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Viewing: Blog Posts Tagged with: finding the truth, Most Recent at Top [Help]
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1. Artistic License and Telling Details


The newest crop of award-winning films from Hollywood, Lincoln, Zero Dark Thirty, and Argo, are all based on true stories.  The key word here is “based.” It seems that film-makers have no trouble inventing scenes, creating dialog, and inserting information that is completely made up if, in their opinion, it makes a better story.  The rationale?  Movie-goers “expect” an exciting chase scene in Argo or a  Navy Seal raid on Osama Bin Laden’s home to be noisy even if it never happened.  Historians are worried because so many people are learning history from the movies.  Will the story from the movie’s point of view become the myth that supplants the careful scholarship and meticulous digging that drives the best historians to get it right?  The good news is that these transgressions are being noticed.  But we authors who contribute to this blog, who craft nonfiction for children, may be held to the highest standards around.  We’re not allowed to make anything up.  Period.  Maybe we’re the last group on the planet to be held to such high standards.  Anna’s recent post on Just the Facts shows how hard we work to make sure we’re accurate.

The erosion of the truth seems to be touching journalism as well. One previously absolutely inviolate journalistic standard was that every fact must be verified by at least three independent sources.   It’s hard for a reader to check on the accuracy of many stories because journalists can keep some of their sources secret.  So one outcome is that people wind up reading and tuning in to the media they agree with. The biased medium becomes the arbiter of what it wants its audience to believe, cherry-picking from the many conflicting “facts” being touted in public that support different sides of critical issues.  It’s no wonder that the “echo chamber” of Fox News [Un]fair and [Un]balanced skewed version of the news kept them in a bubble oblivious to the possibility that Obama would be elected, even after the election results were called by other news services.  Many pundits dissected why Fox News got it wrong but the consensus seems to be that they had problems believing the inconvenient truth of independent polls so their own slanted views became their own truth.  I googled  the words “journalism erosion of standards” and up came a slew of posts with many different  examples about the extent of misinformation foisted on the public.  There was so much disagreement between these posts that I’m now confused about the truth on a variety of issues.  But all the articles seem to agree that many news organizations play fast and loose with the truth in the interest of ratings, readership, political and social bias, and the bottom line. Propaganda is alive and well in the good old USA.

 What happens when misinformation is embedded in a compellingly told story that has a lot of truth to it? What should our response be when it is uncovered?  Here’s a thorny problem from the film Lincoln:  It seems there were two invented Connecticut “nays” against the 13th amendment in the voting scene in the movie thus casting the Nutmeg State incorrectly on the wrong side of history.  My initial reaction was:  where were the fact checkers?  This is the kind of error that is so easy to correct. Were the film-makers being lazy or sloppy?  The Connecticut congressman, Joe Courtney, called out the error in an open letter to director Steven Spielberg.  In response, Tony Kushner, the screenwriter admitted that it was no accident.  He had made the changes deliberately.   Kushner argues that the facts were changed to serve the larger story: “These alterations were made to clarify to the audience the historical reality that the Thirteenth Amendment passed by a very narrow margin that wasn't determined until the end of the vote. The closeness of that vote and the means by which it came about was the story we wanted to tell. In making changes to the voting sequence, we adhered to time-honored and completely legitimate standards for the creation of historical drama, which is what Lincoln is.” In other words, he used artistic license to shorten the voting scene in the film from the actual historical voting time in the interest of a dramatic effect.  You can read the arguments  here. So it wasn't laziness or sloppiness. I think he has a point. 

Dramas like Lincoln and Argo create tremendous interest in history. When kids encounter a compelling story or an amazing fact they want to know if it is true. The proper answer is “Mostly.”  But a curious kid now wants to know what’s true and what isn't.  Aha!  A teachable moment!  What an opportunity!  Telling details (small things that catch one’s attention) can add to the credibility of a work if true or, if incorrect, indicate that the work was not vetted for accuracy and perhaps shouldn't be trusted.   If only the interested person knew for sure which were which!

Maybe this is an opportunity for us.  Perhaps it takes authors who write history for children to create white papers on these films.  They could explain what is true and where truth has been manipulated.  They could ask questions like, can you think of another way to meet the requirements of an historical drama without changing the facts? Are there any fabrications that are unacceptable in a work that portrays real events?  If so, what are they and why should they not be included?  What does a careless error of fact tell you about the creators of the work?  Whose responsibility is it for those errors? 

Searching for truth drives us in creating our books.  Perhaps we need to add our voices into the larger conversation engendered by the popular media.




6 Comments on Artistic License and Telling Details, last added: 3/7/2013
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2. Breaking Up Is Hard To Do, Redux


Yesterday morning there was an article in the NY Times that touched on my former subject, Mary Sullivan. Although the article (in case the link doesn't work it's called

100 Years After a Murder, Questions About a Police Officer’s Guilt) 

 doesn't mention Mary, she had a minor roll in the case, though not in solving it (one of the many reasons I, sob, dropped the book). Seeing it there in the paper, I had a pang and so I decided to re-post this blog from early last year. If we weren't posting old blogs, I probably would have written an entire blog about my newly adopted dog, Ketzie. I guess I'm lucky because I am such a doting new parent I would have embarrassed myself by writing thousands of words about her and showing you a picture. OK. Since you asked. I'll show you a picture.



and one more just so you can see what she really looks like:




Now on to the "real" blog post, the repeat:

If it were up to me, you'd listen to this song while reading this post.

So. It's been a very, very long time since I broke up with a sweetheart, given that I've been married for almost 30 years. (In  my culture, you get married at 11.) And I don't intend to ever break up with him. But there comes a time in every writer's life when she has to break up with a topic. Actually, many times. Usually the break-up comes early on in the project. At least for me. I work on something for a short time and realize that there's just no there there, or that it's not for me. Or someone or something else pulls at me, grabs my attention. ("Oh you over there, come hither...")

But sometimes, it seems, you go out with someone for a very long time before you realize he or she was not your bashert. This has just happened to me. It was a long relationship, but it was going nowhere. It just took me a very long time to realize that because I thought... I was sure...though I had niggling doubts...that I was in love.


But breaking up really IS hard to do.

(By the way, I also like this version of the song. My friend Judy Blundell votes for the  2 Comments on Breaking Up Is Hard To Do, Redux, last added: 7/17/2012
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3. Breaking Up Is Hard To Do


If it were up to me, you'd listen to this song while reading this post.

So. It's been a very, very long time since I broke up with a sweetheart, given that I've been married for almost 30 years. (In  my culture, you get married at 11.) And I don't intend to ever break up with him. But there comes a time in every writer's life when she has to break up with a topic. Actually, many times. Usually the break-up comes early on in the project. At least for me. I work on something for a short time and realize that there's just no there there, or that it's not for me. Or someone or something else pulls at me, grabs my attention. ("Oh you over there, come hither...")

But sometimes, it seems, you go out with someone for a very long time before you realize he or she was not your bashert. This has just happened to me. It was a long relationship, but it was going nowhere. It just took me a very long time to realize that because I thought... I was sure...though I had niggling doubts...that I was in love.


But breaking up really IS hard to do.

(By the way, I also like this version of the song. My friend Judy Blundell votes for the slow version, which I also like. Ok, maybe I'm spending too much time listening to Neil Sedaka.)

I mean, look at her. An early NYC policewoman. A detective.  And we had spent so many, many months together.

The more time, energy, money, time, time, time, you invest in a topic, the more reluctant you are to let it go. I bought and read very many books.


I spent many hours looking for people who knew the person I had fallen in love with. After much detective work, I found her descendants. That was a great day! And then her great granddaughter became an enthusiastic helper, inviting me to come to her house, where I combed through boxes of clippings, notes, photos, memorabilia, and even recordings, hoping for the big break in the case. 



I dug deep into the web, into online newspapers, books, footnotes of journal articles. I reached out to authors, researchers, professors, librarians... But I just couldn't get e

18 Comments on Breaking Up Is Hard To Do, last added: 11/17/2011
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4. Mind Games

A week ago our six month old puppy, Page, decided that 4 AM was the perfect time to go outside and play. After an appropriate amount of grumbling on my part, I got up and let her out into the backyard. On the way downstairs, I noticed a large heart-shaped pillow, bright red and covered with lots of smaller white hearts. It was our sixteen year old son's Valentine's Day "card" to his Mom from last year.*
*
I stood on the back porch as Page dashed around madly making giant figure eights. She's a Beagle mix, golden haired with white spots, but has very, very long legs. She looked like a miniture greyhound as she sprinted around and around and around. Then I thought about that red heart pillow. Our son is a person of giant emotions -- frequaently loud in all ways (our neighbors are wonderfully tolerant when he plays electric guitar), always hugging friends hello and goodbye, compressing more words per second in his rap songs then can be imagined, never settling for a simple story line or answer in his songs when something complex, contradictory and dark is demanding to be heard. There is wonderful freedom in his approach to life and art -- often reckless (he says what he feels in the moment and doesn't look back or forward), but just as often making a moving and thoughtful emotional comment that has real impact. *
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Of course, we also want to have all of that rich emotion in our nonfiction writing, though we operate in a world of rules -- space limitations, monitored by a series of gatekeepers (from editors, to reviewers, to teachers, librarians and parents) between our books and our readers, plus our need and drive to be as accuarate as possible. This isn't a complaint about the system we work in; but it's a reality that can sometimes make us hesitate when we're writing and sometimes/usually leads us to question what our inner soul is telling us to say: If I say it this way, it will be much more passionate or active or whatever, but will it be as accurate or clear?*
*
I know some writers who go with the flow, put down on paper whatever their head is telling them, and either leave it to their editors to make suggestions for revisions or go back later themselves. I envy them. Unfortunately, I am a compulsive self-editor. I think over, question, revise and re-revise every phrase, every sentence, every paragraph as I write them. Then I rework the section and question it all over again. And my earliest books reflected this labor. Over the years I've come up with little gimmicks to maintain a more spontaneous feeling. Nothing genius, mind you. Just ways to stay relaxed in my head. For instance, when I write, I tell myself that I should imagine I'm talking to one reader who happens to be sitting across the desk from me, which means writing in a conversational, informal way. If I feel a section is sounding too much like a freshman college lecture, I stop and do something else (wash dishes, water plants, take Page out) and come back later, hopefully with a fresh eye and approach. And I always read over a manuscript several times with a slightly different mode of attack. I'll make believe I'm the nastiest editor alive and write all sorts of challenging comments and suggestions in the margins; I'll read it with a young reader in mind who might not be familiar with the subject; and I'll just read it start to finish in one shot to be sure it flows along smoothly, noting whenever something (an odd phrasing, an overly long sentence, etc.) makes me stop reading. *
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These are just little tricks -- mind games really -- and sometimes they work. Just as watching Page doing crazy laps in the dark night for ten or twenty minutes can free up the brain and get it ready for another day's work. I hope you all have a wonderful Valentine's Day and that (if you work) your thoughts and words are passionate, free flowing, and exactly what you want to say.

5. Evolution, Shmevolution?

I had all kinds of ideas about what I was going to write about for today. Science and art. A term called The Beholder's Share. I was going to tell you about a great trip I had in Maine, where I spoke to librarians about writing non-fiction. I was going to show you a cool NPR story about the wind at sea looking like a Van Gogh sky. But then I opened up the New York Times Monday morning and saw this:

Pseudoscience and Tennessee’s Classrooms

Please read it. I'll wait. I can't say it any better than that because all I want to do is scream. Loudly.

But I will say this, once again, as I've said many times and I think as I showed in CHARLES AND EMMA: Science and faith can co-exist. It does not have to be either or. But science is science and religion is religion. Evolution really happens. Smart theologians, religious people, clerics, rabbis, priests, ministers have NO PROBLEM WITH EVOLUTION. (I guess I am screaming.)

Our children deserve to be taught the truth in school. Period, the end.

Global warming really is happening. Smart politicians know that. Teaching our children the truth about global warming leaves open the possibility of saving our earth. Not teaching them the truth closes that possibility.

I hate conflict and controversy. I got very little of it, thank goodness, when  Charles And Emma came out. I think because their relationship shows how science and religion can co-exist in peace and harmony with understanding. That's beautiful.

What's happening in Tennessee and elsewhere is not beautiful. It's UGLY. And stupid. I'm going to let Spencer Tracy say it for me: Inherit The Wind






13 Comments on Evolution, Shmevolution?, last added: 4/17/2012
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6. Jan Interviews Bravo's Andy Cohen


Andy Cohen is Bravo TV’s executive vice-president of programming and development and the mastermind of such hits as Top Chef and the Real Housewives franchise. He also hosts a fast-moving, outspoken talk show Watch What Happens. What is wonderful about Andy is that, despite his success and friendships with “stars,” he is still the same funny, friendly kid who hung out at our house in St. Louis with our daughter Jackie, loves his family (especially his Mom), and keeps up with all of us. Andy grew up knowing he was gay and keeping it a secret until his senior year at college. His new memoir Most Talkative: Stories from the front lines of pop culture tells that story, but also chronicles his meteoric rise in the world of T.V.

As a student at Boston University, Andy began to follow his dream to be a journalist. A hilarious chapter describes a hard won interview for the school newspaper with his all time idol Susan Lucci. Most Talkative gives a candid, inside view of life in television, as well as a poignant and often funny account of his life as a teenager in the Midwest. Several of us, including Sue Macy, Karen Romano Young, Cheryl Harness, Susan E. Goodman, and Gretchen Woelfle, have written posts about the need for nonfiction books for kids about growing up gay in America. I hope Andy Cohen’s memoir will fill this gap.

Jan: The text reads just the way you talk- funny, honest, anecdotal and fast-moving. Most Talkative is an apt title. How did you come to it?

Andy: I WAS VOTED MOST TALKATIVE IN HIGH SCHOOL AND IT SEEMED SUCH AN APT TITLE WHEN I LOOKED BACK AT MY LIFE AND HOW MY MOUTH HAS NOT ONLY GOTTEN ME IN A TREMENDOUS AMOUNT OF TROUBLE OVER THE YEARS, BUT HAS ALSO HELPED ME ACHIEVE MY PROFESSIONAL DREAMS.

Jan: Your descriptions of growing up in St. Louis were so vivid and immediate. Did you keep a journal all those years?

Andy: I KEPT JOURNALS FROM 1987 THROUGH '98, SO THIS WAS AFTER I'D GRADUATED HIGH SCHOOL BUT CERTAINLY DURING THE PERIOD WHEN I WAS WRESTLING WITH COMING OUT OF THE CLOSET AND THEN THE AFTERMATH OF THAT DECISION. THE JOURNALS WERE PAINFUL TO READ - AS THEY ALL CAN BE - BUT PROVIDED ME WITH SOME VERY SPECIFIC DETAILS ABOUT MY FEARS ABOUT COMING OUT, AS WELL AS SOME HILARIOUS COLOR COMMENTARY DURING MY TIME AT CBS NEWS.
Jan: You are a people person. You are known as a TV talk show host and you appear as a guest on other interview shows. As a writer myself, I know how much alone time it takes to write a book. Was writing the memoir difficult for you to do in terms of time, concentration, or the writing process?

Andy: WRITING THIS BOOK WAS SUCH A CHALLENGING AND ENERGIZING EXPERIENCE. I HAVE NEVER FELT MORE ACCOMPLISHED ABOUT ANYTHING I'VE DONE IN MY LIFE THAN I DO ABOUT THE BOOK. I AM VERY DEADLINE ORIENTED, AND I HAD A TIGHT, ESSENTIALLY FOUR MONTH DEADLINE FOR THIS ENTIRE BOOK TO BE WRITTEN AND EDITED. (I STARTED IN LATE AUGUST AND IT WAS DUE JAN 1.) PLUS I HAVE TWO JOBS (EVP OF DEVELOPMENT AND PRODUCTION AT BRAVO AS WELL AS HOSTING 'WWHL'). I CAN'T BELIEVE I DID IT BUT I SPENT EVERY MINUTE THAT I WASN'T WORKING - AND MOST ESPECIALLY EVERY SINGLE WEEKEND NONSTOP - WRITING NEW PAGES AND EMAILING CHAPTERS IN VARIOUS STAGES OF EDIT BACK AND FORTH TO MY PHENOMINAL EDITOR AT HOLT, GILLIAN BLAKE. I ALSO SPENT 30-60 MINUTES DAILY ON THE PHONE WITH GILLIAN, USUALLY FIRST THING IN THE MORNING, TALKING ABOUT EVERYTHING RELATED TO THE BOOK - NEW IDEAS,

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7. Reasons for Being

Any thoughtful writer has different reasons for writing her stable of books, ranging from a story that must be told to commerce, plain and simple. In a reflective moment, I realized that many of my books are the ones inspired by the child I once was or the adult I’ve become with important things to impart.

Examples from the kid end? I wrote the Brave Kid series for my younger self, stories in which ordinary children show courage in hard times. I found kids who lived in different eras to bring in another element. But my real message was that you don’t have be an expert in the martial arts to be a hero. Being scared and acting anyway is heroic. Standing up against something wrong, even just a little bit, is heroic. Getting through something really hard is heroic. Way back then, I wish I had known that we don’t have to measure ourselves against an ideal or end goal to be brave. Trying is brave.

I made sure to reveal some foibles of Washington, Jefferson and Adams in See How They Run: Campaign Dreams, Election Schemes and the Race to the White House for the same reason. In the service of giving kids a moral lesson, we used to paint these guys as gods (okay, not Adams, no one ever seemed to like him much but Abigail). But we robbed kids of the chance to see that imperfect people struggling to do right is perfectly heroic.

An example from the adult end? I’ve already blogged about why I wrote On This Spot, a book that describes a specific place in New York City from present day all the way back through geologic time. In this post, I explained that I was inspired by overhearing a young girl who was very upset and couldn’t quite fathom that things would change. (http://inkrethink.blogspot.com/2009/08/sometimes-truth-finds-you.html)

What an important lesson that one is. It’s the one that inspired the “It Gets Better” Project in reaction to the rash of suicides by gay teens. Sue Macy wrote a great post about this project that has people on youtube telling their own stories to stricken kids to say, in essence, “Hang on, things change.” (http://inkrethink.blogspot.com/2010/10/making-it-better.html)

Last thought. Many of my books, serious or funny, have an uber-message the adult me wants kids to know. It boils down to: Hey Kid, you think that the world you see, hear, touch is THE world. Well, it’s just one part of it. Your truth is a truth; but there are others too. Check it out!

Authors out there, I’m curious. What are some of the deeper reasons behind your books? Is there a pattern? Some message important to you that you keep trying to get across?

4 Comments on Reasons for Being, last added: 11/9/2010
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8. MORE ON MR. DARWIN

If you scroll on down to last Thursday’s blog, you’ll find Steve Jenkins’ lively rant about the pseudo-scientific gibberish and censorship surrounding the Theory of Evolution. Since 5 (yes, five!!!) of our INK bloggers have written books about Charles Darwin, and since I’m one of the perps my own self, I cannot help but chime in.

Ladies and gentlemen, the evidence is overwhelming. Now that DNA has vindicated just about everything Darwin ever wrote, evolution is a proven fact—you can take that message straight to the bank. And as the unifying underlying principle of all biology, evolution should be taught in schools just as surely as we teach kids about gravity or the fact that the earth revolves around the sun (another maligned “theory” that got a scientist in trouble).

To put it very simply, Darwin showed us how all living things are shaped over time by Natural Selection; if any random change in a plant or animal made it more likely to survive in a given environment, its offspring might end up with the same trait and would therefore be more likely to survive too. And any plants or animals that randomly developed unhelpful traits would be likely to die out.

For example, Darwin discovered that the most spectacular birds of paradise and the most colorful butterflies were likely to lure the best mates and therefore have the most offspring. He saw how pumas that ran too slowly couldn’t catch enough game to eat, while their faster, stronger brothers would capture the most prey and live to reproduce in the bargain. He noted that mammals like bats which had gradually developed wings over a long period of time could catch prey—and escape from predators—better than their wingless ancestors. And anteaters with the longest snouts could reach deeper into an anthill to eat the most ants. And the strongest alligators or rams or stag beetles could win a battle for the best mates and pass their great strength along to their children too. And certain drought-resistant plants would survive to reproduce when the rains disappeared. And so on.

The world continues to evolve right before our eyes every single day. Are there any examples kids can see today? I’m sure that the young contestants Steve blogged about who are writing and drawing their thoughts on evolution have thought of plenty. I've been gleaning a few more:

Hi kids. Did you ever have a horrible earache, but when the doctor gave you an antibiotic, it didn’t work? Whoops. That’s because the kind of bacteria that caused your pain has evolved; back when your medicine was first invented, it used to kill almost every trace of bacteria and kids got well again right away. But a tiny number of bacterium were resistant to the drug and refused to drop dead. They multiplied over and over instead, and by now, millions of their evil offspring aren’t affected by the medicine one bit. And guess what? The ten most dangerous microbes on the planet are now resistant to everything we can throw in their direction. Watch your head.

Hi kids. Did you happen to watch yesterday’s TV show about African elephants, and did you notice their teeny little tusks? Well guess what. Male elephants used to have gigantic tusks so that they could fight each other to win the best looking girlfriend. But poachers killed all the elephants with the biggest tusks and made a bundle selling the ivory. The only elephants that survived to breed had teeny little tusks. They had evolved.

Hi again. Remember how global warming has been killing off our coral reefs and all of the astonishing undersea creatures that live there? Well guess what. There’s actually a small glimmer of hope because some scientists have figured out that certain reefs in the Western Pacific Ocean and near Australia evolved in

3 Comments on MORE ON MR. DARWIN, last added: 12/7/2010
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9. Wishes for the New Year

‘Tis the season for both gifts and good wishes. Sometimes the two are one and the same. Still good wishes don’t always sound so pretty.

1. I, like so many people, am confused and outraged by the article in the New York Times about certain parents deciding to bypass picture books as quickly as possible to move on to chapter books. (Full disclosure—I write picture books.) This reported trend reminds me of a past fad using flashcards with quasi-verbal kids in an attempt to catapult them into SAT courses about the same time they finished toilet training. Hey, I’m a parent too; I worry all the time about my kids being well and happy and getting ahead. BUT COME ON!

My first wish? I wish that parents will realize that snuggling with their young child and a picture book, looking at it together accomplishes more than the chapter books I write as well. The child hears words she could never read at her age and enjoys a sophistication of story, relationships and ideas he could never read about by himself. The pictures act as an artistic dictionary, helping that young reader equate the look of a word and the word itself with its meaning via a drawing. Why be one of the seven blind men trying to define an elephant when you can just look at a picture of one? Furthermore we live in an increasingly visual age; why deprive a child of a model of using word and image together from the start?

And finally, we not only learn by doing, we learn by liking what we do. Kids love spending undistracted, interactive time with their parents (at that age, anyway) when the parent and a book are guides into new exciting worlds. They love reading picture books. And once they’ve practiced decoding letters and become used to bunches of them together with spaces between them, they love reading chapter books.

So I wish you guys would just calm down, then sit down and read a picture book to your kids.


2. Many writers here at I.N.K. have blogged about evolution and its detractors. They have been as impassioned and eloquent as I could ever be. So I’ll just start this wish/rant by saying, “ditto,” and move on to the general principal that we have never had better access to good, accurate information.

I wish we would value it more. Enough with “truthiness,” Mr. Colbert! And enough of cherrypicking facts or factoids that simply support our previously held views. I wish people would work harder to dig for this accurate information, find it, actually THINK about it, and use the results to create their opinions. Then let’s talk about how to reduce the deficit or raise our students’ math scores.

In other words, I wish we’d all start ascribing to a wise thought attributed to everyone from Bernard Baruch to Daniel Moynihan: Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.


3. I mentioned in a previous blog that I am currently an author-in-residence in a Boston school located in the middle of a public housing community. There is nothing like extended time in a school to remind you that teachers are heroes. They’ve got a hard job that is everyday and most of them try their best to do it well. I wish society appreciated them more.

As an author, I also wish they would/could use better hand-crafted books (nonfiction and otherwise) in their classrooms. I now understand better than ever how hard it is for teachers to use initiative and personalize the lessons they teach. There are seemingly endless mandated tests beyond the required state exams. Grade level curricula have units that must be covered from, say, October 11th to November 7th and others that pick up on November 8th. Where is the time for spontaneity? For the magic that comes from an inspired lesson or experiment or book?

I wish that we can somehow figure out how to slip more want-to’s in with ought-to’s. I can see from my time at the Perkins School that sparks do get kindled in kids and we just hav

2 Comments on Wishes for the New Year, last added: 12/14/2010
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10. Out With the Old, In With the New

2010 ended in a frenzy of work as I tried to finish up the revisions of two manuscripts. I wanted to start the new year working on new projects. And for the most part I succeeded (We all know that a book is never really finished; there are always questions to answer, a caption to rewrite, etc., etc.). But there I was last week trying to put together a book proposal and finding myself frustrated.

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On the surface, the book will be about Vivien Thomas, a brilliant African-American man growing up in the Jim Crow South who wasn't able to finish medical school because a bank failure wiped out his savings. Fate led him to a job as lab assistant (his job title was really janitor) with Alfred Blalock, an equally gifted white surgeon and researcher who recognized Thomas's intelligence and drive. They had a complex thirty-four year long partnership that ushered in a new era of cardiac medicine and helped launch modern heart surgery.

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Information on their important work and their working relationship is reasonably easy to come by. They were known and remembered by hundreds of colleagues and students. And Thomas's autobiography is a extrodinarily detailed study of what they did together and how they began to rely on one another to advance various medical research projects. And we know something about each one's personal life and feelings. For the most part the latter information is all surface, the obvious, observable things that make up the framework of any biography. But for me something vital was missing.

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I wanted to know what Thomas felt about his place in life and in Blalock's laboratory. What he really felt. Did he feel trapped, abused, frustrated, angry, disappointed? Was he ever sad about how his life had turned out or annoyed at how his hard work was rarely acknowledged in the world of medicine outside Blalock's lab? There is nothing in his autobiography to suggest deep resentment; in fact, he comes across as remarkably even-tempered and content. Saintly even. But below those calm waters there could have been (should have been?) some swirling current, some bitterness or distaste or confusion. Or maybe there wasn't; maybe Thomas was able to accept what had been dealt to him through some powerful, inner calm. And what about Blalock? What did he really feel about Thomas? He liked and respected him, that much is clear? But what else? Never once in their many years together did Blalock invite Thomas or his family to dinner. And when Blalock celebrated his 60th birthday with a grand party attended by scores of his peers, Thomas was there -- as the bartender. Was living in the South and unbendable social customs the answer? Or was there something else? It's this deeper connection between the two men or the lack of it that I wanted to find.
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Searching for this information wasn't what was frustrating me; that's half the fun of putting together a book. It was that without knowing what I might find, I wasn't able to 'see' the shape of the book or even envision a loose narrative line.

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That's when I had the dream.

*

In it I was standing on NY City subway platform, waiting for a train. A man appeared nearby and I nodded to him and said, "Happy New Year." He smiled and answered, "Out with the old, in with the new." I recall thinking that was an odd response when the light of an in-coming train appeared and the platform began to shake. The next second a beautiful, old-fashioned Santa Fe streamliner went sailing past almost soundlessly, a great, improbable blur of shiney silver metal and running lights. Where did it come from, I wondered. I leaned out and saw its red lights fading, fading, fading away as it sped up the tunnel. And where was it going? Certainly not to the 72nd Street station. Somewhere distant and exotic and unknown.

*

And the next day when I went back to the proposal, I remembered that streamliner and its disappearing up the tracks and suddenly the route my book would take becam

3 Comments on Out With the Old, In With the New, last added: 1/11/2011
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11. The Whole Truth

In my somewhat new Monday slot, more of my posts fall on holidays (duh!) and I have just let them pass. Last month, for example, Valentine’s Day came and went, but my heart wasn't in it.

Today, however, I’d like to celebrate this week’s unofficial holiday that, in my opinion, deserves to become official--the onset of Daylight Saving Time (DST). What an emotionally lifting gift—especially to New Englanders who have been battling the suicidal impulses that accompany a 4:30 sunset. For months we have tried to keep our spirits up as the light inched back a minute at a time. Then PRESTO CHANGO! In just one day, arbitrary magic multiplies the jump times 60. We get a whole new hour of light—and life becomes brighter in every way. If only Zoloft worked so well.

As nonfiction writers we are obligated to tell the truth and nothing but the truth, right? What about the whole truth, though? In this case, I would have to admit that DST causes increased danger of traffic and pedestrian accidents during its first week because of sleep cycle disruption. It was never created to help the farmers or reinstated more recently to save energy. In fact, farmers hate it and many experts believe it increases energy costs: electricity for air conditioning and over $100 million a year for the airlines.

Why did this idea gain purchase? Some British golfer in 1907 realized that if one hour of sunlight was switched from the sunrise side to sunset, he’d have time to get to the back nine. In fact, when the 1986 Congress debated the issue of extending it into March, the golf lobby went to town. According to Michael Downing, author of Spring Forward: The Annual Madness of Daylight Saving Time, the golf industry estimated the extension of DST would increase their revenues by 400 million 1986 dollars, the barbecue industry over $100 million. In other words, if you give Americans the chance to go outside at any time, they will spend money.

Telling the whole truth about DST is not a horror. An ironic example of one of America’s worst traits, perhaps, but not a deal-killer. In the unlikely event that I ever wrote a book about DST, I’d “out” its origins with relish.

But what about other times, when telling the whole truth in our books for younger children is a lot more painful? Then how far do we go? I just attended a conference on sustainable energy this week where everyone had already accepted the devastating long range consequences of climate change as inevitable. Nobody was talking about getting better gas mileage or "clean coal." The focus was on how to think about reconfiguring communities in the Brave New World. I'm not considering a book about this subject either; but how do you give kids hope and this kind of information at the same time?

When I wrote See How They Run: Campaign Dreams, Election Schemes, and the Race to the White Hous

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12. Just Cuz It's a Fact, Doesn't Mean They'll Believe It


When Galileo discovered the moons of Jupiter in his telescope, he couldn’t wait to share the news with the world. So, in 1610 he hurriedly rushed The Starry Messenger, the story of his discovery, into print. Now, in those days they didn’t have talk shows, so, to promote his book, Galileo took his telescope to dinner parties and invited the guests to see Jupiter’s moons for themselves. Many refused to look claiming that the telescope was an instrument of the devil. They accused Galileo of trying to trick them, painting the moons of Jupiter on the end of the telescope. Galileo’s response was that if that were the case they would see the moons no matter where they looked when actually they could see them only if they looked where he told them to look. But the main objection was that there was nothing in the Bible about this phenomenon. Galileo’s famous response: “The Bible shows the way to go to heaven, not the way the heavens go.”

Galileo is considered the father of modern science, now a huge body of knowledge that has been accumulating incrementally throught the work of thousands of people. Each tiny bit of information can be challenged by asking, “How do you know?” And each contributing scientist can answer as Galileo did to the dinner party guests, “This is what I did. If you do what I did, then you’ll know what I know.” In other words, scientific information is verifiable, replicable human experience. Science has grown exponentially since Galileo. It is built on a huge body of data and its power shows up in technology. The principles that are used to make a light go on when you throw a switch were learned in the same meticulous way that we’ve come to understand how the carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere have risen over the past 100 years leading to ominous climate change or that Darwin was right, and living species are interconnected as “Islands in a sea of death.”


Yet there are many who cherry pick science—only believing its findings when they agree with them.

Documented proof doesn’t fare much better. Despite the recent publication of President Obama’s questioned-by-some birth certificate, there is still a percentage of the population that refuses to believe he was born in the USA.

We’ve spent a lot of time in this blog discussing the rigors with which we verify the accuracy of thematerial we write about for the nonfiction world. Personally, we can enjoy the satisfaction of knowing we are dealing with facts and we are careful to mention that when the facts are in dispute, that too is a fact. Yet, there are still those who are not convinced.

What’s going on here? Believe it or not,
science has taken a look at so-called “motivated reasoning” where people rationalize evidence that is not in keeping with deeply held beliefs. Here are some of the findings:


  • “a large number of psychological studies have shown that people respond to scientific or technical evidence in ways that justify their preexisting beliefs.”

  • "people rejected the validity of a scientific source because its conclusion contradicted their deeply held views—and thus the relative risks inherent in each scenario”

  • “head-on attempts to persu

    4 Comments on Just Cuz It's a Fact, Doesn't Mean They'll Believe It, last added: 5/5/2011
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13. Creativity--On the Couch

This past Saturday, I attended a seminar at the Boston Psychoanalytic Society and Institute called Three Poets on “Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming.” It was a blockbuster lineup: Poets Gail Mazur, Robert Pinsky and Louise Gluck (two of them Laureates) and Sigmund Freud, who was abundantly present in spirit, within the audience of 60-odd analysts and in his essay, “Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming.” Each poet read a poem and talked about how his or her writing related to points made by the Master in this essay about creativity.

Evidently Freud was both fascinated and puzzled by artistic invention. The program notes said creativity was “a mystery he admired, and likely envied as well. Freud wrote that poets had always known what psychoanalysis had discovered, and that it just fell to him to systematize and theorize it.”

And theorize it he did in this essary that searched for its underpinnings. As best as I could tell, Freud believed that creativity's roots lay in childhood (Duh. Where else did he ever look?). Specifically in childhood play. The child constructs a fantasy world in which the elements of the real world are reordered to please him, in part by defusing or dealing with unsatisfactory realities. And since the child is the father of the man, the adult writer continues on the same path.

Here’s the problem, Sigmund. This hypothesis—right or wrong—addresses the poet, novelist and playwright. What about the writer of creative nonfiction? Our job is to deal with, often even embrace the realities of life, not avoid them. And to do it creatively. Take the facts and make something new of them—or why bother?

So do we get our own developmental theory?

Is the creative nonfiction writer born as the kid who is just burning to know? Maybe she watches the first snowfall and wonders what happens to the butterflies. She asks her father who changes the subject because he doesn’t know and induces trauma by answering NO questions. Then she gets sent to a shrink who asks the little girl TOO many questions instead of answering any. Then she asks a librarian who hands her a copy of Under the Snow by Melissa Stewart. Just like Goldilocks, everything is finally just right. Anxiety over. That feeling of relief and its cause is imprinted upon her psyche and determines her future.

Or maybe he started on the Freudian track, building a world filled with purple dragons. Then he discovered that once the world was home to animals called dinosaurs. Everything changed. Yes, yes, he’d say dismissively, I know dragons can fly. Pterosaurs can too—and hey, did you know that a T Rex had teeth the size of bananas? The idea that dinosaurs once walked the Earth, that his wildest fantasies could be REAL, is what fueled his creativity.

Maybe one of these children grows up and asks another question. This time she can search for the answer herself, talk to people who’ve spent their lives wondering about the same thing. She asks enough and they know enough so she can know enough too. And she finds the way the world works so beautiful that when she explains it, she makes music.

Or when he seeks the truth, he finds a sliver of a story that manages to tell the whole thing. His creativity is to hone in. His tale uncovers the core and it echoes and reaches so far that questions his readers don’t even know they have get answered.

Perhaps they even answer yours, Dr. Freud.

14. The Truthiness Tour—the Movies; Again

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?

6 Comments on The Truthiness Tour—the Movies; Again, last added: 6/23/2011
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15. Finding Truth, Then and Now

Another installment in this month’s theme, “Searching for the Truth”


In thinking about this month’s theme, I immediately came back to a story I related in a post last year. When reporter Nellie Bly was 23 years old, she had herself committed to the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island in New York so she could tell the world about the horrors visited upon the inmates there. This was in 1887 and there were many horrors indeed. The living quarters were bare and poorly heated. The food was cold, tasteless, and sometimes spoiled, with spiders or other insects occasionally writhing around on the plates. The sanitary conditions were awful and many of the nurses were tyrannical, refusing to treat their charges with human kindness or to show any signs of sympathy whatsoever.


After 10 days at the asylum, Nellie secured her release with the help of her editors at the New York World. And then she shared what she had seen with the newspaper’s readers. On October 9 and October 16, 1887, Nellie took readers “Behind Asylum Doors” with a total of 17 columns of detailed prose chronicling every aspect of her incarceration. After other newspapers picked up the story, the city launched an investigation that resulted in improvements in the way the inmates were treated and a sizable increase in the asylum’s budget.


Nellie Bly pioneered this sort of “stunt journalism,” where an investigative reporter injects herself into the story by going undercover and writing about her experiences. At a time when women were rarely assigned anything but society and fashion articles, Nellie regularly put herself at risk to uncover crimes, corruption, and other abuses. Though her story has been told before, I was anxious to take my own look at what drove this woman to search for and report the truth in such dramatic fashion. The more I learned about her, the more fascinated I became. My biography of Nellie Bly, Bylines, will be out from National Geographic in October.



Though technology has made it possible to spread news (and gossip) instantaneously today, it’s fortunate that there are still many journalists on newspapers, magazines, and even TV news shows and Internet sites who doggedly investigate stories to get at the truth. One such investigation that affected me deeply was accomplished not by a writer, but by a photographer. Patrick Farrell of The Miami Herald won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Photography for his “provocative, impeccably composed images of despair after Hurricane Ike and other lethal storms caused a humanitarian disaster in Haiti,” according to the citation by the Pulitzer Committee. Shooting in black and white and using only spare captions, Farrell managed to convey the poignancy and drama of lives forever changed by nature’s violence. It’s impossible to look at his photographs and not be moved. If you're interested in seeing them, they're available on the Pulitzer Prize Web site.

3 Comments on Finding Truth, Then and Now, last added: 8/10/2009
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16. Sometimes the Truth Finds You


Another installment in this month’s theme, “Searching for the Truth”

One thing about truth—sometimes you search for it and sometimes it just finds you.

Once I was in line for a movie behind an eight-year-old girl and her mom. The girl was spitting mad, declaring every which way that she was never going to talk to Allison again. The mom and I glanced at each other with a suppressed smile. At that moment that little girl truly believed her friendship was over. It was her reality. But we adults both knew those two would be BFFs again the next day, giggling at the lunch table.

I don’t know about Mom but I wasn’t laughing at the kid. I was thinking that this shortsighted sense that “what is now always will be” is part of the human condition. I thought I’d never wear pink. That New Orleans was “The Big Easy.” That there would always be icebergs in the Arctic. Millions of people have walked down the aisle and promised to love each other forever—and meant it.

“Now is not forever” is a really important truth, but an abstract one. The old parental proclamation, “things will get better,” never reassures or gets to the heart of the matter. I wondered how you do get to the heart of it without pontificating.

That’s how my book, On This Spot, was born. It begins with a spread of skyscrapers and rooftops and the words, “This is New York City.” The next spread talks what a big and vibrant city New York is and then in the lower left corner, the words “but on this spot…,” the soon-to-be refrain starts the tale. Turn the page and it says, “175 years ago…New York was a different city,” and then talks about a place where chickens were raised in backyards.



With each spread, the spot that is now New York City transforms—becoming a home to Native American and cougars, then wooly mammoths, then glaciers a mile thick, then dinosaurs, then the highest mountain range ever, then a tropical sea, drifting back to the beginning of geologic time.

As many people reading this blog know, picture books are most often 32 pages. By the time that I had gotten back to New York As Rock, I had used up about three-quarters of book’s space allotment. And it was only then, in the second to last spread when I (mentally) turned to that little girl at the movies and answered her by writing, “Things change.”

Was she ever going to read that book? Of course, not. Will most kids who do read the book think beyond the wow factor and the fact that there were dinosaurs in lower Manhattan? No. But I wrote the thing hoping that some kid would read the story—and it would open the door, even unconsciously, to that truth that I found so important to tell.



2 Comments on Sometimes the Truth Finds You, last added: 8/16/2009
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17. Can You Handle It?

"Truth is mighty and will prevail. There is nothing the matter with this, except that it ain't so." Mark Twain.

So. Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin gave one of Jack Nicholson’s characters a pretty pugnacious question to pose: “You want answers?" His interrogator (Tom Cruise), thought he was entitled to answers. In fact, he wanted the truth! What he got was the famous reply: “You can't handle the truth!”

Can any of us? I reckon we have to catch it first."Chase after the truth like all hell and you'll free yourself, even though you never touch its coattails." That was Clarence Darrow's take on the big T. 'T is B & B is T,' so said John K. And Galileo? "All truths are easy to understand once they are discovered; the point is to discover them." The subjects of one of my books [out of print, the world being a hard, difficult place], Mark Twain and the Queens of the Mississippi, said, "When in doubt, tell the truth." But our theme in this steamy month of dog days is not the handling, the telling, or the understanding of the Truth, but that chase, the search. And to my mind, no one spoke of the search more compellingly than the subject of my 2008 book, The Groundbreaking, Chance-Taking Life of George Washington Carver AND Science & Invention in America.

"Would it surprise you," George once asked a visitor who'd been noticing all of the scientific and artistic things he'd done, "if I say that I have not been doing many different things: All these years I have been doing one thing...seeking Truth. That is what the scientist is seeking. That is what the artist is seeking; his writings, his music, his pictures are just expressions of his soul in his search for Truth."

Yup. Thank you, Professor Carver. I have nothing further to add. That's about all the truth I can handle for now.



1 Comments on Can You Handle It?, last added: 8/17/2009
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18. It's All Material: Finding the Truth Every Day


I went to a Catholic wedding recently. I’m Jewish, and I’ve gone to many weddings in my life, Jewish and Christian, but this was only my second Catholic wedding. The first was when my beloved fourth grade teacher got married at the end of the year. (She is the teacher, by the way, who affirmed my love of books by, among other things, having a bathtub in the classroom for us to read in—-dry and dressed, of course.) I remember only a few things about Miss Ryan’s wedding: it was in a huge cathedral and I sat in the back. Miss Ryan looked beautiful. When I saw her afterward she said to me, "Are you surprised to see your teacher as a bride?" I shook my head no, even though I knew that was not the right answer. She looked like a princess every day. (I have confirmed this fact with former classmates.)


Anyway, to get back on topic (see, teachers, what a huge influence you have on us kids!)--I am fascinated by religion—I majored in religious studies in college, I wrote a series of books for National Geographic “Holidays Around the World,” and I wrote about the religious differences between Charles and Emma Darwin. So maybe that’s why as I sat in the beautiful service, I knew I had to get more information. Or maybe it’s that I write non-fiction books for kids as a living, and I’m always wool gathering, always looking for the truth. So last Saturday I came as a happy friend of the mother of the groom, but I was also there, apparently, as a researcher. What was much of the assembled saying in response to the priest? What was the priest saying to himself over the wine while the soloist sang? What is that altar for, as opposed to that one? I watched as people went up for Communion and I wondered why some took the cracker from the priest’s hand and others had him put it directly into their mouths. When the service was over, and everyone else filed out, I got my husband (who writes non-fiction for grown-ups) and a (lapsed Catholic) friend to go up to the priest with me. To say we interviewed him would be stretching it. We didn’t pull out tape recorders or notebooks, though we had notebooks with us, as we always do, and I was tempted. We asked him lots of questions, which he answered willingly and with enthusiasm. (I forgot to ask him about the communion cracker taking. I will have to look that up. Or maybe someone here will tell me first.) We talked to him for a good twenty minutes, which really enhanced the experience for me. I don’t know if I will ever use this in a book, or where I will go with it, but I am so glad I asked the questions. The priest was glad, too.


When you write non-fiction, it’s very hard to turn off the need to know. And why should we? You can never tell when something might spark an idea for a book, or fit into the one you’re writing, or might write years later, or end up as deep background for something else. When I went to Down House in 1999 I didn’t know I was going to write a book on Charles and Emma Darwin. But I loved what I was seeing and so I took notes, took mental and actual snapshots, asked questions of the tour guides, and bought a great book from the gift shop. Because I had that non-fiction writer's head on that day, I had a leg up when I sat down to write Charles and Emma years later.


But to be honest, I almost always have that head on. I take notes when I go to museums, when I see something of particular interest on a street corner, or in the country. I questions of everyone I meet: scientists, painters, architects, doctors, lawyers, plumbers, cab drivers, chefs. It turns out Charles Darwin posed questions to many different people while he was figuring out his idea of evolution by natural selection. He thought it best to go right to the experts: farmers, pigeon fanciers, his hairdresser, his friends who gardened, Emma, his children, the vicar in Downe. He wrote their answers in his notebooks and used them later as examples in his argument. I'm no Charles Darwin, but if it was good enough for him, it's good enough for me. And you.


When I told my son I was working on this blog post, I said I thought it could be really helpful for teachers. They could tell their students that real authors ask questions wherever they go, and so should they. It’s a great way to learn. Aaron nodded, and said, in his 23-year-old understated way, “Some of us live our lives this way just because it’s fun.” Yup.

9 Comments on It's All Material: Finding the Truth Every Day, last added: 8/19/2009
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19. Browsing for truth

The truth may be out there, but sometimes you don’t know in advance what you’re looking for. One of my favorite places to find fascinating cutting-edge information is Science magazine. Recent articles describe how an archive of spy satellite photos is giving scientists more detailed data about Arctic ice; how plant “phenomics” may accelerate plant breeding; and the use of gravity to more accurately survey coastlines (July 24, 2009 issue.) The AAAS* website has a lot to offer as well, with reports about disease prevention efforts, neuroscience issues that affect the judicial system, and how early humans treated stones with fire to make better tools. The special section for kid-friendly science news has articles such as How the turtle got its shell, and DNA does yoga (creating new DNA shapes for use in nanotechnology.)

*The American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Most people are aware of the online New York Times (free registration required) but what I find extremely handy is the email subscriptions you can choose from with headlines on the arts, books, health, technology, and much more. It’s easy for me to get buried in my work cocoon, so these missives are an easy way to stay in touch with new information that might be worked into an existing project or possibly inspire a new book.

Like most of us, I’ve accumulated bookmarks galore in my web brower, but how often do I actually return to a site? RSS feed readers have been around for a long time, but it took me a while to realize you can create your own custom “research assistant” based upon your interests. Many mail programs have an RSS subscription feature built in, or you can use Google Reader or one of many others that are available. So, let’s say you have an interest in archeology or diversity issues or music…as you rummage around on the Internet there are many blogs and sites on virtually any topic. Those with RSS feeds can be added to your reader, then you don’t have to go visit the actual site again; updated content is delivered to you instead. (One caveat: as usual with online info, you have to be careful about the accuracy of some sites!) I have built my own arts and crafts “magazine” using this technique by subscribing to the blogs of artists from all over the world... fun stuff!

What are your favorite ways to browse for the truth?

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20. How Do We Know The Truth - For Sure?

As David pointed out two days ago, “facts are a squirmier subject than many people realize.”

When he was four-years-old, Iqbal Masih was sold to a carpet thekedar (employer or boss) for $12, in Pakistan. Like millions – and millions – of children throughout the world, he worked long hours in a dark, airless, carpet “factory,” sometimes chained to a loom, often beaten, poorly fed. At age twelve, Iqbal was set free with the help of the Bonded Labor Liberation Front (BLLF), a non governmental agency (NGO) whose focus was liberating slave laborers. Iqbal was a remarkable boy. He became a spokesperson for the reform movement in his country and personally helped save thousands of other enslaved children. For his efforts Iqbal received the Reebok Human Rights Award.
He traveled to The US where he spoke at a black tie gala, was “Person of the Week” on ABC, and made an impression with students his age in elementary schools. Iqbal returned home and was murdered.

Who killed Iqbal Masih?

The BLLF believed that their poster boy was a contract killing paid for by carpet dealers who were afraid that his campaign could put an end to cheap, bonded labor. Another NGO, The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, an organization that takes on a broad range of human rights abuses, also investigated the crime. They concluded that the killer was a neighbor, high on bhang, who was caught having sex with a donkey. Yes, you read that right. Try finding language to describe donkey-love to an eighth grade audience! As the report describes it, Iqbal, his cousin, and a friend were biking down the isolated road and saw the neighbor mid act. They teased, he shot. The neighbor, in fact, confessed to the crime. Later he recanted his confession.

Both NGOs came to separate conclusions. Who was right? How do we, as writers, determine truth when it is ambiguous, or when there is unsubstantiated evidence?

A breakfast conversation with my husband:
Bailey: There’s a difference between what the truth is and how we know what the truth is. We know, for example, that Darwin published The Origin of the Species in 1859. There is no reason to doubt this fact.
Susan: But when I wrote Iqbal’s story, there was conflicting evidence, evidence that constantly changed. Also, there were special interest groups who had different stakes in the outcome.
Bailey: That’s the problem. At what point do you decide to go with one version and ignore others?

Well, writers … how do you decide? This is one of those slippery slope issues we often face. When I wrote Iqbal Masih and the Crusaders Against Child Slavery, I had access to materials from both human rights organizations. I spoke with lawyers, rights activists, and people who knew Iqbal. Still, I was unable to reach a confident conclusion. This was the first time I centered a book about a person I had never met. It was nerve wracking. For me it is far easier, safer, to interview a subjects and then write in their voices. I become the conduit for their thoughts, ideas, and experiences. Their facts are the book’s truth. Evidence does not have to be weighed to make “fact” decisions. Sure, there are some issues of truth that need to be addressed – inconsistencies and contradictions – that I may not have picked up during the interview, but I could always go back to my source. After doing interviews for No Choirboy: Murder, Violence, and Teenagers on Death Row, I found a bunch of inconsistencies. But, for the most part, I did have captive subjects. Awful pun, please forget I wrote that. At any rate, my imprisoned subjects and I wrote letters back and forth until we were both certain that what was said was exactly what was meant. Their truth was the truth I was concerned about.

Iqbal was dead and my sources disagreed with one another. What to do? I decided to write both conclusions. Writing both narratives and giving them equal weight turned out to have an unexpected benefit. The readers now had opposing material for debates. And they did. In the classroom and privately. With passion and conviction.

Darwin published his book in 1889. My husband and I had cereal and fruit for breakfast. Two truths! Who murdered Iqbal? Only the killer knows for sure.

Susan Kuklin

7 Comments on How Do We Know The Truth - For Sure?, last added: 8/29/2009
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21. What a Difference a Day Makes

This was one of those months when I began to fret as my day to blog drew near. I couldn’t think of anything to say—except, “I don’t have anything to say,” which I actually spent some time trying to develop into an interesting theme. (Advice for writers—it didn’t work for me!) Then I woke up two days ago realizing that the previous day's events gave me all the material I’d need.

1. I read about Discovery’s successful launch. I already had known this would be the last nighttime takeoff, starting a countdown of only three more launches before the Shuttle system is dismantled and perhaps the astronaut program as well. I thought about how ironic it was that this last nighttime takeoff was also historic because it was the first time so many (4) women were in orbit together. As someone who has written about space travel in several books, I’m deeply saddened. Humans going to Mars or even the Moon—not the best use of our national money right now. But the space program gives us so much more. It once produced what’s now called “the Sputnik Moment,” an event that excited educators and kids about science and it can give us one again. Furthermore the research that got in space has spun off whole industries from medical imaging and cordless tools to TV satellite dishes—and high tech research, manufacturing and implementation is what’s going to save this country’s job base and economy. Don’t get me started…

2. I attended a meeting in my Boston neighborhood where residents talked with library trustees about the proposed closing of up to eight of our city’s 26 local branches. Boston, like everywhere else, has huge shortfalls and the library is in trouble. I wanted to make sure a critical mass attended and was delighted to be part of a crowd at least 500 strong. I didn’t try to speak, others said it all. The branch library is our diverse community's melting pot. Libraries are the resource of a civilized society. And in hard economic times, they are needed more than ever. Book circulation is up in Boston by 31 percent. Seventy-seven million Americans nationwide use the library for their Internet access, including their all-important job searches. Keeping libraries open is a moral imperative for real democracy.

3. Then I went to a friend’s for dinner. Another guest, in charge of the computer system for one of our hospitals mentioned he had just signed up again for home delivery of the Boston Globe after reading it on line for years. "I just like the feel of it," he said, "the tradition of turning its pages while drinking my coffee."

Seems like a mishmash of experiences, doesn’t it? Information usually does until you work it through to make sense of it. Here are the reminders for nonfiction writers that popped up in my day:
*Trust your subconscious, it’s busy working and will come through for you.
*Re. the space program and the day in general: some of the best ideas sneak in while you’re looking for something else. Never be so focused that you don’t notice.
*The paper v. e-version of the newspaper? Luddites must realize that the world and its technology are changing and that has value. Techies should savor the unique pleasure of traditional forms.
*Libraries: We need them. They established our course as readers and writers as kids; we use them to do our research now. And they need us as authors, patrons, and champions. They not only buy our books; they also introduce generations of kids to our ideas. We owe them. Big time.

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22. Ever had that Exam Dream?

The other day I got an email with the name, “Cora Frear,” in the subject heading. This is the title of an early chapter book in my Brave Kids series, named after a young Iowan girl caught in a raging prairie fire with her father at the end of the 19th century. I opened the note to discover that its writer, Tracy, had just discovered this book published in 2002. My heart skipped a beat when I read the line, “Cora Frear Hawkins was my grandmother.”

You know that dream in which you find yourself taking a test you had never studied for? That classic anxiety that you are going to be caught for being sloppy or wrong or less than? I’m long past taking finals, but, in many ways, publishing nonfiction books is like an exam.

Did I get it right this time? In a flash, I went through the check list: I got my information about the event straight from Cora’s published memoir, Buggies, Blizzards, and Babies. I researched the period details so I could describe the family’s possessions accurately and use the right vocabulary. I spoke to a historian, a botanist and looked at photographs of tallgrass prairies so I could picture the setting and stock it with the appropriate flora and fauna.

After this defensive reflex, I went on to read the rest of the sentence…“and I thought I would write to you and let you know I am glad for your interest in her story.” Phew. I kept reading. “The publication of Buggies, Blizzards, and Babies was a vivid part of my childhood, since my Granny was so proud of publishing her first book in her 80’s. Having a published author in our farm family was a big deal!”

The rest of the email was a delight. Tracy (mother of Cora’s 3-year-old great-granddaughter) is currently publishing a book of her own and reflected on “what different worlds each generation of young females has occupied, and the implications for writing and sharing one’s written words.” She also wondered why and how I had ended up writing about her grandma.

Dodged the bullet again. With relief and pleasure, I too reflected on the implications of sharing one's written words. I also answered Tracy’s email and put an inscribed copy of Cora Frear in the mail.

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