My post is a doodle. Please click on the picture to read it at full size. -- Karen
Thursday, September 30, 2010
Wednesday, September 29, 2010
Okay, I confess that even as I pondered writing about this unique Western celebration, I was thinking to myself “Sneed, no one is going to buy this book.” Never mind that it’s gotten harder and harder to sell any nonfiction book to a trade publisher. Most publishers are located in urban areas and don’t have the faintest clue about regional markets, especially the West.
Nonetheless, after I spent a long weekend interviewing cowboys and kids, watching the raw beauty of rodeo events, and taking almost a thousand photographs, I knew I had to write this book. The Miles City Bucking Horse Sale began in 1951 as a way for local ranchers to get rid of “spoiled” horses that wouldn’t do any work. A couple of enterprising cowboys thought “Hey, why don’t we invite rodeo producers up to Miles City and auction off our unruly stock for rodeos?” Sixty years later, the Sale has evolved into a four-day celebration of Western life, matched only by the Calgary Stampede and Cheyenne Frontier Days.
In writing about the Sale, I not only wanted to give a blow-by-blow of the excitement of the event, but explore its history and the history of eastern Montana. I was correct, however. No mainstream publishers were interested. And that was the spur that I needed. “Time to start my own publishing company,” I told myself. I hired a truly gifted designer here in Montana, struck a distribution deal with another regional publisher, and a few months later, have probably the most beautiful book I’ve ever written.
Just as INK members have taken control of our own marketing, I believe more and more established authors and illustrators also will take control of their own publishing futures. As we all know here, it’s become almost impossible to sell even the best nonfiction ideas to mainstream trade publishers. Yet that doesn’t mean that the demand for high-quality books has disappeared. In fact, I have never had the kind of early response to a book that I’m getting for The World Famous Miles City Bucking Horse Sale. Part of that is the novelty of an established writer starting my own company, but a lot of that response stems from a hunger for books about topics that real people can relate to.
It’ll be interesting to see how many of us “buck out” on our own in coming years. For my part, I’m sold that it’s a good idea, and am already climbing up on my next horse.
To learn more about Bucking Horse Books, check out www.buckinghorsebooks.com.
To see the Publisher’s Weekly article featuring Bucking Horse Books, click here:
Tuesday, September 28, 2010
Honestly, it didn’t help. Instead, the contrast between the fictional stories and real life was palpable. In the stories, there was always a kind boy with a crush, a new girl that befriended the alienated protagonist, or a bully who got what was coming to them. Ah, if only it were so. This summer’s reality was extreme-- a girl in the incoming senior high school class hanged herself. And then just last week a talented musician from the 2010 graduating class killed himself. Among other things, one wonders aloud how the magnitude of their pain could have gone unnoticed. And the worry persists that no matter how overprotective and on top of things you try to be, it might not be enough to help all the kids you care about.
I reread Queen Bees and Wannabes by Rosalind Wiseman and listened to a powerful interview she gave that is now part of the extras offered on the DVD of the movie Mean Girls. As a parent, I did find the acknowledgement of typical patterns of girl bullying behavior to be helpful. But books of this kind are actually geared toward the parents. When I thought about what teens might read that could influence them, I thought about YA nonfiction.
Nonfiction can subtlety, and otherwise, reveal an important message: it’s hard for almost everyone but, look, we made it through and so can you. Here are the role models of those who successfully mucked through the emotional turmoil that is high school to become who they hoped to be. Young adults don’t need heroes placed high upon pedestals. Rather, they need to know of real people so they can honestly sense that you do not have to be superhuman to endure.
For teens, the timing is ripe to become better acquainted with the real life experiences of those behind the well-known images. Jackie Robinson had rocks thrown at him in front of his childhood home. Eleanor Roosevelt was a painfully shy child who wanted nothing more than the love her alcoholic father kept failing to provide. Being smart certainly doesn’t make you immune as evidenced by Albert Einstein who was looked upon as a failure by his teachers and treated as a social outcast by his peers.
These, among many others, are the true stories that need to be told again and made accessible to the young adult reader. They are proof positive of the possibilities of a less emotionally stressed, happy existence after high school. As parents, that’s the best message we can offer for those still stuck in the middle of it.
Monday, September 27, 2010
I think I did pretty well, but I'm not sure. Several teachers told me that the presentations I had just given were the best they had ever seen. One said it was inspiring to her students and herself. Another said she didn't want me to stop because the kids were learning so much. A third said I was explaining difficult concepts in ways she had never thought of, and the kids were getting it -- and having fun to boot!
Friday, September 24, 2010
Nonfictions book blog reviews
Tips on Social Media for Writers
I specifically listed those lines above for SEO (Search Engine Optimization). Why? Because I want people to read what I write... don't we all? When someone googles "Nonfiction books for homeschoolers", the search engines will scroll the first few lines of a blog post to search for information on the topic. That's why when we title a post we should should think about what words a person may google to find your post.
This month I started writing a series of articles for Toy Directory Monthly on Social Media topics for the Toy Industry. For me, the entire social media revolution is a game. By accident, I have learned how to play the game - and several national organizations have asked me to write about and educate the toy industry. I chose to go the TD Monthly route.
In reviewing my current article, How to Use Mommy Blogs to Promote Your Products - Free Publicity Comes with a Price, I thought there were a few points that would resonated with the readers of this blog. (By the way, I didn't title the article which has received some negative comments.) And, yes, this may be considered "preaching to the choir" for most of you, but this reminder won't hurt.
Reaching Out to Mom Bloggers: What to Do
- Read blogs, including the comments, to see which reviewer is a fit for your product.
- Check blog stats at Compete.com, Alexa.com or another analytic site.
- Contact the blogger via a link on their page or email.
- Understand that the blogger may not post a review immediately. Some of the more popular blogs get over 75 per day requests for a blog review.
- Make sure your Web page and links work and are easy to read and navigate.
- Consider giveaways as a fantastic way to drive traffic to a blog and to your site.
- Be prepared for negative reviews.
Before writing this today, I googled and found some fantastic homeschool blogs - many with book reviews.
And lastly, had to mention, that I have a new puppy. Want to know the BEST way to get lots of comments on your facebook page or blog? Post pictures of your new puppy. Works every time!
Now, off to send the link to this blog post to all the search engine sites. And, that's how we play the game!
Comments welcome, especially about Lucy, my new Old English Sheepdog pup!
Thursday, September 23, 2010
Here’s where the goodies are. In the fine print. Beneath the Library of Congress catalog stuff that most readers skip.
“The artist used up to forty layers of colored pencil over watercolor wash on 140-pound watercolor paper to create the illustrations for this book.”
---from Rick Chrustowski’s book, Army Ant Parade (Holt, 2001) That’s right. Rick’s book. Okay, so my husband and I stood in army ant swarms and slogged through five muddy days in Panama to see antbirds and yes, I wrote the text. But Rick put up to FORTY LAYERS on some of those hopping frogs and ants and birdies. It’s his book, too.
Chrustowski has this crisp, modern, graphic style that still can give a sense of perspective and landscape. You are in the forest, with the ants, in the thick of the swarm. His art makes the action pop, larger than life, without making the details muddy. Well, you’ll just have to look at it and see. Chrustowski has also written many of his own books, such as Big Brown Bat and Bright Beetle, both from Holt. See more about him at http://www.rickchrustowski.com/
Oct 21-24, 2010 Chrustowski is teaching an in-depth course on bird collage and illustration for grownups. It’s in Minnesota. I’ll be traveling; otherwise I’d be there for sure. It would be a great chance to meet Rick.
Now, I’m off to investigate more notes.
“Illustrations done in watercolor, gouache, and pastel on Arches paper.
Display type set in Ogre, designed by Wayne Thompson and text type set in Weiss
Designed by Susan Mallory Sherman.”
Turtle, Turtle, Watch Out! by April Pulley Sayre, illustrated by Annie Patterson.
These notes reflect the secret artists, the secret work force. There’s an entire layer of work being done on books that is rarely recognized: all that goes into the art and the choice of type and overall book design. What Annie and Susan and Wayne all did made a huge difference in Turtle, Turtle, Watch Out. I give my thanks to them and all the others along the way that have made my words and ideas flock, fly, and swim.
Wednesday, September 22, 2010
A couple of years ago I subscribed to a home exchange website, and this summer I took the plunge. I linked three exchanges, staying in 1) a 15th century Norman farmhouse; 2) a spacious house in west London; and 3) an urban cottage in Cardiff. To justify my self-indulgence, I researched my current INK blog throughout the trip. Actually, that’s not a fib. As I toured the French countryside for ten days and London for six weeks, I monitored old and new ways museums, castles, etc. are presenting history to visitors, and how that might relate to us nonfiction authors.
CHATEAU GUILLAUME LE CONQUEERANT
The Castle of William the Conqueror in Falaise, France is a restored stone heap with enormous empty rooms, until you enter them with your electronic devise. Then they are transformed with medieval music, spoken narrative and poetry, and photos projected on walls and floor. Suddenly you are in a hall where “tapestries” line the walls, a “carpet” covers the floor, and courtly love poems set to music for the Duchess by her faithful knight, echo in your ear.
You enter a medieval chapel to hear haunting plainsong and a story of a conflict between Duke and Pope, taken from letters and papal decrees. The cold stone walls have come to life. Guidebook texts, even read by a narrator, don’t produce the same sense of time travel back to the age when the tapestries, carpets, and music were not electronically created. (Please excuse my inferior photograph. For a better view, see http://www.chateau-guillaume-leconquerant.fr/web/galerie-photo_uk.php, Photos #14-17.)
BENJAMIN FRANKLIN HOUSE
Much more modest is the Benjamin Franklin House in Craven Street, Charing Cross, London. Franklin lived here for nearly twenty years, while he was a colonial lobbyist to Parliament. The small, narrow terrace house has few furnishings and, presumably, a small budget. We meet a real-life actress playing the landlady’s daughter, who tells us tales of Franklin’s London life: meeting renowned scientists and politicians, inventing the glass armonica, writing a witty “Craven Street Gazette” to his absent landlady, and paving the road to the American Revolution. Video images and narrative voices bring Franklin and his friends into the room.
The Enchanted Palace at London’s Kensington Palace. A many-roomed installation by Wildworks, a group of Cornwall artist and performers, creates an atmosphere that mixes historical settings and biography with contemporary artworks that reflect the lives of seven princesses who lived in the palace over the last 350 years, from Princess Mary (1662-94) to Princess Diana.
In “The Room of Royal Sorrows” we see an elegant bed and learn of Princess Mary, married to her first cousin at fifteen, suffering three miscarriages in that bed, then dying there of smallpox at age thirty-two. A river of fabric shimmering with “tears” flows over the bed; and a table of antique glass bottles shows how tears of joy were collected and stoppered, and tears of sorrow collected and allowed to evaporate (along with the sorrow.) We are asked to write about the last time we cried, and to attach our note to a string of others’ sorrows. Art illuminating history.
We meet Princess Caroline, patron of philosophers and scientists, in The Room of Enlightenment, along with fantastical contemporary mobiles inspired by her interests. Each princess is given poetry, artworks, and a living Explainer who is well-versed in her history. Some room even have Detectors, actors “in history” who engage visitors in the past. This exhibit continues through 2012, so don’t miss it if you’re in London.
SO MUCH MORE…..
History told through story…. I visited the Big Pit Mining Museum in Blaenafon, Wales and descended 300 ft. to walk half a mile through a coal mine and listen to our guide, a Welsh miner who went “down the mines” at age sixteen, until he lost his job in the 1980s closures. We learned about coal mining, along with his personal stories.
The Original London Walks have been favorites of mine for years. I went on several this summer, featuring the 2012 Olympics, Fleet Street, the East End (with its 350 years of immigrants,) as well as costumed guides adopting the personae of Charles Dickens and Oscar Wilde. Nothing beats learning through storytelling.
NOW THAT I’M HOME….
…..and back at my desk writing biographies, I’m inspired to try to recreate on a printed page the experiences of “being there” – in the place where history happened and stories began. Tough job, that. I’m also inspired to ponder the possibilities when I, and others, will enter the world of multimedia e-books, using music, spoken words, and moving images to enhance the stories we tell.
Tuesday, September 21, 2010
I hope you will indulge me and let me tell you about him. I think it relates to what we are all trying to do here.
My grandpa, Hyman Rockmaker, was a lawyer. He was the kind of lawyer who fought for the underdog, defended people for little money if he had to, and was known and loved all over town. You couldn’t walk down the street in Allentown with him without someone coming over to thank him, shake his hand, give him a hug and kiss. When I was a teenager (and a budding feminist) I was offended that he called all the women, “Honey.” Wasn’t that horribly sexist? I knew Gramps valued everyone; he didn’t have a sexist (or racist) bone in his body; this Honey thing didn’t make sense. After a while I realized that he called the men “Honey,” too. I pass this on for those of you who like Hy (and his granddaughter) have a hard time pulling up names. A useful tool, Honey.
Grandpa always rooted for the underdog, not just in his law practice, but in his life, and especially in sports. I was reminded of this by my cousin Monroe. We grew up watching Grandpa root for the Phillies, listening to the game on the radio, smoking his cigar. I still love the smell of cigar smoke (an anomaly, I know) and without realizing it, root for the underdog. Just recently, watching the US Open men’s final, I found myself rooting for Djokovic even though in a previous match I rooted against him. I didn’t know why. Nadal is cuter (this is a requirement, right?) and is even from Majorca, a place I love. When Monroe reminded me about Gramps and the underdog, I realized this is such a big part of who I am, I don't even think about it. When I pick subjects to write about I try to write about the underdog, the underappreciated, the unknown, or the untold story.
Grandpa loved to walk. He walked to and from work every day, probably a mile. Even into his eighties. This made a big impression on all of us. I walk everywhere I can, bringing a notebook with me because I get many of my book ideas, and solve many book problems, while I'm walking (also while in the shower). My brother, who is now closing in on the age at which I start to remember Gramps, walks a lot too. He actually walks to spin class, teaches it, and then walks back. Can you say, overachiever? Did that come from Grandpa, Phil?
Grandpa gave me the love of the underdog, the love of walking (so did my dad), the love of Halls cough drops and the smell of eucalyptus, and card games. He also gave me his ability to multitask. Back then we called it “ants in the pants.” Thankfully he didn’t give me the penchant for going through red lights because he didn’t have the patience to wait any more. (Yeah, it was fun being a passenger in his car.)
But the biggest thing he gave me were his last words, and what preceded them. My grandfather always made me feel like I could do anything, that I was the most special person in the world, or at least in his world, and since he had such a big world, that meant everything.
Grandpa wrote me letters when I was at camp, and each letter made me feel as if he was letting me in on something, that something being his greatness, his ability to live life with gusto, with honesty, with a mission to right wrongs. In person and in his letters he made me believe that I could conquer all. Every child should have someone who does that for her. And I say her because in those days, in my little world, even a smart girl was encouraged to get married above all else. Not that marriage is a bad thing at all. In my life it has been the most important thing. But I needed someone to give me the message that I had the right to strive in my work life. Grandpa wanted me to strive because he knew I could, and should.
He was getting weaker and weaker my senior year of high school, but he followed every moment of my college applications with great interest, often from his sick bed (sick couch, actually, so he could watch golf, or boxing, and listen to baseball—while reading the newspaper).
And then he landed in the intensive care unit as I was packing to go to Brown, my dream. Leaving home was hard enough for me, leaving my Gramps near death was almost impossible. But he rallied just before I left, and I went into the ICU to say good-bye to him. Through tears I told him I was leaving the next day (how my mother was able to drive me to Providence is beyond me now). He could barely speak; he was hooked up to oxygen, IVs, but we held hands (I still know exactly what his hand felt like). As I was about to go, he looked me in the eyes and said what would be his last words to me: “Attend to your work.”
I nodded, tears streaming down my face, a little confused by those words. Not, "have a good time," or "do well," or even I love you, but “Attend to your work.” He died a few days later.
Thank you, Grandpa.
Monday, September 20, 2010
Friday, September 17, 2010
Labels: art, biography, Brian Floca, dance, Jan Greenberg, music, non-fiction, Sandra Jordan, sculpture
Thursday, September 16, 2010
In the old days (I use that loosely) I had all kinds of non-computer tricks up my sleeve for organizing my thoughts. Spiral notebooks, index cards in different colors, file-folders and their corresponding lovely, crisp paper tabs. Those materials had all but vanished from my workspace since my Mac moved in.
Oh, I know what you’re thinking. She has a Mac, what’s the problem? But virtual organization, however snazzy, was not about to cut it. It was time to go Old School. So now, I am pleased to report, my dining room has been transformed into a post-it covered, multi-colored, index-card crazed den of story organization bliss. These ghosts of the office-supply-closet-past are back in full force. My workspace is partying like it’s 1999.
Scattered amongst the books and notecards are a dazzling array of pens in fuchsia, lavender, moss green, and sun yellow, and yes, even a comforting canister of whiteout. Now I can color code to my heart’s content, shifting and shuffling my multicolor cards, making my mark on them with a rainbow of writerly and editorial commands.
Creating this new space for myself has made all the difference. Where before I was getting in my own way and tripping over myself in all the clutter, I am now able to see the house taking shape. Rooms are coming together, hallways planned so traveling from one room to the next will be smooth—and there might even be space for an addition. The ivy is clearing itself away. The house of index cards I am building, I now trust, will not fall.
Wednesday, September 15, 2010
When my longtime editor, Margery Cuyler at Marshall Cavendish Children, suggested doing a book of dinosaur jokes, that seemed like a fun project. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what happened, but let’s just say things escalated a bit. After browsing through a few books, it became clear that I had missed out on a lot of wonderful fossil discoveries and insights made in recent years. (For a post about some of the resources used, click here.)
An aspect that jumped out at me was the number of books available and what topics are covered. Here are some very simple “infographics” to illustrate. In general, most nonfiction (and fiction) books take place within the context of recorded history, right?
Fine, now let‘s compare the quantity of Prehistoric time vs. Historic time:
Obviously these are not mathematically accurate proportions, but it conveys the idea. Prehistory is far bigger than History, in terms of the sheer number of years.
Then, when we look only at prehistoric time, the dinosaurs showed up 250–200 million years ago, then dominated the Earth for a relatively small chunk of Earth’s entire 4.5 billion years (minus 65 million years since the asteroid fell.)
However, when we look at the actual books written about prehistoric topics for children, it looks more like this:
This is my (perhaps long-winded) way of saying that there are a heck of a lot of books about dinosaurs, but the rest of prehistory? Not so much. I felt compelled to include the whole shebang in my book, or at least the highlights that would fit into a mere 48 pages. Without any further ado, here is my fall book, My Teacher Is a Dinosaur and Other Prehistoric Poems, Jokes, Riddles, & Amazing Facts...
It begins with the newly-formed Earth under a hail of comets and asteroids, then deluged by millions of years of rain. The next spread shows the era of volcanoes, huge tides, and a moon so large it would almost require sunglasses (moonglasses?) Life appears in the form of microorganisms, with cyanobacteria being the most important because they made oxygen. Many pages and many incredibly diverse lifeforms later, the book winds up in the Ice Age.
Along the way, each spread has cinquain poems and/or longer rhyming verses, silly but topical jokes, riddles in the form of limericks, fun facts, and of course, full-color artwork of the fantastic array of plants and animals that once populated this planet, or in some cases still do. (Such as the coonties growing in our yard, a cycad plant whose ancestors grew during the Permian period.)
The poems include:
The Bad Old Days
The Fish That Wanted Legs
Reptiles on the March
How to Stay Alive
Did Hadrosaurs Quack?
A Warning from the Mammals
About the poem My Teacher is a Dinosaur...there was some opposition from the publisher about using it for the book’s title (too young? too insulting?) so just to be sure I read it aloud to a group of reading teachers. My editor did the same, and both groups overwhelmingly urged us to keep this title, so yay! While I intended the title to sound a little subversive, the poem itself negates the idiomatic meaning of dinosaur (i.e. old or outmoded) and favorably compares teachers to various dinosaurs. The first couple of lines should make it clear:
My teacher is a dinosaur, but I’m not sure which one—
could she be Gallimimus, who was always on the run?...
It took much more time to create this book than I originally expected, but (with all due modesty) it turned out to be unique, entertaining, and informative. My hope is that it will entice reluctant readers to explore its pages as well as enlarge the perspective of dinosaur-loving kids (aren’t they all?) For a peek at a spread featuring Brachiosaurus and Archaeopteryx, click here. To preview and download a coloring page of Allosaurus, click here.
Happy back to school, everyone!
Tuesday, September 14, 2010
Monday, September 13, 2010
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.
Friday, September 10, 2010
Teachers are living in fear these days. Their administrators are equally fearful. Here’s why: ASSESSMENT TESTS. And why are their knees shaking so hard? If students don’t measure up, a school’s reputation suffers, real estate values in their district suffer, taxes go down, there is less money for education, school budgets must be cut and people (teachers and administrators) can lose their jobs. So everyone frantically focuses on THE TESTS.
The top educators have been thinking hard about what kids need to know. Each district/state, even the nation has developed standards and content strands—the so-called scope and sequence of what kids need to know and when they need to know it. They make their scope and sequence—their lists— available to the public and to the people who create educational materials, including textbook publishers and others who produce product for the very lucrative (and highly competitive) school market. These publishers take the lists as written, use them as outlines and hand them to writers. “Cover this material” are their instructions. And their efforts are there for all to see in heavy tomes, in wikipedias, and in Google search results.
The expository prose created in this way is flat at best and positively boring and insulting to the reader at worst. How do I know? I was once asked to write a text book and was handed THE OUTLINE. Yes, I can write a decent declarative sentence. I’m not a bad speller and I know the rudiments of punctuation. But, much as I needed the money, I turned down the job. Why? I told them that I don’t write their way. I tried to ‘splain it to them (as Desi Arnaz would say): They could hire Shakespeare and give him THE OUTLINE to follow and they might get something they’d want to publish, but they wouldn’t get Shakespeare. They didn’t get it. I moved on.
Meanwhile the test creators are cooking up THE TESTS. One of their main focuses is on reading comprehension. A typical question involves giving kids three or four paragraphs to read and then asking them about what they’ve just read. But the test manufacturers aren’t hiring writers to create these paragraphs. They are searching high and wide for samples of excellent writing—literature—so that they can write questions like “What is the author’s point of view?” And just where are those test makers finding their writing samples? Are you ready for this surprising insight? FROM OUR BOOKS!!!! How do I know? I have a file full of permissions I’ve granted to test publishers over the years as do my I.N.K. colleagues.
So my questions to educators are: Why teach from inferior reading materials to prepare for tests that are based on literature? Why not teach from our books in the first place? How can kids develop the critical thinking skills to answer questions like “What is the author’s point of view?” when they are learning from materials where the author has no point of view? This is particularly true of reading in the content area—science, math and social studies. Don't you get that "covering" the material is not the same as teaching it?
There’s a leap of faith here that must be taken. I’ve read the standards. They are NOT LIMITING. There’s a lot of room for many voices, a myriad of approaches, and a variety of topics within curriculum guidelines. EVERY STUDENT DOESN’T HAVE TO LEARN EXACTLY THE SAME CONTENT. (Not that every student ever did). Education is not about an assembly line approach. Each child is hand-crafted. It’s about respect; respect for the learner and respect for the teacher. A formulaic, limited, strict interpretation that becomes simply teaching to the test doesn’t respect either. And that’s what sets literature apart. We authors have nothing but respect for our readers. We assume that the children we write for are intelligent human beings capable of comprehending the subject matter that gets us excited. The evidence is there in every sentence we write. And if you're worried about meeting the standards, use our free database, with each book aligned to the standards by the authors themselves who have a deep understanding of how their work fits into these broad definitions.
So my challenge to educators is to abandon the training wheels of prescribed texts. Do what the high-scoring schools have done for years. Liberate your teachers. Use our books to bring the joy of learning back into the classroom. Believe that learning happens when kids are engaged. Then, give them a few practice tests the week or so before the big bad assessment tests. You might be surprised at the results and wonder just what all the fuss was about.
Thursday, September 9, 2010
And I belong to not just a real book club, where actual people meet in the same room to talk about the same book (this month: The House at Sugar Beach, by Helene Cooper—a fascinating memoir of growing up in Liberia), but also to a virtual book club, where me and my buddies, Mary and Kim (who are real people living in different cities) meet virtually (group emails) to discuss a juicy kidlit selection (most recently: Incarceron, by Catherine Fisher, a YA novel that is…wow really hard to describe in a single phrase, but if you want a meaty fantasy, it’s a good choice!)
But the one aspect of writing that I only think about when absolutely necessary is the physical act of writing and how to make it as unobtrusive as possible, so that the words I want to write appear on the page with the least hassle to me.
I have read other authors wax on about a perfect pen, the flowing ink, and the right-sized notebook.
Not me. I have terrible handwriting. My hand cramps when I try to write more than a phrase or two longhand, not because of any physical ailment but only because I write way more slowly than I think, and my brain is furious with itself that all those lobes, cortexes, and hemispheres can’t get their act together and work in concert a little bit better.
Since I began writing for real (as in, scheduling it into my day, every day) I’ve always composed on a computer. I’m also a creature of habit, a techno-phobe, and a charming person to be around when I have a computer problem (just ask my husband): I don’t get mad, I just start to cry with alarming ease.
But last week I bought my first laptop. And not just any laptop: my first Mac, after about 20 years on a PC.
With great trepidation, I slipped into the Apple store (where—at least in trendy Portland, OR—every smiling employee is 22 and covered in tattoos), my middle-aged self carefully avoiding the i-pad/i-pod pods to make a bee-line for the MacBooks.
Jeremy (smiling, shaved head, tattoos) took my order and Kyle (smiling, shaggy-haired, pierced lip) showed me how to use it.
And I am sort of starting to fall in love with it. Even though I haven’t figured out how to make the email work yet. Even though you can only delete from the right and not from the left.
I like how the cute little apple on the cover lights up when I walk into the room (ok, I have to turn on the computer, too.) I like how bouncy the icons are on my Dock—like they are jumping up, eager to get to work, excited to hear what I’ve got to say. The Mac just feels like more fun, somehow. And my middle-aged self likes how easy it is to make the font bigger, because Dude, these eyeballs have been places.
I will never get a tattoo and the only thing I will ever pierce is my earlobes. But this old dog is sort of excited about having a fun new computer.
And I bought a sassy computer case to prove it.
Wednesday, September 8, 2010
This summer has been all about the bicycle. When it started I was steeped in the 1890s, putting the finishing touches on my upcoming book, Wheels of Change: How Women Rode the Bicycle to Freedom (With a Few Flat Tires Along the Way), due out in January. As the heat finally began to fade and the first cool breezes of approaching autumn arrived, I was speeding down the hilly roadways of rural Maine on a 50-mile weekend cycling trip. The feelings elicited while riding were not unlike those I encountered while writing: a single-minded concentration, mixed with terror, exhilaration, and faith that everything would turn out all right.
It’s not too hard to explain those emotions as they relate to the cycling trip. At times I felt I was out of my league, especially when the family of tourists from Sweden who were part of our group of 16 sprinted past me up a particularly challenging hill, not to be seen again until we reached the campsite for our evening meal. Add that to the surprising number of cars I heard zooming toward me from behind and the fact that the gears on the bicycle that was supplied to me kept slipping and you can understand that I soldiered on with a certain amount of unease. But that was the first day. On Sunday our route took us over softly rolling hills, past farms and out-of-the-way homes that were more consistent with the picture of this adventure weekend that I’d painted in my mind. With my gears fixed and my confidence restored, I even passed some of the Swedes, earning a “good job” from one of the twenty-something young women. Though she passed me about a mile down the road, I kept her in my sights for the rest of the trip.
As for the book, the first acknowledgment of terror came in late January, as I sat in a conference room at my publisher’s office and said yes, I would have the manuscript by April 15. It was an impossible deadline. I hadn’t written a word yet, although I had done a great deal of research. My last book, Bylines: A Photobiography of Nellie Bly, had been written over a seven-year span, interrupted twice so I could write books on the Summer and Winter Olympics. I was determined to work on Wheels of Change without interruption, giving it all of my attention for the duration.
And I did. I tried my best to map out a 10-week period devoid of distractions, postponing dentist appointments, social engagements, and a car tune-up so I could concentrate on the task at hand. I was thrown for a loop in mid-March, when a violent Nor'easter left my neighborhood without power for three and a half days. I lost all the food in my refrigerator, but I hardly lost a minute of work time thanks to my laptop and borrowed Internet access at my parents’ home and my public library. I actually think the chapter I composed as a vagabond writer was one of my best.
While I never really believed I could finish a 96-page research-based nonfiction book in 10 weeks—and I didn’t—I became increasingly excited with each page I wrote, and my editor was encouraged enough with my progress to allow me to push the deadline to the limit. I submitted the manuscript chapter by chapter, along with the visuals I collected as I simultaneously did photo research. (More on that in a future post.) As I finished the main text, the design team developed the perfect visual format for the book. I brought my laptop with me on a working vacation in late June to finish up the captions and back matter and make a few cuts to chapters that had run long. Finally, after fact checking, copyediting, proofreading, and design adjustments, the book went to the printer on August 9.
Writing Wheels of Change was a whirlwind experience, complete with uphill climbs, intense but steady forward progress, and a few breezy coasts downhill when I got the thrill of seeing everything come together in the layout. It was a heck of a ride.
Tuesday, September 7, 2010
Greetings, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome back to I.N.K.! Here’s hoping that the sundry teachers, kids, and kids’ families amongst you had some fun in the sun and have your new back-to-school outfits at the ready. I imagine that as usual, you’ve come up with one version or another of “What I did on My Summer Vacation,” so with that in mind, I thought I’d tell you a true story about telling true stories.
Once upon a time when I was a brand new freshman in college, I bought about a ton of required textbooks and trudged off to my first class with the heaviest book of all in tow—an ugly foreboding colorless behemoth with tiny type that included everything but the kitchen sink about the History of Western Civilization.
The class was not an elective, the auditorium was as noisy as an an echo-chamber, and there must have been 200 students perched on the screechy folding chairs. Finally, in walked a little old white-haired lady. We could barely see her face peering over the top of the podium, and I’m sure all 200 students were groaning inside. Until she began to speak.
As it turns out, this wasn’t just any dried up dull-as-dishwater little old lady. This professor was spellbinding. She really was. A magician with words, she told us lively tales about her adventures at archeological digs in Crete, and we rode her magic carpet to deepest Africa, where she had unearthed an ancient human femur or two and helped (slowly but dramatically) to uncover some mysteries about our past.
Leaving no other stone unturned either, she revealed plenty of juicy, gossipy stories about the sex scandals and treachery surrounding all those famous people we were required to study. She got us all riled up about history and the unforgettable dramas it can brew. She made us howl with laughter. She made us think. We couldn’t wait to go to class--and we hardly ever had to open that heavy but comparatively useless textbook. In the end, everyone got good grades in her class simply because we remembered with great clarity every single tale she had to unfold. It was her great stories that held us in thrall, and not one of them came from a textbook.
But this story isn’t over. I returned for my sophomore year excited about my history class and all psyched to hear a great story or three. The feeling didn’t last, though, not even for a minute. This time, our teacher was a bored and boring grad student who had no use for undergraduates and no apparent passion about history either. The very first thing she did when we walked into the room was to call the roll, which took about 15 minutes. Then she told us to be quiet. Then she wrote down an outline on the blackboard (which was far, far away). It said something like this:
I. PELOPONNESIAN WAR
A. 431-404 B.C.
Phase 1- Archidamian War
Etc. etc. etc.
Then she gave us a long list of terms to memorize, told us to read the textbook during the remainder of the class, said there would be a quiz on the material next time, and informed us that we could write only with a pen. My mid-term grade in that class was a C, the only one I ever got in college. The grad student/teacher wrote on my first test that this was college, that C’s were unacceptable, and that I was obviously never going to be a history student.
I still think about my inspirational first teacher every time I write another book about history. By following her example and using my storyteller voice, I aim to put flesh on the bare bones of history and bring its people to life. And I try to do what she did so well by injecting every bit of the excitement and adventure and intrigue that makes a true story live again.
Lists on a blackboard do not inspire learning. Textbooks are barely readable. But you can’t put down a great teacher--or a great book.
If dramatic or funny or sad, 100% true stories can turn kids on to the past and teach a thing or three while everyone's having fun, we’re on a roll. The best teachers and the best books can do just that. Our relatively impersonal, humorless, and sanitized textbooks cannot. And even the web’s information overload—so often out of context and inaccurate—simply can’t tell a gripping, memorable story and can’t introduce its heroes and villains up close and personal.
So nonfiction people, I’m just sayin.’
Nobody ever fell in love with a textbook, but every day, zillions of people fall in love with story books and with the people inside their pages. Sometimes they even sleep with a book under their pillow. (Dare I tell you that the biggest compliment I ever got was finding out that a kid slept with one of my nonfiction books under his pillow for an entire year?) So.... What if this year, kids could read great stories in school--and they were true stories to boot? Well, maybe they could learn just about anything, and it would all be pain-free.