An article that caught my attention was Marc Aronson's "New Knowledge." In it he draws a razor sharp line between the old nonfiction, where, according to Marc, writers simply take the work of the expert adult scholars and make it "engaging and accessible to young readers," while the new nonfiction is where writers "set out to discover new knowledge" and then bravely interpret and speculate about it "however parlous and fraught with possible error that may be." *
Now don't get me wrong; I find the kinds of books he describes as exciting as Marc does, and the authors he cites as fine practitioners (including Stone, Susan Campbell Bartoletti, Phillip Hoose, Kadir Nelson, and himself) are all people and writers I applaud for their bravery and tenacity in hunting out the truth and their skill at presenting it to young readers. Still I bristled at some of Marc's reasoning and in particular over the way he so soundly deposited Russell Freedman in the old (and by implication inferior) nonfiction category. I would never presume to speak for Russell, but I will say that in my many chats with him over the years about research and, yes, how he interprets the gathered information, I think Marc's representation is both limited and unfair. Russell is a long-time friend and colleague, a writer and researcher I admire a great deal, so maybe I'm over-reacting a bit; and maybe it's that most of my own books would probably be classified as old nonfiction and pushed aside as well. So I thought I'd address a few of these issues here. [By the way, I would have responded directly on The Horn Book site, but didn't see a way to do this.]
Marc's article rambles a bit and some of it seems dropped in, possibly because it was an after-thought or a last minute editorial suggestion. Even so, I think I can summarize a few of the reasons why Marc feels the new nonfiction is completely different from the old and therefore unique: the new nonfiction 1, requires original research, often side-by-side with "pioneering experts," 2, this research often reveals information not available in adult books, and 3, these writers (he refers to them as "explorers") venture to interpret and speculate about the historical record. I realize there is more to Marc's definition of the new nonfiction, but I thought I'd start with these three for today.
My books always begin with a careful study of the scholarly thought on a topic, what Marc refers to as the "settled knowledge." I do this to establish a solid understanding of the subject, to see how opinions and conclusions have changed over the years, and to provide the route to further research, a path that has hundreds of branching leads to follow.
In fact, I have never done a book that did not entail significant detective work that required exploring beyond the edge of the known -- to root out primary sources, interview and question experts (established and pioneering) on their ongoing research and their conclusions, and sometimes to work alongside these experts. In short, doing whatever it takes to unearth a new detail or voice, all of which can lead to a slightly different interpretation of events from what has usually been accepted. Take what happened with The Boys' War.
Last month I chatted about Marc Aronson's "New Knowledge" article which appears in the latest issue of The Horn Book (http://www.hbook.com/magazine/current.asp
). It wasn't that I disputed his definition of New Nonfiction -- that it involves original research and new discoveries and sometimes leads to speculation on the subject that goes beyond the established, accepted opinions. I simply wanted to point out that this wasn't particularly new, that some folk had been doing this for many years, and that what was being labeled as new was in fact the result of a gradual evolution.*
Marc responded in his School Library Journal blog, Nonfiction Matters (http://blog.schoollibraryjournal.com/nonfictionmatters/2011/03/page/2/)
, with a long and thoughtful explanation, then followed this with two additional posts that, among other things, further defined and defended New Knowledge. The posts are all worth reading and thinking about, as are the responses and Marc's replies to them. I understand, too, that Russell Freedman has more to add to the discussion that will appear in the next issue of Horn Book.*
Here's the weird thing. Every time I read Marc's posts, the title of James McPherson's twenty-three year old book Battle Cry of Freedom popped into my head. Marc's entries certainly were a battle cry for speculative nonfiction as a force to lead us into the future. But I kept sensing that more might be going on here, that the freedom part of my memory response was vital. Then it came to me. Now I may be reaching here, reading too much into the passion of Marc's writing, and I apologize in advance if that's the case. I just had a feeling that at heart this was a plea to be taken seriously by the world beyond children's books, that Marc wanted his books and those of other New Knowledge practicioners to be seen as equal to and as worthy of serious discussion and respect as any adult nonfiction book. That he wants to break the chains that enslave us as "children's book" writers.*
There is absolutely nothing wrong with this desire. We've all had those awkward and annoying moments when someone (well-meaning but clueless about how we actually put our books together) has asked when we'll write a real grown-up book; we've patiently tried to explain our research methods, the care that we take to develop themes, how we sweat bullets over the text -- but really we just want to scream. Or at least not have to always justify our craft.*
And let's face it, being a part of the New Knowledge (New Nonfiction, Passionate Nonfiction, Speculative Nonfiction, or as Tanya Lee Stones says, "whatever we finally end up calling it") movement has appeal. There is a certain exhilartion and positive energy charge in announcing a new finding or interpretation, to being unique or the first to have a major scoop. My problem is that in the enthusiasm of the moment, some painful and damaging mistakes can be made. Take the case of Archaeoraptor Lianoningensis. *
In October, 1999, National Geographic made a monumental announcement, followed by a prominent article in their magazine. They had the fossil remains of Archaeoraptor Lianoningensis, a chicken-sized dinosaur that presumably lived from 125 million to 140 million years ago that, National Geographic claimed, was the "missing link between terrestrial dinosaurs and birds." Only it wasn't. It was an artfully glued together assembly of random fossils made by a Chinese farmer. The fraud was quickly exposed (in fact, several individuals had actually expressed doubts about the fossil months before the announcement
I don’t mean to beat this topic into the ground; really, I don’t. It’s just that I keep thinking about the difference between nonfiction books and movies “based on” nonfiction, and my perspective keep broadening. Part of that has to do with the fact that one of my friends is a very successful screenplay writer, and hearing his perspectives about movies “based on” the lives of real people has got me thinking in new directions.
For anyone who reads my blog entries, it won’t come as any surprise that I am usually treading the purist line of nonfiction. Don’t make anything up, ever. But this “based on” the lives of real people issue in the movies is complex. Some of it even has to do with rights. For example, I recently learned from my friend that there are varying degrees of situations in which a writer either needs to, or does not need to, secure a person’s life rights. If it’s a public figure, and it is long enough ago, it is considered public domain. But the length of time does not necessarily matter if it is a private figure (such as a specific hero or heroine in a story who is not well known). Interesting, right?
Now I find myself thinking about all kinds of distracting things while watching films such as The Aviator, The Conspirator, The King’s Speech, The Blind Side, and the list goes on. Wikipedia tags The Blind Side as “semi-biographical,” in fact. I didn’t even know that was a category! If all the facts about the family in The Blind Side were known, would the story have come across in the same way? Maybe, maybe not.
I wrote a lot about the Fine, Fine Line of truth in nonfiction books in my recent Horn Book article. But in the movies, that line seems not to be so fine at all…and people seem fine with it. I wonder why that is?
My filmmaker friend believes it may be because the truth isn’t dramatic enough for a blockbuster movie. I argue with him about this, of course, but his points have at least made me not be as stubbornly rooted (momentarily). For example, I said to him, why did The King’s Speech need to make Churchill appear against King Edward’s relationship with Wallis Simpson when in fact Churchill was fine with it? More dramatic, my friend said. Perhaps, I replied. But why not just leave that bit out and leave well enough alone, I pushed. He ventured a guess about people being hesitant to expose the flaws of giants such as Churchill, which might have been distracting to the main thrust of the film. Again, that may be. But why twist history?
I have some more thinking to do about this, it seems. My opinions hold fast when it comes to truth in nonfiction books, but perhaps this movie thing is too slippery for me. Or just slippery enough. I certainly enjoy watching these “based on” movies, but I can’t help feeling duped once I discover which facts have been altered to fit the script. Where do you stand?
Barbie is why I'm "here" today, she said. She thanks her publisher Viking for being giddy about the topic of Barbie. Tonya seems rather giddy about her honor. (Congratulations, Tanya!)
My phone rang last month and a smokejumper was on the other end. “I’m jumping this week, lots of blazes, but I got your message and I’ll find a way into that safe for you even if we have to crack it open.”
I had been waiting for this call for weeks. It all started with a cold call to a guy named Steve who knew a lot about the history of smokejumping—including the period of time when the paratroopers I am writing about worked for the Forest Service as smokejumpers. This guy was an absolute wealth of information, and he ended up sending me interview transcripts and knowing just whom I should talk to.
One of the guys Steve sent me to was Wayne. Wayne was equally enthusiastic and genuinely excited to talk with me. With Wayne I hit the photographic jackpot—almost. He told me an incredible story that resulted in a big orange carrot dangling in front of my nose.
One day, as he was busy manning the jump station, a man came up to him, handed him a manila envelope, said there were priceless pictures inside the Forest Service should have, and walked away. When Wayne had a chance to look at them, he knew immediately what they were, and stashed them in the safe in his office for, you guessed it, safekeeping.
Time went by and Wayne retired. The photos, he realized when we were talking, must still be in that safe—which no one had opened for years. “Call Dan (his successor) and tell him Wayne said to find the combination to that old safe and get those photos for you.”
Okay—I had a location, information, and a plan. The first time I called Dan he was out on a jump. The second time, too. I left a message that must have sounded crazy, to the effect of ‘you don’t know me, but the guy who worked in your office before you left some photos in a safe and he wants you to get them for me.” I didn’t know if I would ever hear from him.
It took a while, what with Dan being kind of tied up smokejumping into blazing forest fires, but he did call me back. He also promised that he would find the combination of the safe in his office. A week later came the bad news that no one seemed to know where that combination was, and the safe was so old and tough it was looking like it would be a big job to break into it by force. Still, he told me not to worry. He’d get the job done. Firefighters are like that.
Not long after, Dan had more news for me. They still hadn’t located the combination, but he had discovered the photos had been digitally scanned at some point. A CD was on its way to me! Some time after that, a package arrived in the mail. On that CD were a few old images I had seen before, but instead of the old blurry, many-photocopied, hard-to-reproduce versions I kept finding, these were crisp and clear and bright. Better still, there were a few images I had never seen before. Jackpot!
These are the kinds of detective trails that need to be found and followed for just a handful of photographs that will end up in my forthcoming book, Courage Has No Color.
There are many more photo stories where that came from. Sometimes these chases turn out to be of the wild goose variety; sometimes they are sheer gold.
Thank you Steve, Wayne, and Dan!
I am currently in the thick of telling a story visually. What do I mean by that? The text of Courage Has No Color is nearly done, and now it is time for me to choose the images that will add additional layers of meaning to that text. It is not at all as simple as choosing photographs to illustrate something I have said. That is what I used to think I was doing when gathering images and writing captions. But I have learned over the years that it is much, much more than that. It is an opportunity to tell MORE of the story. To elaborate, both with an image and with its caption, upon an aspect of the story that did not necessarily belong smack dab in the middle of the text. It can be distracting to the narrative to go off on an interesting-yet-not-crucial point. That is one of the many powerful uses of visual storytelling.
For example, if I wanted to show how television had a powerful impact on how we saw women in society in the 1950s, but didn’t want to veer off my beaten track with a lengthy description, I can (and did, in Almost Astronauts) show this quite effectively using images from Father Knows Best, the Mary Tyler Moore Show, and I Love Lucy. Looking at photographs also stirs ideas in me about what the images do NOT show as well as what they do show. This classic photo may conjure heroic images of America’s fearless astronauts to most people, but what I saw in this photo when collecting images for Almost Astronauts was what was NOT represented. The road not taken. The opportunity missed. The women in my story whose tale needs to be told.
It is the same for my newest book (Courage Has No Color) about the Triple Nickles. I continue to see what is—and sometimes more tellingly what is not—in the hundreds of photos I am looking through. I don’t just look at them; I listen to them. They speak to me. What are the images saying? What pops out at me that needs attention; that needs a voice? What more of the story is lurking in these photos, waiting for me to tease out and add to the overall narrative in the form of images?
This is my job, and I love it so, so much. I believe it is this love that makes my hands stop on one photo rather than another and take a closer look. What will I find? I can’t wait to find out!
Saving OP books, giving new life to in-print but barely moving books, or adding a layered, multi-dimensional platform to a healthy title—these are just three of the common reasons publishers, editors, and authors are discussing the world of electronic books as it applies to nonfiction. Most of us have e-book clauses in our contracts, but as the e-world is rapidly changing, so our rights, which has authors and publishers clamoring to figure out the best ways to proceed.
At least for right now, there doesn’t seem to be a clear answer and it can be very book-specific when it comes to nonfiction. In contrast, I have plenty of fiction writer friends who are successfully getting their e-book rights back (generally from OP or almost-OP books) and publishing in this format on their own—for 100% of the profits, minus expenses. But when photo rights and book designs factor so heavily into the final product of a nonfiction book, things are much trickier. If the e-rights for photos have not already been secured for an older NF book, it is not necessarily feasible from a time or money standpoint to track them down again. I certainly make sure I have e-rights for photos now, but that wasn’t the case a few years back.
Read this recent INK post from Jim Murphy for his perspective on one aspect of this issue. And Marc Aronson has tackled this topic in his SLJ blog, Nonfiction Matters, here and here. I think it would be worthwhile as well as illuminating to have NF writers and publishers, as well as readers, teachers, and librarians share some of their thoughts and insights, to see what some of the varied experiences are. I am also quite interested in hearing from people about what they think the future will hold.
Please weigh in with your comments!
Tanya Lee Stone. Susan Goodman. Jim Murphy. Kelly Fineman. You know these folks. They’re regular contributors to this blog. They’re also four of the thirty or so authors featured in Real Revision by award-winning children’s book author Kate Messner. The book is such a gem that you’ll definitely want your very own copy.Real Revision is published by Stenhouse Publisher, which caters to educators, so this book is written specifically for teachers. That makes it great for all you educators out there. But I know plenty of writers also read this blog. This book is a MUST READ for you, too.Some chapters focus on fiction-specific revision strategies, but the lion share of the book is useful to nonfiction writers as well. Here are few of my favorite quotations from nonfiction writers.Kelly Fineman on why she takes time away from a manuscript between writing the rough draft and delving into the revisions: “It could be as little as half an hour or as long as a year, but I need to have established some sort of distance from it in order to read it at least somewhat objectively and not like a doting author.”Loree Griffin Burns on the importance of reading widely and carefully considering the structure of nonfiction writing: “I pay close attention to the structure of the books I am reading all the time, and I compare and contrast them to the structure I’m working with. This is always helpful to me because it gives me confidence . . .or in some cases, helps me see why my own structure is not working.”Susan Goodman on striking the right balance between sharing information and engaging readers while writing Life on the Ice:“. . . I was trying to fit in so many facts that I had lost sight of what my book was all about—the excitement on exploration . . . So I sat down at my computer with an imaginary nine-year-old kid beside me. And I simply told that kid an adventure story—one where scientists were the explorers.”Jim Murphy on finding the proper voice and storytelling technique for his Newbery Honor book The Great Fire. “I read newspapers and personal recollections of the Chicago fire until I had absorbed the pace and language of the era. . . . I didn’t try to duplicate voices from the past, but I knew I had a faint echo of them in my style.”Tanya
When I do school visits and talk about how I research and write my books, inevitably the conversation turns to Internet research. Kids want to know if I use the Internet. I usually turn the question around on them. How do you think I use the Internet? Google, they say. That’s a search engine, I tell them. In what way do you think I use the search engine? Through a series of questions that usually allow me to steer them away from Wikipedia and do a basic how-to-use-the-Internet safely and productively, we get there. My most recent school visit was right around the time I had been dazzled by solving a problem that would have been a monumental task pre-Internet.
I was going over final art for my forthcoming picture book about Elizabeth Blackwell and there was one detail in one of Marjorie Priceman’s pieces that I wanted to make sure we had gotten right. It was an illustration of her graduation and she was not wearing her bonnet. I needed to quickly double-check and make sure we hadn’t missed this detail and that her bare head was a-ok, so I went online and in TWO minutes I found a primary source document proving that she was not wearing her bonnet that day. All was well! That could have taken weeks pre-Internet.
The Internet has become an invaluable tool for the research process in my books in many ways. The ability to locate experts in various fields and share information is mind-boggling. I’ll never forget the first time I realized that this was not just a tool that could make certain things easier, it was a tool that could make certain things possible! At the time, I was charged with writing a wildlife series in which the film for the original books was published in China. Translation: the film we were working with consisted of complete photographic layouts of 32 page books, with Chinese text that we were going to ignore. Instead, my challenge was to properly identify the contents of the photographs, figure out the theme of each spread, and write new text to go with it. Given my wildlife and science education background, this was do-able. EXCEPT when I got to a book about alligators and crocodiles. These photos all looked alike to me. What to do? I got on the Internet and began to search for the world experts on alligators and crocs. And I found one. There was a scientist in Darwin, Australia who specialized in Crocodilians—otherwise known as alligators, crocodiles, and caimans. (Who knew?) He was happy to identify the photos for me. So I scanned all of the spreads and emailed them to him. One by one, he told me exactly what I was looking at and I was able to write the text. Pre-Internet—not really possible. How would I even begun to have found him??
In my forthcoming book, Courage Has No Color, the photo research was painstakingly slow. It is a story about WWII veterans and the images of them were few to begin with and fewer to survive the decades. I don’t know if I could have found most of what I did without the Internet. In some instances, it was tracking down small military archives; in others, it was a matter of being a detective and finding obscure phone numbers of distant relatives. Zabasearch came in handy!
The bulk of my research in general is done sans Internet with the usual suspects—library materials, documentaries, oral histories, interviews, etc.. But this ever-expanding body of material available by researching on line is staggering and has opened up new avenues of discovery. Thanks, Al Gore! ;-)
There is a time to begin finishing every book. Sometimes it feels as though that phase may never come. But it does. And there is work to be done. Careful, meticulous, try-not-to-miss-any-detail kind of work. That is what I am doing now for my forthcoming COURAGE HAS NO COLOR. The process for a nonfiction book includes a lot of details that may surprise some people. Here are some of the things I do as the author to tie up any loose ends as we head into this final phase:
Make sure I have ordered every photo at a high-enough resolution to reproduce well in the book (tricky with archival WWII photos, and I do this with the help of the brill designer on the book).
Write the photo credits, making sure to check them against the most final layouts so all page references are credit, and cross-reference them against my photo source charts that I create.
Tally up my photo costs and make sure I haven’t gone over budget. And if I have, come up with a solution as to how to deal with this issue.
Compile all the source notes for any quote in the book. (This is a biggie—I think the source notes in Courage are ten manuscript pages, single spaced!)
Make sure that the Bibliography I created while writing the book is complete and up-to-date (i.e. I haven’t forgotten to include any books or articles or documentaries I may have used in the last few months).
Check all the captions I have written against the information in the text to make sure I haven’t inadvertently contradicted myself with any facts; in other words, check and re-check my research. Do this process again, checking any official information I may or may not have received with each photo. Note: sometimes my research turns up errors in official information and I get to correct it--very satisfying!
Re-read the acknowledgments and make sure I haven’t left any out. These omissions generally fall into two categories—people who have contributed something in the last stretch of the process so it’s new information and people who deserve such a big thank-you I assumed they were already in there!
Go over the layout issues with my editor and designer for tweaking of things like half and full title page, dedication, headers or footers, and any back matter issues that arise.
And last but not least—read through the text again in hopes of catching a glaring typo that has been hiding in plain sight this whole time! (Note: I just found one of those, so this is a really important step.)
All of these things actually come before I will have a chance to carefully read the final layouts—these steps are to ensure that everything MAKES it into the final layouts! There is a certain satisfaction that comes from tying up all the loose ends and seeing a manuscript transform into a BOOK.
Here are a few key insights and habits these great writers shared: Susan Campbell Bartoletti
starts her research in libraries, and has six times as many library cards as credit cards. These libraries have databases and other sources you can't find anywhere else. But she also travels to the places she's writing about, and even spent time at a Ku Klux Klan rally.
She has a secret for knowing when to stop researching: "When the facts begin to repeat themselves, that's when I know it's time to begin writing." (Sometimes research can be a sophisticated form of procrastination.)Deborah Heiligman:
Almost all of her sources are primary. She read Darwin's autobiography and a two-volume set of letters from Emma's family. A line in one of Emma's letters made her cry. "I knew I was hooked. I got absolutely passionately attached to both Charles and Emma." Tanya Lee Stone
calls extreme research "detective work." You have to let go of not knowing what you're going to find and whether it's going to fit into the story you're going to tell. Before she started researching ALMOST ASTRONAUTS, she kept coming across obscure mentions of women who almost became astronauts and got interested; tracking down the women was a big challenge. She interviews lots of people to enhance her baseline research. You want to learn all you can before you interview people, though.Elizabeth Partridge
spoke about connecting with an editor. With nonfiction, you generally send a cover letter, a sample chapter, and an outline. Crafting that forces you to get some clarity on the research you've done (even if your book changes as it's written and polished). She's also used photographs to engage an editor's imagination.
Follow the Money by Loreen Leedy is being used in Vermont's statewide
financial literacy program.
Artwork from several of Loreen Leedy's picture books will be included
in The Storymaker's Art, and exhibit of illustrations by eight artists
at the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale.
Gretchen Woelfle will be on hand to sign books at Breakfast With the Authors, sponsored by the Santa Barbara County Education Office on October 9, in Santa Barbara, CA.
From Susan E. Goodman: My new Step into Reading book, Monster Trucks!, was just published September 28th by Random House. For my other writing news, check my blog post this month, on October 11th. Other news that doesn't really belong here...I'm going to Paris this month for two weeks!
Deborah Heiligman will be speaking at the Rutgers One on One Plus Conference, October 16. http://www.ruccl.org/One-on-One_Plus_Conference.html
and at the New York State English Teachers Conference October 21-22.
Vicki Cobb has been awarded a CILC Pinnacle Award Honorable Mention
in recognition of outstanding videoconferencing programs. She was one of only three individuals (and the only author) who won either the Award or Honorable Mention. The overwhelming majority of recipients is museums, zoos and other educational institutions. The awards are based solely on a performance rating.The Center for Interactive Learning and Collaboration (www.CILC.org
), is the leading agency for providing videoconferencing services for education.
Vicki Cobb is now an official blogger for Education Update, a print and online FREE newspaper that reaches 100,000 educators. Check out the other bloggers. Her mission is to let the world know about us.
From Jan Greenberg: Thanks to Steve at WindingOak, my new website is launched. Please check it out. Jangreenbergsandrajordan.com October 1 and 3, the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra is performing Appalachian Spring with images from my new book Ballet for Martha: Making Appalachian Spring. My co-author Sandra Jordan, the illustrator Brian Floca, and editor Neal Porter are coming in and we are doing a panel discussion for the St. Louis Public Library on Saturday, October 2. A narration of the book with images and music will be performed by the St. Louis Symphony on November 10 and 16 for the Young People's Concerts.
Tanya Lee Stone's newest nonfiction book, The Good, the Bad, and the Barbie will launch soon and its first two reviews are both Stars! School Library Journal wrote, "The author maintains her signature research style and accessible informational voice." Kirkus: "Sibert Medalist Stone tantalizes." The Good, the Bad, and the Barbie is part biography--both of the doll and of her inventor, Ruth Handler--and part exploration of the cultural phenomenon that is Barbie.
The Good, the Bad, and the Barbie: A Doll's History and Her Impact on Us by Tanya Lee Stone is now available. Love her or hate her, you can't deny the impact Barbie has had on the world. This book offers quotes and anecdotes from many people, myself included. (Thank you, Tanya!) Here's the official book flap summary:
Barbie just might be the most famous doll in the world. She's represented fifty different nationalities. She's stepped into the always-fashionable shoes of more than one hundred careers. She has been played with, studied, celebrated, and vilified for more than fifty years. And she has unquestionably influenced generations of girls - whether that influence has been positive or negative depends on who you ask.
When award-winning author Tanya Lee Stone started asking girls, boys, men, and women how they feel about Barbie, the first thing she discovered is how passionate people are about her. Here are a few things they said:
"Barbie is really only a reflection of the girl holding her. My generation of 'Barbie girls' is now entering the world and we seem to be doing just fine." -- Sara, age 17
"Barbie, I hate you!" -- Luci, age 15
"How Barbie looked was never the issue. Not to the girls who loved her. It was what she taught us that mattered. And what she taught us was that, like Barbie, we could be anything we wanted to be." -- Meg Cabot
"Barbie has been the #1 most destructive force on the self-image of women all over the globe!" -- Dr. Carole Lieberman
The Good, the Bad, and the Barbie is part biography - both of the doll and of her inventor, Ruth Handler - and part exploration of the cultural phenomenon that is Barbie. Filled with personal anecdotes, memories, and opinions from people of all ages, and featuring original color and black and white photographs, this book is for anyone who understands that we're all living in a Barbie world.
My post this month is going to be a tad different than usual because I firmly believe that every milestone in this tough business of ours should be celebrated—and that’s exactly what I did last night. Celebrate.
You may think that nonfiction books and a rockin’ party don’t go together—but you would be wrong! Last night was the official launch party for my new book The Good, the Bad, and the Barbie: A Doll’s History and Her Impact on our Culture. And let me tell you, people were In the House to celebrate nonfiction!
The place: Flying Pig Bookstore in Shelburne, Vermont.
The time: 7:30 p.m. on a Wednesday evening.
The crowd: SRO!
Even after a long day of working, shuttling kids to play rehearsals and soccer games, nonfiction aficionados showed up to usher in this newest addition to the Dewey Decimal shelves. There were parents, teachers, librarians, and kids armed with questions (as well as a few Barbie dolls). Who says nonfiction is dead? Phooey!
On hand were Karen Pike--the photographer I hired for the bulk of the interior images--and Peter Harrigan--the theatre professor/Barbie collector who made the photos possible.
The questions from the audience were fabulous. We talked about writing process, how do you know when it’s time to stop your research, and the many, many cultural questions that come up when people start to talk about Barbie.
The question I addressed first seems to be the most frequent and obvious one surrounding the publication of this book. The question posed to me, in its many forms, always comes from this place: “YOU wrote a book about Barbie? Really? Barbie? You?”
Although I actually anticipated and dreaded this questions several months ago, now I really enjoy it. Why? Because the question is at the heart of why any nonfiction writer (any writer, really) chooses to write about a topic—and why they are the right person to tackle it. It opens up all kinds of avenues for thought and discussion.
Yes, I often write what might be called feminist books, or books that have at the heart of them a desire to empower girls. And yes, on the surface, the topic of Barbie seems at odds with that. But that’s what’s so fantastic about immersing yourself in a topic of nonfiction, looking at the back story, discovering the who, what, why, where, and when of a topic, looking at it from all sides and ultimately synthesizing an understanding of it.
I won’t give away what my conclusions are, lest I be accused of treading into Spoiler territory. But I will tell you that every time I answer the question of “Why, why, why, would YOU of all people choose to write about Barbie?” I am rewarded with the facial changes, head nodding, and verbal feedback that indicate I have made a connection with my audience. I have expressed myself. I have initiated a thought process out in the world that leads to discussion.
This is why I write nonfiction. And THAT is definitely something to celebrate.
So come on Barbie, let’s go party!
This month, Tanya Lee Stone launches her new book, The Good, the Bad, and the Barbie: A Doll’s History and Her Impact on our Culture. In this month's post, Come on Barbie, Let's Go Party, Tanya shared with I.N.K. the details of her launch party.
Involved with the toy industry for over 25 years, Barbie has been near and dear to my heart. At Mattel, I originally interviewed for the position of Barbie accessories designer. Finally landing in the Girls Dolls and Plush Department, my office was next to the Barbie designers, who became my good friends.
At first, I was worried that the book was going to be another Barbie bashing or, on the other side of the spectrum, full of Barbie fluff.
After reading The Good, the Bad, and the Barbie
, I have to say "Bravo" to Tanya Lee Stone! The message that stands out to me is that girls can do anything. And, I believe that exact phrase was a Mattel advertising tagline one year. Ruth Handler persevered in so many ways - by making things work when everyone said no, by crushing the stereotypical '50s housewife image, by recognizing the new TV advertising medium, etc.
March of last year, Barbie turned 50 and on my blog
I wrote about my own personal love of Barbie. Regarding Barbie's negative stereotype:Grandma cut off some of her own hair and glued it onto Barbie's private parts. Yup. This is how an adult saw Barbie - a grown-up mature woman. To me, Barbie was years of the best play imaginable. The creation of Barbie's life in my mind was priceless.
The Good, the Bad, and the Barbie is a five-star interesting nonfiction read for girls of all ages. The flow of the book is seamless from the beginnings of Ruth Handler's imagination, through the process of Barbie's rising star. This includes the impact of the revolution of plastic manufacturing, the embracing of diversity, Barbie as an art form, and, of course, the controversies - peppered with fabulous, thought-provoking quotes from Barbie fans and critics.
As a child, my Barbie play was a treasure-trove of stories and adventures. Barbie's house and town was a mixture of the family couch and lots of blocks and boxes. Barbie's clothes fascinated me - I loved her bright, blue patent leather coat and neon go-go dress. And, as for my self image, my mom told me that I was prettier than all the girls on her soap operas.
Toy and doll history can be used in the classroom to support curriculum in Social Studies, and American and European History. Kids can relate to toys and dolls. Last November in my Play and Creativity in the Classroom presentation at the Chicago Toy and Game Fair, I shared with teachers how to combine toys and play with social studies, science, and math curriculums. In my I.N.K. post last year, Interesting Nonfiction and Toys
, I shared a variety of toy-related nonfiction books.
Last year when my ten-year-old son was having a difficult time picking an appropriate book for his class nonfiction unit, I handed him
Tanya Lee Stone's latest book, The Good, the Bad and the Barbie: A Doll's History and Her Impact on Us, has earned three stars from the publishing world and raves like this one from Lauren Myracle: "Holy belly buttons! This is no mere Barbie book. This is a how-to manual about being a girl: a strong, sparky, awesome girl, with Barbie in hand *or* Barbie in the nearest Dumpster!"
Love that. Plus, it has a sly, iconic cover. I had to ask Tanya how it came about. Here she is:
"I didn't have a picture of the front cover in my head from the beginning, but once I started playing around with all of the dolls in Peter Harrigan's collection (which we used for the photo shoot), I started thinking about the BACK cover. I pictured a border of heads peering from the edge into the middle of the cover (kind of creepy). I fell in love with the Elphaba doll from Wicked, and thought the Twilight dolls were kind of cool (and again, kind of creepy). In the end, we used a great shot the photographer took of a bunch of the international dolls, in a pinwheel formation. I love it.
"My publisher did ask for my input. We talked about what image should go on the cover. Should it be a universal favorite (there really isn't one) or not?"
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In a recent thought-provoking Washington Post article, journalist and author Joy Hakim wrote the following: “As they [education historians] document the tale, it was decades ago that we gave up teaching history as an idea-centered discipline played out by a succession of characters—heroes and villains—whose actions led to results that can be analyzed. That kind of story-based history is engaging. We replaced it with litanies of facts.”
She was talking about the state of textbooks, as well as the lack of integration of standard curriculum with the stories of science and social studies that, without, leave gaping holes in education. That’s where we nonfiction writers today come in.
As depressing and infuriating as much of Hakim’s article was to me, I also felt myself saying “but we do that—those stories are being written!” And so, with the intention of offering a tiny bit of assistance to all those who teach and/or otherwise influence the education of young minds, I decided to begin compiling a recommended reading list of stories for older readers—true stories; i.e., nonfiction (or veritas, truthiness or True Dat!)—that will surely supplement and complement and enhance the experience of anyone taking social studies and science classes using textbooks.
Please—I mean this—please, add to this beginning of a list. Let’s make it grow. I will incorporate your comments and update the list accordingly. Next time, I’ll make a picture book list!
History and Science Through Story:
Armstrong, Jennifer. The American Story: 100 True Tales from American History
Aronson, Marc and Budhos, Marina. Sugar Changed the World: A Story of Magic, Spice, Slavery, Freedom, and Science
Aronson, Marc. Witch-Hunt: Mysteries of the Salem Witch Trials
Bartoletti, Susan Campbell. Hitler Youth: Growing up in Hitler’s Shadow
Burns, Loree Griffin. Tracking Trash: Flotsam, Jetsam, and the Science of Ocean Motion
Colman, Penny. Where the Action Was: Women War Correspondents in World War II
Deem, James. Bodies from the Ice: Melting Glaciers and Rediscovery of the Past
Delano, Marfe Ferguson. Earth in the Hot Seat: Bulletins from a Warming World
Freedman, Russell. Who Was First?: Discovering the Americas
Giblin, James Cross. The Many Rides of Paul Revere
Hakim, Joy. The Story of Science: Aristotle Leads the Way
Heiligman, Deborah. Charles & Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith
Hoose, Phillip. Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice
Jackson, Ellen and Bishop Nic. Mysterious Universe: Supernovae, Dark Energy and Black Holes
Jackson, Donna M. The Wildlife Detectives: How Forensic Scientists Fight Crimes Against Nature
Murphy, Jim. An American Plague: The True and Terrifying Story of the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793
Nelson, Kadir. We are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball
Partridge, Elizabeth. Marching for Freedom: Walk Together Children and Don’t You Grow Weary
Sis, Peter. The Wall: Growing up Behind the Iron Curtain
Stone, Tanya Lee. Almost Astronauts: Thirteen Women Who Dared to Dream
Thimmesh, Catherine. Team Moon: How 400,000 People Landed Apollo 11 On the Moon
Walker, Sally. Written In Bone: Buried Lives of Jamestown and Colonial Maryland
Weatherford, Carole Boston. Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom