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This week I reached my hit-by-the-bus benchmark for another book. Don’t worry! It’s not what you might think. No, I haven’t become so frustrated with the project to have considered throwing myself in front of a bus. (Although as authors we might feel that way sometimes!)
Quite the opposite.
Instead I’ve reached that golden moment when the book is nearing completion. I’ve made my last revisions, written the final photo captions, tweaked the back matter. This baby is almost done! I say to my friends with great glee, “I could be hit by a bus, and the book would still come out.” The expression may sound a bit melodramatic, but for an author who has spent one-two-three-ten—pick a number—of years working on a project, the relief of knowing the book will “make it” is palpable.
I came up with the hit-by-the-bus benchmark idea many years ago. I was working on one of my early books, With Courage and Cloth
, and the process had become endless. I began to worry: Will I ever finish this book?!
The more years I worked on it without completing it, the more my anxiety began to rise. What if I never quite make it? What if I get that close to done but something happens to me? The book will never come out, and no one will get to see all the cool photos I found of suffragists picketing at the White House for voting rights or learn about the forgotten story of how they went to jail so that women would earn the right to vote.
You get the idea. I became extra careful in my personal life—looking both ways twice
before crossing the street, et cetera.
Alice Paul celebrates, 1920. LC-USZ62-20176
When the book finally reached the phase of printer’s proofs, my relief was palpable. Yes! The bravery of those suffragists would become known to young people (and the grownups in their lives). The ingenuity of Alice Paul—architect of the employment of nonviolent resistance for her cause four decades ahead of the Civil Rights Movement—could be celebrated again.
When the book came out months later, it caught on with readers, and, fortunately, it remains a favorite almost a decade later. Every year I hear from students who are featuring Alice Paul and the National Woman’s Party in History Day competitions. Thanks to the Common Core, the book will remain influential for the foreseeable future, too. Thank goodness I wasn’t hit by a bus in the middle of the project!
Seven books later I’ve crossed another hit-by-the-bus benchmark. Phew! Now the next book will see the light of day, too, as, I expect, will I.
After all, by now it’s a habit. I always look both ways twice before I cross the street.
Being a nonfiction writer is so glamorous! At least that’s what it looks like from reading the jacket flap bios of many nonfiction writers and illustrators. After all, we’ve trekked with gorillas, dived with seahorses, explored dark caves, and flown up to the Arctic with the Air Force. You might even think that from reading my books and articles. After all, I’ve hung out with rocket scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, hiked to the summit of Mount St. Helens when it was erupting, visited volcano observatories on Mount Merapi with a team of American and Indonesian volcanologists, and spent sunny days bobbing on the ocean with wave energy engineers. It IS pretty awesome. Except for when it’s not.
I’m going to tell you a story that you’re not going to find any suggestion of in my book Eruption: Volcanoes and the Science of Saving Lives
, just released by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on June 18.
Soon after signing the contract to write this book, I got on the horn to the volcanologists at the Volcano Disaster Assistance Program to see if I could tag along on any summer field work. Volcanologist Andy Lockhart told me that his team was helicoptering a small group of Chilean volcanologists onto the upper flanks of Mount St. Helens to do some maintenance work on a monitoring station and to install a new one. And he invited me to go! “Wow,” I thought. “I have the coolest job EVER.”
After a few days, though, he called me back to say that he was mistaken; government rules would not allow unauthorized personnel on the helicopter. But he said: If you can find your own ride…
So I called Tom Uhlman, the photographer hired to shoot the book, to see if he would be up for splitting the cost of hiring our own helicopter. He was game, so I priced it out, and we booked it. I was going to helicopter in to meet some American and Chilean volcanologists on the flanks of freaking Mount St. Helens! “Awesome,” I thought. “I have the coolest job in the WORLD.”
A few days later, the helicopter company called. They were mistaken. There was no way they were going to land their helicopter on an ash field where their delicate components would get ground up by the glasslike slivers of ash.
I was heartbroken. There had to be a way…
So I called Andy. “Is there any way we could hike in and meet you?” I asked.
He didn’t think we could take the usual climbing route because it’s too snow- and ice-covered and we’d need crampons and ice axes. But he thought we might be able to go up and around the glacier.
So I called around and found a volunteer guide. He would carry a radio, a GPS and map. Tom and I packed our backpacks, hiking boots and hiking polls. We were set.
The hike started out mellow, winding through the woods. We hopped on a trail that circles the volcano and the sun shone brightly, the sky was blue, and the wildflowers were everywhere. I thought: “I really do have the best job in the world…”
Soon we headed off trail up some steep hills full of loose volcanic scree. We heard a distant helicopter and caught a glimpse of it far off, but we couldn’t tell where it went.
We checked our GPS reading and the map and trudged up canyons and down canyons. We were winded but happy.
Finally, we found the canyon that we thought would lead us safely to the volcano monitoring station. We were much later than we thought getting there, but still had many daylight hours ahead of us, so up we went. Up and up and up. Through scree piles that avalanched under our feet. Over large rocks and boulders. And then we faced a huge, steep snow field. The kind where you’d be better off having crampons and ice axes.
We decided that the guide and I would head up alone, and Tom would stay with his equipment until we were sure we had found the right place. (This is Tom, having a much needed rest.)
We couldn’t see or hear the helicopter or any voices. But it was still a long way up and over a ridge, so we thought maybe it was all hidden from view.
We trudged up, kicking our toes in to the snow to make shallow steps. Did I mention that I’m a little scare of heights? I just kept my eyes on the snow ahead and tried not to look down. Then, I lost my footing. I slipped and started shooting down the ice field, picking up speed. I kicked my heels into the snow and grabbed desperately at the glacier with my hands but I just kept sliding. I was nearing the guide, and I reached out my hand. In what felt like slow motion, he grabbed my arm and stopped my slide. We both sat in the snow for a while, panting.
He gave me a gentle look. "I don’t hear anything," he said. "I don't think they are up there. Maybe we should head back."
But we had come this far. So we trudged to the top and over the ridge.
This amazing photo of the America and Chilean scientists working on the volcano monitoring station on Mount St. Helens? I didn’t take it. Neither did Tom, nor the guide.
That’s because we never made it there.
We hiked over the ridge to find nothing. Nothing but a bunch of volcanic rubble.
I actually had a tantrum, stomping my feet up and down, pounding my fists in the air and yelling: “I don’t believe it! Where are they???” (I was only half joking.)
We estimated that we hiked about 18 miles, with at least 6,000 vertical gain. It was a beautiful day, but I ran out of water long before we got back to the trailhead (and anyone who knows me knows I am a fiend about packing ample water.) We hiked out after dark, tired, hungry, and dehydrated with our legs wobbling from all the vertical (and I run half marathons!)
No one had any energy to drive anywhere. Our guide kindly offered to put us up for the night. We gobbled down some burgers and a beer and stumbled off to bed.
But for me, the ordeal wasn’t over. I woke up in the middle of the night, and I didn’t feel right. I was surprised to find that my legs felt pretty good as I made my way to the bathroom – but that’s the only part of me that felt good. Let’s just say that I kissed the porcelain god.
I cleaned it all up and crawled back to bed. I felt a little shaky the next day, but made it back to Portland. An email greeted me when I got home: “Where were you? We had a very successful day and brought you a nice lunch and lots of water.”
To this day, we don’t really know what went wrong. Sometimes things go wrong.
And that isn’t the only time I’ve had to struggle to hold down a meal while doing field research. I’m deep in the throes of researching and writing another Scientists in the Field book about wave energy pioneers – engineers on a quest to transform that up and down motion of waves into electricity.
One of my first trips out was a sparkly blue-sky day with only four foot swells. But stuck inside the boat’s cabin peering out the tiny windows, trying to interview a scientist and take notes, the waves felt a lot bigger. After a while everyone on board started to look a little pale and a little uncomfortable. Someone offered motion sickness medicine and a few popped the pills. Others sipped ginger ale. And one person – I’m not saying who and it wasn’t me – threw up off the back of the boat. Several times.
But that’s all in a day’s work.
Care to share any gruesome stories from your research? I dare you.
(Photos courtesy of Tom Uhlman, except the shot at the top, courtesy of USGS scientist Martin LeFevers.)
It is Women’s History Month and I am happy to be celebrating it with my new book about a very important woman. Who Says Women Can’t Be Doctors? The Story of Elizabeth Blackwell, is about the first woman doctor in America. I wanted to do a picture book about her for some time, and finally got the chance to with the brilliant Marjorie Priceman, who has done a priceless job of bringing this piece of history to life with her illustrations.
I am just starting to get a chance to interact with kids and other readers for this book, and am having a ball. On World Read Aloud Day, I Skyped with a whole bunch of students who wanted to know all about Blackwell! And in New York City, I was invited to do a book signing at the annual meeting for the American Medical Women’s Association, where every year they give one woman doctor an Elizabeth Blackwell Award in recognition of her contribution to the cause of women in medicine. Talk about a building full of powerful women! Wow. And were they ever enthusiastic about this book! They wanted copies for their daughters, nieces, granddaughters—and for their waiting rooms. And get this—three different women told me their young sons think that ONLY women can be doctors, since that is what they see!
My travels also took me to Washington, D.C., where the other Elizabeth in my life was remembered. That would be Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who I wrote about in Elizabeth Leads the Way. She jumpstarted the suffrage movement at Seneca Falls. It took more than her lifetime, but women finally got the right to vote and the 100th anniversary of the 1913 march was celebrated while I was in town. Fellow writer Penny Colman and I were able to meet up for this incredible occasion and march on that very cold morning with her lovely granddaughter.
All hail the Elizabeths—Blackwell and Stanton—for their unwavering determination, tenacity, and commitment as we celebrate Women’s History Month this March.
As I write, it's the Ides of March, official anniversary of Julius Caesar's deathday (44 BCE) and the 246th birthday of cantankerous Andrew Jackson. That is, if this U.S. President No. 7 hadn't been dead for years. But this post goes live on Monday the 18th and seeing as I'm a nonfiction author, given to enthusiastic bouts of looking things up – man oh man, the things there are to FIND OUT. It turns out that a Scottish MP was born 18 March 1891. And on a September night in 1954, during Alice Cullen's time in Parliament, hundreds of her young constituents (ages 4 ~ 14) had to be calmed down, and told to take their knives and sharp sticks and leave a huge old cemetery in Glasgow. Why were they there? Hints: 1. Vampires. 2. Comic books,
In any event, if you're reading this, you may well know that Black History Month grew from the strong and certain belief of such African American scholars as Dr. Carter G. Woodson and Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois that the history of their race was a rich subject for deep academic attention. Out of this devout certainty came Woodson's brainchild, the first Negro History Week, born in February 1926. Why shortish, mercurial February? Because African Americans had long been celebrating Lincoln's birthday and the one which Frederick Douglass chose for himself: February 14. In 1976, America's Bicentennial, after 50 years of progress, protests, violence, and breakthrough civil rights legislation, the week was expanded to a month's worth of study, commemoration, and celebration.
So how is it that March was set aside for making the citizenry aware of women's history? Because of history, as you might expect. Or "herstory," as we might have said back in the 1970s, if it hadn't seemed so pretentious, stilted & weird. On March 8, 1857, just a few days after James Buchanan's inauguration, New York City needleworkers so badly needed to work fewer hours (10 hrs. per shift) in better working conditions, that they went on strike. Heavy-handed policemen, under orders, busted it up. Even more violent was the garment workers' strike in 1908 - on March 8, in honor of those who'd gone before. So it was that the Socialists attending their International Congress in Copenhagen, Denmark, chose March 8, 1910 as the first International Women's Day. So, after 60-some years of parades, protests, the Vote, the Pill, and doors forced open, a group of Californians launched an official "Women's History Week" for the week of IWD, 3/8/1978. That week grew to an entire month, to be proclaimed presidentially and noted nationally, as of 1987, by way of a joint U.S. Congressional resolution. (It's said that a Republican and a Democrat - Orrin Hatch and Barbara Mikulski – actually co-sponsored the legislation. Those were the days, my friend; we thought they'd never end.)
Check out these books ANY time of year, but especially now, in Women's History Month, do avail yourself of this dozen-or-so books (to name but a few) about those who came into the world as girls. • Ballet for Martha [Graham], by Jan Greenberg, Sandra Jordan, and Brian Floca. • Lives of Extraordinary Women: Rulers, by Kathleen Krull and Kathryn Hewitt • Minette's Feast: The Delicious Story of Julia Child and Her Cat and Clara Schumann: Piano Virtuoso, both written by Susanna Reich • What To Do About Alice? How Alice Roosevelt Broke the Rules, Charmed the World, and Drove Her Father Teddy Crazy by Barbara Kerley and Edwin Fotheringhan • Write On, Mercy!: The Secret Life of Mercy Otis Warren and Jeanette Rankin: Political Pioneer, both by Gretchen Woelfle • Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony: A Friendship That Changed the World, by Penny Coleman • Bylines: A Photobiography of Nellie Bly, written by Sue Macy • Helen's Eyes: A Photobiography of Annie Sullivan, Helen Keller's Teacher, written by Marfe Ferguson Delano • Remember the Ladies: 100 Great American Women and Rabble Rousers: Twenty Women Who Made a Difference, both by Cheryl Harness By the way, if it happens that you don't read my newest, Mary Walker Wears the Pants, DO read someone's book about this real, live, courageous, idealistic, stubborn-as-all-get-out, high octane woman, whose history is well worth the knowing. Pretty well summed up in the subtitle: "The True Story of Doctor, Reformer, and Civil War Hero." DO read up on Dr. Mary Edwards Walker, a valiant, eccentric Medal of Honor winner (only woman to whom it's been awarded), best known in her time as a cranky, outrageous female, who was determined to free those of her sex from genteel purdah. From steel-boned corsets and their long, heavy, unwieldy skirts and petticoats. (Fun to wear once in a while - a reenactment deal or a school visit - like being a transvestite in a time tunnel. But every day? Just. Shoot. Me.)
So, regardless of their race or gender, grateful I am to those souls who braved the storms, walked the walks, and fought the fights. They all deserve a medal.
|Dr. Mary Edwards Walker|
Among the happiest readers may be those who follow the advice: “Go lose yourself in a book.” I suspect the same can be said for writers.
This winter I lost myself in the writing of yet another book and was reminded of how magical a space that is to inhabit. Those people lucky enough to write books know what I mean. Those who read great books should imagine their own consumption pleasures magnified as if they have traveled through the looking glass.
These days I write from the luxury of solitude. In earlier years I juggled the responsibilities of marriage and growing children when I wrote. Nothing could be harder, as I am reminded when I observe the writing lives of younger friends. Somehow we do it, just as somehow we smile our ways through days of thin sleep after the arrival of babies, feeling like the luckiest, if not the most-rested, parents on earth.
Now, though, there are no alarm clocks or car pools or meal schedules in my life. Time is measured in deadlines, goals for the day, hunger pangs, and diversions for exercise and other fun. After I’ve converted my research into ready-reference note cards and aids—from time lines to diagrams to maps to photographs—I am ready to lose myself in the creation of a book.
I go through rituals before I start this writing journey. I pay all my bills in advance. I plan what I will cook, and I stock my fridge. I get extra sleep. I touch base with my closest friends; they know I am about to become scarce, and, as a testament to their friendships, they understand and forgive me when I stop corresponding and disappear. Ditto for family members; we keep in touch, but the World of the Book becomes part of their world, too, and when we interact they share in my investment in the process. Lastly, I choose what books I will read at bedtime, something complimentary (perhaps from the same era) or something familiar. I have been known to re-read Jane Austin (“Not again!” say my sons) or Harry Potter—anything that is relaxing without being diverting. I want to keep my thoughts in the World.
Then the work begins.
Let me be clear: All is not picnics and roses. This is work.Mind-draining, body-aching, spirit-straining work. For me, anyway, the book takes over my head and my life. I’m a morning person, so work starts early. Sometimes I wake up inspired and go straight to the computer in my robe and pajamas. I may stay that way for hours, snacking on hasty meals and brushing my teeth at out-of-routine moments. I measure my progress by how many inches of note cards I have consumed, marking my place with a vertical manila card bearing the hand-lettered text “HERE.” Chapter one, chapter two, and so on.
After a week or two of solid writing, I begin to dream in paragraphs. I don’t mean that I dream nice organized dreams. I mean that I see blocks of text in my dreams. It is not peaceful sleep. Occasionally, for variety, I dream about the historical figures in my work. Sometimes I don’t sleep at all, wheels spinning as I work my way around a writing corner, measure my progress against the parallel clocks for goals and deadlines, and try to reinforce my commitment to the bone-wearying process with reminders of treats that await at the end of the work. Renewed visits with friends. The chance to plant a garden. Maybe a trip. Getting paid! Carrots and sticks. You get the idea.
The easiest way to keep going, I find, is to think incrementally. I know my destination (the conclusion), and I have a pretty good idea of how I want to get there (because of my note cards and research), but it is easiest to march along one chapter at a time, one paragraph at a time, one scene at a time, as it were. Suddenly I’ve advanced another few inches through my note cards. Suddenly another chapter is roughed out enough so that I can proceed to the next one.
And so it goes until my head is in the World 24-7, even when I am away from my desk. When I go out for walks, I almost see the history. A dog, a car, someone’s gesture all are evaluated automatically through the lens of the work. When that happens, I know I have lost myself in the book. After slipping into that groove, I hang on for the dash to the conclusion. As grateful as I am to reach the end, its attainment feels bittersweet, akin to the reader’s experience of finishing a great book—you hunger for more.
Fortunately, for writers, there is more. Revision!
And so I stay in the World even longer, testing my early work to see how well it holds weight, strengthening it with rounds of rewriting, pursuing additional research lines, if needed, and polishing, polishing, polishing the language.
When I finally step away with a finished manuscript, I do so with a mixture of relief, gratitude, and regret. My connection to the book will never be so strong or personal again. The end of the writing process is like the end of a living thing, and I can see how such loss might hit some writers particularly hard. For me, anyway, the regrets fade quickly. There are those rewards, after all, including picking up again where I left off with friends and family and fun.
As often as we write about writing, I remain fascinated by the subject and about how others experience this process. Perhaps you may want to chime in. Readers, writers: What happens when you lose yourself in a book?
In the past few years, almost every state in the nation has adopted the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). The English Language Arts Standards are not limited to upper grades, either. Even the youngest kids—the K through 2 set—will be using the CCSS to explore nonfiction literature in their classrooms, libraries, and homes. With that in mind, I thought I’d use this post to introduce two things: a new book and a new Teacher’s Guidejust posted on my website, with ideas for how to apply the CCSS to all of my books.
Out this month is my newest book, The World Is Waiting For You. And while the main text only has 115 words, it can still be explored using the CCSS.
The ideas below are built around the Anchor Standards for Reading. (For grade-specific guidelines, click on “Reading: Informational Texts” in the sidebar on that page.) CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.2 Determine central ideas or themes of a text and analyze their development; summarize the key supporting details and ideas. The central ideas of The World Is Waiting For You are the importance of getting outside to explore and the benefit of following your curiosity. My purpose is to encourage kids to get outside, explore, and see where their curiosity takes them—and to suggest that if you follow your curiosity as you grow, it will enrich your entire life. The book begins with an invitation to explore: “Right outside your window there’s a world to explore. Ready? Follow that path around the next bend. Who knows where it might lead?” This question works on both a literal and figurative level. The path itself leads to new places to explore and things to discover; and the act of following your curiosity leads to personal growth and a better understanding and appreciation of the world. The text and photos then depict exploration on a child-scale, such as hopping into a pond or standing under a waterfall, followed by the same type of exploration on a future adult-scale: scuba diving with dolphins. Similarly, digging in a mud puddle might one day lead to digging for fossils, and star-gazing might one day lead to exploring space as an astronaut. Throughout the book, kids see the value of exploring now and can imagine where the love of exploration might take them in the future. And the final spread in the book echoes the opening lines and urges them to get going: “The whole wide world is waiting for you… Ready. Set. Go.” CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.5 Analyze the structure of texts, including how specific sentences, paragraphs, and larger portions of the text (e.g., a section, chapter, scene, or stanza) relate to each other and the whole. In the guidelines for grades K-2, this anchor standard asks students to identify text features and analyze how they provide key facts or information. The extensive back matter of The World Is Waiting For You provides a wealth of information to enhance the main text. The explorers depicted in photos in the main text get a fuller introduction in “The Faces of Exploration” section of the back matter. We learn their names, where each photo was taken, and specific facts about their work as explorers. This section also includes quotes from several of the explorers talking about the impact exploration has made on their lives. In a “Note From National Geographic,” John M. Fahey, Jr., CEO and Chairman of the Board of the National Geographic Society, discusses the Society’s mission and commitment to exploration. He ends the note with words to encourage kids to explore on their own. Thumbnails of the photographs identify where each was taken and photo credits list the names of individual photographers.
Finally, the back flap of the book jacket shares information about other books I’ve written and my personal experience with exploration.
Check out my Teacher's Guide for ideas on how to apply the CCSS to my other titles, including the biographies Those Rebels, John and Tom; The Extraordinary Mark Twain (According to Susy); What To Do About Alice?; Walt Whitman: Words for America; and The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins.
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, the publisher of my book The Mighty Mars Rovers: The incredible adventures of Spirit and Opportunity
just released enhanced e-book versions of my book and three other Scientists in the Field titles. And I have to say, they are pretty dang cool.
Here’s a short video that shows how they work:
I’m a pretty low-tech person (lucky to be married to a high-tech hubby and raising a high-tech tweener) and I still read books the old fashioned way – printed on paper and bound with a cover. But iPads and the like can do something that print books cannot. They can show video.
When I was researching and writing The Mighty Mars Rovers
, I discovered a treasure trove of cool videos and animations produced by NASA and the Jet Propulsion Lab, available for free to the public. They showed Spirit and Opportunity’s launches (impressive billowing smoke at take-off), the sequence of their landings (parachutes deploying, retrorockets shooting, air-bag-wrapped landers bouncing to a stop), and how their robotic arms move. Several videos strung together photos taken by the rovers so you could watch their journeys across the red planet as if you were rolling in their tracks. And update videos showed scientists and engineers talking about their work on the mission – their hopes and dreams, their disappointments and triumphs. I loved watching the videos while researching and I remember wishing my readers could watch them, too. But how would kids ever find them and would they take the time to wade through the archives to find the best ones? I linked to a few of my favorites on my website, but I really wished readers could see
the robotic arm in action while reading about the robotic arm.
And now there they are (among other enhancements). As you flip through the pages, small video icons show where to click to view a short video on the topic discussed. My daughter, who has read the book, spent several hours watching all the videos – some of them multiple times. And I think she got more from the book as a result.
But what if kids simply flip through and only watch the videos? Would that undermine the purpose of the book? From viewing the videos, kids would learn a lot about rovers, about Mars and about the scientific process. Some might be inspired to consider a vocation in science. Others might be inspired to work a little harder to overcome obstacles to follow their dreams. But I wonder: Will some kids be inspired to read a book they might otherwise have passed up? That’s something I’d really like to know. Will the enhancements become a substitute for the written word or a way to pull kids in or lead them to a deeper understanding?
What do you think about interactive enhancements in ebooks? What are the possibilities? What might be the drawbacks? Writers: What have been your experiences with enhanced versions of your ebooks? Teacher, librarians, parents and kids: Have you had any interesting encounters with enhanced ebooks? What was it like? Did it change the way you approached the book? We are entering a brave new world full of pitfalls and possibilities. I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences.
Was chatting with a friend the other day and he asked me about this CCSS stuff he was hearing about. I gave him a brief explanation and he thought it sounded like an interesting move and one that might benefit me and other nonfiction writers in many ways for years to come. I said, "We certainly hope so!" But as soon as I said that a dark cloud passed over my obvious enthusiasm. And I added, "But there's been some push back about it."
And we've all heard about incidents of resistance to and downright loathing for the changes to the CCSS. Educator Diane Ravitch has come out against the CCSS and has recently called for parents to band together in an effort to get their states to withdraw their agreement to impliment the changes. Even while saying that she finds much that is good about the changes, her anti-CCSS blogs sound like typical paranoid tea-bag rants about big gubmint and evil private business interests. Or is that the evil gubmint and big business interests? Anyway, it's almost as if she knows she won't convince the vast majority of level headed professional educators, so she's gone to scare tactics to get parents into her camp.
There are other negative voices, of course. At a recent literary conference the director of the college's library services said he liked the changes to the CCSS, except "there was too much nonfiction." !!!! I know a writer of children's nonfiction who feels the changes are profound and wonderful, but hates the Appendix B list of exemplar texts. I tried to explain why I thought the appendix was useful and appropriate, but this writer would have none of that and still denounces the appendix whenever a discussion of the CCSS takes place. Could some part of this writer's antipathy be because he/she doesn't have a book on the exemplar list? Meanwhile, there is a blogger/reviewer who seemed downright annoyed that at last summer's ALA conference more and more publishers, especially of textbooks, are actively promoting their various products as CCSS compliant. In the same breath, said blogger/reviewer promised to do a review column of books that are CCSS compliant. Go figure.
It's not that any of these individual voices will turn back the changes to CCSS on their own. While insistent, I don't think they are ultimately very persuasive (there's too much obvious self-interest involved in their positions). But I do think their constant, negative drone can have a wearing effect. And I do have a parellel situation that, while it might be a bit of a stretch to some, does seem worth thinking about. That's the anti-gun discussion that's going on right now.
Following the terrible tragedy at Newtown, CT, there was a massive, emotional out cry for gun law changes. This was answered by the now famous response of NRA President Wayne LaPierre (that certainly didn't do his or the NRA's image much good). After this, a variety of news reports of shootings taking place all around the US were reported, until my wife Alison looked at the paper one day and said, "I can't stand to read about any more of these shootings!" My response was, "if you want real gun reform, you should be ready to read about shootings every day of the week and every one should be on the front page."
Of course, the news reporting of shootings has dropped off considerably and so has the emotional edge in the gun reform message. But the anti-reform movement has steadily preached the usual line of "we must be careful about our Constitutional rights" "it's not the guns; it's the crazy people" "we already have enough laws; they just need to be enforced" etc., etc. As announcers sometimes say about football games, the momentum seems to have shifted.
What does this have to do with the CCSS? It seems that a great many teachers, librarians, school administrators, writers and others have embraced the changes and are busily preparing to carefully impliment them. But they aren't all explaining the changes or defending them publically. So the negative voices seem to be holding court unopposed. And having some effect. Maplewood has an online community called, naturally, Maplewood Online. Recently one poster who dislikes the school adminstration (and has for years) has begun including a condemnation of the changes to the CCSS as yet another evil plot by the school superintendent and his minions. You would think other posters might call her on this, but they don't. She goes on and on in various threads, each adding a negative buzz about the CCSS. Which reminds me; I have to get a MOL account to respond to her rants!
And that's my point. We talk about, praise, and defend the changes to the CCSS here in this blog. But I think we need to get our voices "out there." Vicki did this very nicely in a response to a Dianne Ravitch blog and I'm sure others have responded in a variety of ways to similar negative comments. But I think we need to add our voices if not daily, at least over and over again. I'm going to respond tomorrow to the Ravitch post (though I promise not to be snarky) and then make it a practice to address the negative noise whenever I encounter it as best as I can. I have a feeling that if enough positive voices are heard, and heard constantly, we can keep the momentum going in the right direction.
As kids’ book writers, when we think conference, we usually think NCTE, SCBWI, IRA, or ALA. Now that I teach at the Low Residency MFA Program in Creative Writing at Lesley University in Cambridge, MA, I’m also a member of AWP (the Association of Writers and Writing Programs). Last week I went to my first AWP conference—a crazy confab of over 550 readings and panels with 12,000 writers spending four days trying to find connections, inspiration, and bathrooms at Boston’s Hynes Convention Center.
Writing for young people is a relatively new addition to MFA programs so the proportion of programming devoted to our genre is much smaller. I also noticed that many of our sessions were the first and last of the day, seemingly less desirable times. Interpret that as you will.
Hating Your Writing: A Love Story didn’t have a children’s book author on its panel, but still seems a useful discussion for any of us. Five poets and prose writers (Richard Bausch, Molly Peacock, Daniel Nester, Melissa Stein, and Chuck Sweeney) discussed that hideous moment when your euphoric assessment of your draft somehow plummets from brilliance to dross upon the next reading. What are these literary mood swings? Is there ever an upside? Can dejection lead to breakthroughs and better writing?
If any of these writers were feeling literary despair on Saturday, they kept it to themselves. Instead they tried to share their insights on managing the emotional ups and downs of creative life. Here are some of their points that struck me:
Chad Sweeney likened these emotional downswings to exhaustion, then commented that exhaustion is sometimes a healthy reaction, especially if you are trying to write to anticipated criticism or expectations or in a style that once fed you but no longer does so. It can be a sign you have to figure out how you’ve gone off course—dig in or dig out—and come up with something new.
Melissa Stein suggested that there are two types of internal critics: one is discerning and can make helpful comments you should consider, the other is the bad parent (think Joan Crawford in Mommy Dearest) who insists you don’t even have the talent or right to tell this story. Give yourself the time and space to figure out which critic is in your head and act accordingly.
Richard Bausch spoke like a veteran. He said it’s working that is important. Put in the time and at the end of the day, ask yourself, “Did I work?” If the answer is yes, you’ve accomplished your goal. Develop a sense of calm; you can’t mess your writing up because you can always do over. If all else fails, lower your standards and keep on going. Remember, revision is all.
Molly Peacock agreed. Keep your standards high and your expectations low; it helps you keep going. But allow room for dormancy; it’s all right to walk away for a while with the intent of returning. Furthermore know yourself and how to interpret your energies and feelings. Peacock is a morning writer. As a result, she refuses to make any judgments or decisions about her writing after 3 p.m.
Donald Nester said he sometimes gets unstuck by changing the form that he’s writing in a little. Let yourself get lost again and something new might happen. Even journaling can transform material into the nugget you need to find your way.
Other miscellaneous tips:
--Be kind and compassion, give yourself permission to fail by reaching into new areas.
--Create the conditions you need for good writing--good food or walks--anything that makes you feel more open and engaged and closer to the source.
--Banish the critic and get it out there. Then draft by draft by draft, things proceed toward grace.
--If you can’t turn off the critical voice, acknowledge it and go on.
--Always remember, things may not be as bad as you think. Vladimir Nabokov dumped his manuscript of Lolita in the garbage, only to have it rescued by his wise wife. In other words, wait a week and read it again.
Young Adult fiction author John Green is famous for his brilliant fiction and his VlogBrothers
This week, he talked about traveling to sustain his career
with speaking fees and book promotion.
And while we write different kinds of books for different kinds of kids, we have that in common.
We both travel – a LOT.
So let's discuss the pros and cons -- in this case, the cons and pros -- of school visits.
|A GREAT hotel in Boise, ID.|
I can’t define what “a lot” means for my friend John. But I can define it for myself. I have spoken to between 50 and 75 schools and conferences a year for the past five years. A few are within driving distance. Most require airborne transportation. And both kinds of travel can be really tiring. Con.
Ground transportation mix-ups are a frustrating after a full 10 to 12 hours in airports. It's cold on those curbs, waiting for a stranger to pick you up. But waiting is all that works, with the flight delays of modern times. So you wait. LITTLE Con.
Hotels and hotel beds can be if-y. Not all neighborhoods are welcoming. And some beds should be in sleep deprivation museums. Enough said. Con.
Hungry? Sometimes that's a problem. If your host forgets that authors eat, and your hotel is not within walking distance of a restaurant, those Southwest peanuts you stuck in your bag start to look pretty appealing. Temporary starvation. Con.
Before I start to look really whiny, hold on. Am I complaining? I am NOT – not even for a fraction of an instant. These CON things don't happen very often, other than the long airport hours. And I am grateful for the chance to connect with the kids that read my books. Pro.
Hanging out with kids keeps me on track to write true stories they care about.
I do this for my financial gain, sure.
But that’s not the real reason.
I do it for those kids.
And when I listen, they confirm my published books were worth writing.
They evaluate my new story ideas and show me where I should go to write the next one. BIG Pro.
Then there is research. When I travel to a new city, I can do research for my future books. In San Diego, I visited two haunted houses and investigated with a paranormal team for four twilight hours to prep for my ghost book. Does it get any better than that? Pro.
|Photo by Roxyanne Young|
I also supplement my writing income with speaking fees. And those fees allow me to work well, not quickly. With school visits, I can take four years -- two years of research prior to sale, two years after -- to write a book that only paid enough to cover two months, if I’m frugal; one month upon signing, the other after acceptance two years later. Thanks to the generosity of parent teacher organizations, I can do serious nonfiction research, even if my topics are non-traditional. And that is important to me and to the kids that read me. HUGE Pro.
Let’s not forget book sales. I sell more books doing school visits than I could without school visits. In 2012, I visited 19 elementary schools in February, thanks to the Literacy Connection, a group of retired educators in central Washington that organizes author visit tours each year. I was one of their authors in 2012. I talked to hundreds and hundreds of kids and sold more than 2,000 hardcover books , along with earning my fees. The organizers said we sold more books than had ever been sold before – most to reluctant reader boys, aching to love a book. They loved mine. Pro! Pro! Pro!
|Girls like my books, too!|
That brings us to my last reason for loving (and enduring) school visits. Every time I walk into that gym, that library, that commons room, that auditorium, that cafeteria, what I do is plentifully reaffirmed.
If ever I've wondered if I made the right choice to write 25 years ago, if I've wondered if anyone cares about my books, if I've ever grieved not winning awards, or the pain in my knees, or the flus and viruses I get on the road, the uncertainties vanish the minute I see those smiling faces. Doubt is replaced with joy, without exception.
I have a genuine passion for writing, and I’m good at it. But it pales in comparison to my passion for young readers. “You are my favorite writer.” “This is my favorite book.” “I want to do what you do when I grow up.” Sentences like those discount the con columns. They wash the cons away.
I do school visits because they are a part of who I am. I am never more completely myself than I am when I’m with those kids – or the grown-ups devoted to helping them.
Travel in post 9/11 airports may feel like hell. But once you get to a destination that feels like heaven, what difference does it make?
I AM lucky to do what I do -- even when it includes a 6:00 am departure time. So onward! And to all of you brilliant, generous hosts out there, thank you for being the angels that you are. You are not just my hosts, you are my friends.
Kelly Milner Halls
The newest crop of award-winning films from Hollywood, Lincoln, Zero Dark Thirty, and Argo, are all based on true stories. The key word here is “based.” It seems that film-makers have no trouble inventing scenes, creating dialog, and inserting information that is completely made up if, in their opinion, it makes a better story. The rationale? Movie-goers “expect” an exciting chase scene in Argo or a Navy Seal raid on Osama Bin Laden’s home to be noisy even if it never happened. Historians are worried because so many people are learning history from the movies. Will the story from the movie’s point of view become the myth that supplants the careful scholarship and meticulous digging that drives the best historians to get it right? The good news is that these transgressions are being noticed. But we authors who contribute to this blog, who craft nonfiction for children, may be held to the highest standards around. We’re not allowed to make anything up. Period. Maybe we’re the last group on the planet to be held to such high standards. Anna’s recent post on Just the Facts shows how hard we work to make sure we’re accurate. The erosion of the truth seems to be touching journalism as well. One previously absolutely inviolate journalistic standard was that every fact must be verified by at least three independent sources. It’s hard for a reader to check on the accuracy of many stories because journalists can keep some of their sources secret. So one outcome is that people wind up reading and tuning in to the media they agree with. The biased medium becomes the arbiter of what it wants its audience to believe, cherry-picking from the many conflicting “facts” being touted in public that support different sides of critical issues. It’s no wonder that the “echo chamber” of Fox News [Un]fair and [Un]balanced skewed version of the news kept them in a bubble oblivious to the possibility that Obama would be elected, even after the election results were called by other news services. Many pundits dissected why Fox News got it wrong but the consensus seems to be that they had problems believing the inconvenient truth of independent polls so their own slanted views became their own truth. I googled the words “journalism erosion of standards” and up came a slew of posts with many different examples about the extent of misinformation foisted on the public. There was so much disagreement between these posts that I’m now confused about the truth on a variety of issues. But all the articles seem to agree that many news organizations play fast and loose with the truth in the interest of ratings, readership, political and social bias, and the bottom line. Propaganda is alive and well in the good old USA. What happens when misinformation is embedded in a compellingly told story that has a lot of truth to it? What should our response be when it is uncovered? Here’s a thorny problem from the film Lincoln: It seems there were two invented Connecticut “nays” against the 13th amendment in the voting scene in the movie thus casting the Nutmeg State incorrectly on the wrong side of history. My initial reaction was: where were the fact checkers? This is the kind of error that is so easy to correct. Were the film-makers being lazy or sloppy? The Connecticut congressman, Joe Courtney, called out the error in an open letter to director Steven Spielberg. In response, Tony Kushner, the screenwriter admitted that it was no accident. He had made the changes deliberately. Kushner argues that the facts were changed to serve the larger story: “These alterations were made to clarify to the audience the historical reality that the Thirteenth Amendment passed by a very narrow margin that wasn't determined until the end of the vote. The closeness of that vote and the means by which it came about was the story we wanted to tell. In making changes to the voting sequence, we adhered to time-honored and completely legitimate standards for the creation of historical drama, which is what Lincoln is.” In other words, he used artistic license to shorten the voting scene in the film from the actual historical voting time in the interest of a dramatic effect. You can read the arguments here. So it wasn't laziness or sloppiness. I think he has a point. Dramas like Lincoln and Argo create tremendous interest in history. When kids encounter a compelling story or an amazing fact they want to know if it is true. The proper answer is “Mostly.” But a curious kid now wants to know what’s true and what isn't. Aha! A teachable moment! What an opportunity! Telling details (small things that catch one’s attention) can add to the credibility of a work if true or, if incorrect, indicate that the work was not vetted for accuracy and perhaps shouldn't be trusted. If only the interested person knew for sure which were which! Maybe this is an opportunity for us. Perhaps it takes authors who write history for children to create white papers on these films. They could explain what is true and where truth has been manipulated. They could ask questions like, can you think of another way to meet the requirements of an historical drama without changing the facts? Are there any fabrications that are unacceptable in a work that portrays real events? If so, what are they and why should they not be included? What does a careless error of fact tell you about the creators of the work? Whose responsibility is it for those errors? Searching for truth drives us in creating our books. Perhaps we need to add our voices into the larger conversation engendered by the popular media.
Hey teachers! Kids too! Are you writing any nonfiction stories in class these days? Lots of schools are trying out this approach to writing in general, and they’re studying the different ways good nonfiction books are written in particular, especially in light of the CCSS. So what different kinds of writing might work nonfiction-wise? There are plenty.
Try doing live interviews or writing a journal, for example—they both count as nonfiction. A few ideas:
Maybe your class can interview various folks who were on the scene during a great or terrible historic event, such as the Summer Olympics or even 911. Or try interviewing somebody who has an unusual job; maybe the old Santa Claus at the mall or a fireman (naturally) or your mayor or a local musician or a TV personality or your own bus driver.
And maybe you can pen some truly amazing journals during a field trip to a museum or a festival or an historic site. (Of course if you aren’t going on any field trips, you can always write some pretty entertaining journal entries about the food in your cafeteria.)
Or take a stab at uncovering the true story of how your own family came to America. Whether they got here last Wednesday or 300 years ago, doing the research is a hoot…and be sure to ask your parents or grandparents. You'd be surprised what they know and what you don't.
Or you can write research papers about things you’re learning in class—some examples might include compiling all sorts of comments about the frogs (living or dead) in your science lab, or researching and writing about a disterous Civil War battle for your history class, or making like a professional critic who’s writing book reviews for your English class, or examining the statistical issues behind today’s economic crisis in your math classes without putting anyone to sleep. Now there's a challenge for you.
IT IS OK TO HAVE FUN WHILE YOU DO THIS…YOU DON’T NECESSARILY HAVE TO GET ALL SERIOUS (UNLESS YOU WANT TO.)
Yup, your writing has to shine; that’s a given. But here’s an outstanding tool that lets you spice up everything you write, gets people interested in your stories and papers, helps you learn faster, makes sure readers remember your most complex material in a flash, and entertains your own self at the same time:
JUST STIR IN ALL KINDS OF PICTURES AS YOU GO ALONG.
Really? Most definitely! After all, just think about it. Whenever you go online or watch movies or TV or play video games or look inside certain books, they’re all about the pictures. Lots of you are probably taking pictures yourself today by using a cell phone, or you’re adding pictures to online sites like Facebook. So while you’re busy writing papers and journals and stories at school, why not think the way you do in the real world…whenever you write, stir plenty of artwork and photos and other visuals of your own into the mix.
Here are a few tiny examples of the gazillion ways to add pictures to your writing:
TAKE THE JOURNALS, FOR EXAMPLE:
When you bring your journal along on a school field trip – or even on a regular day – be sure to bring some colored markers or colored pencils or just regular lead pencils. Then draw the coolest things you see. Try to show the real world and still use your artistic imagination at the same time. Put pictures next to the words you just wrote or use pictures to make a rebus or spread pictures into the margins or make them into cartoons or make them extremely realistic. Let some of the pictures fill a whole page or two or three of their own. They can most certainly be funny. They can most certainly be serious or scientific. Doodling is just fine. Cartoons are just fine. Beautiful pictures are, well, beautiful and wonderful. And of course you can draw all kinds of fancy lettering in your topic headings along the way.
Trust me, people will want to see what you wrote if it’s illustrated. When explores like Lewis and Clark or scientists like Charles Darwin wrote journals, they did these exact kinds of things. Their writing was incredibly fun to read and was informative to the max at the same time. Yours should be too.
Another idea is to take photos during the day, print them out, and tape them in later. Or collect small stuff you find and glue that in too—for example, add brochures or cut them up and tape some of the picture into your journal. Or add small parts of the plants you see on a farm visit. Or leaves you pick up on a hike during the fall.
AND HOW ABOUT ART FOR YOUR INTERVIEWS?
One idea is to draw the person you are interviewing yourself! Or take your own photos of them doing something verrry cool and then paste or tape them into your written work. Or if they have any pictures taken when they were kids, make photocopies and add them to the mix. Even if you write your interview (or any other stuff) online, you can scan in your pictures and imbed them.
GEOGRAPHY CAN BE MEMORABLE IN SPADES:
Think of cool and colorful pictures you can add to your charts and graphs:
If they look great, they can offer readers a fast and entertaining way to learn a lot of boring stats in a single glance.
Try putting the quotes inside of talk balloons that point at a picture of the person who's being quoted. Maybe this person is a new cartoon character of your own creation (kind of like the one Jeff Kinney made up for his Wimpy Kid), or maybe you can research what the people you quoted really looked like and what they really wore, and then draw them accurately.FAMOUS LAST WORDS:
YIKES! Art is in danger of disappearing from our schools, and that would be a DISASTER. Help bring it back by adding artwork to your written work in school.
Paint pictures on wood!
Write words on all kinds of unusual paper.
Try playing around with paint, scraps of cloth, cut paper, or scratch board, and then add them to your written work.
Experiment with your photographs.
Make collages using buttons, flowers, seeds, or leaves picked up off the ground....if your essay or journal is lumpy, so what? Your writing will end up being a keeper, and you will learn to think, be creative, do research, and remember what you wrote about for a very long time.
Last week Brian Greene
, the physicist and mathematician, gave a lecture at the University of Colorado in Boulder. Greene is the author of several books about relativity, quantum mechanics, string theory, parallel universes, and other fields of contemporary physics. He’s also hosted two Nova series dealing with the same subjects on PBS. Several members of my family attended his presentation, including my 14-year-old son Jamie.
Greene talked about string theory, multiple dimensions, and the multiverse
. The hall, which holds more than 2,000 people, was completely full (apparently that many more people showed up but couldn’t get in, which struck me as pretty remarkable).
The audience included lots of physicists — even a few Nobel laureates. But many of us were non-scientists, so the talk, which presented mathematical, theoretical, and observational arguments for the existence of multiple universes, had to accommodate a wide range of educational backgrounds. Greene managed this by placing his main points in a linear historical context and by using stories, analogies, and images rather than advanced math to explain his hypotheses. He’s quite good at this. When I talked to Jamie afterward, I found that he’d understood the essential points of the lecture even though his freshman physical science course hasn’t progressed beyond Newton’s physical laws
There’s an obvious connection here to writing nonfiction picture books about subjects like evolution, geology, and astronomy for an audience with a limited scientific vocabulary. Before I go there, however, one more story.
When I was a graduate student in design school, I taught an introductory photography course for four semesters. This was in the pre-digital era, so in addition to the aesthetics of the medium the class covered many of the technical aspects of B&W photography: the relationship of f-stop and shutter speed, the process and chemistry of film development and printing, and so on. The first two times I taught the class, I just turned the students loose to make images, and we covered the technical issues as they arose. The quality of the final product — a B&W print — was pretty abysmal, at least for a while. But the class was having fun making pictures. As an experiment, I decided to try a different approach during the third semester. I spent the first few weeks of class explaining the technical side of the process before we started making images. Depth of field, freezing motion, reciprocity failure, the chemistry of film, that sort of thing. And the students were bored to death. I can’t ignore the possibility that my limitations as an instructor were at least partly to blame. But it was pretty clear that jumping right into the heart of the process — making images — was much more rewarding.
Based on own experiences as a student — and on those of my three children — something similar often happens in school science classes. The beautiful, awe-inspiring parts — the power and elegance of Darwin’s theory
, the way Einstein
changed our fundamental understanding of the world, Watson and Crick’s incredible discovery of the digital nature
of life — get buried in an often intimidating deluge of formulas and facts to be memorized. It’s a forest and trees problem. This isn’t intended as a criticism of science teachers, who have a prescribed — and, sadly, often circumscribed — curriculum to get through in a short period of time.
Instead, it’s another way to think about what we do as authors. We know that children — even very young children — can often understand complex scientific concepts as long as they are presented in a context and with a vocabulary that makes use of what they already understand about the world. A 32-page book (I’m talking picture books, but these ideas are just as applicable to longer chapter books for older children) presents the same sort of challenge that Brian Greene faced in explaining a significant chunk of modern physics to a lay audience in an hour and a half. Children’s book authors also use stories, analogies, and images to make complex concepts understandable. We have no choice but to skip over many of the technical details and get right to the heart of an idea.
My friend, Julie Winterbottom, writes funny stuff. She was editor-in-chief of Nickelodeon Magazine, and she has a new book coming out on March 19. Since I sometimes find it challenging to write funny, I thought I'd ask her to take my I.N.K. slot this month and explain how she does it.
I was a little surprised when Sue asked me to write a guest post for I.N.K. because my forthcoming book, Pranklopedia, while technically nonfiction, is more likely to get shelved under “Humor.” But Sue’s invitation got me thinking about the role of humor in nonfiction. Humor can draw kids who don’t like to read into enjoying nonfiction as much as they enjoy short-sheeting a bed (well, almost). In fact, my hope is that kids will pick up Pranklopedia to learn new pranks and end up reading the many (nonfiction) sidebars about creative capers in history, art, sports, and the White House. There was another surprise: I found myself thinking about something I don’t usually pay much attention to—the process of writing humor and more specifically, the techniques I use to get myself into a funny frame of mind. I thought I’d share them here. I learned most of them during my 12 years as an editor at Nickelodeon Magazine, where the humor bar was set high. Even the masthead had to be funny! At Nick Mag, we often wrote humor pieces in pairs or small groups. It strikes me now that most of my techniques bring collaborators—real or imagined—into the writing process. When I’m not feeling funny, I read someone who is. While working on Pranklopedia, I often started the day by reading a few pages from How to Play In Traffic, one of Penn & Teller’s hilarious books of pranks for adults. It helped me find a devious, slightly conspiratorial voice that was perfect for writing about pranks. On days when my ideas seemed too tame, I would dip into Mad Magazine to unleash my more irreverent side. For those who are more literary, one nonfiction writer I know suggests reading P.G. Wodehouse to get into funny mode. 2. Live With Someone Funny (or have easy phone access) My boyfriend Stephen should probably be listed as co-author of Pranklopedia. He isn’t a prankster himself, and he doesn’t know much about writing for kids. But he has a fine ear for what’s funny and what isn’t. Whenever I had doubts about something I wrote, I would run it by Stephen. He would not only nix the bad ideas, he would help me brainstorm better ones. 3. Ask Yourself: What Would Jim Do? My friend Jim is a natural-born prankster. Where other people see a boring trip to the supermarket or another tedious day at the office, Jim sees opportunities for pranks. Whenever I got stuck trying to come up with new pranks, I would pretend to be Jim. I’d find myself looking at everything around me, from the eggs in the refrigerator to the houseplants in the living room, as potential prank material. This technique let me ditch the cautious editor inside me and come up with lots of crazy ideas—some of which actually worked. Who knew that the musical birthday card on my living room shelf would make an excellent prank when taped to the inside edge of a closet door? When you’re working alone, it can be hard to know if what you wrote is actually funny. One way to find out (besides asking Stephen) is to put the writing aside and read it first thing in the morning. You will know right away whether or not it is funny. This can be a very disappointing experience. I’ve spent whole days writing what I thought was hysterical material only to read it the next morning and cringe: It was forced, unoriginal, and definitely not funny. The good part is that when this happens, it usually leads me to write a much better replacement. 5. Pray for a Last-Minute Request From Your Editor Some of the funniest pranks and sidebars in Pranklopedia are the ones I added very late in the game, after the book had been designed and there were holes that needed filling. There’s something about a tight deadline that produces superior comedy. I saw this happen all the time at Nick Mag: The humor piece that we wrote in two hours because an ad dropped out at the last minute was always the funniest. Of course it’s hard to employ this technique if external forces are not cooperating. Hmm…maybe I can get writers to hire me to impersonate their editors and then I will make last-minute requests for new material. Any takers?
I can’t seem to stay away from England. After spending three months here last spring, I returned in mid-January, to stay until late March. My secret: home exchanging. With laptop, email, and skype, many people don’t even know I’m away – or they didn’t until now.
I’ve generated a fan base here, bigger than I have at home! One school visit in Yorkshire last spring, led to four invitations this time round. The small town/village/rural environment meant that teachers spread the word quickly. I’ve got return invitations for my next visit.
At all four schools I was thrilled to see a strong emphasis on writing. I discussed all my books in all-school assemblies, but since I’ve only got one book published in England, Katje the Windmill Cat, I focused on that in the younger classes. It’s historical fiction that focuses on a true incident. I talked about writing true stories and stories from our imagination, and mixing up the two. The children came up with great ideas for stories – true and fictional -- and one class ended a session by making up a song and dance about Katje. This was a favorite moment, along with hearing my story acted out in Yorkshire accents: “Katje, you’re too doosty!”
At Nafferton Primary School I was given the Royal Role of cutting the ribbon the open the new school library!
This was followed by lovely tea and cakes.
And I enjoyed my first English hot school dinner: vegetarian toad-in-the-hole.
The curiosity that spurs me to write about a subject doesn’t go away when the book is finally published, e.g. The Wind at Work. So when I found that my London flat was a quick bus ride away from Wimbledon Common, off I went to see the Wimbledon Windmill and Museum, tagging along with a school group for a wonderful presentation by Norman and Ray Plastow.
Norman spearheaded the restoration of the windmill and the creation of the museum within. It’s a wonderful place, chock full of great artifacts and exhibits. And the Windmill Café next door serves delicious hot soup, most welcome on a cold January day.
Another treat was meeting Paul Sellwood, a windmill-wright who travels the UK and abroad restoring old windmills. It’s so much fun to meet people to natter on with, about one’s own arcane interests!
I’m not certain how this can be true, but this month marks the 5th Anniversary of the I.N.K. blog. It’s unclear what we’ve accomplished, if anything. Maybe we should just keep going until we figure that out.
I do know that it’s not that easy to commit to writing a post every month when it steals time from other pressures and deadlines and actual paying gigs. Thanks to those hearty few who were brave enough to respond to my awkward email all those years ago and having continue blogging with us: Anna, Vicki, Sue, David and Steve (with a hiatus). Special thanks to Loreen for sharing her time and expertise on the technical side of blogging and helping me with the dirty work of making the blog look pretty (or at least prettier) and to Steve for designing our spiffy logo. Thanks to every I.N.K. blogger, past and present, who posted their thoughts about non fiction, without editorial advice, and contributed to our community these last five years.
And the Rot? My daughter and I were having a tangential conversation about rotting apples and I said, “Well, rot can be interesting you know. David Schwartz wrote a blog post about a favorite manuscript he’s been trying to sell about a rotting pumpkin.” “Oh, I know,” she replied. He’s written about rot before. Remember: R is for Rot in his Q is for Quark book.” Somehow this conversation sums up the value of this blog to me. The import of quality non fiction kids books can be seen through the college student who still remembers much that she read and learned in those books and I’m glad to at least be in the conversation benefiting greatly from having read many good I.N.K. books myself and every single one of the blog posts.
Happy Anniversary to I.N.K.!
I've been wondering: Can raw numerical facts be the raw materials for creativity in the minds of children? If we just set them loose on a set of data as if it were paint or clay, and we encourage them to find ways to use that data, will they come up with something that will make them, and you, say "Wow!"?
Today I went to the Panama Canal. Sounds like a nice Sunday excursion, doesn't it? I am in Panama for school visits next week, and thanks to the generosity of Kathryn Abbott, her husband Tim and their son Alan (an International School of Panama student), a visit to the Gatun Locks was on today's itinerary. Here's proof:
So here are some numerical facts associated with the Panama Canal:
-- Twelve to fifteen thousand ships per year pass through the canal.
-- The 22.5 mile passage takes two hours and saves the ship 7,872 miles and three weeks of sailing around Cape Horn.
-- The London-based ship called CMA CGM Blue Whale, which I watched pass through Gatun Locks, held 5,080 containers. On the basis of its capacity, it paid a toll of $384,000.
-- the lowest toll ever paid was 6 cents. It covered the passage by Richard Halliburton who secured permission to swim the length of the canal in 1928, but no exemption from the toll, which was assessed on the basis of his "tonnage." (I wrote about Halliburton in the March, 1989, issue of Smithsonian magazine.)
-- 1.8 million cubic meters of concrete were used to construct the Gatun Locks, one of the three lock systems of the canal.
-- About 5,000 workers lost their lives building the canal in the early 20th Century. Eighty percent of them were Black.
-- The locks lift each ship 85 feet to the highest elevation of the canal (Gatun Lake) and then back down again. Many of the ships weigh 60,000 tons or more.
-- Filling each lock chamber drains 26.7 million gallons of water from Gatun Lake. When the chamber is emptied, the water goes to sea. (The ongoing Panama Canal Expansion Project will change the system so that the water will be recycled.)
-- The width of the locks limits the size of ships that can pass through the canal. This distance, 110 feet, is called "Panamax" and it dictates the dimensions of ships worldwide. CMA CGM Blue Whale is 106 feet wide. (Locomotives called mulas, mules, ride on tracks alongside the lock, pulling the ships with taut cables that also center the ships in the passageway. These seagoing behemoths must never, ever touch the sides of the lock!)
There are many, many more but that's enough to run my experiment. The question is: can students take these figures and run with them to discover something interesting, something "Wow!" They can make assumptions. For example, they could assume that the ship I saw is typical of those that pass through the canal. Thus, to use a simple example, they might calculate the annual revenue of the canal by multiplying the toll paid for the Blue Whale by 12,000 or 15,000 (or something in between). Then they could put that into some kind of context. (How many teacher salaries would that pay?)
Here's what I did as an example, using the last bulleted item listed above:
The ship I saw is 106 feet wide and the lock is 110 feet wide, so the clearance is four feet, or two feet on each side. What does that mean in terms we can relate to?
I scaled the Blue Whale to the size of my kayak, which is about two feet wide. The ship is 50 times as wide as the kayak. So I divided the ship's clearance of 2 feet per side by 50 to find out what my kayak's clearance would be: about half an inch! So... a 110-foot wide ship passing through the lock with two feet of clearance on each side is like my kayak passing through a concrete-walled chamber with a half-inch of clearance on each side, not touching either side, not even once, not even for a zillionth of a second! Is that a "Wow!" moment or what?
I find it way cool that math can turn a raw fact into a wowful wonder. Of course I'm already planning a book. Maybe teachers of upper elementary, middle school or high school students can plan a class around this. Make it open ended. Give the kids facts, calculators, internet access to look up information, and the time to play. Show them books that turn facts into "Wows!" (May I recommend my If Dogs Were Dinosaurs and How Much Is a Million? for starters, but don't stop there.) See if your young mathematicians can be creative artists. Wow!
“Just the facts, Ma’am. Just the facts.” Isn’t that what Sgt. Joe Friday would say on Dragnet? Actually, no. Sgt. Friday’s actual lines were "All we want are the facts, ma'am" and "All we know are the facts, ma'am".
The writer's mind is always working - always questioning, always wondering. Last Saturday night, I sat down for some TV time and the movie Hysteria was on. I love that time frame, the actors in the movie, and the subject. In my last book, I touch upon the diagnosis of hysteria that was used to describe the feelings of women in the late 19th century. It’s a topic that interests me, so I settled down to spend a few hours watching the movie.
The beginning of the movie starts with “1880” at the bottom of the screen. I’m enjoying the movie until Maggie Gyllenhaal’s character, Charlotte, rides down the street on her bike. “Wait, a second”, that voice way back in my head says. “That’s a safety bike, they weren't invented until 1885.” I know, the director was trying to show that the character of was a strong, independent woman. The bicycle in the 1890s was a very instrumental in the woman’s rights movement. In fact, Susan B. Anthony told the New York World’s Nellie Bly in 1896 that bicycling had “done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.” But, the safety bike, though it is very cool, wasn’t invented until 1885.
The next day, as I am wont to do, I researched the movie, the characters, and the story. The movie totally changed the actual facts and characters for Hollywood’s version of the story. I was okay with that. I was not okay with the appearance of the safety bike. Actually on IMDB in the goofs section, it states: “The character Charlotte Dalrymple is shown riding a safety bicycle. The film is set in 1880, but safety bicycles weren't invented until 1885.”
IMDB not a valid source, but a good jumping off point, I soon plunged into my own quest for the truth. After swimming through the pages and pages of research, images, and such, I narrowed down the manufacturer of the bicycle in the movie - who may not manufactured this particular style until many years past 1885. Before I could continue, to squelch my excitement, that little voice in the back of my head asked, “Don’t you have a manuscript due in a few days?
The manuscript I just finished contains about 200 "things" about Chicago. Since it is for kids, I thoroughly researched every fact and yelled at my computer when I found twisted information. For example, several sources said that rainbow sherbet is a Chicago thing. The truth is "rainbow cone" is a Chicago thing, not rainbow sherbet.
In my description of the 1893 Chicago Columbian Exposition, I wanted to show the many inventions from the fair. Many sources said that the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair introduced the world to the Pledge of Allegiance, Cracker Jack, the Ferris Wheel and Juicy Fruit Gum. The Random House site for The Devil in the White City
says: "The World’s Fair introduced America to such classic favorites as Cracker Jack, Shredded Wheat. and Juicy Fruit and was the birth of historically significant symbols like Columbus Day, the Ferris Wheel, and the Pledge of Allegiance."
In actually, what Erik Larson wrote about Juicy Fruit was: “They sampled a new, oddly flavored gum called Juicy Fruit and caramel-coated popcorn called Cracker Jack.”
Evidently, what Erik Larson writes is fact. Many sources now state, crediting The Devil in the White City
as the source, that the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair introduced the world to Cracker Jack, the Ferris Wheel, and Juicy Fruit. Cracker Jack was actually sold at the fair, the Ferris Wheel no one can doubt was a hit at the fair, but Juicy Fruit was not officially at the fair.
Other products that receive second billing as introductions at the fair had actual booths; Aunt Jemima Pancake Mix, Shredded Wheat, Pabst Blue Ribbon, and others. The Wrigley website reads: "In 1893, during an economic depression, he introduced two brands that would become company icons: Wrigley’s Spearmint® and Juicy Fruit®."
Going straight to the source, I sent an email to the Senior Vice President of Wrigley Corporate Affairs. We went back and forth a few times but I didn’t get an official answer to my question: "In time for the fair and the millions visited. It would have been sold by salesmen and women to the crowds attending may of whom visited Chicago for the first time. There will not have been a Juicy Fruit pavilion I'm pretty sure it was launched in time for the worlds fair rather than at it.” "It was as I thought. It was launched in Chicago in time for the World’s Fair but it wasn’t an official part of the Fair.” “The fair bought many people to chicago so lots of footfall for the brand." "But in 1893 Wrigley was a small business and remain so for another 15 years or so.”
In the end, what I finally wrote as part of the 1893 Chicago Columbian Exposition: William Wrigley Jr. introduced Juicy Fruit gum. (And, people wonder why writing takes so long.)
I started this piece by quoting Sgt. Joe Friday, I thought I’d end it by sharing a few fabulous fact quotes by some very wise folks.“If the facts don't fit the theory, change the facts.”
~Albert_Einstein “Facts are stubborn things, but statistics are pliable."
~Mark Twain “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”
~John Adams“The truth is more important than the facts.”
~Frank Lloyd Wright“False facts are highly injurious to the progress of science, for they often endure long; but false views, if supported by some evidence, do little harm, for everyone takes a salutary pleasure in proving their falseness; and when this is done, one path towards error is closed and the road to truth is often at the same time opened.”
And, finally,"Never trust quotes you find on the internet."
I was eight years old, it was 11:30 at night, and I was in bed spinning the radio dial trying to find a talk show. Radio talk shows were always lively and fun, extended bits of lighthearted talk with some music tossed in here and there, accompanied by the happy background clink of cocktail glasses. But instead of clever chatter I found a baseball game.
This caught my attention. It was late and the local teams (the Yankees, Giants, and Dodgers) had all finished their games. This radio broadcast must be coming from someplace way out west, I thought. Like Pittsburg. Or maybe even Chicago.
The first thing I remember the announcer saying was: "...he's digging into the left side of the plate and settles into his familiar corkscrew batting stance...."
A corkscrew batting stance? Odd. I knew about strange batting stances, by the way. My friend, Bobby, from across the street, would choke up on the bat, then hunch over and lay the fat end of his bat on the dirt behind him in the batter's box. He wouldn't lift up the bat until the ball was sailing toward him. His way of hitting made me nervous, but, miraculously, he always seemed to make contact.
But this corkscrew stance? In professional baseball?
As I tried to picture this weird stance in my head, my father poked his head in my room and asked what I was listening to, so I told him about this batter's (I hadn't heard his name announced) weird stance. "That's probably Stan Musial," he said. "He's with the Cardinals and he's a very good baseball player." He was about to head downstairs to read his newspaper, when he turned to say something else. Now, it's important to know that my Dad was a diehard Yankee fan who could rattle off the names and stats of every Yankee great. Every so often he might drop in a nice mention of a Giant (Willie Mays, especially) or of a couple of Dodgers. But for him the Yankees were where baseball royalty ruled supreme. So it got my attention when he added, "Musial is one of the greatest players in baseball history. He's so good a hitter that he's known as 'The Man.' Stan 'The Man' Musial."
As my Dad went downstairs there was a distant cheer from my little plastic radio as Stan Musial rapped a pitch into right field for a double that scored a run. A perfectly timed moment in my life.
The next morning at breakfast I told my parents about the game and how this guy Stan Musial seemed to have won it single-handedly, with two hits and several great fielding plays. I said I wanted to know more about him.
Getting more information wasn't easy way back then. No internet connection to Amazon or Barnes & Noble; no finger tip computer buying of used books or magazines or whatever. But by the end of the day my Mom had managed to find a book about Musial (at the library) and my Dad came home with a magazine that had an article about him. Both with photographs that included his famous corkscrew batting stance. And his smile. He seemed like a thoroughly nice guy from what I read and the photos I studied. I was completely mesmerized by Musial, a non-Yankee and on top of that a National league player for the St. Louis Cardinals.
St. Louis? I looked up where St. Louis was. Then I read about the Cardinals, their history and who else was on the team with Musial. I even bagan to appreciate cardinals (the birds) and found some glorious colored pictures of them. In the weeks to follow my parents found other books and articles about Musial, all of which I gobbled up. Then I started reading about other great players of the time (Ted Williams and Willie Mays, for example) and even read the official major league baseball rule book. Don't ask me why because I don't remember wanting to read it, just that when it appeared on the kitchen table I grabbed it and read it cover to cover. I was probably the only eight-year-old who could get into a screaming argument over a disputed sandlot baseball play and cite and explain rules between cusses, comments on the other kids vision problems, and other insults.
Stan Musial's recent death had me thinking about this unusual (for me at the time) quest for information that clearly boardered on the obsessive. From Musial, to his baseball team and teammates, to a city and then on to other players and hundreds and hundreds of arcane rules. And birds! It was like a weed growing and expanding and taking up more and more terrain (in my mind, at least).
This began as a desire to know more about one of baseball's greatest ever players. But then I found myself hooked by the gathering of details and the way it shaped and informed my understanding of Musial and baseball. The more I learned the better I felt I knew Stan Musial.
The funny thing is that I now do research for my projects in much the same way. I begin with a topic that interests me and then start reading about it. I constantly ask myself if any readers -- kids who probably don't know much about whatever the subject is -- will be interested enough to pick up and read the book. The research monster grows and grows, taking up months and years of time, and often wandering off into lands that don't have much to do with the focus of the project. If I get bored with the project, I assume my readers will, too, and I give it up (something that, sigh, has happened all too frequently). But in most cases I press on with the research until I can 'see' the time and people and situations in my mind and, hopefully, will be able to transcribe these images onto the page so that readers can experience history as if they were actually there. And maybe be curious enough to carry on their own search for more information.
Stan Musial was 'The Man' who led me down this research path. When I heard that he had died I took a baseball from a dusty office shelf and put it on my desk. It was signed by Stan Musial in a steady, sure hand with "H of F 69" proudly written underneath It's the only autographed ball I have. I never met Stan Musial in person, but for some reason I feel as if I knew him very well.
y, operations, basal
t, meteorite, satell
ite, communicate, atmosphere, hematite, mineral, jarosite, sul
fate, surveyor, orbiter, reconnaissance, thermal, emission, aeronautics, navigation, panoramic, phyll
icates, abrasion, sil
Are these words that you think will pull kids into a book and get them excited about science or space exploration? I think not. But they are words that were absolutely essential to telling the story of the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity. I think one of the biggest challenges in writing nonfiction for children, especially science, is how to introduce very sophisticated, sometimes technical, words to young readers without intimidating or losing them.
With the Common Core’s emphasis on integration of knowledge and increasing text complexity, I thought it might be interesting to explore some techniques that I use to handle challenging words.
I deliberately try to avoid throwing a lot tough word in the beginning of my books. Instead I try to grab readers so that they won’t give up when they hit something challenging. So The Mighty Mars Rovers
opens with a page about life on Mars (Martians…that’s a word kids know and love). Chapter one introduces scientist Steve Squyres as a boy who gets a telescope for Christmas and later watches the Apollo landing. I don’t really start hitting readers with the tough stuff until I describe the making of the Mars rovers in chapter two, starting on page 16.
Space it out:
If possible, I try to spread out the most difficult words, so kids aren’t reading a bunch of technical terms all at once.
Follow with short definitions:
When I introduce a tough word, I try to follow it with a quick definition, something as short as possible. (I describe a Microscopic Imager as a cross between a camera and a microscope.)
Define and define again:
For a really challenging word, especially one that is central to understanding the story, I will define the term not just on the first mention but the next several times as well. Sometimes I use the same definition; sometimes I offer different ways for kids think about the word.
If I can show a reader what a word means with a photo or graphic, I do. There is no better way for kids to absorb the importance of silica on Mars than showing a photo of silica uncovered by a dragging rover wheel with a caption that explains its significance.
A spoonful of sugar:
If there is a funny or clever way to define something, I do. Take one of the tools on the rovers. I wrote: “The RAT was not a furry gray creature, but a rock abrasion tool, a drill to bore holes into soil and rock.” When I talk about land deformation in my volcano books, I describe how magma swelling underground is like a mole pushing up a lawn. (These examples makes me wonder why furry mammals keep ending up in my hard-science books.)
I often include a glossary. I know glossaries are important. But my hunch is that a glossary is not the way most kids learn the difficult words in a book.
What do I think is really the key to helping kids handle sophisticated vocabulary? Amazing, gripping, can’t-put-it-down books that don’t dumb down the language. I really believe that kids who are captivated by a story will not let a five-syllable word stand in their way. And as they are swept away by a fascinating true story, they will absorb some rich, challenging vocabulary as they go.
I hope I’m right because my next Scientist in the Field book, which comes out later this year (Eruption: Volcanoes and the Science of Saving Lives,)
includes these doozies: Dormant, tectonic, lahar, pumice, pyroclastic flow, seismograph, spectrometer (again, can you believe it?)…
How to best handle challenging words will be an issue I face in other books I’m working on, so I want to toss out a few questions:
For the writers out there: How do you handle challenging vocabulary in your books? I would love to learn more ideas and techniques….
For teachers and other readers: What do you think writers of nonfiction can do to help readers master tough words? What works? What doesn’t?
I’d love to hear from you!
As I write this on Tuesday afternoon, it’s just a few hours before President Obama’s State of the Union Address—yet the internet is already buzzing with discussion.
I’m not a tweeter myself, but on occasion I mosey over to twitter and take a peek at what others are tweeting about. And #SOTU is hopping.
Lots of folks are chiming in about how excited they are to hear the speech. Lots of other folks are passing snarky judgment on what Obama may say. Many organizations are expressing their hope that he tackles an issue dear to their hearts. (I have my fingers crossed—as do the folks at the Union of Concerned Scientists—that “bold action” on climate change is on the agenda.)
The mood is anticipatory. My favorite tweet so far comes from Dr. Jill Biden: “Joe is practicing keeping a straight face for the #SOTU. He is allowed to roll his eyes at John Boehner, though.”
It will be interesting to look back at the end of my career (hopefully several decades in the future) and see how today’s kids—who have grown up in the age of social media—view knowledge and scholarship. (There are, of course, already lively discussions about the effect of the digital revolution on the writing of history. Take a look at this site
to see some of the issues raised.)
Social media—especially blogs and tweets—are changing the way we view current events. We all have opinions, and social media is giving us an easy way to express them.
I hope this leads to a more engaged citizenry. (I’m not sure it will. Perhaps if you’ve tweeted your displeasure about a situation in the news, you’ll then feel like you’ve done your bit and won’t have to actually DO anything to help fix it.)
Will history feel more relevant to tomorrow’s adults, if they were more actively engaged in current events as kids? I don’t know.
I do know that tweets and blogs will give tomorrow’s historians a heck of a lot more information to work with—more eyewitness accounts; more access to how everyday people were feeling ‘back then.’
For now, it’s interesting to be swept up along for the ride. Whetting my anticipation (along with the opportunity to see if Joe Biden behaves) is this terrific video
, created by the White House, about how the 2012 State of the Union Address was created. While it discusses last year’s speech, it doesn’t really matter as it’s a video about process and craft—the speechwriters discussing how they work with President Obama to write and revise an important speech.
It’s perfect to share with students—and you’ll find it, of course, on YouTube.
It's my pleasure to share this space with Karen Blumenthal. Her guest post adds to recent discussions about the documentation that accompanies a published work of nonfiction.
Shortly before my first book was published, I attended a presentation by two very distinguished nonfiction writers.
“Here’s how you must do source notes,” I remember one of them saying. “You list the beginning of every quote and then the source where it came from.”
Her words sent my stomach churning and my hands shaking. My pre-publication copy of Six Days in October
was tucked carefully in my bag--and it was all wrong. I had listed my primary sources chapter by chapter as they appeared. But I had not specifically detailed the source of each quotation, or even included specific page numbers. How could I have made such a horrible mistake?
Sourcing nonfiction for a general audience, young or old, is a difficult and tricky business. While I don’t want to footnote every burp and grunt and dot pages with microscopic numbers, like the academics do, I do want readers to know the source, since there can be so many differing views on some subjects. But compiling them is tedious and unpleasant, and sometimes it’s tough to pin down exactly where a conclusion came from.
Some publishers leave the decision to the writer and some dictate a style, like the quotation method cited by the distinguished writer above. Forced to use that quotation-only style once, I found it completely misrepresented where the information came from. In some cases, one sentence may draw on four different sources; other times, a paragraph reflects dozens of pages of reading. Quotations typically are a small part of a narrative.
Sometimes, ego gets involved.
In my most recent book, Steve Jobs,
I wanted to share my research to avoid any perception that I had merely rewritten the best-selling adult biography.
Sometimes the process is messy, with notes getting jumbled up as sections are rewritten or cut and pages are designed. Sorting and correcting them can take days.
And sometimes publishers push back. Lots of detail takes lots of pages, which costs money. More than once, I’ve been asked to trim the bibliography or notes.
For my second book, LetMe Play,
a history of Title IX, I studied the notes of the masters—Russell Freedman, Jim Murphy, Susan Campbell Bartoletti and Candace Fleming, among others. From reviewing their work, I came to appreciate a short bibliographic essay giving an overview of the process for someone who might be new to formal research.
Besides, where else could you share the little gem that before C-SPAN televised Congress, legislators regularly rewrote their remarks for the Congressional Record?
That book involved an unusual number of interviews and primary sources, and the notes are detailed. It felt, at times, that I might be showing off.
But then came the calls. Every year, I hear from a college student writing a senior paper or girls from junior high through high school working on a History Day projects. Over Skype and on the phone, they quiz me. Occasionally, I have to go back to the notes to jog my memory.
The most ambitious of them surprise me. They have studied the sources and from them, found new trails for their own explorations. Their excitement and curiosity is invigorating—and enough to make
those notes feel completely worth the effort.
Karen Blumenthal is the author of five nonfiction books for young people, most recently Steve Jobs: The Man Who Thought Different (Feiwel and Friends, 2012), which was a finalist for the YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults award.
So, today's the 497th anniversary of the birth of England's Queen Mary, Elizabeth Tudor's miserable, "bloody" half-sister and golly, what a sad and dreadful, star-crossed bunch there's was. How sane and lucky many another family is by comparison, no? It was on this day in history that physicist Alessandro "Mr. Battery" Volta was born, in 1745, a good 103 years before Louis Comfort Tiffany came into the world. February 18 marks the deathdays, too, of lovely painter Fra Angelico and revolutionary Martin Luther, who exited the world through the celestial door marked 18 Feb, in 1455 and 1546, respectively. Just for you to know. A pair of the best character actors ever to glower down from the silver screen, Edward Arnold and Adolphe Menjou, were both born on the 18th of February, 1890, two years before that glad-hander Wendell Wilkie was born, only to be well and truly thrashed by FDR in the 1940 election..
And speaking of Franklin D., it appears to be Presidents' Day, splitting the difference as we do between the commemorations of the great No. 1 and No. 16. In the stores, the tired Valentine candies are discounted. Soon there'll be green shamrocks, pastel eggs and bunnies. Here's a slim window in the culture's cavalcade; today there will be a pause in the beleaguered postal service. There will be silly Abes and Georges in advertisements for furniture, cars, and appliances. Behind and beyond it all were the steadfast pioneer of untrodden ground, of revolution and dare I say it: nation-building. And the grievous, complex stalwart who held it all together for a little while longer. I cannot help but think of all of the other gents who've held the office, each of whom represents a chapter in our ongoing, bumptious experiment in self-governance. And anyway, so the world turns and the calendar continues, And every day of it is a chance to remember those who've gone before. So let there be books, all of our books in which the stories of those vanished lives are shown and told, pictured and explained, again and again for our young readers, for our ever-renewing citizenry. Long live the republic.
Why do books get published on Tuesdays? I have a book coming out in June, The Boy Who Loved Math, and yes, it's June 25th, a Tuesday. I looked back to when my novel Intentions pubbed--August 14th, a Tuesday. I didn't always know this; in fact I just found it out this past year. I wish I could remember who told me. But the other day I was talking to Ziki, the man who sticks needles in me to make my back and leg pain go away. We made an appointment for the next week (tomorrow) and I told him that afterwards I would be going to a book party for my friend Marguerite's new book:
"But it's not a Tuesday," he said. I told him a book party doesn't have to be on the release date--but wait, how did he know that? He wasn't sure, he just did. He said that albums always had a day to release (he thought Fridays, and maybe it used to be so, but now it seems CDs and DVDs of movies release on Tuesdays, too).
I asked a few people, and no one seemed to know. I posted my question on twitter
and got these answers:Tradition based on coverage in Sunday papers and getting books on shelves is my understanding.
I asked: Are they reviewed the Sunday before or after.
Before. So that booksellers get to spend Monday explaining why people can't buy the books they just heard about.
Hah. Other people chimed in with links:
And other answers:
I've heard shipment was a factor--UPS boxes come Monday, scan & put out CDs, etc., Tue.
Probably a less busy day for most stores too. But no one seems to know for sure.I'm 99.9% sure books are Tues b/c of Music release on Tues. So ? would be why music on Tues.
This might answer that question:
I read all of those (you don't have to) and it still seems to me that no one knows for sure... I asked some friends who are publishers and editors: nope. They didn't know.
And so I started thinking two things:
1. In the old days, I would have called a reference librarian. My old friend from the Doylestown library (where I used to live) would have found out for me, I know that for sure. So I decided to call the New York Public Library. Oops. I waited too long. It's Presidents' Day. Library closed. But it took me almost a week to remember that I used to talk to reference librarians for this sort of thing. Yes, kids, before the Internet. I used to go to the library, go up to the desk and say, "Jan, how do I find out the answer to this question?" And sometimes Jan would just find out for me, and sometimes she would teach me how to fish. I did this for a long time, even after there was The Internet, until it became more or less part of my right hand.
2.Will this change? Whatever is the cause, will Tuesdays as pub dates change if there are more ebooks and fewer bricks and mortar bookstores? Then will people release books willy nilly? Do people who self-publish books follow the Tuesday rule?
I'm really hoping that someone will post here and tell me... Why do books publish on Tuesday? I've just spent so much time on this... as so often happens when one (me) gets stuck on a research treadmill. I just want to know the answer!
Uh oh. Wait a minute. I just looked up Marguerite's book and it officially published YESTERDAY. Which was Monday. According to Amazon
. And B & N. Her publisher
just says February. Okay, now I'm really confused.
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For my INK blog this month, I am doing something a tiny bit different, although all the content is still nonfiction, and it is in honor of my new picture book about Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman doctor in America, which came out this Tuesday. But I digress. What is the Next Big Thing? It is an author blog tour. What’s a blog tour? A blog tour gives those on the tour a chance to meet different authors by way of their blogs. The Next Big Thing began in Australia. Each week a different author answers specific questions about his or her upcoming book. The answers are posted on author’s blogs. Then we get to tag another author. On and on it goes.
The tour came to me from Manhattan. I was tagged by my friend Elizabeth Winthrop. She was tagged by her friend Eric Kimmel. I’ll tell you whom I’m tagging at the end.
Now for the questions.
What is the title of your next book?
Who Says Women Can’t Be Doctors? It is the story of Elizabeth Blackwell, who was the first woman doctor in America.
Where did the idea come from for the book?
I have done, and do, a lot of research on women’s history—especially in America. Elizabeth Blackwell’s story was one I came upon again and again. It was also one of those stories I tried to sell more than once but met with some resistance because Blackwell’s name is not instantly recognizable. I felt that was exactly why there should be a book about her!
What genre does your book fall under?
Most definitely picture book.
What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?
Keira Knightley would make a fabulous Elizabeth Blackwell, who was also British—although she is too tall in real life. But Knightley captures the spark and fire of Elizabeth well. Blackwell was a petite blonde, studious and serious, but a real risk-taker.
Who is publishing your book?
Christy Ottaviano Books/Henry Holt and Company (Macmillan Kids Books)
How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?
I never know how to answer this question! With picture books, especially, I tend to write a draft and stick it in a drawer for quite a long time, then pull it back out and work on it again, and repeat. A few years inevitably pass in this way.
Who or what inspired you to write this book?
Elizabeth Blackwell inspired me to write this book! There are older books about her, but it was time to get younger kids excited and let them know who this trailblazer was.
What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?
I love Blackwell’s fire. The details I discovered about her toughness as a kid were a delight to find and kids will, I think, really be able to relate to some of the things she did as a child. Who Says Women Can't Be Doctors? hit bookshelves this past Tuesday, and I couldn't be happier.
For the next Next Big Thing, I am tagging the amazing and talented Deborah Heiligman. Her answers will be up soon.