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1. PW names the 100 best books of 2014

PW_11_3_1Publishers Weekly today released its list of the 100 Best Books of 2014, for the first time including three translations among its top 10 books, which were written by Hassam Blasim, Elena Ferrante, Marlon James, Lorrie Moore, Joseph O’Neill, Héctor Tobar, Eula Biss, Leslie Jamison, Lawrence Wright, and Emmanuel Carrère.

The three translations include two works of fiction: The Corpse Exhibition by Hassan Blasim, translated from the Arabic by Jonathan Wright (Penguin), and Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein (Europa). Limonov: The Outrageous Adventures of the Radical Soviet Poet Who Became a Bum in New York, a Sensation in France, and a Political Antihero in Russia by Emmanuel Carrère, is nonfiction translated from the French by John Lambert (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).

“Every year when we put together our best books list, we understand why we’re in this business,” Publishers Weekly review editor Louisa Ermelino said. “It’s not just about the best books, but the fact that there are so many good books being published that we have to struggle to choose. We consider the game-changers, the brilliantly written pure entertainment, the clever, the well researched.”

Publishers Weekly’s selects for the best Young Adults books include: Meg Wolitzer’s Belzhar, We Were Liars by E. Lockhart, Beyond Magenta by Susan Kuklin, and Half Bad by Sally Green, among other titles.

Plenty More by Yotam Ottolenghi and Redefining Girly by Melissa Atkins Wardy are two of its best Lifestyle books of 2014.

Marlon James, featured on PW’s cover, is author of A Brief History of Seven Killings (Riverhead), a sweeping saga with the attempted assassination of Bob Marley at its center.

Descriptions of Publishers Weekly’s “100 Best Books of 2014” are available here.

New Career Opportunities Daily: The best jobs in media.

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2. Not Ready for Her Ending


Barbara Kerley’s Sept 13 blog about strong opening paragraphs, Balloons, got me thinking about what makes a good closing. Typically writers and teachers reason that the last sentence needs to sum up, tie together, or provide closure to a narrative. But science, history, and other subjects such as human rights [a personal favorite] change, grow, and evolve without an end in sight, or a clear trajectory from the past. So the last paragraph is not necessarily end of story.

Years ago I wrote and photographed a book about the life and times of an eight-year-old dwarf. Her name is Jaime. This was the second book I authored and illustrated, and the first children’s book about dwarfism. I wanted it to be perfect. After spending months and months with Jaime, her family, and her friends, I had a large body of material to easily pare down to a thirty-two-page picture book. But I didn’t have an ending. Over and over I returned to Jaime’s home in New Jersey, trying to uncover that impeccable final phrase that would tie everything together. No luck.



Why couldn’t I get Jaime to say something like this: “Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision.” Well, Virginia Woolf had already ended To the Lighthouse with that stunner. But my Jaime was so smart, so wise; she could have come up with something like that. I kept pushing, taping, waiting for a Virginia Woolf moment.
            Finally in exasperation because I was driving him and this wonderful child crazy, my husband said, “She’s eight years old, for goodness sake! [He used stronger language.] She’s not ready for an ending.” Then he closed his eyes and pointed to a group of sentences on the storyboard mess of text and photos strewn across the floor. “There’s your ending.” Lo and behold, the last line was right there patiently waiting for its close up: "I’m like everybody else, just little.” 

In my view the reader does need some kind of closure, but it need not be detailed, complete. I like books that allow the reader a little breathing space, space to wonder. My favorites are the ones where I wistfully reread the last lines before closing the cover.
There are gazillions of great endings in literature. One that particularly moves me is from Oliver Sacks’s Musicophila:But to those who are lost in dementia, the situation is different. Music is no luxury to them, but a necessity, and can have a power beyond anything else to restore them to themselves, and to others, at least for a while.” 
           
And you? When do you know your book, article or essay is complete? Please share your favorite endings – the ones you have written, and ones you wish you had written?

And Jaime? She’s become a beloved first grade teacher, who continues to think big, and is not nearly ready for her ending.



10 Comments on Not Ready for Her Ending, last added: 10/3/2012
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3. One LIne & More - In Two Parts


Part I - One Line

In the early 1700's, Richard "Beau" Nash, a professional gambler, dandy, and all-around bon vivant, left London and moved to Bath. He was instrumental in turning the city into a sixteenth century East Hampton, where A-list society folks, including the royals, could party the night away. At one point Nash was appointed "Master of Ceremonies," whatever that means, and he went about laying down pretty strict rules for social engagement. 

I learned about Nash last month while on a city walking tour in Bath, still a prosperous spa town known for its Roman bath and Jane Austen. Our guide, a local woman with infinite energy and charm, was chockablock filled with information about the scandalous lives of its leading citizens, especially "Beau" Nash.  
Bath, The Circus
At one point she explained it was Nash who established the custom that a gentlemen must walk on the street side of ladies so that oncoming carriages splashing about the mud and garbage would not soil their elaborate gowns. I had no idea that this custom started in Bath. But now that I do, it absolutely has to go into my new book. 
           For the last two years or so I've been working on a YA book that gives voice to transgender teenagers. Is this burying the lead or what? The working title is Ze. "Ze" is a neutral pronoun for he/she/him/her. The teens featured are cool, hip, anguished, triumphant, and all-around awesome. I can't wait for you to meet them.
            In one paragraph of her chapter, Christina, a trans female, talks about going on a first date with a straight man. She thought it weird that he insisted on walking on the street side of the sidewalk. Defiantly, she'd edge over to the curb every time they turned a corner. He'd walk around her. She'd step back sashaying to his right. He'd take her arm and lead her back to the left. "So annoying," she told me. I don't think this relation

5 Comments on One LIne & More - In Two Parts, last added: 5/1/2012
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4. THE SHAPE OF THINGS


Dresses! Evening gowns! Shoes! Accessories! What does fashion have to do with YA nonfiction? Read on, my lovelies. For, like Stephen Colbert’s segment, The Word, it all comes together in the end. Hint: think the shape of things.

Toward the end of summer I was deep into a new book project. My interviews were transcribed and the chapters pretty close to a final draft. Follow-up questions were written in red. The photographs were cued to match the text. I could see what was missing and knew how to get it. That’s what I would call a fine month’s work.

This all came together in a lovely rented home in Columbia County, New York, where I had nothing more to do but write, eat delicious food, write, drink chilled wine, write, and watch magnificent sunsets. No TV. Infrequent Internet. We were miles away from newspapers, bills, and arguments over the debt ceiling. Writing does have its perks.

But, and there’s always an anxious “but” with writers. My “but” was I couldn’t find a shape to my book. It was a burlap bag of information. Where’s the beginning, how does it end, and when does that ubiquitous arc we know and love show its beautiful arabesque? My editor, agent, and writer-friends told me not to worry, “It will come, just keep working.” I agreed that it would happen, but when? I wanted to see it now. No, not now, yesterday. And so I returned home to the city, home to all-of-the-above mentioned annoyances that keep creativity from a fevered pitch.

Meanwhile, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Alexander McQueen show, Savage Beauty, was winding down. It had been on view for months, and to tell the truth, I had little interest in visiting a crowded fashion show. As the lines at the museum grew longer and longer, the hype louder and louder, I panicked. Am I missing one of the biggest shows in the history of the Met? Then again, do I really want to schlep all the way uptown and stand in line for hours to see clothes? I can do that just as well at Bergdorf’s. Friends whose taste I respect insisted, “It’s not fashion, it’s art!”

“Yeah, yeah.”

“Really.” Finally, societal pressure got the better of me, and two days before the show closed I gave up my BEST writing hours to see fashion – I mean art.

By 9:30 the lines stretched from the second floor, around the halls, down the

2 Comments on THE SHAPE OF THINGS, last added: 9/30/2011
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5. Travelblog: A School Visit, Moroccan Style

We all know that an author should never say yes to a school visit without first knowing the terms. But last summer Cynthia Ruptic, the lower school librarian at the Rabat American School [RAS] emailed me. “Come to Rabat for two weeks. We’ll have a great time.”

“Yes! Yes! Yes!”

Usually these international trips last a week, at least that’s what I’ve been told as I had never done one before. But Cynthia and the upper school librarian, Lora Wagner, thought that since I write for children and young adults, and since I’m a writer and photographer, two weeks would be a better fit. Two weeks in Morocco? How could I resist.


Lora and Cynthia





That was last summer. As the time for my visit neared, North Africa exploded in a sea of Facebook revolution. My good friend, Liz Levy, was trapped in Egypt along with Bruce Coville and his wife. Trouble in country after country inched closer to the border of Morocco, and the conflicts grew more violent. Was this the right time to talk about nonfiction and photography. Would the students concentrate on anything other than what was happening on their continent? Was it safe? The school principal, Kathy Morabet, emailed, “Come! Morocco is peaceful.”

And so ….
My two weeks in Rabat were intense and wonderful. Before I left, though, Cynthia emailed a program that freaked me out by its Cecil B. DeMille, Technicolor-coded complexity. There was a two-page spreadsheet, chock-a-block filled with classes, photography workshops, after-school club meetings, auditorium presentations, and a teacher presentation. Class visits were from Pre K to 10th Grade. I immediately came down with a sore throat that lasted until I arrived.

In addition, Cynthia and Lora set up a series of half hour meetings with each teacher before I was to meet their class. Yikes! When would there be time to do all that? Those meetings turned out to be a godsend. They gave me the sense of what the teachers were doing and how my prepared programs could be adapted to reinforce their teaching. Class projects ranged from growing silk worms in a shoebox to scribes in Ancient Egypt. Science, math, and ancient history are not exactly a clear fit with my work as a contemporary nonfiction author. And yet, when we put our heads together we found ways to bridge the gap.

So when Alice Mendoza’s kindergarten class went to work on the RAS Storypath Park, the students photographed the tops of the school’s palm trees and attached prints to clay models that represented the trunks.








Photo by Alice Mendoza.









4 Comments on Travelblog: A School Visit, Moroccan Style, last added: 4/11/2011
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6. Why I/We/You Continue to Write for Kids

As a big birthday fast approaches, the gulf between young peoples’ experiences and mine has widened considerably. And yet I continue to write for kids. I went from teaching high school English to photojournalism to writing and photographing children’s books. Through the years my students’ dialogue about the great themes in literature, poetry, art – ergo life – lived inside my heart and echoed in my ears. My young cousins were often about, arguing over who would recite their latest poem first, practically jumping over one another to talk about some crazy adventure. Those reverberations were a vital part of my work. The students are long grown up, and my cousins are adults with adult dispositions. Have the voices of our current generation changed? Are their issues different from mine? I think they probably are. But I’m not sure.

I dodge the “voice” problem somewhat by writing from the perspective of the person I’m interviewing. It’s not in my voice but the young person’s voice. But my books are not 100% participants’ voices. Some parts, like choosing the subject, is me, and that’s what I question. So the choice of narrative and presentation begs the questions to us all, “Are we still asking interesting, relevant questions? Are we still cool?”

A perk writing for children is that we are generous with one another. I asked a few experienced writers and illustrators to contribute their thoughts to this subject. I made it a point not to ask INK contributors because I hope you will add your thoughts in the comment section.

The first person to respond was Andrea Davis Pinkney. She said, “We all know the cliché that says, ‘real life is stranger than fiction.’ Well – when writing for children ‘real’ can also be funny, ironic, sad, thought provoking, and cool. This is why I write non-fiction and historical fiction for children. ‘Real’ can let a child see the world in a whole new way.Real’ can change a young reader’s thinking about people, history, scientific facts, love, laws, wars, protests, rites of passage, family. ‘Real’ can show kids what’s real about themselves.”

5 Comments on Why I/We/You Continue to Write for Kids, last added: 2/14/2011
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7. An Author in Search of Six Characters ... But Will Settle for Four

[Before taking on this subject, I’d like to thank Barbara Kerley. Her September 9 blog, “An Old Dog, A New Trick,” was the push I needed to go to the bright side, to go Mac.]


I recently participated at a media specialist conference in Florida, where I heard a number of interesting presentations by our fiction writing colleagues. Gayle Forman when she writes she hears the voices of her characters. We nonfiction authors do that, too, of course, but there’s an additional step. First, we must search out real characters, alive or dead, and then find ways to integrate them into our heads. At least that’s my process. Nonfiction writers’ search for characters is indeed a long, twisty road.

This subject led me to the master of all character searches, Luigi Pirandello, who I assume reads INK somewhere in the Italian grand beyond.


I ask him: Caro Senore Pirandello. Per favore. Your Six Characters in Search of an Author is great theater, but how about some help for us nonfiction writers? After all, we share much in common. Just as your characters take control of your play, people represented in nonfiction literature usually take control of the books right from the start. Primary sources are our bread and butter. For this writer, my primary sources, my people, ARE the book.


The way I work is somewhat logical and somewhat not. Before I meet anyone, I need to understand my subject – just enough to be able to ask decent questions – but not so much as to enable preconceived ideas to drive the book. That’s the characters’ domain. Meanwhile the networking in search of said characters begins.

To network, timidity has no place in the lexicon of nonfiction. We must be tough, just like your pushy six characters, Senore. I’ll call anyone I know who might know someone who might know someone. Emails go out to suggested organizations, and to the friends of friends of friends. Fingers crossed, I await the responses. In the best of all worlds, doors fly open, private intimate materials are gingerly handed over, and the most fascinating, introspective, articulate people whoever walked the planet start talking. Oh-oh, now I’m verging into fiction. Truth-be-told, this doesn’t happen quite so quickly, but hey, this is a blog, and our readers are busy people.

While the hopefully discovered most fascinating person talks, I tape, listen, and watch. Does she lean to the left? To the right? Does his upper lip curl when revealing an inner truth? Is she a blinker? When does he laugh nervously? Also: Am I pushing too hard? Not enough? Asking the right follow ups? This is a balancing act whose high wire is based on trust. It’s extraordinarily exhilarating – when it works.

Up to this point, the interviewees are people, not characters who will take over the book. To become characters, they have to go through me. First, all the tapes, every last word, need to be personally transcribed. While pushing rewind, again and again, their voices slowly begin to creep into my being. Suddenly, their speech patterns become my speech patterns, their body language and movement slowly becomes mine. They attach themselves to my bones and seep into my blood. I literally need to know how it feels to be ze [him or her]. I know, I know, this is more than a little weird, but the creative process is usually weird. [Just watch the anomalous routines baseball players go through at bat.]

3 Comments on An Author in Search of Six Characters ... But Will Settle for Four, last added: 11/14/2010
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8. Dark Subjects


As young writers we are taught “write what you know.” But when I became a writer, I found myself much more interested in what I didn’t know. I can think of nothing more exhilarating then tackling a subject that is as far from my life as possible, and then, go on a spectacular treasure hunt for facts and ideas.

I write a lot about dark subjects for young adults. Many nonfiction writers are drawn to tough themes as a way to go beyond the sound bites, the headlines, and the slogans that make up much of our lives. “An eye for an eye....” “Do the crime, do the time.” “Just say ‘no””. Life is more complicated than what these and other sayings imply.

There are a range of ways a writer can go beyond slogans. What works for me is writing books based on interviews. I find it fascinating to interview an individual and then write personal accounts from my subject’s point of view. From these accounts, along with additional background material, I try to shape a coherent story. The final narratives are usually reviewed by my subjects to be certain there are no mistakes. I’ve been doing this for years and no one has ever asked me to change an idea or statement so that he will look good. This method can be used with just about any nonfiction, including biography, current events, and even history.

Interviews work particularly well when facing dark subjects, such as boy soldiers, Nazi youths, or teenagers on death row. Nevertheless, dark subjects can be difficult on many levels.
It can be difficult for the people interviewed in the book. They reveal their lives and bare their souls. Ishmael Beah’s intimate memoir, A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, is a comparable case in point. Ishmael’s personal experience during a very brutal time in his country’s history is a clear example of how events affect an individual’s life. He is able to describe the brutal war in Sierra Leone in a way that statistics, and even photographs of thousands of nameless dead, do not.

It can be difficult for the writer who has to maintain objectivity. Susan Campbell Bartoletti has talked about making tough decisions while writing her fascinating book, Hitler Youth: Growing Up in Hitler's Shadow. Susan interviewed people who had participated in the Hitler youth program before and during WW II. They described the idolization, the camaraderie, and the conformity that helped Hitler come to power. Very few analyses beat the power of those testimonies.

It can be difficult for teachers and librarians who have to deal with the politics of a controversial book. They are on the front lines. They must balance a heavy work load, the possible wrath of their community, and the possible loss for simply standing up for the First Amendment. By the way, we authors do what we can to support them.

It can be difficult for the reader who may have never before had to confront the world that they find in a particular book. A few days ago my book, No Choirboy: Murder, Violence, and Teenagers on Death Row, was published. Readers, especially those who have not been exposed to maximum security prisons and Texas’s death row, have already told me about strong, emotional reactions that they’ve experienced while reading the book. Perhaps this is because the stories, written in their voices, are very personal, raw, and current. It’s not history. It’s happening right now. How about this slogan: “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.” Now, that’s a saying I can get my teeth into. But it’s still a slogan.

If dark subjects are so difficult for everyone concerned, why are some us drawn to them? Why do we write about civil rights, human rights, famine, strikes, black lists, torture, and death?
There was something about teenagers on death row that called to me. It demanded to be heard. I absolutely had to write this book.Why? I haven’t a clue.

Does anyone out there in cyberspace have the answers?
Susan Kuklin

1 Comments on Dark Subjects, last added: 8/7/2008
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9. Winter Blog Blast Tour: Susan Kuklin


Susan Kuklin is an author and photographer of a number of non-fiction books for children and teens. Her most recent book is No Choirboy: Murder, Violence, and Teenagers on Death Row. It’s a powerful and provocative (in a good way) book, tackles a subject that might be considered just as edgy as some of her other books, and it’s reflective of her usual method of writing. As Susan says on her website, “The modus operandi is a book version of cinema verite; that is, choose a subject, find a situation that depicts that subject, watch it unfold, and let the people concerned tell the story.”

How did you get started writing and photographing children’s books? And books for teens?
Early in my career I photographed the children’s book, The Story of Nim, The Chimpanzee Who Learned Language. Then I photographed three “high-low” stories. I loved illustrating those books and hoped to do more. Before becoming a children’s author, I was a free-lance photographer working for various newspapers and magazines. Since there were so many photographers knocking on art directors’ doors, I tried a different approach: I suggested stories that I would photograph and write. Since that time I’ve pretty much continue the “two for one” tradition. There’s one exception – Dance, which I co-authored with Bill T. Jones.

Another exception is taking place right now. I’m currently illustrating a poem by Marilyn Nelson called Beautiful Ballerina. The words are determined by the poet and the photography is determined by the photographer.

In my own books Susan-cum-author often challenges Susan-cum-illustrator, and visa versa. The books for young children are usually photography driven and the YAs are word driven. But even then, there’s a lot of back and forth, depending on the book.

In your own words, “Many of my books for young people are photo essays. The text is from the point of view of the people I interview. It’s their thoughts, not mine; their opinions, not mine. I transcribe their words and shape them into a book.” Why is this your preferred method of writing books?
I don’t think much about various methods of writing. I write. The result comes from someplace who-knows-where. That’s pretty much what most writers and artists do. They simply do!

In college and graduate school I majored in theater arts. I learned how to interpret a play’s characters. Method acting was the rage. We were trained to become the character, live the character. Does that early training enter into my work? Maybe. Possibly.

It seems to me that a writer has to use whatever [limited] tools she has. She can’t use someone else’s style or methods. That’s part of the very personal art known as “creativity.” I can’t write like Virginia Wolfe – wish I could. Or, J.K. Rowling – wouldn’t that be something. A writer can only bring to the table her gifts, limitations, and background. I’d be curious to know how other authors feel about this.

There’s a part II to this: if there is one word to describe what led me to the way I work it would be curiosity! I’m curious about people, what they think, what they feel, what they experience. It’s been a dream come true to meet many interesting people from so many diverse backgrounds. My books take me on a magical journey to physical, intellectual, spiritual, and emotional places where I’ve not been before.

In your I.N.K. post , you write, “I find it fascinating to interview an individual and then write personal accounts from my subject’s point of view. From these accounts, along with additional background material, I try to shape a coherent story.” Do you ever worry about introducing your own biases to a subject as you “shape” things, or do you feel that some sort of bias is inherent (inevitable?) regardless of what form the narrative takes (personal accounts vs. the more traditional, detached recounting of events)?
This is a great question and I’m not sure that I can answer it without bias. When I do an interview I try to get into the person’s skin, into their bones. [There goes method acting again.] Since my goal is to understand a specific individual, I do not contradict the person’s point of view. It’s about them, not me. It is not my job to judge. It is not my responsibility to disagree with their views. That means, in effect, I’m off the hook. Usually, my subjects read their profiles before the book goes to copyediting. They are asked to check it for errors only, not content. I may have an incorrect date or a misspelled name because I’m the world’s worst speller. No one has ever gone totally revisionist on me. Ever! Perhaps that says something about a person’s need to be understood for whom they are, warts and all.

Judgment is left to the readers, if they so choose.

The bias probably comes from my choice of subject matter. I choose such issues as prejudice, human rights, pregnant teenagers, and so forth. These are subjects that concern me. On one hand, once the subject is chosen I try to not let my bias govern the content of the book. On the other hand, not all my books try to look at a subject from all points of view. For example, I didn’t give human rights violators a voice or, more recently, those who favor capital punishment. Perhaps that’s where my bias comes in overtly.

You also mention that some of your books tackle what could be considered “edgy” subjects, like suicide and, at the time the Fighting Back was published, AIDS. How do you find people who would be interesting for children and teens to read about and get them to agree to open up and talk—for publication?
Finding participants is all about networking – somebody who knows somebody who knows somebody. Six degrees of separation? You bet! We’re all connected in one way or another.

Before I begin an interview, I spend time with the person. [The exception is No Choirboy because I had limited access to the prisons.] We get to know one another.

Sometimes I work through organizations. For example, in Fighting Back, I teamed up with a “buddy” group through the Gay Men’s Health Clinic. “Buddies” are people who help others who are living with AIDS. They take them to the doctor, go shopping, and even do light house work. Mostly, though, they are a pal to a person in need. I was invited to sit in at monthly meetings when the buddies discussed the needs and problems of their “clients.” At that point whatever I heard or witnessed was off the record. Then, after I got to know everyone, and they trusted me, some of the buddies asked their clients if they wanted to be included in the book. About 85% said yes.

My general rule is not to push anyone. If a person wants to participate in my book, that’s great. If someone does not, I respect their wishes and move on. Most people want to participate.

Since participation is totally voluntary, and since everyone knows EXACTLY what they are getting into, I rarely have a problem. The people in my books have something to say, something they want others to know. And what they say is pretty interesting.

Michael Angorolla, a person who was living with AIDS in Fighting Back, is a great example. It surprised me how upbeat he was, even when he was very, very sick. We’d have “NO AIDS DAY” when we simply hung out and did zany things together. Michael taught me more about living than anyone I have ever met.

How do you choose your topics? How much research do you do?
An idea can pop up anywhere, anytime. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night – actually 4 AM is my witching hour – with my head spinning with a new idea. Sometimes an idea evolves from a conversation, a book, a poem, a painting, or a news item. Dinner with my husband or a juicy gossip session with friends can bring about a new subject.

After I finish I book, though, I’m convinced that I’ll never have a good idea again. I think I’m going through that now.

My books are nonfiction so research is fundamental. How much? That depends on the complexity of the book. There is no set time period. I spent at least a year-and-a-half learning about capital punishment and juvenile justice law before I could begin asking probing questions. For my children’s photo essay about families [Families], I simply called a friend who teaches at my local elementary school and we were off and running.

Does your approach to writing/interviewing and photography change depending on if the audience will be children or teens?
No. I don’t believe in “dumbing down” information. As a child I resented people who were in my face, talking down to me like I was some idiot who didn’t understand anything so I’m certainly not going to do that now that I write for kids.

I used the same tone and conversational questioning when I interviewed children for my book, Families, as I did with the inmates in No Choirboy. In the end, it’s the subject matter and the participants who determine the age level. I can’t quite see three-year-olds reading No Choirboy. Then again, twenty-somethings aren’t going to cuddle up with All Aboard: A True Train Story.

Moving on to your newest book, No Choirboy, you spent four years working on it. Is this the longest you’ve worked on a book, and was it also the most challenging?
no-choirboy No Choirboy was definitely the longest and the most challenging project I’ve ever worked on. First, I had to learn the law before I could do anything. That took time. I sat in on a seminar called “Capital Defender and Federal Habeas Clinic,” given by Professor Ursula Bentele at Brooklyn Law School. It was way over my head. I realized I knew nothing so I audited an introduction to capital punishment law called “Capital Punishment Law and Litigation,” given by Bryan Stevenson at NYU Law School. Man, did I study!

Once I was somewhat more knowledgeable, I began to meet lawyers who are involved in capital punishment and juvenile justice law and the book began to take shape. That process, which is only mentioned in the book, took about a year-and-a-half.

Oddly, finding the people was less difficult than one might think. Their lawyers helped me. The most challenging part was how to properly portray the inmates who had been involved in horrible, brutal crimes. It was important for me to reveal their humanity but not romanticize them. That was a challenge. It is up to the reader to decide if I accomplished this task.

The second challenge was what to put in and what to leave out. The subject is huge. I had to figure out a way to narrow the subject so that it would be accessible to readers. The first draft was somewhat like the finished book, with the focus on the people. Then, the nonfiction in my editor and me took over. I started writing additional material about the laws, the US Constitution, the history of capital punishment, DNA. It went on and on. The second draft of the book was about 200 – 300 pages longer than the finished manuscript. But all this “back matter,” as we called it, overwhelmed the heart of the book. So I took a deep, deep breath and dropped it. Months and months of work! That was painful. I’m putting some of that information on my website.

The most difficult thing to give up was a chapter about a man who had been exonerated. Since he was obviously not a teenager, my editor said that his chapter stuck out “like a sore thumb.” We went round and round about it. I tried cutting the chapter to make it shorter. I tried bringing in his teenage granddaughters. I tried adding his section to the last chapter, the lawyer’s chapter. Dropping this section was painful. In the long run I think my editor was right. Someday I’d like to publish it.

When you began No Choirboy, Roper v. Simmons had not yet been decided. What kind of impact did the decision [which "ruled that the death penalty for those who had committed their crimes at under 18 years of age was cruel and unusual punishment and hence barred by the Constitution."] have on the direction of the book, if any?
While working on No Choirboy seventy-two men [no women] who were convicted of a crime when they were teenagers were on death row. Then the law changed. That meant the book had to change. I had also interviewed an inmate who had been fourteen when he was convicted of murder. He was not eligible for the death penalty. Again, the book’s theme changed.

I think these changes made the book stronger. The theme of the book changed from teenagers on death row to the continuing cycle of violence. The emphasis shifted from the law to the ugliness and beauty in human nature.

How did you select the men and families profiled in No Choirboy?
Usually I spend time with the people who participate in my books. It was not possible to do that for No Choirboy because I had limited access to the prisons. But I trusted the lawyers. They understood that I was looking for articulate, introspective inmates who were willing to share their experiences with readers.

Bryan Stevenson, a leading lawyer in capital punishment law, was a big help. He put me in touch with two of the three inmates who are profiled in the book. He also told me about “Murder Victims’ Families Against the Death Penalty.” I looked them up on the Internet and called one of the board members. That’s how I found the brother and sister who talked about their lives after the murder of their older brother. The networking continued.

The director of Texas Defender Service suggested the third inmate who was still on death row when I interviewed him, and the family whose son had been executed.

The last chapter in the book is about Bryan Stevenson because I thought he would be a good role model for my readers. He is proof that one person can make a difference.

What are you working on next?
This question brings me full circle to your first question since this is the first time in many years that I’m illustrating another writer’s work. Marilyn Nelson wrote a magnificent poem called Beautiful Ballerina. When I first read it, I had goose bumps.

One of my passions is exploring ways to portray movement in a static medium – photography. Dance, a life-long passion, is a cool way to do this.

Arthur Mitchell is a world famous dancer and founder of The Dance Theatre of Harlem. His neoclassical dance company and school combine the disciplines of classical ballet with a dash of sass. I thought that his ballet school would be a perfect fit for Marilyn’s poem.

Three elements had to be present for the project to work. One, Marilyn’s words needed to be clearly interpreted. Two, Arthur Mitchell’s style and vision needed to be represented. And, three, the photographs needed to reflect my appreciation of form and movement.

After watching many classes in action, I chose four students – ages three, nine, thirteen, and seventeen – to participate in the shoot. Then, Endalyn Taylor, the director of DTH’s school, and I worked with the dancers to “choreograph” the poem. It was a wonderful collaboration. In the end, I think it all came together very nicely. Next year, when the book is published, I hope you’ll agree.

Thank you, Susan, for taking the time to answer my questions!

This is the first day of this year’s Winter Blog Blast Tour. Today’s other WBBT interviews are:
Lewis Buzbee at Chasing Ray
Louis Sachar at A Fuse #8 Production
Laurel Snyder at Miss Erin
Courtney Summers at Bildungsroman
Elizabeth Wein at Finding Wonderland

      

3 Comments on Winter Blog Blast Tour: Susan Kuklin, last added: 11/17/2008
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10. Nonfiction Monday

Are you excited about next year's YALSA award for nonfiction? I really, really am.

Here are two books that got YALSA recognition last year (first up an Alex Winner, followed by a Quick Pick for Reluctant Readers)

The Oxford Project Stephen G. Bloom and Peter Feldstein

In 1984, Peter Feldstein set out to photograph all 676 residents of his town, Oxford, IA. In 2005-2007, he tracked down as many as he could and photographed them again, this time bringing along Stephen Bloom to talk to them about their lives.

This book is full of their portraits side by side. The little kids are now grown up with their own little kids. Some haven't changed at all. Some have passed on and some have moved away. Many have the same last names. The text, brief paragraphs about their lives offers us a glimpse not only into their lives, but the town as a whole and how it fits together.

Really amazing stuff. See some of the pictures here.

The photographs of town, especially, made me cry. I know that Iowa fall and winter landscape and I really, really missed it.


No Choirboy: Murder, Violence, and Teenagers on Death Row Susan Kuklin

This is kids, talking about themselves--talking about life on Death Row and how they got there. Damn is it bleak.

What I liked about it is that Kuklin also talked to the families and how having a member on Death Row affects them. I especially appreciated the final two chapters, one was a man talking about his brother, who was killed by the State. The other was two siblings, talking about their brother, who was murdered one night at work and the work their father does to end the death penalty.

Many of the people in this book share a lawyer, which might skew things a bit. BUT this is a chilling portrait of what prison is and how messed up our justice system is.

Round up is over at the ACPL Mock Sibert blog!

2 Comments on Nonfiction Monday, last added: 5/21/2009
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11. TALKING UP: What Does Age Appropriate Mean Anyway?

In keeping with this month’s theme – using our books in the classroom – I’d like to share experiences about talking up/talking down to kids in publishing and the classroom.

When the question of age appropriateness arose on our new Web site, http://www.inkthinktank.com/, I wish I had listed a broader age range. Some of you already have and hats of to ya! Material that is strong and fun and well presented is manna from heaven to a creative teacher. Kids, young and old, are savvy creatures who can handle big vocabulary and big ideas.

Step back: For years I’ve been trying to capture the voices of the participants who rule my subjects. Early on, in a book for young children called When I See My Doctor, I included the words “stethoscope,” “otoscope,” “sphygmomanometer,” and “hemoglobinmeter.” The copy editor wanted these words deleted because they were too difficult for kindergarten-age children. But four-year-old Thomas, the subject of the book, learned them from his doctor and shouted them proudly into my tape recorder.

It was a bit nerve wracking to argue with an editor because I was new to the field, didn’t have kids, and never studied early childhood education. But I trusted Thomas, my subject. Later, at school visits, children called out the words, teachers beamed, and I felt vindicated. Sophisticated language, one teacher said, encouraged the children to be students.

Jump to now: A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of doing a presentation with Marilyn Nelson, the poet whose picture book I recently illustrated. I had invited her to watch me shoot her book, using students from the Dance Theatre of Harlem as my models, but scheduling didn’t quite work out. Now that the book is published, we were asked to appear together in front of a large group of students. I was anxious. How would a classroom filled with both boys and girls react to my gals in tutus? What helped the most was the teacher. She greeted me with an enthusiastic bear hug and a huge – I mean huge – smile. That alleviated trepidations until I saw the kids. The first to arrive were the boys – big, boisterous boys who spread out in the front rows. Gulp! This is a book about ballerinas for goodness sake! Too late now to back out. Besides Marilyn had just arrived looking fabulous. There were more hugs as Marilyn whispered, “How shall we do this?” If she didn’t know we were in deep do-do land.
“You go first.”
“No, you go first.”
“No, you go first.”
Marilyn, the AUTHOR, went first. She described how and why she wrote the poem and revealed a few literary secrets, such as a riff on Yeats. [“Beautiful ballerina, you are the dance.”] She read her poem to a rapt audience and talked a little more.

My turn! Following Marilyn Nelson may have been a mistake. But I have a few secrets of my own, ones that surprisingly complimented her poetic structure. Showing photographs, I pointed out my secrets, historic balletic points of reference. There’s an homage to Swan Lake, to Degas, and to George Balanchine.

[The photograph above is a typical Balanchine shape.] There were no giggles, squirms or snickers from the audience. Instead, there were great questions and a very happy teacher. Oh, did I tell you who made up the audience for our picture book? Students at the University of Connecticut.

What experiences have you had, dear teachers, librarians, and colleagues, breaking the "age appropriate" barrier?

Jete’ to future: The next visit will be with third graders. I will not change one word in my presentation.

7 Comments on TALKING UP: What Does Age Appropriate Mean Anyway?, last added: 10/30/2009
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12. I.N.K. News for April

Loreen Leedy is one of over 50 authors that will appear at the University of Central Florida’s inaugural Book Festival on Saturday, April 17 on the UCF campus. She will participate in the Adventures in Children's Books author panel at 10:30 am and will sign books immediately afterwards. For more information, please visit this web site:

http://education.ucf.edu/bookfest/


Rosalyn Schanzer, Dorothy Hinshaw Patent and Vicki Cobb are launching the videoconferencing division of INK Think Tank (INK Link: Authors on Call) with a webinar on April 21. This highly-entertaining free webinar for professional development for teachers is being Spotlighted by CILC.org, one of the most prominent marketplaces for videoconferencing in the educational arena. The title of the webinar is "Award-Winning Nonfiction Authors in Your Classroom." http://cilc.org/c/community/spotlights.aspx

Deborah Heiligman will be on a panel at the Los Angeles Festival of Books on Saturday, April 24, at 10:30: Fact vs. Fiction: Storytelling in Young Adult Nonfiction with Elizabeth Partridge and Stephanie Hemphill, moderated by Jonathan Hunt.
She will also be speaking about Charles and Emma at the Santa Monica Library on Sunday, April 25, at 3:00 with a reading by Rosalyn Landor, who performed the audio book.


From Susan Kuklin: I’m participating in PEN’s World Voices Festival of International Literature this year. The festival runs from April 26 – May 2. Here is the blurb about the panel I will be moderating.

War and the Novel

When: Saturday, May 1
Where: Scandinavia House, 58 Park Avenue, New York City
What time: 12:30–2 p.m.

With Bernardo Atxaga, Filip Florian, Assaf Gavron, and Atiq Rahimi; moderated by Susan Kuklin

Free and open to the public. No reservations.

Cheryl Harness signs copies of her book, They're Off! at the Pony Express Museum in St. Joseph, MO,
on Saturday, April 3, 2010, 150th anniversary of the launching of the Pony Express. Wahoo!

From David Schwartz: Where Else In the Wild? More Camouflaged Creatures Concealed and Revealed (the sequel to Where In the Wild? Camouflaged Creatures Concealed and Revealed) has been published and has received the following "awards":


Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) Choices 2010
National Science Foundation Outstanding Science Trade Books for Students K-12


and is already about to come out in Korean...

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13. No New Ideas - Ever?

Recent blogs about the author’s process have been personally helpful and reaffirming, so I’d like to continue the discussion by writing about the author’s pre-process – ways to uncover the perfect, albeit illusive, idea. Even more to the point, how does the author deal with that period of time just before the kernel of an idea breaks out? Hint: space.

Consider this: The last book has just gone through its final edit and it is out of your hands. The baby is on its own, to sink or swim, to sing or clunk. What’s next? Everyone and their mothers-in-law seem to ask the big question: “So, what are you doing next?” Gulp! Next? Is there a next? How often does this happen to you?

If you are lucky a new and exciting project awaits. But that’s not always the case. And it’s one thing to have a next project, and another to have a next project that is desirable. For example, when I finish a demanding human rights topic for young adults, I like to follow it with a colorful photo essay for very young children. Professionally, it gives me a sense of balance and breathing space. It acknowledges both the joys and the sorrows nonfiction undertakes as we realistically depict the world around us.

But there are times when I’ve experienced the absolute reality that I have no new ideas. There will never, ever be an idea as interesting, fun, saleable as my last book! “So what are you working on now?” That phrase haunts my waking hours. It creeps into dreams. It’s the 500 pound gorilla in the room – along with how old are you? and how much money do you make? – asked during school visits. Nothing. Nada. No idea. Try saying this at a party. It’s a great way to drink alone.

Over the years I’ve developed a few tricks – do’s and don’ts – to get me over the no-idea hump. Here are but a few. Please feel free to add, subtract, or challenge this list.


Don’ts

Don’t devote entire days to household projects. It only keeps you from thinking about writing. You can clean closets anytime, even when on a deadline. Don’t try to make every recipe in the Barefoot Contessa’s latest cookbook. Again, it takes away from literary thinking and you will gain about eight pounds. Trust me, I know this. If you don’t heed my advice on this one, change the quantity of butter to olive oil.

Don’t take on your craziest family members’ problems and try to reform them. It will only lead to a fight and won’t change anything. You will still have no new ideas – that are legal or printable. Don’t go shopping. It’s depressing to see all the beautiful things you can’t afford because you have no new ideas to help pay for them. On second thought, maybe this should go into the “do” section as it reaffirms that you will have a new idea eventually, hopefully before the bills arrive. You’re on your own with this one. Don’t indulge the notion that you will never have a new idea for more than 72 hours. After that, it gets old and boring to those near and dear. Of all the don’ts, if you can handle the time frame of the last don’t, feel free to indulge in the other four, but try to keep it down to as few hours as possible.

All these “don’ts” are getting me down. Let’s move on to …

Do’s

Isabel Allende, in a Q & A about writing, said, “Few people know how to be still and find a quiet place inside themselves …. From that place of silence and stillness the creative forces emerge; there we find faith, hope, strength, and wisdom.” I couldn't agree more.

Give yourself the gift of silence. Let silence, like the pause between musical movements or the white spaces around Asian poetry and art, give your creative juices time to recoup. Visit someplace beautiful: spend time with a favorite painting in a museum, walk along the river, look up at a big sky. The ocean and a white sandy beach work best for me, but that’s not a

2 Comments on No New Ideas - Ever?, last added: 4/15/2010
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