia as I turn to the index and flip pages, rather than typing words into search engines. 11:30: Head to Staples to do some careful photocopying of archival Roller Derby programs that I borrowed from the proprietor of the National Roller Derby Hall of Fame. No, Sally Ride never skated Roller Derby. This is for a picture book. While I’m out, I decide to give myself a treat and buy a six-inch Subway sandwich for lunch. I resist the urge to measure it to see if it really is six inches long. (If you don’t get that reference, see here.)
12:15 p.m.: Arrive home with my sandwich to find an e-mail with a revised contract. Check it and find that a few changes still need to be made. E-mail my attorney.
12:45: Eat lunch, watch a rerun of Flashpoint to clear my head. Mourn the fact that this fine Canadian import ended its first-run shows last week. Wash dishes. Clean litter box.
2:00: Check e-mail and find that my book contract has been revised to perfection. Hallelujah! Print out four copies and sign them. Then realize I’m not sure whether to mail the package to my editor or the publisher’s attorney. Write e-mails. Get answer. Address it to the attorney.
2:45: Check the AT&T Archives Web site to see if they have posted any of the archival films with bonus intros that I wrote last summer. And they have: War and the Telephone. I watch the wonderful George Kupczak deliver the lines that I wrote about the operators who ran AT&T’s World War II telephone centers at shipyards and military bases. It’s my first filmed script.
3:00: FINALLY start writing. Alice Marble, Sally Ride, tennis. Great stuff.
6:15: Feed the cats. Make dinner (a Mexican concoction with cornbread, cheese, chorizos, salsa, and guacamole). Check in on Brian Williams. Listen to him talk about high winds and heavy rain that are approaching the Northeast. Decide to make extra ice cubes, power up my cell phone, and save my work-in-progress on a flash drive in case the electricity goes out. Wash dishes and clean the litter box.
8:00: Start this blog. Wish I could report that I did more actual writing today, but this is nonfiction and I can't make things up. I did stay up till 12:30 last night working on my manuscript, since I knew I could sleep late. When there's a deadline on the horizon, one day pretty much blends into the next.
9:00: Time for a dose of Law & Order: SVUand Top Chef. Crime. Competition. Food. An excellent end to a writer’s day.
Recently Sandra Jordan I finished a non-fiction book The Mad Potter: George E. Ohr Eccentric Genius to be published in September, 2013. It is the story of an American maverick, an artist/ceramicist, whose body of work was hidden away in crates on his sons’ property in Biloxi, Mississippi, until he was rediscovered fifty years after his death in 1918. When we attended the ALA conference several years ago in New Orleans, we decided to visit the rebuilt Ohr-O’Keefe Museum in Biloxi. The buildings had been leveled by Katrina. It was designed by Frank Gehry, an architect, whose life and work we featured in our book Frank O. Gehry Outside In. We were somewhat familiar with George Ohr, now considered one of America’s greatest potters, but the hardhat tour in Biloxi convinced us that Ohr would be the subject of our next book. A flamboyant character, whose quirky, abstract pots didn’t fit in with conventional tastes, George always believed his work was “Unequaled, unrivaled and undisputed.” Sandra and I had a wonderful time researching and putting this book together, as we loved his art pottery and his wild personality. I will talk more about George as we get closer to pub date.
One of the biggest challenges we faced putting this book together was not only digging up vintage photographs of George and the South at the turn of the century, but also making sure that our young readers could place him in the context of his times. That, along with interviews and extensive research required numerous chapter notes, which is what I’d like to talk about today - the (sometimes dreaded) backmatter that all good non-fiction books must include: a bibliography, chapter notes, permissions for artworks and photographs, even a glossary or an index, and more, depending on the subject, the age group and the author’s decision about pertinent information that doesn’t work in the text. For example in Ballet for Martha: Making Appalachian Spring (with Sandra Jordan and illustrations by Brian Floca), we wrote short bios of Martha Graham, Isamu Noguchi and Aaron Copland for the back matter, as the collaboration on the dance was the subject of the book, which is non-fiction but not a biography.
Here are the questions we ask when we’re writing chapter notes:
1. If it is a quote, where did we get it? The source with page numbers. Document this immediately, so you’re not frantically trying to find it later. (Yes we have been guilty of the last minute scramble.)
2. If there are several sides to the story and telling them all in the text is unnecessary, which one do we use? e.g. Andy Warhol and Vincent Van Gogh: There were multiple versions of many episodes in their lives. We chose the versions from by best sources and/or seemed most believable to us. Put the other(s) in the chapter notes.
3. What is the form? We’ve discovered working with a number of different publishers that the forms for the footnotes and permissions vary from place to place, copy editor to copy editor. So we use the form from the last book we did with that publisher and let the copy editor do his/her job. Beware when the publisher farms it out to a temp, if the official copy editor is on sick leave or a vacation. When he/she returns to the office, the form can change drastically and much retyping by the author ensues.
4. What about a information that enhances the story but would be too much of an intrusion into the text? The back matter is a great place to add fuller historical/ anecdotal material that complicates the text or makes it longer than we wanted it to be. We try to balance, to add the extra information we want to share with readers, while not weighing down the backmatter and limitations of space. We love those extra glimpses and hope our readers, both children and adults, will too. Here is an example from The Mad Potter.
In the text we write about the Civil War and how it affected Biloxi, when George Ohr was a child. We did not take for granted that the young reader knows much about the Civil War. We added some historical facts in the chapter notes.
5. Finally do we list the sources of every scrap of information in the book? We use our own judgment on this but try very hard to give credit to primary and secondary sources, either from interviews or in a book or article. Facts, such as dates, names, places, and quoted material, are footnoted. And we always double check factual material.
A confession: As a writer, I love it when the structure of a project is predetermined. I'm happiest when given a format, word counts, what Deb Heiligman called "restrictions" in her terrific INK column last week. Perhaps it has to do with cutting my teeth as a nonfiction writer at Time-Life Books, back in the pre-Google days. Each volume of those fabulous series, on subjects ranging from The Civil War to The Seafarers to Mysteries of the Unknown, was thoroughly mapped out by a team of editors, researchers, photo editors, and art directors before the other staff writers and I received our assignments for it. The layout was pretty much set in concrete, and our job was to write copy to fit. Heck, we didn’t even do our own research. There was a separate research staff for that. They gave us thick packets of photocopied material, with relevant sections already highlighted. If I needed more information for a photo essay or a picture caption, I asked the researcher assigned to the piece to see what else he/she could find. It was actually a pretty efficient system, and the discipline and deadlines it imposed were great training. I still take pride in the excellent quality of the books this team approach created. But I have to say I was jealous of the researchers, who got to hang out in the Library of Congress and other cool places while we writers stayed put at the office. I felt like I was missing something, the thrill of the hunt perhaps.
After I left Time-Life to freelance, I was hired to write several books—including one called Wildflowers—for a children’s nonfiction series called My First Pocket Guide. Now it was up to me to do the research, and I took to it like a fish to water. The books had a fairly rigid format. Each book was to be 80 pages long and feature about 35 specimens. There was one specimen per spread, and each spread had to include a 2- to 3-sentence introductory text block, a “Where to Find” map box, a “What to Look For” box listing size, color, behavior, and “more,” and a Field Note containing a fun fact about the specimen. Each spread also had to include a line drawing of the specimen, a full-color photograph of it, and an illustration linked to the fun fact. Although I had to stick to the format, it was up to me to decide which animals or bugs or wildflowers to include in the book and how to organize them. I had to create structure within the existing framework. (It occurs to me, by the way, that creating a similar book could be a fun classroom writing activity. Each student could research one specimen and then create a page for it using this format. The students could present their finished pages to their classmates, and all the pages could be bound into a book.) My newest book, Master George’s People,took me a long time to write, in part because I struggled with structure for so long. Other than a word count, I had no restrictions to help me out, no comforting format to follow. I only knew that I wanted to tell two stories in the book—the story of what life was like for George Washington’s slaves and the story of how Washington’s attitude toward slavery changed over his lifetime. I had to fight against letting Washington’s story overshadow the other. I finally found my way in by returning to (this won’t surprise many of you) the primary source material. Once I identified a pivotal scene for an opener—that of slave children playing in Washington’s boxwood garden—the rest of the structure seemed to spin out more or less logically, although I can't say the process went smoothly. Although I’m pleased with the final result, I can’t help feeling that I approached the issue of structure backwards in this case, making things harder for myself than they had to be. Next book, maybe even while I'm still researching it, I’m going to try tackling structure first. Maybe I'll sketch a diagram or "a looping doodle with guiding arrows and stick figures," a strategy discussed by John McPhee in his recent New Yorker article about structure. The idea, he writes, is to "build some form of blueprint before working it out in sentences and paragraphs." A blueprint, that's kind of like a format. And did I mention that I'm very comfortable with formats?
This summer, part of my job was helping some 4thand 5th graders hone their skills at writing persuasive essays. This essay form is often seen on standardized tests and is the style kids tend to hate the most. The format must be strictly followed and the rules can be intimidating. There must be five full paragraphs: Introduction, Reason 1, Reason 2, Reason 3, and Conclusion. Yes, each essay must state three reasons and you have to write a full paragraph elaborating on each reason.
Boy, kids really hate this. Can’t you hear the whining now about how they can only think of two reasons? Even though the essays are usually about “kid friendly” topics, they’re not the kind of subjects kinds enjoy pondering, especially when faced with the pressure of writing five paragraphs in 30 or 40 minutes. Honestly their feelings about whether there should be vending machines in school or all students should wear uniforms is usually rather limited and their fear about if they will have enough to write seemingly never ending.
So instead of rote practicing, I used non fiction books to get them thinking. After we talked about the life experiences of a certain bird in New York City, my students had a much better understanding of perspective and point of view. And once we put those things together, their essays really started to flow.
I chose I.N.K. books about a bird named Pale Male, a hawk who chose to build a nest on a swank 5th Avenue Apartment building near Central Park in NYC. This was fascinating to city bird watchers because Hawks were rare in the area but it became a full blown news story when the ritzy apartment building removed the hawk’s nest because of the resulting mess in front of the building and the constant peeking eyes of the bird watchers with large telescopes in Central Park.
There are at least three good non fiction children’s books that I know of about Pale Male. The story and illustrations are a great way to introduce the concept of perspective. The hawks fly high above Central Park and the buildings, giving them a perspective to search for their prey, see the natural beauty of the city, and keep away from the crowds. In the trees or lower on the ground, they can be vulnerable to large groups of crows or people touching their nests. These books also open up a conversation about perspective’s cousin, point of view: what did the hawks want and need, how did the bird watchers want to help them, and how was this the same or different from how the people living in the apartment building thought about birds nesting there?
I ‘ve also found it effective to read two of these books and compare and contrast. What points of the story did each writer focus on? What were some details that were included by one writer but left out by the other? Are there any facts that were absolutely necessary in order to tell the story?
These discussions translated easily and naturally to the persuasive essay form. The kids began to understand that students will often see an issue differently than a teacher or parent or the Principal based on their point of view. They could expand their reasoning when seen from another point of view and based on whom they were trying to convince. Is the letter to a friend or relative? Lets talk about how you could have fun and do things together. If the letter is to the Principal, you can focus on reasons such as safety, health, learning, and community.
From my perspective, using non fiction is tremendously effective in helping kids expand their own way of seeing things and how others see things. This enables them to feel much more confident about their reasoning and, ultimately, helps them express that more naturally in their writing.
It’s hard to imagine a teacher prouder than Maria Martinez, or second graders happier with what they're learning and how they're learning it in her classroom. The best part is that I can say the same thing about the other teachers and students I met at Sci-Tech Academy at Knights Landing, in California's Sacramento Valley. They are the Sci-Tech “Robots” at this public charter school where the mascot is not a ferocious animal and the motto is “Hands On—Minds On.”
In 2009, the Woodland Joint Unified School District closed Kings Landing's only school, Grafton Elementary. The rural community's population was under 1,000 and the district knew it could save $s by shutting the school door and sending students eleven miles to Woodland. It’s a scenario that has befallen both rural communities and urban neighborhoods across the country, and usually the teachers and residents sigh and bear it. But a cadre of dedicated teachers in the Woodland district, including Ms. Martinez, came up with another plan. They would form a charter school focusing on science and technology, and they would petition the district to let them use the Grafton building. After just one year in mothballs, Grafton Elementary was reopened as Science and Technology Academy at Knights Landing. Local parents started enrolling their children as did others from communities nearby, and still others from outside the district — even some from Davis, 20 back-road miles away, an acutely eco- and education-minded small city boasting blue-ribbon schools and a University of California campus with renowned science programs.
My tip-off to something special going on at Sci-Tech came during my first presentation to primary grade students. I showed my book on animal camouflage, Where In the Wild? Camouflaged Creatures Concealed… and Revealed. The word “camouflage” is often understood by primary grade students but I’d never before met second graders who used the word “adaptation” when describing it.
“We just finished a unit on animal adaptations,” explained Ms. Martinez when we chatted later. The M.O. at Sci-Tech is that science units define the entire curriculum. A unit on adaptations means that students read a range of non-fiction books about ways animals have evolved to meet the demands of their environment. “We do our reading to fit our science units, and everything else comes out of that,” she explained. They explore the vocabulary they find in their reading. Writing, discussions, further explorations ensue. Math gains relevance by being tied to the science units.
Modern digital technology is important in supporting the inquiry-based classroom at Sci-Tech, but not at the expense of low-tech. Not only do print non-fiction books abound, but so do animals in captivity — live ones, not virtual pets on a smartphone. Every classroom has them. “The students learn what it means, and what’s required, to take care of animals,” says sixth grade teacher Glen Lusebrink, “and we also use the animals to get to other areas of the curriculum.” His room has fish tanks populated by a variety of cichlid species. “This one is from Africa,” he tells me, “and these are from South America.” So we get out the maps, the globes, the books and we learn about Africa, we learn about South America.
Because of my presentation schedule, I did not get to see any classrooms in action, but I learned about some of the action over lunch in the staff lounge. In all of the conversations, teachers were buzzed about their students' latest hands-on discoveries. First graders had been sifting rocks into size gradations (there’s a math lesson there along with the science) and Kindergarteners had just finished distinguishing between water and identical-looking salt and sugar solutions by testing various properties of the liquids, including taste. “Oh, I wish I’d videotaped them,” said their teacher. “When they were tasting that salt solution—you would have loved the looks on their faces.” And the impressions on their minds.
Clearly, the hands-on approach touted by the school’s motto is more than a marketing phrase. And it is even more than an impassioned approach to science and the rest of learning. For some students, it’s a matter of do or (academically) die. “Our school makes learning possible for children who do not thrive in an environment of seatwork and workbooks,” says Principal Barbara Herms who holds the view that when hands and bodies are active, so are minds. “And our success is showing.” I asked if she was referring to test scores. “Yes, that among other things.” I’m heartened to know that test scores are up but I’m even happier to know that here tests aren’t the only measure of student success.
Parents are often the most vociferous critics of schools, so I looked up Sci-Tech Academy on www.greatschools.org and found five (out of five) five-star reviews by parents. One will suffice: “All the teachers, staff, parents and children are excited about learning! This school’s atmosphere is all about helping each child reach their full potential. My children do not even like missing one day of school.”
Need I say more? Probably not, but I will anyway. A curriculum connected to close readings of non-fiction texts sounds like it has the Common Core State Standards written all over it. But Sci-Tech has been doing it since before those four words were ever strung together.
Earlier this week, I was doing a little personal research on STEAM books for kids. I hopped over to Google and entered STEAM books for kids. After looking through the 120+ hits on Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel (and a few Steampunk hits), I finally found a reference to a book discussion about STEAM books, and then more pages on Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel. When I used quotes, I got one hit… and it wasn’t related to STEAM books.
In November of 2011, in an INK post titled STEM & STEAM – Interesting Nonfiction for Kids, I wrote about the importance of STEM and STEAM in the schools.
I love STEAM books. One of the reasons why I was asked to be a member of this group five years ago was of my outspokenness on art books for kids. So, in regards to my Google search above and going back to my INK roots, I wanted to provide a service to any school, library, teacher, or parent who was interested in STEAM books.
Here are just a few of the latest books that may fall into a Google search for:
STEAM books for Kids
Art books for Kids
Adding art books to library
Awesome art books for kids
It Jes' Happened: When Bill Traylor Started to Draw
by Don Tate, R. Gregory Christie Lee & Low Books, April 2012 What Is Contemporary Art? A Guide for Kids by Jacky Klein and Suzy Klein The Museum of Modern Art, New York October 2012 by Germano Zullo illustrated by Albertine Chronicle Books, September 2012
Colorful Dreamer: The Story of Artist Henri Matisse Marjorie
by Blain Parker (Author), Holly Berry (Illustrator)
Brushes with Greatness: History Paintings Brushes with Greatness: Landscapes Brushes with Greatness: Portraits Brushes with Greatness: Still Lifes Creative Paperbacks, January 2013 A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin Alfred A. Knopf, January 2013 Enchanted Lion Books, January 2013 Diego Rivera: An Artist for the People
Abrams Books for Young Readers, February 2013
And, here's a book to be published soon that my be of interest to teachers, educators, and libraries:
From STEM to STEAM: Using Brain-Compatible Strategies to Integrate the Arts
by David A. Sousa and Thomas J. Pilecki
Corwin, March 2013
In high school when I read The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone, Michelangelo's artistic passion moved me like no other and drew me to the arts. It is my wish that every child have the opportunity to find his or her passion in life - hopefully, through a wonderful book.
Please, if there are some new STEAM books that I have missed, add them to the comments section.
Heartbreak. As adults, we’ve all suffered through the ache of a love suddenly, irrevocably absent. We remember the tears that would not, could not quickly subside – the emptiness a friend, pet or sweetheart once so tenderly filled. For many people, especially those past 25, it’s universal.
Not so for the kids who read us. And that’s so important to remember.
It sounds like I’m about to praise YA romance, not nonfiction, but bare with me.
I’m late with my contribution because my youngest daughter, 22, just had her heart shattered, and I’ve spent my writing hours trying in vain to comfort her. My arms have been away from the keyboard, wrapped around her shoulders. My fingers have combed through her tear soaked hair, ignoring the beckoning keys of my laptop. My heart has been broken, too.
As I have tried to say something worthwhile, beyond, "I love you," the only thing I’ve come up with is, “You’ll be a better writer for it.” She already writes circles around me, on her sunnier days.
It’s lame advice, I know…especially in the height of this reign of destruction. But it is also true. And it is vastly important for all writers to remember.
We may be intimately acquainted with pain, but the kids who pour through our pages might not be. So when we tell our true stories, it’s important to be thoughtfully honest. The loss we represent, and the survival that goes along with it may be a child’s first point of reference, when real pain finally strikes.
As I wrote SAVING THE BAGHDAD ZOO for HarperCollins/Greenwillow a few years ago, I had to consider that kind of writing. As I reviewed 7,000 photographs my subject and later writing partner William Sumner had taken while he was deployed in Iraq, I came across autopsy pictures of a dead Bengal tiger.
I cried as I looked at each bloody image, grieving the loss of such a magnificent creature. It was even more crushing to know an American soldier that fired the fatal shots. And I wondered…how much should I share?
Clearly, the photos of bullets in blood soaked hands weren’t appropriate for a photo essay for kids 9 and up. Including those images was never a consideration. But I struggled with writing about the tiger at all. Then I remembered how I learned compassion and tenderness, long before I grew up.
I learned through my mother and father, of course. But I also learned by reading books. The ache of Charlotte’s death, as Wilbur wept; the depths of despair in Black Beauty – these stories taught me how it feels to experience loss. And they gave me comfort when my first brushes with real life pain finally arrived. Books – fiction and nonfiction -- remind us, we are not alone in our sorrows. And they give us hope that we, too, will survive.
Writing about the death of a tiger who had survived starvation only to be gunned down a year later was painful. Writing about the two tigers the U.S. Army later gave the Baghdad Zoo in a gesture of apology and friendship, helped ease the sting. Knowing new tiger cubs soon populated the war torn zoo gave me a sense of hope.
Will those honest depictions sow the seeds of comfort in generations to come? I believe they might. I hope they will and I think it is important to at least try.
My daughter grew up reading great stories, true and fictional. She witnessed the joys and sorrows of others in thoughtfully written text, and now she’s joined their ranks. I hope, when she felt my arms around her, she felt their arms, too.
I hope as we write, we offer our readers the most universal truth of all – none of us is ever truly alone in our pain. All of us have the hope of better things to come. I hope we tell the biggest truth, as gently as we can.
Following Deborah Heiligman's terrific post yesterday on spatial perspective in art and structural perspective in writing, I'm offering another sort. Alexandra Wallner, writer and illustrator of dozens of children's books presents an historical perspective on writing, illustrating, collaborating, and publishing over the last four decades. You’ve had a long distinguished career as a writer, illustrator, and collaborator with your husband, John Wallner. How did your creative partnership come about? John and I were freelancing in illustration in the early 1970’s. In the 1980s, John was offered an illustration job for a series of books by David A. Adler, the children’s book biographer. John was eager to do the series but the deadlines were very tight. I reasoned to John that if I helped illustrate the books, we could do it in half the time if I got equal recognition for my work. The editor agreed. That’s how it began and it has worked for many projects since, although we still do projects independent of each other. How does this partnership work? Do you work together on all parts of the process or do you have different roles? I generally do all the research for the biographies. At first, we relied mostly on picture files at libraries and on books. In recent years, it has been easier to research on the internet. Then John sketches out all the spreads in a dummy. When the sketches are approved, I transfer John’s sketches onto Arches watercolor paper. Sometimes I paint all the backgrounds and he paints the figures and sometimes the other way around. We become a “third person.” The main goal is to have a consistent looking book at the end. I reviewed your biography of J.R.R. Tolkien on this blog back in December 2011, written by you, illustrated by John. How did that collaboration work? Since the life of Tolkien was rather dull in the physical sense and all the magic of his world came out of his imagination, John came up with the brilliant idea that he would incorporate a game board of imagination throughout the book to reflect what Tolkien thought and wrote. I think that is what really snapped the book up. Otherwise, we would have had scene upon scene of Tolkien in his study with paper and pen. I think John captured the spirit of Tolkien’s world really well. I am very pleased with the result. Any dramatic disagreements working so closely with your husband? When John and I work together, we are completely professional about it and always, always keep in mind the most important thing: the end product. I honestly can’t remember any major fights about the work. Of course, we have our disagreements! We’ve been married for 41 years and have shared studio space in all that time. Our biggest disagreements have been about travel. John does not like to travel at all but occasionally has made concessions to me. John loves to spend time in his studio among colored pencils, paints, brushes, and collage material. I really enjoyed working on MERCY! First, it brought to every one’s attention an historic strong woman I was unfamiliar with. Mercy is a positive reinforcement for female roles in history, especially for children. I have written and illustrated books about female historic figures such as authors: Beatrix Potter, Louisa May Alcott, L. M. Montgomery, Laura Ingalls Wilder; a famous artist: Grandma Moses; political figures: Susan B. Anthony, Abigail Adams, Betsy Ross. I have also written and/or illustrated books about famous men, but the women are closer to my heart. The Colonial American period is my favorite time period to illustrate. My kitchen has many pieces of crockery and some furniture from that time. I like the simplicity and classic lines of everyday objects from that time and really enjoy depicting them. I research my material carefully to make sure I have as much information about how things looked from any particular time period. It’s important to depict an accurate account of time periods, especially in children’s books. Why the interest in American history? My favorite subjects in school were history and literature. After World War II I emigrated from Germany, where I was born, with my parents who were Ukrainian and Bohemian, displaced by the war. I have always been fascinated by the United States and its history.
After living mostly in the northeastern U.S., you’ve migrated to Mexico. What drew you there? Do you enjoy a relaxed tropical lifestyle?
I live in Merida, Yucatan. Although it is EXTREMELY hot and humid in Merida in the summer, five months out of the year the climate is very comfortable. I love to swim and do so almost every day. John does not have to shovel snow anymore, which makes him happy. Our dining table is on the terraza and we eat in warm tropical breezes all the time. Both of us are in our studios most of the day. John and I both go to a hotel health club where John works out in the gym and I swim. Then we come home for lunch, take a brief siesta, and go to our studios again for the rest of the afternoon. I meet with a writing friend for a “writer’s group” every couple of weeks. I stay in touch with close friends via Skype and email. It’s a pretty quiet lifestyle, although we are always busy on some project or other. Has Mexico influenced your artwork? Yes. I love my garden and I love cactuses. I have incorporated my garden into work, especially for Ladybug magazine. Also, Mexican color stimulates me and has influenced some bright new paintings. You’ve been in the business since the 1970s. How would you describe the high and lows of the children’s publishing industry since then? What is your opinion of the state of the industry today? Wow! That’s a loaded topic! Lots of change! When John and I started illustrating, we had to work with pre-separation. That meant painting four separate paintings in black and white for each of the four colors that the printer laid over each other - black, red, blue and yellow – to make a colored picture to print. Tons of work! I’m glad I was young with better eyes. The industry used to be more personal, with more contact with art directors and editors. The art director invited us to see our books in the I’m glad John and I had the chance to start and continue in the industry when we did. Holiday House, with whom we published many books, is still a personal place where we have a relationship with John Briggs, the publisher, and the staff. We are very grateful to them. We feel fortunate to have been a part of this industry for so long. What are your present and future projects? Right now I am writing a novel for adults. I am on my second or third draft. I’ve lost count, but hope to tie loose ends together this year and submit it for publication. After that, more painting, I think.
As you may (or may not) know, Vincent Van Gogh was an artist for only ten years. (I know, I know. Take a minute to let that
sink in.) He started late for an artist--at about age 27--and died a decade later. Of course he didn't just start right away painting starry nights and work boots to knock your socks off, he first took a lot of time teaching himself to draw and then paint. He read books on drawing, he took classes and he analyzed what other artists were doing and how they were doing it. Even when he was pretty far along in his career, he kept learning, and using tools that helped him learn. One of the things he used that stopped me in my research tracks (stopped me with delight, I mean) was something called a perspective frame. Here is the Van Gogh museum's description
of it, and below, a sketch of it by Vincent himself:"During a significant part of his career Van Gogh worked using a perspective frame, a centuries-old artistic aid. The frame could be secured to one or two supports at eye level. Van Gogh would view his subject through the frame and on his blank sheet of drawing paper or canvas would sketch the lines that corresponded to the wires and edges of the wooden frame. In this way he was able to make an accurate assessment of the depth of field and the proportions of his chosen subject and to render these correctly onto a flat surface."
So two things about the perspective frame intrigue me. One is that it is a tool to learn while you are doing. What do we who are writers have that does that? More than the writing itself, I mean. (My friend Laurie
says each book teaches you how to write that book.) And the second is that it is a tool that frames a scene for you, or helps you frame it, I should say, depending on where you place it. Go, stand up, and look out the closest window. That's a frame into your outside world, isn't it? If you wanted to paint that scene, the window frame (or a single pane if you have a multi-paned window) would help you put things into perspective (even without the wires) and also frame it for you in a way that would help you see it more clearly and, I think, even more beautifully.
Recently on a panel someone asked me why I decide to write something as nonfiction or fiction, as picture book or long-form narrative book. I answered that usually the project told me itself (Ok, that sounds weird, but you know what I mean) what shape it wanted to be. But that's only half the story. Once I decide on a frame, that helps me write the book. So the first frame is format and length--fiction, nonfiction, picture book, YA book, middle grade, narrative, photobiography, etc. I put my own perspective frame around it, such as in my new book, The Boy Who Loved Math
. Making it a picture book ensured that I will had to carefully craft a narrative that fit into 32 (or thank you, Roaring Brook, 40) pages. That limit and the limit of the age level and the frame of a book with illustrations all went a long way into helping me shape the book. Looking through that frame every day helped me see it in a very particular way. That creates the second frame, the story I choose to tell. (With Charles and Emma
, it was a love story.) Once I decide on that frame, I have to discard (almost) everything that is outside the frame. What I end up writing is from the perspective of me standing looking out my window into the world of my book. What ends up on cutting room floor is outside the frame.
It's all how you look at things. That is something my parents tried to help me see growing up. That how I looked at the world and at certain things that happened to me would guide me throughout my life. It's all in your perspective of it, they'd say. (Seems they usually said it when I was upset about something!). As I write this, Barack Obama is about to take the oath of office in front of the nation (having already done so in private the day before), and this will have a special meaning for me as a person who likes him, and a different meaning for a person who doesn't. It will probably have a very different and more heightened meaning for someone who is African American, seeing how it is taking place on Martin Luther King Day. If someone writes about that, and helps me see it from his or her perspective, that will make me very happy. (OK, I'm adding this after watching the inauguration. Wow. I couldn't stop crying. And I would like to add that writing that from the perspective of so many of the people who participated would be fascinating: a member of the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir
; Richard Blanco, the poet; Chuck Schumer; Lamar Alexandar; our President himself.... )
Where was I?
Back to writing: When I told one great writer friend of mine about the perspective frame, she said that we all need a little help sometimes. Yes, we do. So do children when they are learning to write (and to read). Whether it's a writing prompt or a restriction of some kind (I think restrictions really help in writing) or a genre or a format or a word list even, having a little help is an honorable thing. Hey, if it's good enough for Vincent....
But it's what we do with that help and inside that frame that matters. Here's what Vincent said about his frame in a letter to his brother Theo:
" The perpendicular and horizontal lines of the frame, together with the diagonals and the cross — or otherwise a grid of squares — provide a clear guide to some of the principal features, so that one can make a drawing with a firm hand, setting out the broad outlines and proportions. Assuming, that is, that one has a feeling for perspective and an understanding of why and how perspective appears to change the direction of lines and the size of masses and planes. Without that, the frame is little or no help, and makes your head spin when you look through it."
So: A worship service at St. John's Episcopal Church not so very far from the White House. The old church, once attended by James Madison and buxom Dolley (I wrote a book about her; I could tell you how many times it's been rejected, but I won't), was designed in 1815 by handsome Benjamin Latrobe whose daughter Lydia married an inventor Nicholas Roosevelt, whose great-grand-nephew, Theodore Roosevelt would have one heck of an uproarious Inauguration Day of his own in 1904, complete with Rough Riders and an enforced appearance by the old Apache warrior, Geronimo. And, just for you to know, 93 years earlier, Nicholas and Lydia went on one heckuva steamboat ride down the Mississippi River just in time for the New Madrid Earthquake. Yes, Dorothy Patent, noodling one's way through the winding pathways one's research takes one is a purely engrossing pastime.) .
• A procession to the U.S. Capitol, also designed by Mr. Latrobe. At least President O. doesn't have to worry about having a godawful ride like FDR had with furious, worn-out HCH back in '33. • Joe Biden (born 20 Nov 1942, not long after Allied Forces landed in North Africa, just a few days before a hellacious fire broke out at Boston's Cocoanut Grove and killed 487 night-clubbers...Happy Warrior 'Smiley' Joe shares a birthday with Robert F. Kennedy, Alistair Cooke, and the astronomer Edwin Hubble), the 47th U.S. Vice President, once more will be sworn in to office.
• [the program] U.S. President No. 44, Barack Obama is scheduled to take his ceremonial Oath of Office at 11:30 A.M., having taken his official O. of O. yesterday, in a private ceremony on January 20, the official I. Day. So it was for Rutherford B. Hayes, in 1877, and Ronald Reagan, too, in 1985, being as their Inaugurals fell on Sundays. As a matter of fact, Mr. Hayes was sworn in in the W.H., a presidential 1st, in the Red Room, where charming Dolley Madison once held her popular Wednesday evening receptions before the whole joint was torched by the Redcoats. • Then Mr. Obama gives a speech - no, make that an address. Think about it, Citizens: What would you say to your divided, somewhat disheartened nation? (What would I say? Read a book. Heck, read a LOT of books. Learn what we Americans have - and haven't - been about all these years and think about what you read, for crying out loud. And just for a change, listen and THINK about what we have in common. Our history, for one thing. Our scary future, for another.) • There's a luncheon. Click HERE for the menu! (sounds a good deal fancier than the tortilla/melted cheese & handfuls of 1. cherry tomatoes and 2. MandMs I've got planned. ) • PARADE! • BALLS. (What would I wear? What would I wear? Gownless Evening Strap? Could we have, like, an Author Prom, a BiblioBall or something, PUH-lease??? I totally want to see Jim Murphy in a tuxedo.) Aren't we thankful for the 20th Amendment? If only for the fact that it isn't the 2nd Amendment, which I am WAY sick of hearing about, at least the part of the argument that comes from these automatically-armed-to-the-teeth blowhards? Because at least we're not having to wait until the 4th of March for all of this hoohah. All of this glorious hoohah, celebrating that for all our bloody-minded, well-intentioned, noble, greedy, bumptious, wonderful/horrible goings-on, we Americans have managed this banged up but unbroken chain of power passing to power. And in the spirit of that old saw, that trite-but-true wheeze about this being the first day of the rest of OUR lives, how in the heck are we going to inaugurate it? What are we prepared to do? (Despite opposition, fear, inertia, the tough, fast-changing marketplace) Ponder on our intentions. Ask what we can do for our country. And do it. So help us God.
I don’t often post about my books, but I am very excited that Courage Has No Color
will launch on Tuesday, January 22nd! This is a story I started way, way back in 2003. It took ten years for me to figure out the best form for the story and accurately put all the pieces together.
This is the true story of a very little-known group of men who should be as familiar to us as any other groundbreaking group of pioneers. Led by Walter Morris, these WWII soldiers who were serving guard duty in the Army became the first black paratroopers in World War II. They also integrated the Army many months before integration was ordered AND helped fight an attack by the Japanese on the American West. Yes, you read that right.
There are a lot of personal reasons why this book has become close to my heart—23 reasons, in fact—all 17 men and 6 officers who became the first to blaze this trail. Walter Morris is at the top of that list, a man I have grown to love and am proud to call my friend. He will be 92 next week, and the minute the box of freshly bound books hit my stoop, I packed one up for him. It is beyond thrilling—after talking with him for ten years—to be able to put his own story into his hands, complete with the more than 100 photographs it took me a few years to gather. Black-and-white-and-sepia-toned needles in a myriad of haystacks. Finding them was a whole other story. Thank goodness for helpful archivists in obscure locations and engines like Zabasearch, without which I could not have found scattered relatives of soldiers who passed on long ago.
This is my second book with Candlewick, and I am so fortunate to have an amazing team to work with there. I am also happy to be able to share the brand new book trailer
. The young man you will hear doing the voice-over won 2nd place in the National Poetry Out Loud contest last year, and happens to be local to me. It was wonderful to bring him in for the project.
The wonderful and beloved Ashley Bryan also became an important part of this book. He first read the picture book version in 2003 and we had poignant conversations over the years on the subjects of war and discrimination and art and joy. He read the manuscript of what became this book about a year ago and wrote the Foreword. Incredibly, he also shared his own artwork that he made during the war, when he was a stevedore in the Army. A few of those pieces now grace the pages of Courage Has No Color
Thank you for indulging me today, as I do some blatant self-promotion, but it’s not all that often you get to shout from the rooftops that a new book baby is born! Oh, and there will be a Reading Guide for this title soon, which will include suggestions for use with Common Core.
Okay, I admit it, I’m a research junkie. My favorite activity associated with my work is not crafting brilliant sentences or feeling triumph when I figure out how to organize a huge amount of material so that my manuscript doesn’t have “too many words” (the mantra of many editor these days). It happens much earlier, when I’m in the 'finding info' stage.
That work used to involve driving to the university, miraculously finding a parking spot, and heading into the stacks after thumbing through card catalogs or, later, computer listings of holdings. Now, I rarely go there. The internet has become the ‘go to’ place for most of my research, for a couple of reasons. First off, there’s just plain so much information online, and I know how to ferret out the accurate sites. Secondly, my books now are often on less scientific topics than before. But once I get going, it’s hard for me to stop.
I’ve found that I need to find a balance between following thread after thread until I’m lost in a tangle far from where I meant to be and allowing myself to wander hither and yon on the net and stumbling onto something I didn’t know existed. A perfect example of the latter happy coincidence came while researching my most recent book, “Dogs on Duty: Soldiers’ Best Friends on the Battlefield and Beyond.” Because of my love of canines, I’m on an email list or two, and one had a link to the American Kennel Club Hero Dog Awards. I clicked through just for the fun of it and ended up finding a great dog who became one of my favorite profiles in the book. His name was “Bino,” and he was really a double-header hero. First, he had worked in the military keeping bases safe and sniffing out explosives in Iraq. After he retired, Bino was adopted by Debbie Kandoll, an amazing woman who realized that Bino didn’t’ want to be retired and lounge on the couch. He wanted to keep working. So she employed him as a helper to train service dogs for veterans suffering from PTSD. Debbie and Bino would take the vets and their dogs into noisy malls, riding narrow escalators and navigating crowds of shoppers, showing them that there was nothing to fear. Bino died last year at the age of 12, working almost to the end of his life. What a true hero hound! Now I’m working on yet another dog book and have a confession to make. Today I was supposed to edit some documents for the Authors on Call branch of iNK, and I was supposed to get busy writing this blog. But instead, I started on a quest for photos for my next book—another doggy topic. I went to Google photos and got lost in the plethora of appealing photos of working dogs, then clicking on the articles in which the photos were imbedded. I’ve found that while Wikimedia has photos that are usually available to use for free, Google photos makes it easy to access the information that accompanies the photos by ghosting the articles behind the images. One click on the background and the article appears. I’ve found it’s an easy way to do targeted research. Today, I downloaded some potentially useful photos, discovered a dog who can sniff out buried 600-year-old bones and added five new bookmarks to my already bloated list--and I’ve only gotten halfway through the photos!
One of these days, I may find the balance between hoping for serendipity and being disciplined about my research—after all, you can only fit so much information into a 40 or 48 page book! But I’m in no hurry for discipline; noodling around on the internet is just too much fun.
Read an interesting piece by Jim Downs in the 1/6/13 SundayReview section of the NY Times. It was titled "Dying for Freedom" and took Abraham Lincoln to task for not providing for the welfare of newly freed slaves after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed on January 1, 1863. This lack of preparation contributed to the death of thousands of people, Downs insists. Downs is an associate professor of history at Connecticut College and part of his agenda (made much more obvious in a Huffington Post blog) is clearly to undercut the patriotic glow that surrounds the movie "Lincoln" by highlighting its numerous historical inaccuracies and exaggerations.
Which is fine. A movie like "Lincoln" can overshowdow years of real scholarship and thought in a matter of minutes (and that's got to annoy anyone seriously interested in history) and trying to alert readers to its problems might actually get some folk to dig a little deeper into our national history. There were a number of things in Downs' article that bothered me and a discussion of them could produce a really extended and lively discussion/debate.
But one phrase kept leaping out to me. When thinking about the liberation of the enslaved, Downs says, "Lincoln can no longer be portrayed as the hero in this story."
Why, I wondered, did he have to say that? Bashing Lincoln is guaranteed to get a certain amount of attention, of course. And maybe even result in publication in one form or another. Nothing wrong with that, I suppose, though was necessary to demote Lincoln's hero status in order to set the record straight? It might be a more emotional and passionate way to reconsider Lincoln, but is it correct or fair?
When I wrote A Savage Thunder: Antietam and the Bloody Road to Freedom I was careful not to portray Lincoln as moved solely by idealism and compassion when he drew up the Imancipation Proclamation. He wanted to abolish slavery in the United States and the western territories, but he knew this wasn't universally popular and could take years, even decades to carry out fully. The Emancipation Proclamation was a way, as Downs points out, to scare southern states into rejoining the union. Yet, what Lincoln did was extremely clever because he couldn't legally free the slaves anyway. He had sworn in his presidential oath to uphold the Constitution; at the time, the Constitution clearly said slavery was legal; for Lincoln to abolish slavery would be a violation of his oath and, at the very least, open him up to scathing criticism, not just from the south, but from northern political rivals as well. Instead, he used an act of war that allowed him to seize enemy property used for war purposes (and the slaves fit this description perfectly). It was a clever, legal manuever and, as they say, a game changer.
At the same time I tried to balance this seemingly cold and distant reality with some of Lincoln's own personal feelings about slavery, the ones where his heart spoke without his political-lawyerly filter on, the ones that make him human, filled with self-doubt and, yes, caring. I also discuss the potential for a mass boycott by many of his senior officers (George McClellan and many of his staff openly opposed the Emancipation Proclamation and weren't shy about telling this to newspaper reporters) and this must have weighed heavily on the President as the new year approached. Lincoln knew he was in an epic battle in many ways and he used every way he could to win his ultimate oibjective. My aim wasn't to simply recreate Lincoln as a classic flawless hero, the kind we meet in textbooks, but to let kids meet a man who faced the complex issues and had to figure them out on the fly, usually by taking a pragmatic and calculating approach. That might not make a compelling movie or an attention getting article, but it does portray Lincoln as human and cagey and, oh yes, heroic.
The exclamation point. Lately I’m trying to avoid it, or cut down gradually the way you do when you can’t go cold turkey on chocolate or that late afternoon cup of coffee.
Like coffee, this bit of punctuation has not always been part of my repertoire. I simply avoided them, thinking they belonged in the category of the circles or hearts young girls used to dot the i in their handwritten signature.
That was then. Slowly I began ending sentences with undue excitement. It crept into emails. Into my books. In more informal settings, I might even explode with a burst of three!!! Occasionally I’d throw in a question mark to show mixed wonderment--!?!
I know I’m not alone; we are in a time of exclamation inflation. But that doesn’t make me feel any better. It reminds me of the time I went back home to visit my folks in a Detroit suburb after years of exposure to Boston’s manic driving practices. There I was in the Midwest at a red light with my left-turn signal on. The light turned green and, without thinking, I turned quickly to beat the line of on-coming traffic. Cruising down the new street, I happened to glance over at my dad, who was looking at me in surprised disappointment. “Susie,” he said sadly, “what has happened to you?” (Note to East Coast drivers: Darwinism does not apply to driving etiquette in other parts of the country.)
So why had the exclamation point parked in my punctuation stable, I wondered. Is it part of the emoticon boom that comes with email? I’ve never slapped a J into a note to friends or close business associates. I’ve never even considered the more sedate form of :). Maybe throwing in a few !!! was my way of joining the crowd.
Or maybe--it occurred to me—it’s not the times, but that I began to write for children. I really hope not, though I’m pretty sure I didn’t use them in my articles for Harper’s Bazaar, National Geographic Traveler or Discovery.
I hate the idea that it could be the writing-for-kids theory. Did I really think they really need a mark to show them when to be excited? Hope not. It feels like talking down to kids in a way. Or worse, a crutch for bad writing.
I will continue to monitor my use of exclamation points carefully, but I am curious about what others think of this matter. Do you find yourselves plastering them into your sentences more than before? And if so, why?
There’s something special about speaking at the main branch of the New York Public Library. Walking up the grand steps between Patience and Fortitude – I never remember which lion is which – gives one a sense of arrival, that you are a member of that rarified club called writers
. And does that feel good.
Last Saturday, Meghan McCarthy
, fellow INKers, Deborah Heiligman
, Sue Macy
, and I, participated in a panel discussion about ethics in nonfiction for kids. It was part of Betsy Bird’s Children’s Literary Salon that meets there the first Saturday of each month. The wood paneled room on the second floor quickly filled as Betsy scurried around for more chairs. Deb, Sue, Meghan, and I took seats atop a plush Oriental carpet. I wondered what great writers stood on these warps and wefts.
With my colleagues permission I taped our panel. Or I should say I taped most of it because my recorder was on the chair beside me, and as I shifted my butt, the recorder would stop. This is yet another reason to always bring along additional recorders. A number of people have asked if there was an audiotape. Rather than playing the entire tape, I’ve pulled together a few excerpts.
Part of our discussion had to do with selectivity in nonfiction – what we put in our books/what we leave out. I hope my selective choices and shaping of the tape fit the ethical standards of my colleagues.
Betsy started us off with a question about our process. I turned on the recorder as Sue Macy was describing her collection of bicycle memorabilia for her book, Wheels of Change: How Women Rode the Bicycle to Freedom [With a Few Flat Tires Along the Way
Sue: I went to a bicycle auction. I also do typical research. I go to libraries and read diaries and scrapbooks. I do a lot of newspaper research because I find reading articles from contemporary newspapers is a really good way to get back to that time period – to see how people are speaking about their subject back then. And now, thanks to the Library of Congress and other sources, a lot of those newspapers are online.
Deborah: Well, I’ll tag on that. I’m a primary source junkie. When I talk about writing nonfiction, my talk is titled “You Can’t Make This Stuff Up.” And what I mean by that is two-fold, one is you can’t make this stuff up. Nonfiction is so amazingly wonderful. I think we all feel that way. There are great stories out there. And then the other you-can’t-make-this stuff-up means you’re not allowed to make stuff up. When I wrote Charles and Emma, I could have read the bazillions and millions of pages that had already written about Charles Darwin, secondary sources. But I wanted to encounter Charles Darwin and Emma Wedgwood Darwin on my own. I wanted to meet them not through anyone else’s filters. I was lucky to be able to read letters, autobiographies, diaries, and Darwin’s notebooks. And by so doing that I was able to do original research that nobody else had done. I looked at diary entries and journal entries at the same time as letters and scientific notebooks. Then I pieced together the story of Darwin’s work and his family life. I wouldn’t have been able to do that if I was using secondary sources because Emma Darwin was only a line or a paragraph in every book.
I firmly believe that the person you are married to influences who you are and what you do. I knew in my heart starting out that she was a big influence on Charles Darwin, but I had to do the research to back that up. Since I write mostly about dead people, unlike Sue and Susan, I haven’t figured out how to contact them in any other way, but I do also interview experts. I’m your primary source gal.
None of my people are dead. My books are based on interviews with people who represent a subject. They are not the entire representations of the subject, but a piece of it. For example, my last subject was capital punishment, specifically teenagers on death row. One thing I learned quickly from talking to various lawyers was that I knew nothing. Before I could begin working I took a course in capital punishment at NYU Law School. Usually I don’t like to do that. I want to be a blank page so that I’m completely open to the thoughts of the people I interview. But I really needed to know what questions to ask.
The second thing I have to do is find the people who will participate in the books. That takes most of my time. I go to various organizations that represent people in whatever subject I am studying. I look for the very, very best organizations, ones that sorta get me, and understands what I’m trying to do.
Sue: Do you ever get people who want money from you?
Susan: I’ve had two, what I would call shakedowns, and they are not included in my book. No one is paid.
Deborah: I once had an expert ask for money to read my book. I said, “You know what, I’m going to find somebody else.” And I easily did.
Meghan: I go to antique stores because you can get lots of magazines of a period and get a sense of the time period from ads and articles. Some of the stuff from the 1950s and 60s is very shocking. They were very sexist and racist.
Betsy: Has anyone ever had a book idea that you had to drop because you couldn’t get the research?
Sue: Last year I emailed you [Betsy] a story about the Black List, the Hollywood Black List. It’s still in my head. You have to use the facts to get your story, and I know what the story should be, but the facts didn’t support it. So it’s on hold until I can figure out the angle. I mostly write about women’s history. I want that sort of angle on the Hollywood ten, especially the TV black list. I keep trying and trying and reading things and reading things. That’s the problem with nonfiction. If it doesn’t fall into place, you either do fiction, or you don’t write it.
Susan: That’s where the ethics come in. We have a wide girth, but it has to be based on truth. So what do you do? Do you take a subject and try to find the material that fits your point of view, or do you let the subject lead you?
Meghan: I think it’s going to be slanted by the writer’s point of view to some extent. That’s a problem I find researching. One newspaper says this and another newspaper says this.
I had a horrible book accident. I had this great idea for a book because I had read an autobiography by a guy [Bob Heft] who said he had invented the fifty-star flag. This was in the 1950s. He had just died. He had this whole story about how he did it when he was a teenager in high school. He was on news shows and he posed with celebrities. There was a ton of stuff to back this up. But doing the research with my editor, I thought there was something that was just not right. He said that he was holding up a flag with Eisenhower. My editor asked me to illustrate this but I couldn’t find any photographs of it. She was determined to make this happen. She contacted the Eisenhower library, and it all started to fall apart. They said, “You know, we don’t have any documentation that this actually happened.” We looked into it further and the whole story was bogus. We canceled the project. This guy made up this up, and it turned out that lots of people came up with that same star design.
Deborah: Let me say this one thing. I think a book needs to be labeled fiction or nonfiction. As a grownup or a child I don’t want to be confused by that.
Meghan: I have a thing about Thomas Edison. They say that Thomas Edison invented the light bulb on such and such a date. I’m going to change that. I’m working on a graphic novel about electricity and stuff. I think there are a lot of inaccuracies about Thomas Edison. I didn’t think he was a good guy.
Deborah: Writing is about the choices we make.
In my new picture book, The Boy Who Loved Math: The Improbable Life of Paul Erdos
[FYI: to be published in June by Roaring Brook], everything in the book is true, both in words and illustrations. But you sweat this stuff like nobody’s business. This is a book that took me so long to write. It’s a biography, essentially, but guess what, it’s for little kids. And you just can’t get everything in in thirty-two pages and make it a story that moves. I had to craft a story out of this man’s life, which turned out to be not so bad because he had such an amazing life. But in doing so, some things ended up on the cutting room floor. For example, when he was being born, his two older sisters died of Scarlet Fever. That was in many, many drafts, but it highjacked the book. You’re in first or second grade, and can’t get over that his two older sisters died of Scarlet Fever. It was a decision, a choice I made. [Note: Deborah put the sisters’ deaths in the author’s notes.]
We have to make the story true but that doesn’t mean we don’t craft the facts. We have to craft the story, shape the story.
So you’re killing yourselves to be accurate, and you show it to your editor. Have you ever been asked to remove anything that was accurate? Let’s say you put a toilet in outer space, Meghan? [Referring to Megan’s book, Astronaut Handbook
Meghan: The toilet is in there.
Susan: Years ago I was asked to remove curse words. At the time some of my books covered some heavy-duty nonfiction subjects. My editor asked me to leave out the F-bomb. She said, “Don’t give people the excuse to not buy the book because of the profanities. Let them not buy it because they are racists, or sexists, or homophobic.” That’s changed. There’s lots of profanity in my next book.
Deb: There are lots of bathrooms in your new book.
Susan: Yes, lots of bathrooms.
Sue: I was never asked to take out things, but I was asked to put in things. When I wrote about the women’s baseball league in the 40s and 50s there were no black players. And my editor, Marc Aronson, said, “You have to say that upfront because it was a fact about this league that people should know. And then get it over with.”
But I said it’s kinda like the putting a pall over the story, like what you were talking about [to Deborah], about the sisters. But I put it in because it was my first book, and he knew what he was talking about. Every critic said, “While there were no blacks in this league …,” they accepted it, and moved on to enjoy the story. So sometimes editors actually know best. [Laughter]
|Susan, Meghan, Sue, and Deborah|
To read more, Mahnaz Dar covered this event for SLJ
I’ve never been one of those writers who tuck their laptop into their bag and then head off to a coffee shop to work every day. I’m too attached to my ergonomically angled keyboard and the utter quiet of my office.
But every once in a while, I need a change of scenery to get me into the right frame of mind. I need a place that is not my office, and I need to pick up a pen.
When I’m stuck and I need to be playful—when the tone of what I’m writing needs an element of play—sometimes it works best to leave ergonomics and quiet behind.
I have a couple places near me that I like to work, and this one is the most playful of all: a teahouse inside a little red caboose.
Technically, the entire teahouse is not in the caboose. There’s a whole addition built out from the back side, with lots of tables and chairs, a lovely outdoor courtyard, and about 50 kinds of tea. But to enter the teahouse, you board the little red caboose. Just the idea of it makes me happy. They also make an excellent masala chai with just the right amount of spice and the right amount of sweet.
I went to the caboose last week, when I was working on a new idea for the early concept books I do with National Geographic. The books introduce simple ideas supported by fabulous photographs (not mine, of course—the fabulous photographs that have made National Geographic famous.) I’ve written about a variety of topics: water, families, peace, a day in the life of school kids, and a new title
out this spring encouraging kids to get out and explore.
My goal with these titles is to have a clearly defined concept expressed succinctly in an accessible tone. To express a big idea in a kid-friendly way, with language that doesn’t take itself too seriously.
In other words, to be playful.
That kind of writing is best not done at a quiet computer. That’s when it’s a good idea to head to a caboose.
I had a different post written. About ethics in nonfiction. I'd like to publish that post some day. I'm sure I will. But not today.
Because as much as we debate and discuss what is the best way for our children to learn, the best way for us to write for children, what constitutes nonfiction, how angry it makes me when people play fast and loose with the facts, all of that is moot if unstable people are able to have easy access to guns.
What good is it to create books for children, to teach them, to care so much, if people in power are too cowardly and bull-headed, too self-interested about their own political futures and too caught up in rhetoric, to legislate wisely to protect children? To protect all of us?
I don't have the words to talk about the calamity in Newtown, CT, in a way that will make the (mostly) men in power change the laws in this country. I don't have the perfect way of describing how angry I feel about the fact that it is really difficult for many mentally ill people to get good treatment and really easy for people in most states in our nation to get guns. Guns not for hunting, or killing the odd rabid raccoon on your land, but guns for murdering people.
People I've been writing with and talking with since Friday understand legislation better than I do. They understand guns and gun laws and gerrymandering and all the reasons why there is more regulation in automobile safety (which is of course a good thing to have) than in the purchase of guns. They understand that in some states it takes a month to get a gun while in a neighboring state you can walk into Walmart and buy one. (I really like what Nicholas Kristoff had to say the other day in "Do We Have the Courage To Stop This?")
There is no reason why there should be so many guns in this country--250,000,000 plus. There is no reason why there are so many guns that are easily concealable. Guns that you don't have to reload so you can murder people in movie theaters and children coloring at their first-grade tables. There is no reason. Don't give me the right to bear arms. Don't give me the argument that you want to defend yourself. A gun in your home is more likely to kill you or someone you love than an intruder. Don't give me that.
Give me a country like most of the other civilized countries in the world where people recognize that guns kill innocent people. Give me a country where we put health and safety first, where we put love first, where we put children first. (I really like what Gail Collins had to say about finding the best in our country again in "Looking for America." )
I did a school visit in Newtown, CT, in April, 2010. Not at Sandy Hook, but at the Catholic school a mile and a half away, St. Rose of Lima. It was a good day, really nice people, though there were a couple of snafus (on my part), funny things that happened that I liked to tell people about afterwards. Now all I can think about is those kids I met, their lovely parents and teachers, and how they've been touched by unspeakable tragedy.
So many people I know are one degree away from this tragedy.
But aren't we all?
There's a Mr. Rogers quote that's been making the rounds. Have you seen it? Here it is, from this site, in case you haven't:
"When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, "Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping." To this day, especially in times of "disaster," I remember my mother's words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world."
Let's be those helpers, folks. Let's demand better gun legislation. Let's demand that it be REALLY HARD to get access to guns. Let's demand that the kinds of guns that are created only to murder people are BANNED. Let's demand EASY access to health care, including mental health care. Let's talk about other ways that we can make our country safe for children, for all of us. Let's work together to tell the grown-ups what children already know: guns are bad. And: grown-ups are supposed to protect children. Are supposed to be ABLE to protect children.
Let's be those people that children look at and say, Those are the helpers. Those are the caring people in the world.
If not now, when?
I was going to write about outlining today -- a discussion of how, for me, what we teach about writing doesn’t address how I write. But this I.N.K. blog, which sometimes can seem like a chain of unrelated, individually-crafted essays, is really a conversation about writing and the world we write about. In the face of reading Cheryl Harness’ and Deborah Heiligman’s eloquent and heartfelt Monday and Tuesday blog posts about Sandy Hook Elementary School, I feel that jumping off into an entirely different area isn’t going to work for me.
Sandy Hook is five miles from my house. Just about halfway in between is Newtown’s Ferris Acres Creamery, a paradise of green meadows, cows and ice cream where I (along with the rest of the neighborhood) spend way too much time. Half the fun is the people watching -- babies and puppies and “kids with the jitters in their legs and those wide, wide open stares,” in the beautiful words of Joni Mitchell. Parents and grandparents and people on motorcycles... You get the idea, and you know where I’m going with this: what happened, happened to those people I see at the Creamery, and in the library, and at the comic book store and movie theater. While I feel unequal to the task of figuring out what to say, I know that when you’re grieving just having someone say they don’t know what to say is a balm, so consider it said.
This past September, I went on a whale watch, shadowing Joanne Jarzobski, a Cape Cod high school biology teacher and naturalist. Joanne is the person at the front of the whale watch boat on the microphone who tells you whether the shadow in the water is a humpback or a finback or what. She’s the first to spot a spout or a fin or a fluke, indicates where whale watchers should look (one o’clock? five o’clock?) to get a glimpse, and is usually able to provide a whale’s identity and even a little biography, employing an internal database (as well as an external one) of identifying features.
The veteran of more than 1,600 whale watches, Joanne draws on her own experiences and those of a network of other naturalists in sharing and spreading understanding of animals that live mostly out of human view. I have a sense that she is never completely back on shore; part of Joanne is always out at sea, and her imagination takes her under the sea. When I talk to her, check her Facebook page, check a fact for the book I’m writing about her, I see that Joanne is often right about the whales -- and often surprised, too.
Even those with the most knowledge, it seems, are subject to wonderment about what is actually going. on. When I ask Joanne why a whale follows the boat or jumps out of the water or hangs around one spot in the ocean or migrates a thousand miles south, she often shrugs. Like the biologists who spend their lives studying whales, she recognizes the limits of human knowledge about whales. We may know more than we’ve ever known, but that’s still not saying much.
Yes, we know that whales’ ears -- and behavior -- appear to be affected by loud noises from ship engines and sonar booms in the sea. We know where some of the whales go over the course of the year -- but not where they all go, nor all of the reasons why they migrate. We know that different pods of orca have different feeding practices, comparable to the different ways families cook their Thanksgiving turkeys. But what scientists are seeing -- and naturalists are interpreting -- and writers and illustrators try to convey -- is only part of the story.
This isn’t what you’d call a profound or original observation on my part. Consider the proverbial tip of the iceberg that is only mildly indicative of what lies beneath. Consider the blind men who examine the elephant and extrapolate that it is, alternately, ropy like its tail or stumpy like its legs or floppy like its ears. My message gets at what the essence of science writing is for me: how complex and deep and inaccessible and humbling the world is. How continually I feel like I know nothing. How difficult it is to talk about something enormously misunderstood or under-understood. How you wind up talking about questions, not giving answers.
It’s science, but it’s also life. How many of us this week have pored over the reports from Newtown, Connecticut, trying to divine the dark mystery, the great why, the answer to the questions that seems to lie invisibly between the photographs of people crying, descriptions of the local Christmas tree lighting, quotes from the neighbor or the cousin or the friend? At the same time that we criticize the media for intruding on this stricken, grieving community, we cannot ignore and even seem to need their stories and pictures. How else can we try to understand the enormity of life, other than by the glimpses they provide?
So we writers follow people or events or ideas around, trying to explain, humbled by our subjects, obsessed with the questions, and aware that we’re not the only ones trying to answer them.
Person of the year, event of the year, book of the year, movie of the year – it’s that time again. Though my tax-woman will soon want my income/expense statements, only I need a literary balance sheet. A few years ago I began writing goals at the beginning of each month, printed them, and taped them to my printer. That scrap of paper staring at me motivated me to do what I said I would do. The other day I revisited that file and saw that my last entry was September 2011, when I wrote down goals for the coming year. Measuring years from September is a habit this student/teacher apparently hasn’t broken yet. As 2012 nears its end, here’s my balance sheet. It illustrates the ups and downs, twists and turns, detours and dead ends of this writer’s life. GOALS FOR 2012, from 2011 Project #1 – My editor wanted a revision of a picture book biography.
Progress: I did two (or was it three?) rewrites and then she rejected the project, asking for a
new approach to the subject. My disappointment led me to ignore the whole thing until…. a couple of days ago. I want to tackle this one in 2013.
Project #2 – A big biographical project (over three years old now.) Progress: I worked on this intermittently, revising old chapters and writing a couple of new ones. Almost ready to submit. Projects #3 & 4 Resurrect an old novel and a YA biography. Progress: Still interred. Project #5 Proposal for a book about rock and roll Progress: Abandoned when I learned there was no budget for photos and lyrics permissions. Project #6: Biography of a neglected female subject Progress: none, but I’m still interested THE BOTTOM LINE: not as bad as it first appears OK, I only worked on two of those six projects, but …. Project #7 My sojourn in London brought forth a new biographical subject which I researched there, wrote at home, and submitted. Progress: Fingers metaphorically crossed. Project #8 I completed the photo research for a new edition of The Wind at Work last year (more than enough for the book.) When my editor made the final choices *all* I had to do was get high res scans and permissions. What I thought would be a few days’ work turned into weeks. Project #9 Raise your hand if your research on one book led to another one. I thought so. Work on project #2 (above) led to #9, a picture book biography. Progress: First draft completed, research ongoing. Progress on four projects. Motivated to revisit one more. Some possibles for next year I’ve got ten days left in 2012 to come up with goals for 2013. One of those will be the revival of my monthly list of goals. But looking at what I did and didn’t do this year, I see some of what it takes to keep at this writing gig. • openness to new opportunities • discipline to finish projects when inspiration might be waning • flexibility to reconsider everything • willingness to let go when the spirit – or the publisher – doesn’t feel moved HAPPY NEW YEAR ONE AND ALL!
Every single thing you take for granted can disappear in the blink of an eye and be replaced by something unimaginable.
When my own grandparents were born, there were no telephones, no refrigerators, no airplanes, and fewer than 25 automobiles on the planet. Talking to people hundreds of miles was away was UNIMAGINABLE. Where they lived, transportation without a horse and drinking fresh milk without a cow were unimaginable too.
By the time my parents were born, people were driving around in Model T Fords. But everything from traffic lights, jet planes, and air conditioners to color photography, microwave ovens, and polio vaccine was UNIMAGINABLE.
When I was born, there was no such thing as power steering, rock and roll, credit cards, or TV (where I lived, at least). Rockets to the moon, e-mail, and gigantic full-color high-definition TVs with hundreds of channels were absolutely UNIMAGINABLE.
When our kids were born, all the telephones were huge and had a dial. There was no hint of a little cell phone you could carry to the top of Mt. Everest if you were so inclined (even though an ancient comic strip detective named Dick Tracy used to wear a 2-way wrist radio). And what about GPS, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, iPads and blogs like this one? UNIMAGINABLE.
When my second granddaughter was born nine months ago, she could take all of this technology for granted, and you can bet your boots that unimaginable changes lie ahead. But let’s talk about something else she sees every day--something that didn’t disappear and has stuck around for centuries.
My granddaughter still owns real books; the delicious 3-D kind filled with magic and beauty and color. Ever since papyrus scrolls and animal skins made way for parchment and paper, countless millions of us have loved reading books. A world without them seems UNIMAGINABLE.
But in the blink of an eye, the unimaginable future of books as we know them is on the march. High quality books made out of paper are at risk; for the moment, e-books seem poised to outsell them, and they can be sold ever so cheaply when the cost of paper, printing, binding, and glue is not an issue.
Anything can happen. Right now, for example, digital picture book formats have to adjust to another company's tiny online display area instead of using delicious double page spreads. Otherwise the type is too small to read. Popular previously published picture books can't always manage that and will be lost. So illustrators and publishing venues will either have to find new ways to get around the restrictions without losing quality and creativity, or the artists will have to abandon their years of work, throw in the towel, and find another way to make a living.
Quality might suffer in other ways too. Anyone can publish a book online without being vetted by discriminating professional editors and art directors who know the difference between first-rate writing and junk. Readers could drown in an overwhelming deluge of garbage. How will the cream rise to the top? And how will the professional authors and illustrators make a living if all their hard work is sold for pennies (assuming that their readers can even find it)?
Publishers seem to be up in the air about how to stay profitable, and you can be sure they are considering all the options as they get steamrollered by Amazon and bought up by conglomerates. Professional authors and illustrators will do well to consider all of their options too. There's always a way. And the evolving changes and surprising results will be UNIMAGINABLE.
So carry on, watch your backs, and stay tuned.
It’s been a while since my last I.N.K. blog posting — 675 days, or 16,192 hours, to be (too) exact. And that’s what I want to write about: meaningless precision. Also referred to as false precision or fake precision, this is a logical/mathematical fallacy that, once noticed, is encountered frequently.
Overly precise figures are often used to lend questionable data and unproven (or simply bogus) concepts an aura of credibility or scientific validity. Real scientists, as it turns out, are careful not to use figures that are more precise than their data justifies.
Examples of meaningless precision are easy to find. Sources of nutritional information are always a good bet. An online recipe (the first I looked at, in this context) called for, among other things, one small eggplant and eight slices of bread. It actually sounds pretty tasty — here’s the link: http://www.eatingwell.com/recipes/eggplant_panini.html
. I learned that each serving of this dish contains 659 mg of sodium and 353 mg of potassium, quantities apparently unaffected by my definition of “small” or the thickness of my bread slices. I don’t doubt that the intentions of the recipe’s author were good, even if these figures are impossibly specific.
I’m less sanguine about a spam email I recently received informing me that I could make $12,587 a month working from home. Or the label of a homeopathic remedy for the flu known as Oscillococcinum. Starting out as a tincture of duck heart and liver (don’t ask me), this preparation has been diluted to one part duck to 10400 parts water. At this concentration, one would have to ingest a quantity of Oscillococcinum many times greater than the mass of the universe to be assured of swallowing a single molecule of that unfortunate fowl.
Pointing out this kind of absurdity isn’t particularly clever or original, but it does have something to do with writing children’s nonfiction, and I’ll get to that in a moment.
But first: normal human body temperature. It is, as most people know, 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. Except that it’s not. It’s more like 98.2. Carl Wunderlich, a 19th century physician (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carl_Reinhold_August_Wunderlich
), measured healthy body temperatures of 36.5 to 37.5 degrees Centigrade. This range was rounded, quite sensibly, to 370
C, which converts to 98.60
F. The rest is history.
This example is getting close to home, because it illustrates a problem that I confront when writing about the size of things. A recent book included a pangolin, a kind of armored anteater. Pangolins live in Africa, and according to the website of the African Wildlife Foundation (http://www.awf.org/content/wildlife/detail/pangolin
) they range in length from 27 to 42 inches. I always include the metric equivalent of imperial units, since most of the rest of the world measures things metrically, and I'd like to give the U.S. a nudge, however small, in that direction. To include a range in both units makes for text that is discouragingly full of numbers — the pangolin is 27 inches to 42 inches (69 centimeters to 107 centimeters) in length — so I usually choose a figure in the middle of the range, in this case 36 inches — three feet. It’s not quite in the middle, but it does have the advantage of sounding rounded off and not too precise. The trouble arises when the metric conversion — 36 inches to 91 centimeters — is made. The metric figure is too precise. It implies that pangolins are not variable in length, but exactly 91 centimeters long. I could round off the metric units, but that would yield a too-precise imperial unit figure. Or I could write “36 inches (about 90 centimeters),” except that those “abouts” get annoying when there are dozens of creatures described. Or I could use a rounded off metric figure that would not be an accurate conversion. But, to quote Richard Nixon, that would be wrong.
I recognize that this issue doesn’t rank highly on the list of problems facing humanity. Still, it bugs me. I share it with I.N.K. readers in hopes that someone will suggest a workaround. Or maybe just to get it off my chest.
As we welcome the New Year, I've asked a former colleague to shed some light on a new medium. Mary Kay Carson was an editor on Scholastic’s science magazines back in the early 1990s, when I was editorial director. She’s spent much of the time since then as an independent author of more than 30 nonfiction books about science and nature. She’s also written a book-app, which was just named a one of the finalists for the 2012 Cybils. She chronicles the process of writing that app here. Enjoy, and have a great 2013. In the spring of 2011 a book developer/packager that I’d previously worked for contacted me about writing a book-app. (At that point, we were calling it an m-book, as in “multimedia-book,” as opposed to an e-book.) The book packager was starting up a new all-digital division called Bookerella and wanted a nonfiction kids “title” for its launch. Like so many start-up and new media ventures, payment was a promised slice of future profits. Writing on spec is not something I can afford to do much of, so I agreed to the gig with the stipulation that the subject be familiar, which is how the book-app ended up featuring bats. Houghton Mifflin had recently published my Scientists in the Field book, The Bat Scientists, so I was up on all things batty. In truth, I had no clear idea of what the final product would be like. I thought it might be an e-book with video, zoom-able images, and maybe a map with pop-out labels—something like Al Gore’s Our Choice. This format seems to me like a natural evolution of nonfiction illustration. If you’ve ever written a book with only black-and-white photos or two-tone illustrations, you know how constraining it can be. And even color photos still sometimes leave me with that same old frustration of wishing that my reader could see what I see—bats swirling up out of a cave, video of geysers on Saturn’s moon Enceladus, the squeal of a happy rhino. Aren’t e-books or book-apps just the next step in illustration? Content Provider, SME, or Author? I wrote up text for eight spreads of basic bat info for the book-app—what bats are, what they eat, where they live, echolocation, etc.—in a somewhat picture-bookish narrative style. (It’s nearly night. The sky is darkening. Look up! What is flying overhead? ...) I also specked some image samples for each spread and offered some possible multimedia ideas. From then on my hat as a writer pretty much stayed on its hook. My role switched to SME (subject matter expert). The designers would telephone conference and throw out ideas for “experiences” like an interactive of echolocating bats hunting bugs with sounds effects, and I would say science Nazi things, like: “You can’t hear ultrasonic sounds, that’s what ultra sonic means.” This continued through reviews of sketches and sample builds of experiences. Whatever vague notion I’d originally had of what a book-app can be was greatly underestimated! This one ended up with a spinning wheel that highlighted featured bats and their foods, scenes of different habitats where kids look for roosting bats in caves or under bridges, and other sophisticated interactive features. Bookerella built it on an iPad-native gaming platform so it takes advantage of the tablet’s bells and whistles. For example, the final chapter features a bat flying high above the landscape and you get to steer the bat by tilting the iPad, like driving in a racecar app. Once images and experiences were finalized, I did do some caption and label writing, but my primary role again switched—this time to fact-fixer and bat species checker. Bats! Furry Fliers of the Night was released in early 2012. It received some nice reviews, garnered a bit of acclaim, and was adapted and installed into the Memphis Zoo’s bat exhibit. But the book-app hasn’t made a profit, and I don’t expect a check anytime soon—if ever. Why not? I’m no expert, but people don’t like to pay for online content and apps. It’s all free, right? Bats!was priced at $4.99 initially, then dropped to $2.99, and is now offered for free at iTunes in a teaser version of two chapters. Sophisticated book-apps aren’t cheap to produce, and software developers and techies are where most of the money goes—not writers. It’s sort of like making a movie. How much of a multi-million dollar blockbuster’s budget goes to the scriptwriter? Content is important, but relatively cheap in the scheme of things. What our role as nonfiction authors, writers, and content providers is in the new media age is evolving as the media evolve. Here’s hoping there’s a place for us!
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Happy 2013 everyone! My New Year has started well with the promise of a multi-book contract. With a real publishing company! One that will pay me! The past three years of struggle and shrinkage in the publishing industry started me thinking about books and about the digitizing of everything. We will come out of this, but things will be different. In the process of writing the proposal for my new series, I needed to refresh my memory of the gas laws, some classic settled science. I first studied them many decades ago and still have my college textbook: Foundations of Modern Physical Science by Gerald Holton and Duane H. D. Roller, copyright 1958. It is a brilliant book that combines history of science with breakthrough laws that define physics and chemistry. You can see that it has been well used. But I’m in today’s mode of at-your-fingertips research, so I Googled “the gas laws” and received a wealth of material, which I browsed through, looking for a clear, succinct treatment. I happened upon an ebook written by a high school chemistry teacher. It was lively, light-hearted and easy to understand. Clearly the author grasped the concepts and knew how to get them across. His words had “voice.” Then I read a sentence that jarred me. He was discussing carbon dioxide and mentioned that yeast produced it. So far, so good. Then he said that yeast was an animal. That’s just plain wrong! I read no further. The talented teacher/author had not had his book vetted, or perhaps even edited. This is not unusual for much of the fare available on the web. Hordes of wannabe authors have embraced the new leveled digital playing field. If you can type on a computer, you can be a published author. Our culture has traditionally embraced published authors in the same manner it esteems professional athletes. To be a pro means you have survived a rigorous competitive winnowing process. For authors it involves an initial acceptance by editorial gatekeepers only to be admitted into a new, higher-level game where their work is measured publicly by critics and award-bestowing committees. Stories of rejection slips chronicle every writer’s journey to the promised land of seeing words in print. I remember when I received the galleys (old word for “proofs”) for my first to-be-published book after five failures. I must have stared at the words “by Vicki Cobb” in a bold-faced Roman font for hours. It was so professional; so formally different from the Courier typeface of my typewriter. It had a sense of permanence and importance. It was meant to last. (Carved in print?) And best of all, I had earned it! Back in the day, if you wanted payment as an author, the first hurdle was to get to an editor. It helped to have an agent. So wannabes sent in unsolicited manuscripts to agents and to publishers where they were relegated to something called “the slush pile.” Not a very encouraging title! Many publishers hired “readers,” English majors fresh out of college, to cut their editorial teeth by reading the slush pile. It didn’t take long for them to realize that most unsolicited submissions were not worth even a modicum of the work needed to salvage something the public would buy. But every once in a while someone discovered a diamond-in-the-rough and a best-seller actually emerged from the slush pile, keeping alive the hopes of all the wannabes. How has the digitization of everything changed the game? Now everyone gets to read the slush pile! Oh, where are the gatekeepers when you need them? Just the other day, I was told the story of a local minister who has just published four story-books for children through Amazon’s self-publishing program. (Why does everyone think they can write a children’s book? Cuz they tell the story to their own kids, who like them?) I politely said, “Good for him! How are sales?” “Well, he just started. He’s learning Facebook.” The game for today’s self-published authors is to develop an online readership, one beyond friends and family, that will make a “real” publisher sit up and take notice. So take heart, publishers. There is a role yet for you to play. Yes, you need our talent and creativity. But we need your editorial and design support and the rigorous vetting process you put us through, something unknown to all those digital “authors” out there. And together, we need to forge a stronger, more inventive partnership to promote our collaborative efforts so that they bubble quickly to the surface, well above the melting slush.