Thursday, April 24, 2014

Navigating the Dangers of Research




Today's guest post is by Karen Blumenthal—author of YALSA Nonfiction Award finalists Bootleg and Steve Jobs: The Man Who Thought Different—and a committed researcher. Or, maybe, a researcher who should be committed? Read her post and decide for yourself!


 
One evening during a research trip to Washington, D.C., I missed the hotel’s revolving-door entry and slammed into a glass wall schnoz first.

While I reeled in pain, the guests in the lobby eyed me as if I'd enjoyed the happy hour a little too much. Embarrassingly, I was suffering instead from a wicked case of microfilm myopia.  I had only been researching drinking, not actually doing it.

In writing nonfiction for young people, I know the quality of the research drives the story. But that all-important work, I've concluded, may be dangerous to your health.

Other afflictions from recent research were less painful, but almost as embarrassing:

Quarter hoarding: My obsession won’t make great reality TV, but I have stashed quarters everywhere, in pockets, wallets, and tote bags, and I won’t share them with you, even for a desperately needed soft drink. They’re crucial for parking meters, copiers and lockers for stashing your stuff while you research Al Capone at the Chicago History Museum. 

Research fog: An ailment closely related to microfilm myopia, this dense stupor sets in around the fifth hour of reading, especially if you skip lunch to squeeze in more work during a research library's limited hours. As you emerge from the fluorescent-lit haze, jabbering about what you have learned, it slowly becomes apparent that no one you know cares that Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton and Penney founder James Cash Penney had similar backgrounds.

Library breath: What is it about libraries that makes your mouth feels like a herd of camels just ambled across your tongue? Spend too much of the day inside one of these important (and low-humidity) places of knowledge and you'll find that your newfound trivia isn't all that will knock people out.

Chronic nerditis: Finding some new gem online can lead to mysteriously intense, heart-pounding excitement that will surely bore your family to death. You mean you can read 1920s magazines online? Find newspapers stories back to the 1850s? Look at a database instead of those fat green Reader's Guides to Periodicals?

Score!

Waitwhat? You've never heard of the Reader's Guide to Periodicals?

“Just one more” syndrome: Now this is when things get really ugly. Researching is fun; writing, for me, is difficult. So why in the world should I want to stop searching for good stuff? What if there’s a better anecdote out there? What if I’ve missed a great example? If only the deadline wasn’t approaching!

Of course, the paper cuts and smudges on my clothes from newspapers and fresh photocopies are all worth the trouble when I finally sit down at the computer. Having great stories and specific detail is crucial to writing for young people because the story must crackle and pop, and every idea must be crystal clear for readers who have little experience or context to bring to a subject.

Just try not to get behind me when I take a break at the coffee shop. I may be paying with quarters.



Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Looking Back

I’ve just spent nearly all of an afternoon looking back on all the INK blogs that I’ve written, trying to get a sense of what I’ve been doing, thinking, and writing about for six-plus years.  My internal monologue went,   “I don’t remember writing about that…..”  “Did I really say….?”   “I’d forgotten about her…..”  My early posts had no photos and no links.  I couldn’t do the simplest things beyond clicking the letter keys.

 I’ve loved writing for INK. I loved having time and space each month to natter on about books, writing, being a writer, and even tangential topics.  Out of 66 such natterings:

• I wrote about writing and ‘being a writer’ thirty-four times: Research Rapture, fiction vs nonfiction, writing long and short, chronic procrastination, author visits, finding stories while traveling, and a whole lot more.
• I used twelve postings to review new and favorite books. 
• I minded other’s people’s business, interviewing six authors, two illustrators, four media specialists, and three editors and publishers. 
• Five times I wrote about that mercurial topic, Miscellaneous, including my author visit trip to Africa, my great-nephew’s favorite nf books, and a photo-illustrated tour of my office.  





I’ve learned a lot from all that musing – for how do you know what you think until you write it down?  And I’ve learned a whole lot more by reading every single one of the other INK authors’ blog postings about books, writing, and Miscellaneous too. I’ve read their books, met some of them, and hope to meet more as our paths cross at conferences and in distant cities.


Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that the last six-plus INK years have brought me five book contracts, with four of those books already out there in the marketplace.  Writing about writing, and doing it to a monthly deadline, may have helped my chronic condition of procrastination, though perhaps it should have had its own category of “not-writing.” 


All in all, it’s been great fun.  Thanks, Linda Salzman, for thinking up INK and running it so well.  Thanks to the other authors and to our loyal readers. However, I’m not quite finished: we still have two months to go.


Monday, April 21, 2014

Ten Things I'd Have Done Differently

"With the benefit of hindsight we can all see things which we would wish had been done differently or not at all." 
Queen Elizabeth II 

Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor, b. 88 years ago today,
April 21, 1926, exactly, by the way, 90 years after Sam Houston,
that tough old buster, led forces of theRepublic of Texas, 
(yelling 'Remember the Alamo!') in their defeat of those led by
 General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, another tough old buster, at the decisive Battle of San Jacinto
What better time than a round-numbered anniversary (30 years ago this coming summer since I started my climb into the world of books for young readers), to ponder all those roads not taken? 


1. Don't we all have a drawer of file full of nonfiction book ideas, each of which at first seemed glorious? But we set them aside, figuring no editor with two market-savvy brain cells to rub together would ever buy the projects? Andrew Jackson? Too obscure!'  'Victoria, Teenaged Queen? Whose overdressed, over-privileged, eccentric grandchildren populated the thrones of Europe - and ended up blowing it up. Or, in the case of Russia's weird, shy last czarina, shot in a basement? Who cares?' 'Savvy, bosomy politician Dolley Madison? How many times do kids want to read about her saving GW's portrait?' In hindsight, I figure we humans are a story-loving species and there's always an appetite for a good story well told - and illustrated. Maybe I wish I'd followed through.  

2. Speaking of which, I should have followed through with all the wisdom offered by inspiring, INK colleague, author/teacher/blogger, Vicki Cobb and learned to do video conferencing/presentations and availing myself of the MANY technological means and opportunities to make my presence known in the world in this here 21st century. ['21st century? Bah! I could pick a better century out of a hat!' I paraphrase: a quote from the good version of Sabrina, i.e. the one with Humphrey Bogart in it, the one where he says, 'I wish I were dead with my back broken.' Jeez, I can't be the only one who gets movie lines stuck in her head, can I?]  You know who else has lots of good ideas on teaching/self-promotion? Katie Davis.  They all make me tired. I mean, when it comes to self-promotion, doing all there is to be done, it's like what Erma Bombeck said: "Housework, if you do it right, will kill you." So, I figure, pick a few things and do them well, huh? And stick with them.

3. In further hindsight, I wish I hadn't been born into a family with such a wide streak of melancholy, backward-looking nostalgia and everybody so danged sensitive. Speaking of which, do check out this LINK. It'll take you to a story about what wonderful author Natalie Kinsey-Warnock is doing up in Vermont, encouraging young Vermonters to learn and record their families' stories, thus learning the stories of their neighborhood, their Green Mountainous state, and their nation. Did I ever tell you that my great-aunt Rebecca Amelia Brown volunteered her time to work with her eastern Pennsylvania neighbors on the Underground Railroad? Or that ancestors of mine, in the mid-1700s, made it their business to skedaddle for shelter from furious Native American raiders, in a forest stockade known as Fort Harness? Well, they did.

4. I'd have overcome my shyness and solitary nature and made myself network with other authors and illustrators in the SCBWI. So. I've re-upped my membership and we'll see.

5. I'd have updated my website more often, like, once in a while even. Offered a really snappy school visit packet, for instance and taken the time to check out other authors' sites. What works? What doesn't, so much? I'd be thinking about getting it properly, professionally redesigned if it hasn't been done since, say, Bill Clinton was in office. By golly, this - or some of this – I'm moving to the top of my TBD list.

6. Had I had the sense God gave a cuckoo clock and the discipline of HE/SHE gave a Canada Goose (quite a lot, actually, flying all that way here and there), I'd have saved ALL of the addresses of the wonderful people I've met over the years.

7. I'd have educated myself more deeply, made myself more aware of the glorious art that is being done in our world of books for young readers, really, the last great showcase for the art and craft of illustration. Should you have time and wish to treat yourself to a journey, do pay a visit to the Mazza Collection, on the campus of the University of Findlay [OH].  It is, I believe, America's largest repository of original art done for children's books. 
  And another thing, I'd have put more pieces on my portfolio, worked harder and more sensibly to make those with choosing power SEE it. 

8. Had I to do all of this over again, I'd have begun earlier. Too soon old. Too late smart. 

9. Okay, seriously, I'd have spent less time at this computer and exercised more. Spent more time outside with my dog(s), as Queen Elizabeth does.
My dog, Mimi.
Spent time with people in person. As Marvin Gaye (I think), once said, 'As long as you're alive, you might as well live.'


10. Definitely, I'd have read more books, but unless I get pasted by a bus or run off the road on my way to school visits down in Pittsburg, KS, later this week, by some lovelorn, world-weary white-tailed deer, I figure I have time. 

As long as I do, I reckon I'll pull up my socks, make a list, and get down to work on all that remains to be done, taking care of that which I can control, saying 'never mind' to that which I cannot, and cultivating the wisdom to know the difference. I wish you all the same, Dear Readers.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Great Presentations



Last Saturday, I attended a terrific conference put on by the Foundation of Children’s Books (FCB) at Lesley University.  It’s a regular event and this year it concentrated upon nonfiction.  The speakers were nonfiction all-stars including Michael Tougias talking about adapting to write for middle grade after being an adult nonfiction author, Kathy Lasky reflecting upon the evolution of the nonfiction part of her career, Jason Chin finding the narrative arc of science through words and illustrations, and Steve Sheinkin being wildly entertaining while discussing books about very serious subjects.

I was especially pleased, however, to listen to fellow I.N.K. contributor Melissa Stewart.  She appeared in the middle of the lineup, and that’s when you could hear pens scratching on notebooks.  Melissa was there to discuss “Nonfiction Books You’ll Love” from 2013 and 2014.

The way that she presented them would do any nonfiction writer proud.  She organized her info into topics that provided context to her audience.  She gave just enough description about each book to inform and create the desire for further research.  Her enthusiasm for her subject/s was infectious.  She even supplied back matter: a takeaway list of 30 books arranged in alphabetical order by title and by year.

I guess what impressed me most besides Melissa’s careful curation was the generosity of her presentation--praise, yes, but also ways we could appreciate and use the books she mentioned.  That’s why authors in the audience were writing down titles as potential mentor texts while teachers and librarians were listing books to add to their collections.  

I remember a post Melissa did a while ago, saying that Common Core is here to stay and one of the best things writers can do (if they have the time and interest) is to give teachers easy ways to use their books to teach these standards.  Then she helped us further by providing 10 ways to help educators, complete with with examples of these ideas.

During her presentation at the FCB, Melissa showed us a new idea she is using, a multimedia revision timeline that chronicles the very long road she took to finally publish her book, No Monkeys, No Chocolate.  It was a fabulous way to show students and beginning authors that effortless writing takes an enormous amount of steps and work.


Now, she has given us 11 ways to help educators.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

A Day for Biographers

Today's guest blogger is Catherine Reef, author of Leonard Bernstein and American Music; The Bronte Sisters: The Brief Lives of Charlotte, Emily, and Anne; and Jane Austen: A Life Revealed.


I can easily conjure up little Eleanor Roosevelt suffering through her lonely childhood, or Helen Keller, on the cusp of adult life, announcing her intention to go to Harvard; both scenes were imprinted on my memory by my early reading of biographies.
Biography thrives as a literary genre because people love to read about other people. This is true for readers of any age. A good biography breathes life into a figure readers may have met only briefly in a classroom or history book; it takes them behind the scenes, where they get to know the subject in family life; it places them on the spot as the subject experiences triumphs and setbacks, sorrow and joy, and learns how to navigate life.
                  I still like reading about people, but today I like writing about them as well. Biography lets me do what writers love to do: tell good stories. Even better, through biography I can explore a character in depth and create a vivid portrait in words. But writing is a solitary task, so like many writers I welcome opportunities to mingle with other people doing the same kind of work, to talk shop and gain from others’ wisdom. This is why I was happy to discover Biographers International Organization, or BIO for short.
                  BIO is young (founded in 2010), but it has been strong and active from the start. Having as its mission “to promote the art and craft of biography, and to further the professional interests of its practitioners,” BIO presents the annual BIO Award to a distinguished biographer for his or her body of work. This year’s recipient is Stacy Schiff, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Véra and other notable works. BIO also hosts a terrific annual conference that always sends me home with many new ideas to think about and apply to my work.
                  At this year’s Compleat Biographer Conference, which will be held at the University of Massachusetts Boston on May 17 and 18, I will moderate a panel on young adult biography. On the panel will be two accomplished biographers, Mary Morton Cowan and Kem Knapp Sawyer, and a representative of the world of children’s book blogging, Dorothy Dahm.
Cowan received a 2010 National Outdoor Book Award and other honors for Captain Mac: The Life of Donald Baxter MacMillan, Arctic Explorer (Calkins Creek). She has also published numerous magazine stories and articles, a novel based on MacMillan’s experiences, and a book on logging in New England. Cowan has said about her work, “I am pleased and proud that these books give young readers a glimpse of relatively unknown history—dangerous and adventurous chapters of history!”
Sawyer’s recent biographies are of Mohandas Gandhi and Nelson Mandela (both from Morgan Reynolds) and Harriet Tubman and Abigail Adams (both from DK Publishing). “I try to figure out what gave my subjects the ambition and the drive to set out to change the world,” she said in a recent interview. “And I like to focus on what they were like when they were young, before they went on to become leaders.” Sawyer has written as well about current social issues such as the situation of refugees worldwide, and historical subjects such as the Underground Railroad. She also reports on youth in developing countries for the Pulitzer Center, an organization that supports journalism and education.
In recent years, book bloggers and online reviewers have become increasingly influential in the world of children’s literature. Dahm’s lifelong interest in biography for young readers led her to launch the Kidsbiographer’s Blog (http://kidsbiographer.com/), where she reviews new and noteworthy biographies for children and young adults and interviews their authors. A professor of English at Castleton State College in Vermont, Dahm has contributed articles and reviews to publications in the United States and Great Britain. I’m eager to hear what she has to say about the state of young adult biography today and what she looks for in a book of this genre.
Other conference sessions will focus on such matters of craft as creating suspense in biography and finding the right balance between a subject’s life and work, and on practical aspects of the writing life: dealing with agents, marketing, and the like. There will be plenty to interest biographers writing for any age level. You can learn more about the Compleat Biographer Conference from BIO’s website: http://biographersinternational.org/conference/. I hope to see you in May!

Friday, April 11, 2014

Drawing it True



Today’s guest blogger is Cynthia Levinson.

With my first nonfiction picture book under development, I’ve begun to think about—and look hard at—the illustrations in nonfiction books for younger readers. Although it was challenging to ferret out photographs, pamphlets, legal documents, and memorabilia for images in my first nonfiction middle-grade, We’ve Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children’s March, they served at least two purposes. Above all, as primary sources, they informed me about the times and events I was writing about. In addition, placed in the book, they broke the text and provided both visual interest and verisimilitude for readers.

Illustrations, I’m realizing, are very different. They’re not artifacts. They’re the artists’ imagined representations of time, place, events, and mood. Although they can be very precise and accurate, water colors, collages, oils, etc., don’t necessarily show the reader exactly how the spur attached to the boot, say, or that the temperature was 99 degrees. They can be more atmospheric and still be valid—not just valid but also emotionally true.

I’m beginning to think of the artwork in nonfiction picture books as the visual voice of the book. And, just as I struggled to make the textual voice in The Youngest Marcher authentic, even when I wasn’t quoting someone, I’ve been looking at illustrations for authenticity—even if they’re not photographically accurate.

Here’s a range of pictorial styles, in recently published and lauded picture books, from the concrete to the imagistic. (Warning: I am not an artist! These are merely my impressions.)

Brian Floca’s illustrations in Locomotive are as precise and detailed as those in any Richard Scarry word
book. After looking at the end papers’ labeled diagrams, I’d recognize a piston rod, throttle lever, and Johnson Bar anywhere! And the accuracy of those drawings tells me that every other illustration must be right also, even the water-colored elevation map of the Great Basin in the frontispiece and the sketch of a man chasing his horse, who must have been spooked by an approaching train. Floca not only conveys depth of information but he also gives the reader confidence that he knows what he’s writing—and drawing—about.

Similarly, many of Melissa Sweet’s illustrations, such as the medical drawings, in Jen Bryant’s A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams seem to be completely accurate. Other, blurrier ones, however, appear metaphoric, which seems appropriate for a book about a man who was a poet as well as a physician. Sweet’s blocky collages display a conglomeration on each page of neat facts and lyrical tone.
 
To Dare Mighty Things: The Life of Theodore Roosevelt, written by Doreen Rappaport and illustrated by C. F. Payne, takes the realistic cum impressionistic approach a step further. Clothing is appropriate to the times, of course, as are saddles and ten-dollar bills. Furthermore, Payne might well have drawn the faces of politicians and bystanders by copying them exactly
from contemporary sketchbooks or photographs. Today’s facial recognition software could practically identify them! Yet, snow falling in the Dakota Territory looks like unnaturally soft polka-dots, and Teddy sometimes appears unrealistically eyeless behind his spectacles— appropriate for someone who was hard-of-seeing. And, in a spread of young Teddy’s dream, he seems to float along with a butterfly and a polar bear. As with Sweet’s illustrations, both accuracy and mood prevail.

There are many superlative nonfiction picture books I could focus on. Georgia in Hawaii: When Georgia O’Keefe Painted What She Pleased, written by Amy Novesky and illustrated by Yuyi Morales, must have been particularly challenging for Morales because it needed to convey both the truth of the paintings by its artist-subject and also the mood of O’Keefe’s lush surroundings.

Possibly at the furthest extreme of dispensing with concrete accuracy while maintaining recognizability might be On a Beam of Light: A Story of Albert Einstein by author Jennifer Berne. Most of illustrator Vladimir Radunsky’s images are sweetly cartoon-like. Yet, Einstein is obvious with his brushy mustache and distracted gaze.

I’d like to round off my exploration of visuals in nonfiction picture books with Grandfather Gandhi by Arun Gandhi and my friend Bethany Hegedus and illustrated by Evan Turk. Cloth and paint collages of the Mahatma’s posture and emaciated frame make him instantly recognizable, even in crowd scenes. The vivid background coloration sequence from beige to yellow to orange to red and back to beige again conveys not only India’s searing heat but also young Arun’s moods, from awe of his famous grandfather to anger and back, appropriately, to peace with himself and his family. Readers will sense the place, the times, and the moods without the need for photographic detail.

I’m curious to see how Vanessa Brantley-Newton, the wonderful illustrator of The Youngest Marcher, will choose to visualize its voice. Will she portray scenes of, say, jailed civil rights protesters by drawing hundreds of them packed into a cell, just the way they endured those stifling conditions? Or, will she take a more atmospheric approach?

The Youngest Marcher focuses on one of the people highlighted in We’ve Got a Job. While the books address the same topic, the readership is entirely different. Seeing them side-by-side will further inform me about the various ways that text and visuals can enhance each other. Check back in in January 2016 to see how she accounts for the same facts for a different audience.