Friday, July 30, 2010
We'll be back in September with some new bloggers, some old friends, and many intriguing ideas. We are also exploring ways to share more current nonfiction recommendations without becoming purely a review site. If any marketing/publicist people would like to introduce their nonfiction books to us, please contact me at the email address listed in the sidebar.
Have a lovely August and we'll see you in September.
Thursday, July 29, 2010
If I had my own jazz band, my new book, Meet the Howlers, would not exist. That’s because I first imagined it as a song. Specifically, it was song sung in a jazzy swing by a finger-snapping Frank Sinatra wearing a silver suit. Yes, I actually imagined that. (Fiction has no monopoly on strange book backstory, folks!)
The book started simply. There we were on a tower in the Panamanian rain forest. My nephews and I were watching howler monkeys and one of my nephews said, “He’s a howler.” It’s an innocent enough phrase.
That’s all it took. One little alliteration can set me off. I started singing. “He’s a howler, dooby, dooby-dee-doh...” This became the refrain. (As you can now imagine, I am one of the world’s most embarrassing aunties.)
Once I had this melody, I needed verses. So, I sang those as well. My nephews contributed an idea or two, but mostly just looked on, skeptically. We often brainstorm book ideas together but the singing was a new thing. Later, at home, I did the major work of crafting the song. This included all the usual nonfiction steps of research and fact checking. Fortunately, though, I’d observed howler monkeys for years and also studied primatology at Duke University.
The song had rhythm and rhyme and facts. After some more struggling it had structure. Sorry, Sinatra, but the perspective of the song shifted to that of a child. My imagined narrator was a child bemoaning all the things wild howler monkeys can get away with a child wishes he/she could. Yet the book doesn’t really have a child as a character. That child is just in my head, the source of the nonfiction voice used in this expository piece about a howler family.
The problem with my song? Well, again, I lack a band. Where IS my band? Every girl needs a band . . . Anyway, the second problem was this song’s conversion to the picture book form. I’ve often lectured about the connections between song form, story form, and picture book form. (I discovered this song/picture book connection while on a long school visit drive when Loretta Lynn was on the radio. Her songs use a form called the Nashville turnaround which, I noticed, was a classic picture book structure.)
Alas, despite the similarities between songs and picture books, the differences can get you into a pickle during conversion. This, the book’s editor knows. The whole thing had a wild, syncopated jazz rhythm that she and I wrestled to iron out. It was in my head and I could have taught it to you in a minute. But it would have driven a reader mad. Next, we moved on to Woody Miller’s illustrations, which sparked new ideas for structural changes in the original text. And so the process goes!
Sorry, Sinatra, no new song. But we did get a beautiful picture book. And it's full of sounds—howler monkey sounds, not the sounds of swing or jazz. Now, if I could just get that original finger snapping rhythm out of my head . . .
(Note to librarians: Charlesbridge has a downloadable poster, “Hoot, Holler, and Howl for Books,” on the front page of their website.www.charlesbridge.com)
Wednesday, July 28, 2010
Once an English major, always an English major. Now that Garrison Keillor has made our geeky selves rather cool (at least to each other,) I can publicly admit how much I love to dive into books and pick them apart. And when I read Rosalyn Schanzer’s delightful post (April 7, 2009) Coming to the Theater Near You! and April Pulley Sayre’s stunning Honk, Honk, Goose! Canada Geese Start a Family (illustrated by Huy Voun Lee,) I couldn’t resist taking a dive.
[Full disclosure: April is a good friend of mine, which did not influence this review in any way! I’ve never met Huy Voun Lee – so that proves my objectivity. Besides, I’m just tagging behind the critics who are giving this book stars and more stars.]
So, back to Rosalyn’s movie talk…. As a Screenwriter Sayre has written a tale of romance, danger, and heroic vigilance. Our hero, Father Goose is handsome, assertive, brave, romantic, and good with children – every female’s dream. But his is not an easy job. Predators lay in wait to harm his family. He sometimes fails to avert trouble, but he never gives up. Sigh. What a guy.
Co-directors Sayre and Lee work together to give this story passion and drama. Lee’s stunning cut-paper illustrations give us a stylized but realistic rendering of the world of Canada geese – habitat and predators, as well as details of domesticity. Danger abounds, which Lee shows us in many spot illustrations, but Father Goose is ever-alert. Sayre, as always, uses nature sounds and rhythms to dramatize her story.
Casting Director April chose to make Father Goose the protagonist. Many animal books focus on Mama, but Papa gets the spotlight here. Huy Vuon emphasizes his protector role by showing him with wings spread, neck stretched forward, tongue extended as he speaks his lines boldly: “Honk, hee-honk! Hisssssssssssss!”
Costume Designer Lee exquisitely uses her cut-paper medium to give us finely-cut feathers on the wings which, when spread, dominate the page. She uses downy-textured papers for the geese and goslings’ bodies. Thus we “feel” the power of their bodies and the fineness of their down feathers.
Lee serves as Set Designer with help from Sayre. Lee shows the geese’s habitat of open grassland, (plain green paper with cut-out dark green ridges to show contours and elevation,) and a pond (two-tone mottled blue paper.) This dreamy blue covers the entire double-page spread of the couple’s courtship. We are immersed in the setting as they do what needs to be done to start a family. Sayre’s sounds enhance the setting: “Dabble dip” as they paddle, “Pluck, pull” when they feed, “Stretch, curve, their necks danced.”
Father Goose’s stunts are set up by both author and illustrator. As Stunt Co-coordinators, Sayre describes a raccoon invading the nest and breaking an egg. Father honks, hisses, and lunges. Lee shows us a scary goose in profile, wings reaching beyond the page, neck crossing from one page to another. I’d run away too, like the raccoon.
Cinematographer Lee alters her angles throughout the book: wide establishing shots in the beginning, close-ups for intimate moments, then wide shots showing the new goose family, leading up to the final extreme close-up of Father Goose staring at us and giving us his loudest ever “Honk, hee-honk, honk! Hisssssssss!”
These are Sayre’s Special Effects that bring her hero and the story to life – a sound design that begins with lots of honks, followed by splishes and splashes, flap flaps, more honks, crack crick peeps, still more honks, plop plops, peeps and yawns, and ending with Father’s triumphant Honk. Well done, Father Goose. Well done, April Pulley Sayre and Huy Voun Lee.
Hollywood, are you watching?
Tuesday, July 27, 2010
There’s been a bit of a brouhaha for a couple of weeks now, right after the Newbery award winner apparently gave nonfiction a little dig during her acceptance speech. Opinions have been flying all over the internet and Colleen Mondor of Chasing Ray suggested that, if we so desired, we should post our thoughts this week. I couldn't resist.
Nonfiction is clearly not given the attention it deserves. That's why I created this blog. In terms of public promotion, it's given the nosebleed seats in libraries and the big chain bookstores. On the publishing side, it can be frustratingly difficult to find an agent or editor who is both interested and knowledgeable about nonfiction.
But truly, these are side issues. As writers for children, the most important question ought to be, “Do kids like nonfiction?” The answer is an unequivocal “Yes.” How do I know? As an ace nonfiction writer, I’ve done my research. And as any of us can tell you, the best thing source for information is head straight to a primary source. My information comes from the best source available—kids themselves. I spent part of this year as a substitute teacher in public elementary schools. I asked kids a lot of questions about what they read, observed as much as I could and, of course, took lots of notes. I'm confident my information is reliable and, oftentimes, amusingly quotable.
Here’s a bit of what I learned:
Yes, kids are reading nonfiction. I’ve seen them. They choose to read it in their classrooms and they choose to take it out of their school libraries. I've heard them talking about what they like to read and while everyone loves Harry, a majority also enjoy nonfiction.
When I asked one third grade class how many of them liked nonfiction one girl said, “Wait, is biography nonfiction?” I reassured her it was and many more hands shot up. This speaks to the awkwardness of the word "nonfiction", something we've discussed here before, an additional unnecessary negative on our side.
There are still many painfully boring nonfiction books in schools. This, as they say in the trade, is a fact. I was asked to read a book on dirt to a group of first graders which had all the creativity of a technical manual. I had to threaten to read more of a incredibly boring book on weather to the fourth grade class if they couldn’t keep quiet during our fun activity. Now, I know from personal experience there are many interesting books on nature, weather, and the environment that could captivate children and give them a solid understanding. But this is not the kind of book the teacher left to read to their class. And, as I snooped around a bit, these were not the kind of books that were easy to find an average class library. The over abundance of somewhat standard(ie boring)book club educational market type books in the classroom is yet another topic.
Kids think they are supposed to like everything, no matter the quality. When I was asked to read a biography on Thomas Alva Edison that started, “Thomas was born on (date) to his mother (first name) and father (first name). I mentioned I thought that was a really boring way to start. They were quite taken aback by my statement but then readily agreed. For the rest of the day, two girls kept coming over to me with creative ideas on how Edison’s story could have been told with more pizzazz.
The opportunity for kids to read nonfiction in the classroom is more limited than fiction. Kids were generally allowed to select from certain bins divided into reading levels for their scheduled reading time. There were far more fiction than nonfiction books in said bins.
Kids love to learn about things that really happened. They are constantly asking “Is that real? Is that true? Did that really happen?” When you are reading nonfiction to them and you can answer with an unequivocal “yes” they are truly delighted. In the same vein, they can sniff out a phony. When a teacher left a book about dinosaurs for me to read as part of their nonfiction unit, it didn’t take the kids long to realize that the talking mouse pretty much killed the authenticity factor. Disney has not successfully confused any of them on this issue.
Sometimes I would offer to read fictional books that I felt offered important information. I would always ask them why this story couldn’t be true. By the way, the answer to this question for THE SCRAMBLED STATES OF AMERICA by Laurie Keller is never that states can’t move but always that states don’t have eyeballs.
Many of the nonfiction books kids would choose on their own are not well suited to quiet independent reading time. When I broke the rules (shhhh) and let the kids pick any book in the classroom for reading time, that’s when the nonfiction really broke out. Kids like to huddle together over the nonfiction books, pointing out photographs to each other and reading interesting facts out loud. Several times some one who had not uttered a word all day came over to me to share something they read they thought was interesting (aka "cool" or "awesome").
My overall conclusion? Kids love well-written, creative, thoughtful nonfiction. Now what do we do about the adults?
Monday, July 26, 2010
This sorry state of affairs is not limited to the United States. I am just back from speaking at primary (elementary) schools in Australia. I had a few opportunities to interact with children on the playground and I was pleased to notice the great variety of types of play, and how there seemed to be a niche for everyone. Some activities engaged solitary children, others occupied pairs or small groups, and a few involved large numbers. Yet when I shared my approving observations with teachers, I learned that, as in the U.S., recess is an endangered species.
Studies consistently prove its value. In one set of experiments from the mid-1990s, researchers found that school children became less and less attentive the longer recess was delayed. Another experimental study found that “fourth-graders were more on-task and less fidgety in the classroom on days when they had had recess, with hyperactive children among those who benefited the most.” An article in theNew York Times in February, 2009, cited a study of 11,000 third graders showing that recess mitigates children’s behavioral problems. (Consider the common punishment for misbehaving children: “No recess!”) And a meta-analysis of over 200 studies suggest that physical activity during the school day results in more, and better, mental activity.
For all their lip-service to the necessity of drawing on research-based teaching strategies, education authorities in the U.S. and Australia (and probably many other countries) don’t seem to care much about research on play. It is interesting that, by contrast, China launched a nationwide “Sunlight Sport” campaign in 2007, requesting that every school offer one hour of sports and games daily to every student.
I read about Chinese children’s play and the Sunshine Sport campaign in a fascinating Australian journal called Play and Folklore, co-edited by Dr. June Factor of the University of Melbourne, an author and folklorist who writes playful and play-filled books for both children and adults. I met June at a reading conference in California about 15 years ago, and I had the good fortune of visiting her in Australia during my recent trip.
The most wonderful thing about many of June’s books for children is that they are actually by children: she is merely the compiler, and what she has compiled is straight from the mouths of kids, whom she and her university students have observed, recorded and interviewed in school playgrounds. The researchers collected children’s games, rhymes, sayings, chants, riddles, jokes and secret languages in abundance. In 2000, she published an entertaining and enlightening lexicon, Kidspeak: A Dictionary of Australian Children’s Words, Games and Sayings. The two children depicted on the cover have harsh words for each other: “Nicky woop” says one in a speech bubble, to which the other retorts, “Drongo!” (Translation: “Go away!” and “Jerk!”)
June’s collections for young readers have been loved since 1983 when Far Out, Brussels Sprout came out. It has since been joined by Real Keen, Baked Bean…Unreal, Banana Peel…Okey Dokey, Karaoke, and others in the Far Out! series. Alloffer a rich sampling of the linguistic range and complexity of Australian children's vernacular language. “It’s children’s own literature,” says June, “handed down across many generations, sometimes across centuries. It’s a bridge across generations, common to childhood, not just contemporary childhood.” From Far Out, Brussels Sprout:
Quickly, quickly, I feel sickly.
Hasten, hasten, get the basin.
Get the mop!
Mary had a little lamb
She kept it in a closet.
And every time she let it out
It left a small deposit.
They’re not always the most proper ditties in the world. As a result, a decade ago June learned that she was the second-most censored author in Australian school libraries, after Judy Blume. She told me this with more than a hint of irony, considering that the censors were trying to save innocent children from their own words. “It tells you much about the power of adult prudery and unease about the human body and its functions — but, I hasten to add, not nearly as much as in the United States!”
Often, these censorship cases have been dismissed when the schools discovered how many families already owned the challenged books. But what disturbs June more than censors in the libraries is timekeepers on the playgrounds. “Increasingly, playtime is being restricted,” says Australia’s leading observer of playtime. “It’s happening in America and it’s happening here.” In the U.S., where we once feared a “red menace” from Asia, there now seems to be fear that Asian countries including China will overtake us not militarily but intellectually and economically. If it comes to pass, browbeating analysts should consider how our schools rejected the demonstrable benefits of playtime. American education authorities could have the demise of recess to blame for our fall from intellectual eminence. Some might call them drongos!
Wednesday, July 21, 2010
Every author encounters facts that shift over time, from expected changes such as a new President to the unprecedented landing of an alien spacecraft on the White House lawn (theoretically.)When you least expect it, carefully researched details or large chunks of a book can be rendered obsolete overnight. As an example of the latter, remember when this graphic was ubiquitous on cereal boxes and school cafeteria walls across the U.S.?
In 1994 I had based a book on the USDA Food Pyramid, The Edible Pyramid: Good Eating Every Day, so it was a bit of a hassle when the USDA updated the program some ten years later, however welcome the changes were.
Since the point of the book is to explore the foods found within the various sections of the pyramid, the graphic was on most spreads. It's usually a fairly easy matter to update a book’s text, but artwork is another story.Fortunately we illustrators now have software such as Adobe Photoshop to assist in this task. The original illustrations were hand painted, so the production films were scanned and turned into digital files that I could then alter as desired.
The new pyramid included steps on the side to emphasize the need for daily exercise, so I wanted to create a new illustration showing the characters’ favorite activities. It was a reasonably easy matter to cut and paste to condense two spreads into one to gain the needed space. Making digital art match hand-painted art is a little trickier, but can be done. It was also nice to fix one small but annoying glitch in the original book... in the hand-lettered text the misspelled word “ravoli” has now been spelled correctly at long last. Note to self: don’t use painted lettering because it’s much more difficult to make changes.
Another of my books was dealt a body blow by of all groups, the International Astronomical Union, who decreed in 2006 that Pluto is no longer a planet, but instead is a “dwarf planet.” One commentator I heard at the time asked, ”What's next, they‘ll take Yellow out of the rainbow?“ My contribution to the still ongoing debate is to say that a “dwarf tomato” is still a tomato....
The frustrating thing for me was that only six months before the IAU announcement I had already revised Postcards from Pluto: A Tour of the Solar System to include a variety of factual changes in the years since its publication. For example, in the first edition I had been too specific about the number of moons around various planets, a strategic error on my part since new ones are discovered fairly often. Of course, the fact that the very title of the book contains the not-a-planet-anymore Pluto means that no amount of updating may satisfy those curriculum makers who prefer the official planets and only the official planets. Sigh.
Another example of a changing fact in one of my books is New Hampshire’s famous rock formation and icon, The Old Man of the Mountain. I included an illustration of it on the state‘s page in my Celebrate the 50 States! Unfortunately, it collapsed in 2003 (the rocks, not the book!) In this case, it seems a fitting memorial to leave the page as is.
As these examples show, facts can behave like bucking broncos, and authors can’t always ride them for long. But that’s what web sites are for... to post corrections and updates, right?
Tuesday, July 20, 2010
messenger came for galleys early. husband chased him away. now he's in the lobby working!.
Someone tweeted back: lol! that's hilarious!!! i can just see the reality tv series-I'm serious!!!
And it got me thinking. What would a reality TV series about writers look like. Pretty awful, right? I quickly tweeted her back:
who would watch a reality tv series about writers? maybe only other writers & shrinks.
Wouldn't it be incredibly boring and annoying? The camera sweeps the room: it is littered with books and papers and old coffee cups and plates of apple cores and crusts. You hear click click click and sigh sigh sigh and groan groan groan. The camera comes to a stop and focuses in on a writer at desk. <
But without the dirty visuals, isn't that sort of what we're doing here? We're giving others an inside view of the writing life. And I hope we're doing it in a way that is helpful, fun, educational, and interesting. I know I find other people's posts very interesting.
The other day Barbara Kerley whined about her deadline. (She took at least one shower, I happen to know.) Susan Goodman shared with us the pleasure of writing a book and the pain of when it goes out of print. We've all shared the ins and outs of writing and research, and will continue to do so. I.N.K.: The Reality Show. You heard it here first.
But I'm going to let you in on a little secret: if there were a reality show about writers, guess what we'd all be watching it for? Time management tips! We all struggle desperately with questions of time management. When writers get together, that's what we talk about. WHEN do you write? WHEN do you answer emails? WHERE do you do your best uninterrupted writing? HOW MUCH TIME do you give each day to email, twitter, blogging, research, speaking engagements, personal hygiene, cooking, child rearing, sleep, your other job if you have one....
It's advice we're all desperate for. But I have a feeling if there were a reality show about writers we would probably get a picture of what you should not do, rather than what you should do. Do what I say, not what I do, folks.
Herewith are some tips I am going to give you. I am NOT going to tell you how successful I am at following my own tips. For that, I'm going to need some Big Bucks and my own line of sweatpants. (Though I will say I was pretty faithful with number 1 most of the time.)
1.The Bubble: When I was writing CHARLES AND EMMA, and I was on a tight deadline, I went into the BUBBLE every day. That meant that from 8:00 am to noon or 1:00 I did not answer email or the phone (cell or land line). Period. I told my nearest and dearest that they should not call me unless they were bleeding profusely and there was no tourniquet nearby. And they had called everyone else. This worked, mostly. Except for one person, who shall remain nameless, but is my sister, and the only one I have, who would call and of course I would pick up because Something Must Be Terribly Wrong, and she would say, "I can't remember, is it morning that I'm not supposed to call you or morning that I AM supposed to call you?" I'll jump to the ending: I got the book done and we are still sisters. But seriously, the BUBBLE is a great idea if you can do it.
2.Be proactive. My friend the great Elizabeth Partridge, author of amazing non-fiction books for kids, including the new and phenomenal Marching For Freedom, gave me a hugely helpful piece of advice the other day. She said, "Make your to-do list in the morning BEFORE you turn on your computer." My reaction: "You turn OFF your computer?!" Since she told me that, I have turned off my computer every night, and made my to-do list before turning it on. That has helped me be more proactive rather than reactive. Which is one of my goals in this time management area.
3. Divide your day. Susan Campbell Bartoletti, author of groundbreaking nonfiction books for kids, including the daring Hitler Youth, divides her days into chunks of time. She told me that her day is mostly a chunk for research (early morning), a chunk for writing (late morning and afternoon), a chunk for research and writing (after supper). A couple of times a week she takes a chunk for business stuff like speaking etc. And she spends every Monday watching her grandbabies. While she is am with them, she works on things that she wouldn't do otherwise. Their morning nap and afternoon nap becomes her chunk for a picture book.(She also takes time to talk to friends, thank goodness.)
O.K. I'm going to stop with the tips now, as I have to pay my bills.
By the way, when my husband was in the lobby with his galleys, the super said in a stage whisper to the security guard, "I guess Deb has finally kicked him out." Jon told me this later, and that he wishes I had come down and taken a photo of him on the bench, surrounded by workmen, his galleys and notes spread out around him. Maybe this could be a reality show....
I think I'll go Tweet about this now. The bills can wait.
Friday, July 16, 2010
head. “What a mess,” I can almost hear him say to himself. But he knows that eventually I will emerge from the rubble, the debris of someone else’s life, with a book.Of-course the first draft is just the beginning of a long process. I enjoy all the stages from first inspiration to final product. One of my favorite stages is called “Feedback.” Visiting schools to read parts of my new manuscript takes me out of my study and back into the real world, the world of my readers. It also helps me to know what works and what doesn’t, what’s interesting and what’s not. But my favorite part of the process takes place when I’m alone in the room, writing. When I’m finished, I seldom start a new project right away. I rarely read books other than research material when I’m working. An explanation might be that I don’t want someone else’s use of language to somehow slip into my own. So there’s always a stack of the latest mysteries or biographies waiting for me …on the couch, next to my bed, on the night stand, on the floor of my car. I look forward spending the day with The Lincolns or Darwin. My mother’s repeated words come back to me. I know, Mom. It’s a nice day and here I am with my nose stuck in a book. Thanks for understanding all those years ago
Thursday, July 15, 2010
(Originally posted April 2008)
My goal this morning is to investigate what others think about one of my nonfiction pet peeves and hear your thoughts on the matter. This past weekend I co-taught a two-part workshop called Noteworthy Nonfiction with Charlesbridge editor Yolanda LeRoy. One of the issues that came up was invented dialogue. I happen to feel strongly that invented dialogue—by which I mean conversations based on research, however brief—has no place in nonfiction for kids, but there were those who disagreed.
Arguments in favor of invented dialogue included the idea that rooting something in conversation makes it come alive for the reader. After all, isn’t that what we’re trying to do? Make nonfiction more stimulating so kids will be enticed and excited to read it? With that, I could agree. And if the essence of what happened is based on careful research, and the words a writer puts in someone else’s mouth ring true, then what does it matter if the actual words were not actually spoken? Some nodded in agreement. I was not one of them.
It matters a tremendous amount if the words were not actually spoken. My first and gut reaction is that this is simply wrong. I wouldn’t want anyone putting posthumous words in my mouth, after all, even if they reflected the truth of something I might have said. But my indignation was not met with as much agreeable nodding as I expected. Or, as I had hoped. I was prodded to elaborate. Why does invented dialogue bother me so much?
The answer is this. If we’re talking about nonfiction for kids, it bothers me because they are amassing knowledge as they read. They are soaking things up, collecting information for the long haul, putting together the pieces of our world. The truths they read in their early years of nonfiction will be the truths upon which later insights and truths are built. And if some of those truths are indeed falsehoods, they will be planted right alongside the rest and become a permanent part of what they know to be true. How many adults have had to relearn incorrect pieces of history due to quoted material that was actually never spoken? Or have you still not yet been told that George Washington never did chop down that cherry tree?
And no, I am not against plays or movies that “bring history alive.” I am watching the John Adams series on HBO along with the rest of the country and am finding it quite fascinating. But the intention there is much different than slipping invented dialogue into otherwise factually accurate nonfiction for kids—and the intended audience is aware of those differences. So, challenge me; make me challenge myself. What are your thoughts, pro or con?
Wednesday, July 14, 2010
Where do ideas come from? In the case of my upcoming book, tentatively titled THE VERMEER INTERVIEWS, the idea came from reading WAYS OF TELLING by Leonard Marcus, a book which I highly recommend to all children's authors and illustrators.
In WAYS OF TELLING, Marcus interviews 14 different picture book authors and illustrators to find out how each goes about the business of creating their books. I found each of his interviews to be more interesting than the last. I also found the solution to a problem that had been nagging me for years.
I had always wanted to write about the 17th century Dutch artist Jan Vermeer, who is one of my favorites. The question was, how should I present the information? In my first attempt, called MY DELFT (Delft was Vermeer's home town), I chose 14 of Vermeer's paintings and wrote a page of text for each painting from the point of view of Jan Vermeer himself. For example, this is what I wrote about Vermeer's painting, View of Delft:
“Welcome to Delft, Holland. I was born here in 1632 and painted this portrait of the city in 1660 when I was 28 years old. See the gleaming white tower in the distance? That’s the tower of the Nieuwe Kerk, or New Church, near where I grew up. And to the right, behind the two large boats, sits the Rotterdam Gate, one of several gates which allowed boats in and out of the city’s busy canals. See how the sun shines on the rooftops in the distance as it emerges from the morning clouds? I loved to paint light. It was one of my specialties. You see, I was an artist. My name is Jan Vermeer. And although I died in 1675, I can still speak to you through my paintings. Come, let me show you around.”
I thought it sort of worked, but it sounded a bit like a series of monologues, and I had no good explanation for how Vermeer was able to speak to us from the grave.
Then I tried an ABC book called D IS FOR DELFT, and was very pleased with myself when I was able to find objects in Vermeer's paintings for each letter of the alphabet. However, this book was clearly aimed at older readers, so the ABC approach wasn't right either.
My third and fourth approaches both involved poetry. For approach number three, I attempted to explain each painting in verse and called it A ROOM IN DELFT. It was fun, but the result was neither here nor there. For approach number four, which I titled TALKING TO VERMEER, I wrote in cinquains (a 2-syllable line, followed by 4 syllables, 6 syllables, 8 syllables, and then back to 2 syllables), addressing the people in each painting as if they were alive. For example, I empathized with Vermeer's The Geographer like this:
I can get lost in maps,
Dreaming of places I'll sail to
I liked this approach quite a bit, but it was probably a bit sophisticated for my audience. Then there was approach number five, written in the style of THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT, called THE TOWN THAT JAN PAINTED. Let's just say it was forced.
At this point, I have five completely different versions of a book on Vermeer, none of them quite right. So, as I said, I finished reading WAYS OF TELLING, a book of interviews, and I asked myself, "Why don't I interview the people in Vermeer's paintings?" It's fun. It allows me to present my information in a more creative and interesting way. And it makes the paintings come alive.
The more I worked on the interviews, the more I realized that this was the perfect format for a book on Vermeer. There is very little information on the artist, including very few written records, no early work or sketches, and no self-portraits. In fact, just about the only source of information we have on Vermeer are the 35 or so finished paintings that have survived to this day. So who better to tell his story than the people in his paintings?
THE VERMEER INTERVIEWS will be published next year, after six versions and at least that many years of stewing and marinating. Thank goodness not all my books take so long to come to fruition. But this one will be most satisfying.
Tuesday, July 13, 2010
As I held my mouse today and stared at a blank screen for a few minutes in my typical pre-blog-writing ritual, I was reminded of a cartoon I saw years ago in The New Yorker. There were two frames. In the first, a man sits before a typewriter that holds a blank sheet of paper. He is staring out a window. The caption reads “Temporary writer’s bock”. In the second frame, the same man sits in the same position staring out a similar window, but this time he wears an apron and the words “Butcher Shop” appear on the glass in front of him. The caption reads “Permanent writer’s block.”
Since I am not wearing an apron, I’m confident that what I’m experiencing is only temporary. Still, there is a deadline.
So, I’ve decided to share a few entries from a list of things I routinely paste into a document eloquently titled “book idea random facts.” These are tidbits about the natural world that I have found especially interesting. So interesting, in fact, that entire books could be written about each of them. Wait. . . someone’s already done that?
But not the book I’d write. That’s why I don’t mind sharing. It’s an open-source approach to non-fiction writing, the only kind there should be. Besides, you might not even be interested.
I have added attributions and links with more information to a few items, where I could find them.
Here goes, in no particular order:
It’s difficult to imagine an animal of one species giving birth to one of another species, but if you think one generation at a time, you’ll recognize an unbroken link from child, to parent, to grandparent and so on from yourself back to the first unicellular life forms.
Humans did not evolve from modern apes, but humans and modern apes shared a common ancestor, a species that no longer exists. — National Academy of Sciences: Science and Creationism: A View from the National Academy of Sciences
There are fossils on the summit of Mount Everest. OK, this doesn’t come as a complete surprise, if you know a little bit about geology — specifically plate tectonics. Still pretty interesting. On a related note, my father, a physicist and astronomer who enjoys making calculations about this sort of thing, figured that if, as a surprising number of people assert, the flood in Genesis is the explanation for these fossils, and that the water covering Mt. Everest evaporated and is now part of the atmosphere, the earth’s atmospheric pressure should be about 900 times greater than it actually is.
An average person has ten times more bacteria cells living in their intestines than there are human cells in their body (which contains 10 trillion to 100 trillion human cells).
All living humans are the descendants of a single woman who lived in Africa between 100,00 and 200,000 years ago.
A piece of matter the size of a pea from a neutron star weighs far more than an aircraft carrier.
Roughly 100,000,000 neutrinos — tiny high-energy particles produced by stars — pass through each square centimeter of your body every second. On average, however, only once in a human lifespan there will be a collision between a neutrino and an atom in your body.
It’s so cold on Pluto that when the former planet is in the part of its orbit that is more distant from the sun its atmosphere — probably methane and nitrogen — freezes and falls to the ground.
Most of Earth’s biomass - the weight of all living things on earth - may exist in the form of subterranean bacteria.
Your probability of dying from an asteroid collision with the earth is about the same as that of perishing in a commercial airline accident.
The Andromeda galaxy and our own Milky Way are likely to collide in about three billion years. Not to worry. If you happen to be around to observe the collision, the stars in each galaxy are so spread out that you probably won’t be affected.
Life as we know it would be impossible without supernovae, since elements heavier than iron (many of which are required for life) form only when stars collapse and explode.
It’s likely that the eye has independently evolved at least 40 times throughout the history of life on earth.
Fold sheet of paper on itself 100 times, and the result will be an object thicker than the diameter of the known universe.
If a grain of sand represented all the matter in the universe, it would float in an otherwise empty box 20 miles on a side. (an Isaac Asimov paraphrase)
If a star is a grain of salt, the observable stars (naked eye) will fit into a teaspoon. All the stars in the universe will fill a sphere 8 miles across. — Stephen Hawking, A Briefer history of Time
There are many more molecules in a glass of water than there are glasses of water in the sea. There are also, to give another example, more cells in one finger than there are people in the world.
— Lewis Wolpert
I hope there was something here that made you stop, for just a moment, and gaze out that window. The one without “Butcher Shop” written on it.
Monday, July 12, 2010
As we all know, words matter. So what about the one that describes our genre of writing: nonfiction. I used to feel just fine about it, but now I have a slight twinge. After all, it does have a negative point of reference. The “I’m not fiction” instead of the “I am something” kind of writing. Hmmm.
When I started doing school visits years ago, I heard educators using the term informational writing. Frankly I hate that even more. It sounds like we write instructions for assembling bookshelves. Yes, nonfiction transmits information, but while doing so it can also convey the magic and wonder of the world in words funny or beautiful.
Creative nonfiction, which could accurately describe many of our books? Not horrible, despite the basic “un-fiction” problem mentioned earlier. At least it acknowledges that we use the same arsenal of literary tools as the fiction folks: story, setting, characters, conflict, dialogue (or quotations in our case). And most importantly, imagination. But I’ve learned that creative nonfiction does not refer to the Michael Pollans or Susan Orleans in the adult world and the Jennifer Armstrongs and Elizabeth Partridges in ours. Instead it most often means memoirs, which makes a lot of sense if you think about it.
So, what are we to do? Ask Miss Manners? Come up with a new word? Ms. made it into our language, although POSSLQ died a warranted death. Or, should we remember 7-Up’s old ad campaign where it celebrated itself as the Uncola—the break from the ordinary, the un and only—and wear the nonfiction name with pride.
Friday, July 9, 2010
Susan Goodman here: I know that this is my normal blogging day, but I.N.K. has decided to have a occasional guest blogger and I can't think of anyone better to invite than Jill Davis. Jill is one of the best nonfiction editors I know. I owe her a debt of gratitude for making my book See How They Run as fun as it was, I bet a lot of authors feel the same. P.S. Jill is also a writer herself, The First Rule of Little Brothers came out this fall. So here's Jill....
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I have been lucky to be a children’s book editor for 17 years, and have worked at many terrific and unique places, including Crown, Knopf, Viking, Bloomsbury, and FSG. My early days were filled with nonfiction more than anything else, but I worked on it all the way through. Over the years, I have noticed how things have changed:
Back in the day, nonfiction had much more of a Life Magazine book series look—straight text and photos. Some people still refer to children’s photographic nonfiction as “a photo essay.” Trade houses would publish a fair amount of these and expect them to do fine. Usually, a publisher would publish a few nonfiction titles per year--most of them books about a specific topic—Dogs!, Adolph Hitler!, The Cuban Missile Crisis!—often they’d take a chronological approach, use a generic-sounding title. Of course there were always the mavericks--like Russell Freedman and Jean Fritz--but the general tone was a bit unadventurous.
Fast forward to nowadays, when so many exciting, innovative books are coming out every season. Commercial is the “insider” buzzword of the day, and it means lots of different things at once. When I explain that a book idea is or isn’t commercial to an author, sometimes I get a confused look. The label “commercial” had me wondering too. Eventually I came up with my own definition: A book is commercial if it’s so appealing in some particular way that you want to buy ten copies and ten people spring immediately to mind that would love it.
The book doesn’t have to appeal to everyone. How can it? It doesn’t have to be flashy. A few examples: The Dangerous Book for Boys, 101 Things to do Before You Die, The 39 Apartments of Ludwig Van Beethoven, See How They Run: Campaign Dreams, Election Schemes, and the Race to the White House.
So the obvious question is: How can I make my nonfiction commercial?
Here are a few ideas:
1. Humor is not for every book, but it sure helps—try a humorous voice or a funny illustrator. Humor makes a book feel LESS like a homework assignment and more like fun. This can apply both to picture books and longer nonfiction. Kids love nonfiction naturally, but we teach them to be afraid of it.
2. Picture book biographies have to sparkle! One way to do that is to narrow it down. Just because you love some amazing person’s life story doesn’t mean kids are going to want to know everything about them, including where they were born and what kind of diapers they wore. Pick a subject, and isolate an event in their life that you can highlight gorgeously in a picture book text. One example, When Marian Sang by Pam Munoz Ryan and Brian Selznick.
3. Get a little bit edgy: That’s what the rest of the world is doing, so why not nonfiction? Some children’s nonfiction has been pushing the envelope for decades. So don’t be afraid to get obscure, or super specific, or down and dirty when writing for kids. A good storyteller can bring any good story to life, so pick something YOU would have loved to read about. Of course, if some important historical figure is having a huge birthday—that’s never a bad topic, either!
P.S. Something to realize about nonfiction: Publishing nonfiction is what we editors call “labor intensive”—and not just for the author. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it, but it takes a lot of people at a publisher to work on one detailed nonfiction book. Maybe five times as much work as a novel or a picture book.
Think about it. Fact-checking, design (this part is huge), photo research, illustration research, illustration proofreading, fees, permissions, source notes, index, front matter, back matter. Often, a freelance designer is needed because large-scale nonfiction takes up so much of a designer’s time. So authors: realize that committing to a big nonfiction book is like deciding to have a baby. You never have any idea how much work it’s going to be until you are there doing it. And even though you love it, it takes a lot out of everyone—most of all, you! And like a baby, it’s always worth it in the end, but not often a great plan for getting rich.
Thursday, July 8, 2010
He ended the story:
Now, then, that is the tale. Some of it is true.
Twain was famous for drawing on his own life as inspiration for his humorous writing, and equally frank about his comfort in mixing fiction in with fact to make a funny story funnier.
For the biographer researching someone’s life, any autobiographical source is both utterly true and also, utterly suspect: we all tend to polish ourselves up a bit before putting ourselves on display. Twain just stated it up front.
So, what’s a biographer to do?
I’d been fascinated with Twain for years when, in 2007, I stumbled across an intriguing historical tidbit: when Susy Clemens was 13, she wrote a biography of her famous father. That tidbit was my angle in to exploring Twain, in The Extraordinary Mark Twain (According to Susy.)
In the opening pages of her biography, Susy explained her motivation for writing it.
She was “annoyed.” Greatly.
“It troubles me to have so few people know papa, I mean really know him. They think of Mark Twain as humorist joking at everything.”
Susy wanted to set the record straight, revealing his “kind, sympathetic nature.” Papa was a humorist, but he also had a serious side. “When we are all alone at home nine times out of ten,” Susy wrote, “he talks about some very earnest subject…. He is as much a philosopher as anything, I think.”
Susy described his fine qualities (“He does tell perfectly delightful stories…”) and his not-so-fine qualities (“Papa uses very strong language.”) She described his work habits and how he often stayed up all night playing billiards. “It seems to rest his head,” she explained.
She also painted a revealing portrait of Twain as a husband and father—how he played tennis with Susy and her sisters, made up silly arithmetic problems for them to solve, and relied on his wife’s keen editorial eye and moral compass to clean up what Susy called the “delightfully dreadful” passages in his novels.
I knew when I stumbled across Susy’s diary that it would be a rich counterpart to Twain’s own ‘polished up’ version of his life’s story.
And Twain agreed. He was so delighted with the diary that he later quoted liberally from it in his series for the North American Review, praising Susy for her even-handed portrait, and for being “loyal to her position as historian.”
“This is a frank biographer and an honest one; she uses no sandpaper on me,” Twain wrote in admiration.
Susy declared her father to be “extraordinary.” Susy’s biography reveals a girl who was pretty darn extraordinary, herself.
For more information on Susy’s writing process, see my web page flyer, Writing an Extraordinary Biography.
Wednesday, July 7, 2010
The I.N.K. bloggers, past and present, are pleased to announce the launch of our new website: INK Think Tank: Nonfiction Authors in Your Classroom. The main feature of this website is a FREE, searchable database of hundreds of in-print books all written by the 22 award-winning I.N.K. authors. Now you can find lists of books for all grade levels covering content mandated by National Education Standards and your state curriculum. Instead of feeding kids material from bland, uninteresting books, we offer a cornucopia of delicious, appetizing titles guaranteed to nourish both reading and learning. No single book can be all things to all students, but the LISTS of books generated by our database will come close. We believe that if kids learn through these high-interest, well-researched books that have been vetted for accuracy, they will perform better on the required assessment tests. We have included, on our new website, a page of references and studies that support our position. Now you can have fun playing with our database. For teachers, it’s designed to give you peace-of-mind that you’re fulfilling the requirements of your school district while you’re rediscovering the joy of teaching. For parents and librarians, it will provide you with a quick reference to pull books from shelves that tie in with children’s interests and classroom content.
We built our database from the ground up. The books were analyzed for it by those who know them best, their authors. Like any new idea in today’s technological world, our database is still a work in progress. We expect it to grow and change, depending on feedback from you, our users. We will be adding books of new author/bloggers to give you increased breadth of subject areas. And, of course, we will be adding our new books as they are published. We want to know how you search so the database can be as user friendly as possible. There are links on our website for you to contact us with your suggestions. You can also email us at: email@example.com
In addition to our books, we authors are also an under-utilized resource for classrooms. So, through the Ink Think Tank website, we are making ourselves available to teachers. You can see our encapsulated author profiles on our INK Thinkers page. We are an amazing group! There is probably no corner of the globe that one of us hasn’t visited. Without exception, we are all life-long learners. We are not afraid to admit when we don’t know something. Indeed, not-knowing is a welcome opportunity to learn something new. Now we want to inject our enthusiasm for learning into your classroom. We have included our email addresses and links to our websites. Many of us are available for school visits and professional development. We will also answer questions related to our books. (BTW, the word “author” means “source.”)
This month our blogs will be devoted to creative ways our books can be used in classrooms. We want to excite you to the possibilities!
The internet has spawned behemoth websites that seem to require a Ph.D to navigate. There is so much information and so much choice! The INK Think Tank is a boutique. We’re small so the choice is not limitless. The selection is made for you. For many, that may come as a relief! On the other hand, as a group we are quite powerful. We are prepared to work as teams to help you and your district. We offer guidance and professional development unique to the worlds of both publishing and education. The launch of the INK Think Tank: Nonfiction Authors in Your Classroom website is just the beginning. Contact us. Let us help you empower your students so that they love to learn!
Tuesday, July 6, 2010
1. My Screenwriter persona must first conjure up a strong story idea and then write the screenplay. I tend to go for true tales of adventure, and most of my stars stride forth out of history. I command myself to find a brand new twist on these old tales, to be as compelling, substantive, and entertaining as possible, and to be 1,000% accurate at the same time. Remembering that the pictures are King and tell at least half the story, I try to make the script relatively short--but (I hope) as evocative as haiku.
The words go in the narrow white space to the right.
(Click on each picture to enlarge)
2. Naturally, I hire myself to be the Director. Will I frame my story as a comedy or a mystery, a drama or a thriller--or all of the above? Should the visuals be realistic or might they work best as a Toon? Once I decide, I'll make a storyboard so that each scene is designed to keep viewers on the edge of their seats and eager to find out what happens next.
3. Next I become the Casting Director. To select the best actors and actresses to play my protagonists, my job is to figure out, for example, exactly what Charles Darwin or George Washington looked like at a certain age. Or I have to think about John Smith's personality and then deduce the way he might really have behaved in each scene. And will my Sacajawea characterization captivate the audience and still be historically accurate?
4. Now my illustrator half morphs into a Costume Designer, a job that calls for more research than you can shake a stick at. Every button on King George III's coat, every fancy collar or piece of jewelry around Queen Elizabeth's neck, every weapon fired by the Cossack army, and every robe and headdress of the Mandan Indians has to be correct down to the last detail.
5. I also get to be the Set Designer, so I have to do the same in-depth research as my costume designer self to make sure that the iguanas on the Galapagos Islands, Lewis and Clark's various boats, and the post offices and libraries in Colonial Philadelphia look exactly right. Got to include the correct saloons and scenery and equipment from the California Gold Rush too.
6. As the Stunt Coordinator, it's my job to add plenty of action so that when John Smith gets tossed off of a ship in a storm or when Charles Darwin falls out of his hammock, my stuntmen do their best to whip up some excitement. For humorous effects, I can even have my Ben Franklin stunt man turn cartwheels over the top of his own inventions.
7. I'm the Cinematographer for sure. For dramatic effect, the lighting has to be just right. So does the mood and the color in each shot. Every scene must move the story forward in a visually interesting way. I can choose to shoot the scenery from above or below. I can use close-ups of faces or add dramatic wide angle shots from afar like this one:
8. I even get to be the Special Effects expert who wows the audience with exploding volcanoes! Gigantic tsunamis! Or fiery ship battles with showers of stars in the mix!
Hmmmm....I love all eight of my labor-intensive jobs, and like all the rest of the nonfiction author/illustrators out there, I never have time to get bored. But I'm thinking that we're all about due for a raise!
Picture credits in order of appearance come from the following books: How Ben Franklin Stole the Lightning; What Darwin Saw: The Journey that Changed the World; How We Crossed the West: The Adventures of Lewis and Clark; John Smith Escapes Again! What Darwin Saw; the Journey that Changed the World; John Smith Escapes Again! (again); The Old Chisholm Trail: A Cowboy Song;and George vs. George; the American Revolution as Seen from Both Sides.
Friday, July 2, 2010
This month, I.N.K. will feature an array of "Best of" posts by our regular bloggers. Here's one from November 2008 to start things off. Happy summer!
A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of meeting Randi Miller, the only female U.S. wrestler to win a medal at the 2008 Summer Olympics. Randi is considering writing a book about her experiences as a woman who’s succeeding in a traditionally male sport, and she asked me for tips on how to get organized. As I e-mailed her my thoughts, it struck me that getting organized might also be an appropriate topic for this blog.
Organization is really important when I write. I do a lot of library research, and before I start writing, I make folders dedicated to different aspects of the story. One example: for the biography I just finished about journalist Nellie Bly, the folders included: About Nellie, Nellie’s Writing, Other Articles, Quotes (Nellie's), Back Matter, Possible Photos, and Memos and Correspondence (mine, about the book). I organize my research by putting everything that I have into the appropriate folders so as I write, I have all the notes and photocopies where I can find them. I keep the folders in a vertical file on the floor next to my desk, within arm's length of my computer keyboard.
I go through this research several times, including once to try and come up with an outline for the book. Will it be chronological or thematic? How will each chapter flow into the other? For a biography, the decision to approach the story chronologically is almost automatic. For my book on women’s sports history, Winning Ways, I originally planned to focus on themes until my editor convinced me otherwise. In the end, I used chronological chapters, but I made sure to touch on ongoing themes such as the media’s reaction to women in sports in different eras and the evolution of the clothes and equipment available to female athletes.
No matter what I plan to write, doing an outline helps. After it’s finished, I sometimes have to make adjustments in my file folders to better match the chapters of the book. I also figure out what additional research I need to do. I may want to interview experts on my topic, and I'll probably need to do more library research. These days, the Internet is an increasingly important research tool. Just last week, I learned that my weekend subscription to the New York Times makes me eligible to download up to 100 articles each month from the paper’s 157-year archive—-for FREE. What an invaluable resource for someone who writes about U.S. history! (If you don’t have a subscription, you can still download articles at a rate of one for $3.95 or 10 for $15.95.)
When any additional research is done, I start writing. Each time I come to a new chapter, I look through its folder and list topics or anecdotes I want to include. I check these off after I write them into the narrative. Sometimes I forget to include one. If that happens, I have to determine if it really needs to be in that chapter, if it can go somewhere else, or if it's not necessary at all. Another alternative is to set aside the anecdote to use in a caption. This process continues until I've written the whole book.
Occasionally, I’ll take an initial stab at a book topic by writing an article on some aspect of it. I did that several times with the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League before starting on my book, A Whole New Ball Game. I wrote about the league for Scholastic Search magazine (an article on how World War II led to its formation), for Scholastic MATH Magazine (an article on women's versus men's batting averages), and for the Sunday magazine of the California Daily News (profiles of several California players). It’s an excellent way to delve into a subject without having to plan out an entire book, and the freelance fees help pay some bills along the way.