Monday, March 31, 2014

Postcard Preview

Greetings from my desk! 
This will be my last post for I.N.K. I’m taking off, so I thought I’d send a few postcards from the future, because I’m pretty excited about the places I’m going -- or planning to go, or hoping to go. 

1. Key Largo 
Date: Tomorrow 

Would you, could you? Writing is like eating green eggs and ham: you can do it anywhere: on a boat! on a train! in a tunnel! in the rain!  So when I was invited to “do a residency” -- live in a little house somewhere away from home, and do my work -- and when the residency in question was starting April 1 in a place that, unlike my hometown, doesn’t still have big piles of dirty snow and death puddles of cold floodwater -- I said yes.  I will be researching sea turtles for a book called Mission: Sea Turtle Rescue, (National Geographic, 2015)  finding out about manatee migration for a new Humanimal Doodle, learning to scuba, and learning to identify fish, with the help of REEF. REEF teaches divers and snorkelers to identify their neighborhood fish, then puts the fish they find into a big database that helps them assess the health of the coral reef ecosystem.  It’s kind of like the Cornell Backyard Bird Survey -- but instead of counting birds at your backyard feeder, you snorkel around and count fish. 

2. Alaska
Date: The next three months 

Sadly, I’m not actually going to Alaska, either. I won’t be visiting virtually, either. The stories of LaVern Beier, the subject of my book Looking for Bears (Collins Big Cat, 2016), will be transporting me there in words -- and I’ll be trying to take readers along by illustrating his experiences. LaVern is a bear guide -- someone who knows how to find bears and work with them. He assists scientists doing research as they tag bears with satellite transmitters or attach little cameras to their collars.  

3. Wherever Alvin is
Date: Eternal 

I have been following this little submarine around for close to twenty years, but Alvin is a lot older than that. This submarine carried scientists to the first hydrothermal vents, deep volcanic cracks on the sea floor. Robert Ballard used it to locate the wreck of the Titanic.  Now, after a two-year refitting from stem to stern, Alvin is in the water again working for scientists.   For several years I’ve been working on an infographic book about deep sea exploration, and the illustration here  -- printed on a sweatshirt, which I think looks cool -- is the beginning of this new adventure for me. What’s next with this adventure is . . . 

4. The Ocean Floor, via E/V (Exploration Vessel) Nautilus and ROV Hercules (shown here) 
Date: Summer 2014 

This August I’ll go to sea as a Communications Fellow with Dr. Ballard’s group, the Ocean Exploration Trust.  (Teachers, you can apply to do this, too!) This group of scientists, educators, and ship crew work to map the 95% of the ocean floor that has not yet been mapped, and explore the 99% of the ocean that has not yet been explored.  I will be working on an expedition leg sited in the Windward Passage, off the coasts of Haiti, Cuba, and Jamaica. One thing we want from this trip is a better understanding of the causes of the 2010 earthquake that devastated Haiti. During my expedition, I’ll be one of the voices narrating dives to the ocean floor, and one of the faces doing Q and A’s between ship and shore. I’ll also be drawing and writing, working on science comics about our expedition and adding to my book. You can follow us (starting in June) through the Nautilus Live site.

Thank you, I.N.K. I have loved being a part of this group of authors.  And thank you, I.N.K. readers.  Best wishes and long life to all those who work to bring science and stories to children. 

Friday, March 28, 2014

Research and Discovery After Book is Published

On my mini book tour last week, I visited the lovely town of Bellefonte, Pennsylvania. While writing and researching about Anna Keichline for Women of Steel and Stone, Anna's grandniece, Nancy Perkins, asked if I'd be willing to allow the Bellefonte Art Museum to host an author reception when the book was published. I responded immediately, "But, of course."
Fast forward two years later and scheduled considering good driving conditions, I headed toward the center of Pennsylvania. My trip was filled with many fun surprises and observations.
Here are just a few of them:
Stayed in a Anna-designed house!
Anna's grandniece, Nancy, owns a home designed by Anna and asked me if I wanted to stay with her during my visit. What a treat! Almost surreal. What surprised me was the realization that one really doesn't get the true feel of a piece of architecture until you see the work first hand.
Anna Keichline Designed Home
Anna's houses were designed with many unique details.
The house reminded me of the California Bungalow I owned in Long Beach California - built in 1930 - but Anna's house had a basement, a second floor, and stairs to an attic. Some details that stood out to me were a cozy breakfast nook, beautiful fireplace, hardware for drapes on french doors, arched windows and matching doorknobs. 
Breakfast Nook 
 Hardware for Drapes
Kitchen Patent #1,612,730 1924
First Floor Bathroom
Harvey Apartments 1935
Decker House 1931
Bible Home 1916
Harvey House 1939
Model House 

Beautiful architecture can be torn down.
Sadly, the beautiful Garman Opera House was recently torn down. Anna's Cadillac Building is disrepair but the community is hoping that it will escape the wrecking ball.
Cadillac Building

Beautiful architecture can be transformed into other uses. 
In 2001, the Plaza Theatre was shut down and turned into the Plaza Centre Antique Gallery. Turning a art deco theatre to a two-story store changed the entire structure and feel of the building, but the beautiful ceiling details and unique wall coverings still remain. If you go to the very back of the second floor, you can still peek into the "crying room"--- a room for mothers to take their fussy babies and toddlers, a feature not found in theaters in the 1920s. 

Plaza Theatre 1925

Plaza Theatre Ceiling Detail
Crying Room in Back of Theatre
Anna's Life

Anna's Childhood Home
Anna's Cabin in Fishermen's Paradise

Grave Marker
Office Where Anna Worked w/ her Father
Historical Marker

Anna Featured on Bellefonte Monopoly

Book Signing in Anna K Exhibit

Nancy and I next to Anna

To get another perspective of Anna's life and the town of Bellefonte, Pennsylvania, here's an entertaining and informative YouTube video, that I just found.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Inspiring students to write

This winter, and now thank goodness spring, I've been working by videoconference with two classrooms in Missoula, Montana, helping them with their writing projects, through iNK Think Tank's Authors on Call program, posted publicly at  At Franklin School I'm working with fourth graders, and this month they are sidelined by testing.  But the third graders at Lewis and Clark School have finished their project.  My book, "When the Wolves Returned: Restoring Nature's Balance in Yellowstone," is their guide to writing well, and they have been working very hard at it.

In our first videoconference, I talked to them about the importance of beginning a story with something mysterious or exciting, with a beginning, middle, and end, just like a little story in itself.   Each student is writing about a member of the deer family.  Here is Oliver's first paragraph:

"Imagine walking through the woods.  You see something with fangs.  A lion? A wolf? A sabertooth tiger?  No.  It is a musk deer, the only deer with fangs."

Another student wrote:

"On an early foggy morning you can hear distant clanking in the air. As the fog clears you can see two kudu. You come closer and can that their horns are interlocking. They are pulling and tugging but can't get separated."

Wouldn't you want to read more?

In our second videoconference, students were able to read their beginning paragraphs to me, and I gave them specific advice on how to improve the writing.  When an author makes suggestions, the students accept them very easily, while sometimes if it's a parent or teacher making suggestions they aren't as willing to make the changes.

The students are carefully studying my writing and noting down the "powerful" words I use and looking them up if they are unfamiliar with them.  Then they compare them with "ordinary" words I could have used:

I'm very proud of these young writers who are working so hard to do their best, and I think having a "live" author work directly with them to help them with their  difficulties can lead not only to rapid improvement in their work but also in increased enthusiasm about writing and reading.

If you want to know more about our work with students in the classroom, go to .

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

JOSEPHINE rocks, and so does her author!

Thanks to my occasional INK book reviews, I sometimes get presents from publishers. Opening an envelope from Chronicle and seeing JOSEPHINE by Patricia Hruby Powell, illustrated by ChristianRobinson,  nearly took my breath away.  When I began reading it, I had to sit down to still my heart.  Which is rather counterproductive because Powell’s book is all about dancing! It’s a gorgeous book, with text, artwork, design perfectly matched. As a biographer, I’m delighted to see it expand the genre of picture book biography. To learn more about the genesis of Josephine, I asked author Patricia Hruby Powell – a professional dancer herself – a few questions.

Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker breaks a lot of boundaries.  It is a 104-page picture book biography divided into chapters, 3800 words long – way beyond usual picture book length. Is this the length and format that you had in mind before you began writing?

No, not at all. It began as a picture book, 1475 words long, which is too long for a PB, so I got it down to 1000 words. After taking it to a workshop I revised it as a 7500 word book for YA, imagining b & w illustrations along the lines of the Paul Colin poster art whose work helped launch Josephine’s rise to fame. I know, there’s really no such brief illustrated YA genre, but I was writing what impassioned me.

That odd manuscript won me my agent. After we received many complimentary rejections, my visionary editor-to-be at Chronicle Books asked if the author would cut it down to about 3000 words and make it younger for a picture book reader. I got it down to 3400 and that manuscript was purchased by Chronicle and in the editing process we added back some stanza/paragraphs.

The SLJ review lists it for grades 2-4, Booklist, for grades 5-8. What do you think?

I think it works for 2-4 and 5-8 and even high school. I know it’s being used for all those ages.

This book is so rich and multi-layered. It’s the story of one African American woman’s life.  It’s the story of the racial climate of the U.S. vs. Europe.  It’s the story of the evolution of an artist. What drew you to JB? Any dark nights of the soul along the way?

Way back in 2005, while on duty as a children’s librarian, I got to know a group of unfocused African-American preteen girls who showed up daily and pretty much wreaked havoc in the library. I thought Josephine Baker would be a great role model—with her high spirits which she channeled into great success (dancer, singer, star, civil rights worker, pilot, spy for the French, mother of 12). As I said, JOSEPHINE won me my agent at the end of 2009, and the book sale in 2010. At that point there was not really an awful lot of editing to do except for adding stanzas back in and tweaking here and there.

Darn those dark nights of the soul. We must talk about that.

Did you always intend to write in free verse?

Yes and no. The language was always razzle dazzle, but the line breaks came over time. What you write evolves, and as the words became more rhythmic I followed that rhythm and it became more important over several drafts. And the line breaks enhanced the understanding and the rhythm.

You’re a dancer, so you have a deep understanding of body and rhythm.  Did you dance while you were writing this?

I did dance while I wrote—occasionally—I mean I’m always dancing. If you dance for a lifetime or if you’re born wanting to dance, the rhythm just lives inside you. I watched early footage of the magnificent young Josephine and was wowed. I tried to translate that into words on the page.

The design and illustrations are glorious: the bright colors, the typography, the illustrations showing figures against a blank background. Were you involved in any of those decisions?

I was, actually. I had veto power over the publisher’s illustrator choice—a privilege rarely given to a non-star writer. Later, after Christian Robinson was chosen, my editor and I would sit over his early sketches (sent online) and we discussed the accuracy, the energy, the placement in the story—all very cool. And then we worked together on the placement of words on the page (how they sometimes cascade down the page) and the “shout out” words—those in caps. The designer got the final word, but I got to participate in that. What a great experience. I love Chronicle and I love my editor (who is way too busy so I’m keeping her name under tabs so we can get back to my next piece together ;-). And the publicity people and the designer--great. And I love Christian’s illustrations. Just magnificent.

How do children respond to the book, and to your dancing the Charleston for them?

Kids appear to be mesmerized by the book. I love seeing black kids seeing themselves in the illustrations. As for dancing, it certainly draws their attention. In our culture we don’t do enough dancing. I always encourage kids to dance. And to draw, paint, sing, write, tell stories, anything that offers self-expression. I’ve done a couple events where we’ve all danced together. Very fun.

Did your research on Baker lead to other book projects?

Struttin’ With Some Barbecue – another biography in jazzy verse about Lil Hardin Armstrong, jazz pianist and composer, Louis Armstrong’s wife – has not yet sold, but I think it will.

Loving vs Virginia is scheduled to come out with Chronicle in Fall 2015. This is a documentary novel for teens in verse about the interracial marriage between Mildred Jeter (black) and Richard Loving (white) in 1958 Virginia, when miscegenation was illegal. It’s a beautiful love story set against a backdrop of the civil rights movement.

I have a couple of other picture book biographies in the works and I look forward to getting back to a jazz age novel. Thanks for asking, Gretchen.

For a pitch-perfect trailer of Josephine by illustrator/animator Christian Robinson, click here

For the story of the Christian Robinson’s illustrations, including post-it sketches and paintings, click here.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014


It's pretty impressive to see how many different ways nonfiction authors can present the very same subject matter or the very same people in their books. To get the gist, today I thought it might be fun to compare some examples of books on the same topic--mostly (but not entirely) by our own INK authors and illustrators. I'll be brief, I promise.  

So how about starting with our foremost founding father, George Washington himself. Each of these 3 authors has come up with entirely different hooks to pique your interest, so a young audience could get a pretty well-rounded view of our guy by checking out these true tales.

First up is The Crossing: How George Washington Saved the American Revolution by Jim Murphy.  His hook is to focus on Washington's growth as a leader, obviously leading up to the famous crossing of the Delaware on Christmas in 1776. He's used some very interesting artwork from the period to enhance the tale.

Next comes an entirely different take on George from Marfe Ferguson Delano. Her book, Master George's People, tells the story of George's slaves at Mount Vernon, and she has collaborated with a photographer who shot pictures of reenactors on the scene. 

And this one is  (ahem) my version. George vs. George: The American Revolution as Seen from Both Sides shows how there are two sides to every story.  I got to meet George Washington and King George III and paint their pictures myself.
OK, on to the second set.  In one way or another, the next 3 books are all based upon Charles Darwin and his Theory of Evolution. Let's start with Steve Jenkins' handsome book Life on Earth: The Story of Evolution.  With a nod to Darwin, Steve has created a series of stunning collages along with fairly minimal text in order to focus on the history of all the plants and animals on the planet. 
And here's yet another nod to Deb Heiligman for her celebrated true tale of romance between two folks with opposite views of the world. Despite Emma's firm belief in the Bible's version of life on earth, she and Charles enjoy a warm and loving marriage.
Mine again. What Darwin Saw: The Journey that Changed the World, tells about Darwin's great adventures as a young guy while traveling around the world. We're on board In this colorful graphic novel as he picks up the clues that lead to his Theory of Evolution and then does the experiments that prove it.
And here's series number 3.  Apparently these authors and illustrators were hard at work at the very same time on three very different picture books about the very same person; her name is Wangari Maathai, and she won the Nobel Peace Prize for bringing Kenya's trees back to life after most of them had disappeared. 

The artwork in all three books is outstanding, and each version is truly unique. The writing styles vary enormously too. I strongly recommend that you look at them side by side to prove that there's more than one way to skin a cat.  

Planting the Trees of Kenya was written and illustrated by Claire A. Nivola.

Wangari's Trees of Peace was written and illustrated by Jeanette Winter. 
And Mama Miti was written by Donna Jo Napoli and illustrated by Kadir Nelson.  
I'd bet anything that these folks didn't know they were creating books about the same person until all 3 versions were finally published....writing and illustrating books is a solo occupation if there ever was one. 

OK, that's it--though we could easily go on and on.  Here's hoping that if any kids examine a whole series of books on the same topic written and illustrated in such different ways, they can come up with some unique new versions of their own....and have some fun at the same time. 

Friday, March 21, 2014


“How many hours a day do you write?” is one of the most frequent questions I encounter when I speak at schools. That’s a tricky one to answer when you write nonfiction. The truth is, because research is such a major part of the process of creating nonfiction, nonfiction authors may go weeks or months without writing, and yet we’re working all the time. That’s the case for me, at least. My writing months are the treasured few in a given year that follow the sometimes interminable phase of research.

Some of my earliest childhood memories are of emptying and solving our family’s wooden tray puzzles. Some were easy. Some were not. I learned as a child which ones I could do quickly and which ones were more difficult. As my puzzling skills improved—and I began to memorize the layout of each puzzle—I took the logical next step to increase the challenge and dumped all the puzzles out together and proceeded to sort the jumble of pieces into their respective frames. That was fun. It took time, but it was so satisfying to turn the chaotic pile of colored wooden shapes into familiar scenes.

I still puzzle: here's my 2012 holiday diversion.
In my teen years, I returned to puzzling, but this time they were the 500-piece cardboard variety. My father and I worked on puzzles recreationally, perhaps with a football game or TV show playing in the background. We loved the work—the incremental progress that could be measured by locking each piece into place, the strategy required to best solve a particular design, the satisfaction of placing the final piece into place.

Many years later, after I became an author, I realized I could not have found a better way to prepare my mind for a life of research and writing. Every project I undertake is a new puzzle. Each fact collected adds an element of understanding to the project. The more I collect, the clearer the picture becomes of what I am trying to create.

The Big Sort--organizing note cards before writing.
But the picture—that’s the one difference between puzzling and authoring. We know exactly what a jigsaw puzzle should look like by the image portrayed on its carton. A book is another matter. Authors start with topics and a basic knowledge of a subject, but the details and nuance that follow add a dimension of creativity to our work that eclipses the jigsaw puzzling experience.
My office--the epicenter of puzzling and writing.

I’m in the puzzling phase of a project right now. Completing the reading. Converting the facts I’ve found into notes. Drawing connections in my mind. Those interconnected steps will empower the words that begin to flow in a few more weeks. I have no doubt that my childhood passion for and practice of puzzling helped to make me the writer I am today. Patient. Persistent. A puzzler.

How many hours a day do I write? Throw in the puzzling and it’s more than a full-time job. On any given day you'll find me, metaphorically at least, spilling the pieces of the project onto the floor to see what picture emerges.

Posted by Ann Bausum