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.
This post is by Tanya Lee Stone. She couldn't log in today so I'm posting it for her.
I recently had a long conversation with an old friend of mine from high school. A few things came up that I was surprised to hear. “I don’t remember it that way at all,” I said. She laughed. “Boy, for a writer, your memory is terrible,” she said.
The events we were talking about were things we lived through together, experienced deeply, and yet came away with different recollections. There were even details she recalled that I did not at all, and vice versa. As I am once again immersed in a project that relies heavily on oral histories, I began to look at my materials from a different angle. Many “what if” questions presented.
What if a subject is being interviewed too long after an event occurred? How does interviewing someone too soon impact the retelling? What about a subject’s mood on the day of an interview? Did they get enough sleep? Are they cranky? Is there more than one person involved? Do their stories mesh?
Of course, I have always factored these questions in when evaluating primary source materials, but somehow coming face to face with the flaws in my own memory has given me new insights into how I am feeling about the whole notion of history this morning.
I always tell kids that the best any writer can do is to be as responsible and accurate as humanly possible—but—and I stress this, human beings are imperfect. Therefore, all history is imperfect. Our job as nonfiction writers, reporters, journalists, is to do everything within our reach to get the best version of the truth straight that we can. Sometimes this means being perfectly up front with the reader. I did this in Almost Astronauts. There was a critical piece of information in that story, and the way the information came to me was just as important as the information itself. What to do? I incorporated the information about the source into the narrative and then I explained to the reader under exactly what circumstances I was given this information so that they could form their own opinions about it. Full disclosure. For me, that’s the way to go.
Stories will vary on any given memory of an experience when dealing with oral histories. This is natural. If you have seven different people involved with a historical event, you may be told seven slightly different versions of that event. Some details may not mesh. But common truths will emerge.
In the book I’m working on now, Courage Has No Color, there is one anecdote that has been told three times by the same subject. Even with one interviewee, some small details change from telling to telling. But what is most important to me is that the emotional truth of what happened to him stays the same. And that’s what I am always on the lookout for—the emotional truth of the story.
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?"
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
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A neighbor asked me how far along I am on my latest book. It is an excellent question to ask, but a difficult one to answer. I used to think—long, long ago—that books were written in a linear fashion, especially books that would seemingly follow a chronology of events—a person’s life or an episode in history. I have learned that it is not the case.
It would be nice and neat, and cause me many fewer headaches if books could be written in a linear fashion, but it just isn’t possible. Why? There are many reasons. I think the biggest one, though, is that the more understanding I gain on a topic, the more complex I understand it to actually be. And those complexities generally reveal themselves as I am moving forward, which makes me realize I have to stop and go back to further clarify and revise; do more research and revise; read something else and revise. Translation: throughout the entire process of writing a book I continuously and simultaneously move forwards and backwards, which means I never really know how far along I am until I am done.
One might wonder if I could avoid this if I did enough homework before beginning to write. To me, this is one of the most interesting parts of being a writer, because the answer is no. The preparation doesn’t end when the writing begins.
There is a huge cognitive difference between understanding something enough to, say, carry on a conversation about it at a dinner party and making that understanding solidified and concrete enough to stand up to the page. Once your understanding begins to take the shape of an actual thesis in black and white you must analyze and evaluate your statements in a more objective way. Now that they are staring back at you—nay, challenging you—you must ask yourself—have I got it right? Have I captured the nuances of this issue and presented it with clarity? Have I been fair and accurate? Is it compelling?
So, dear neighbor, how far along am I on my next book? About 70%, give or take about 30%.