Friday, May 29, 2009

The Science of Reading Buddies

Reading Buddies is a popular program in which first or second graders, who are just learning to read, are paired with students who are few years older. By working together, both students improve their reading skills. They also develop cooperative learning behaviors, such as taking turns, listening, sharing knowledge, and praising one another’s efforts. In addition, the program fosters friendships across the grade levels, creating a stronger sense of community in schools.

Older buddies see themselves as role models. They take pride in mentoring younger students, and can see that their younger buddies look up to them. That can lead to a stronger sense of self worth, especially among children who are struggling academically or socially.

In a world where state assessment tests mandated by No Child Left Behind legislation have forced schools to focus on reading and math—often at the expense of science education—Reading Buddies provides a unique opportunity for teachers to sneak science into their language arts curriculum. And identifying appropriate science-themed picture books is easier than you might think.

In the last decade, what some people call “list books” have become an increasingly popular way of presenting science concepts to the picture book crowd. These books include two sections of text—short, simple text in large type conveys a general idea and longer sections in smaller type presents additional details.

In books like Beaks! and Wings by Sneed Collard and my own titles A Place for Birds and A Place for Butterflies, the two sections of text appear on each double-page spread. This structure invites younger buddies to read the larger, simpler type, while older children can focus on the longer, smaller text blocks. Thus, each child plays a role in “digesting” the spread, and reading becomes a shared endeavor. The buddies can then look at the artwork together and discuss what they’ve just learned before turning the page.

Books like An Egg is Quiet and A Seed is Sleepy by Dianna Hutts Aston offer a more poetic main text. And while the language is simple, the statements are sometimes surprising and can provoke a bit of thoughtful discussion. For example, in An Egg is Quiet, the main text on one spread says, “An egg is clever.” Most children (and adults) have never thought of an egg in this way before. It is only after reading the smaller, supporting text scattered across the page that the real meaning of the main text becomes clear.

In most of the books created by Steve Jenkins, the spare main text is masterfully illustrated with paper collage art and enhanced by an extensive backmatter full of fascinating facts. As Reading Buddies work their way through books like Move! and What Would You Do with a Tail Like This?, the younger child can read the main text. Then the buddies can flip to the back of the book, and the older child can read the relevant section of backmatter.

Because each buddy makes his or her own contribution to exploring a science-themed list book and understanding its content, these titles accomplish several educational goals simultaneously. They strengthen reading skills, introduce and reinforce a range of age-appropriate science concepts, and promote cooperation and camaraderie. What could be better than that?

Recommended science books for Reading buddies programs:

Animals Asleep, Animal Dads, Beaks, Leaving Home, and Wings by Sneed Collard

How Many Ways Can You Catch a Fly?, Move!, and What Do You Do With a Tail Like This? by Steve Jenkins

The Moonflower by Peter Loewer and Jean Loewer

A Place for Birds and A Place for Butterflies by Melissa Stewart

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Nonfiction and Hands On Science

I am a hands on science advocate. Perhaps that's because my uncle founded Delta Education in his basement when I was a kid. My mom taught teacher workshops and founded a science book company in our basement. As newlyweds, my husband and I took on a regional, (non-Delta!) science kit packing job and filled our entire house with Rubbermaid tubs, stacked 7 high. We counted every seashell and cut every dowel in that kit. So I come up on this hands-on thing honestly. No wonder I'm a big fan of fellow INKer, Vicki Cobb.

Anyway, I was thrilled when nonfiction author Gwendolyn Hooks sent me an article about a program called Trout Are Made of Trees and Trout, Trout, Trout: a Fish Chant. (Years ago I wrote River and Stream and Wetlands, as well.)

My dream would be for great nonfiction to be a bookend, read before and after hands on science experiences.
Here's a link to a page that has other aquatic programs such as Leaf Pack, Project Learning Tree, Project Wet, Project Wild, Leopold Education Project. Here's a link to funders they suggest.
Here's a link to more fish-related activities from my school visit travels.

Karen Ansberry and Emily Morgan link picture books to science lessons in their books, Picture Perfect Science Lessons and More Picture Perfect Science Lessons.

Get messy folks, and then read some nonfiction. That's exactly what I am doing. I'll be muddy in the garden today. Then, like yesterday, I'll probably consult a field guide (Cool caterpillar, what is it?), or two.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Wanted: Cure for Procrastination

“I don’t like writing. I like having written.” I read this in Writing to Learn by William Zinsser, but it has also been attributed to Dorothy Parker, Ernest Hemingway, and Gloria Steinem. Most writers may have said it, including me.
Whether one calls it a malady or a moral failing, I suffer from procrastination. Well, that’s not exactly true – I don’t always suffer. Armed with denial and self-righteous justification, I often enjoy those activities that delay putting fingers to keyboard. (Excuse me while I go and hang the laundry on the line. Justification: I am eco-friendly!)

I’ve heard writers claim they don’t check email until noon. I don’t believe them. It’s theoretically possible, I suppose, but I can’t imagine it….. Since I live in California, the rest of the country has time to load up my inbox early in the morning. Most of the emails are writing-related, or at least from writer friends, though not always precisely related to our careers, and it’s only polite to respond to friends in a timely fashion. Then the usual round of internet check-ins: INK, news pages, and…… you know how it goes.

Nonfiction writers have the best excuse for not writing. At the beginning of a project, all those trips to the library, reading, taking notes, checking footnotes and bibliographies for more books and more trips to more libraries. Phone calls and emails with experts who share some arcane enthusiasm make me feel clever as clever and oh-so-justified for not writing.

As I research I get a sense of the format and themes of a book. This would be the ideal time to hack out a first draft, but no, I delve deeper. Scholarly journal articles are ideal sources for unusual quotes and details, so it’s off to UCLA Library. Self-righteous justification: since I loathe paying $9 for parking, I cycle the twelve miles roundtrip, and get virtuous eco-friendly exercise in the bargain.

OK, enough of the problem. What is (are) my solution(s)?

Deadlines – real or invented – and accountability.

Real Deadlines
1) A contracted article or book – Not only money, but future contracts depend on getting that writing done on time. It’s amazing how much easier it is to write when ready cash is involved.

2) An encouraging letter from an editor – “We like it but would like see a revision before we buy it.” I’ll usually get this done more of less quickly, i.e. a handful of months – unless the proposed revision is so far from my vision that I decline.

3) My critique group – My reputation is at stake here. What am I doing if I can’t produce enough writing to critique once a month? And I’m not the only one to send my work to the group at the last minute. It’s nice knowing that my procrastination gene is not a rogue mutation.

Invented Deadlines
4) Monthly writing goals – Not life goals or social calendar or even research or marketing goals, but writing goals – as in first draft, revised draft, completed manuscript. I print and tape them to my printer. The kicker: I share these goals with my online writer buddies and each month I fess up: DONE, IN PROGRESS, NOT EVEN STARTED. This trick works because my self-respect is on the line. A slacker – who, me?

5) A NAPIBOWRIWE variation – Inspired by NANOWRIMO (National Novel Writing Month,) an annual international novel-writing binge, Paula Yoo ( recently invented NAPIBOWRIWE – National Picture Book Writing Week. She challenged people to write seven picture books in seven days. After my four months of ‘indispensable’ research on a twelve-chapter book, I decided to take NAPIBOWRIWE and make it my own. I would write one rough chapter a day for eleven days. (I’d already completed one chapter.) The first week I wrote three chapters, the second week I managed two chapters, and the third week I only wrote one. Some might scoff at my (lack of) progress, but I’m happy with this “blitz” method. Reason it’s taking so long: I’m doing more research as I write. Those last six words may just be the best long-term solution for my procrastination dilemma: “do more research as I write.

6) Which leaves my INK blog deadline – No money involved, just larky research-free blathering on about my two favorite topics: writing and myself. Reputation is part of it – the other bloggers manage to post once a month, so I must too. To prove that INK blogging is indeed larky, I’m writing this not the night before it’s due, or even the day before, but TWO days before my deadline.

Please, tell me about any cures (temporary or permanent) for procrastination you’ve tried!

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Teach to the Book

For seven days in April, I was on assignment to observe a fourth grade classroom. I was most eager to see what the kids were reading, the variety in their book selections and, of course, how many of them chose nonfiction.
What did I learn about their reading choices? Absolutely nothing. Why? Because during the seven days I was there THE KIDS DID NOT READ ANY BOOKS. Yes, you read that correctly.

There was no independent reading. There was no quiet reading time. Not even a single read aloud by the teacher.

In New Jersey, students in grades three through eight take the ASK (Assessment of Skills and Knowledge) standardized test in May. This means that in April, teachers are encouraged to teach to the test. In this particular fourth grade classroom in a poor neighborhood that needs all of the state funding dollars it can get, the teachers focused almost exclusively on preparing students to take the test. Thus all math and science lessons were devoted to material on the test. Literacy workshops focused on how to read and respond to the kinds of questions most frequently found on said standardized tests.

I watched quietly. I grew more and more frustrated. The kids didn’t seem to be intellectually stimulated on any level. I knew what could have helped them. A few good books.

When studying the few facts about the planets that were required by the test, they should have read every single Seymour Simon book on the individual planets. This would have gotten every kid interested and thinking about the solar system. They would have remembered much more than which the mandatory information, like which planet is the third from the sun, and began to think about exploring space in depth. For math, they should have tossed out those boring worksheets that focused on the same skill set over and over again. Instead, they could have cozied up with some of David Schwartz’s books on how far a frog can jump or estimating how many kernels are in a ginormous bag of popcorn. Understanding the overall concepts would have led them to come up with their own mathematical examples. And I’ve never seen kids less enthused by a boring googled image of a food web--they just didn't care. But let them read April Pulley Sayre’s Trout Are Made of Trees and they would have made all sorts of connections that might have got them thinking about it in a much more sophisticated way.

I could easily go on. Name a curriculum and there are interesting books out there on topic and beyond.

We’re not necessarily doomed to be stuck with an ineffective system. Our education system can be so much more than standardized testing. Good books are there for the teaching.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Paean to a Publisher

Today is Memorial Day and I am in the mood to memorialize a publisher. Not a publisher that has died, fortunately (though many worthy ones have), but a publisher that is in transition. I don’t know whether the transition will transform it, but I know what I like about the way it used to be and I’m going to celebrate that here.

Why would I use this forum to talk about a publisher? Because I often meet educators with a passionate interest in children’s literature and I have found that many want to understand the relationship between author and publisher. (Actually, I know plenty of authors who would like to understand the relationship between their publishers and themselves!) Whereas children ask authors, “Where do you get your ideas?” and “How old are you?” their teachers tend to ask, “Do you get to choose your illustrators?” or “How hard is it to get an editor to read your manuscript?”

My six publishers come in three sizes: small, medium and large. About two months ago, one of the small ones, Ten Speed Press of Berkeley, CA, was bought by one of the world’s largest media conglomerates. Ten Speed Press and its children’s book division, Tricycle Press, are now part of Random House of New York, a division of Bertelsmann AG of Germany. So, for those who are interested in the inside scoop on the publishing world, I will dish up a few scoops as I pay tribute to Tricycle Press. I do not know how, or if, things will change at Tricycle, but from the perspective of an author, I do know what I loved about the old Tricycle Press. I’ll share these thoughts by answering the kinds of questions I have heard from teachers who are curious about authors interacting with publishers.

 “Do you get to choose your illustrators?”

Answer for most publishers: No. End of story.

Answer for Tricycle Press: No… and yes. Of course Tricycle gets the final decision. But I have had major input. When Tricycle bought my manuscript G Is for Googol: A Math Alphabet Book, editor-in-chief Nicole Geiger asked if I had any thoughts about the illustrator. (To be consulted on such a decision was in itself remarkable.) I admired Marissa Moss's light-hearted but detailed illustrations, so I suggested that Nicole consider Marissa, who had already published several books with Tricycle. A week later, Marissa was offered the job, and she accepted. When the sequel to Googol, called Q Is for Quark: A Science Alphabet Book, was ready for publication and Marissa was busy with other things, I introduced Nicole to Kim Doner. I had just met Kim in Tulsa and I thought that the bold humor in her illustrations would be perfect for my book. She was little known outside of Oklahoma but I felt she deserved much wider recognition. Nicole sent her a “trial assignment” (an invitation to illustrate one small section of the book for the editors’ perusal) and sure enough, Kim made the grade. Her pictures add immeasurably to my book, and she has since illustrated a number of titles by other authors for Tricycle.

 “Do you get to work with the illustrator while he/she is working on your book?”

  Answer for most publishers: Not really. I sometimes get to see sketches and make comments that may or may not be conveyed to the illustrator.

Answer for Tricycle Press: While I don’t work with the illustrator (i.e., I do not visit his or her studio and talk about the work in progress), I get to see the art at various stages in its production and my comments, relayed through the editor, are taken seriously. When Kim was doing Quark, I was looking at her work almost daily and made many suggestions to keep it true to the science behind my text. She and I both appreciated the process and the final result.

“How hard is it to get an editor to read your manuscript?”

 — Answer for most publishers:  Very. Some will not read a manuscript unless it has been submitted by an agent. Regardless, it takes a long time to get an answer. Publishers typically say it takes 6-8 weeks but I believe that’s wishful thinking. Two to six months is more typical and I have sent in many manuscripts that have never generated a response.

Answer for Tricycle Press: All publishers are inundated by manuscripts these days, so I cannot promise you will get the same treatment I got, but consider my story: I sent G Is for Googol to Tricycle on a Monday. On Tuesday, my answering machine had a message from Nicole: “I like it a lot.” On Wednesday, we had a phone conversation in which she conveyed her enthusiasm but told me that she still had to send it around to various readers for their opinions. About two weeks later, we were negotiating a contract. Sometimes it takes longer, but usually I can send a simple email to find out when I can expect an answer.

 “Do the publicity people at a publishing house really help get your book known?”

 — Answer for most publishers: Maybe — but mainly if your book has blockbuster potential, or if it's already a blockbuster. Then they're really happy to promote it! 

Answer for Tricycle Press: As a small publisher, the original Tricycle did not have a large budget for marketing, but they had  good ideas and a willingness to consider anything. I have always felt that my marketing suggestions have been taken seriously. When I suggested a classroom contest for activities based on Q Is for Quark, they set it up and publicized it. The prize was a free visit to the school by Kim and me. When I requested a poster as a promotional piece for Googol, and I pointed out my busy upcoming school speaking schedule, Tricycle agreed that a poster was a good idea even though they had originally wanted to do a bookmark (less expensive, but less durable).

“Who has the last word on the many decisions that must be made in producing a book?”

 Answer for most publishers: The publisher. It’s in the contract. No ifs, ands or buts.

Answer for Tricycle Press: The publisher. It’s in the contract. But there are ifs, ands and buts. In producing four books with Tricycle, every time we’ve struggled over a sticky issue related to my text, we have resolved the disagreement in a most agreeable way. After I tried to see it the editor’s way (and failed) and the editor tried to see it my way (and failed), I have always been told, “You are the author. You get the final word.” The contract says the publisher gets the final word and I am certain that Nicole would have exercised her ultimate authority if necessary, but she has thus far always let me have my way . . . and my say. In the end, we always found a solution that made everyone happy. The book was a collaborative effort — exactly as it should be!

And so, I close my paean to Tricycle Press with hopes for its future. Nicole Geiger is still Tricycle’s editor-in-chief and the editorial offices are still in Berkeley, close to my home in Oakland. I don’t know what the future will bring but I’m trying to be optimistic. Perhaps Random House will allow this small imprint to maintain autonomy while effectively directing some of its vast marketing resources to selling my books. I hope to be a happy little fish in a very large pond. 

Friday, May 22, 2009

Gaming at the Library

It's Friday and time for some fun!

I hope by now most of you have heard about the popularity of gaming in libraries.
From the ALA press release 3/2/2009:

In recognition of this trend and the increasing value of gaming to literacy improvement, the American Library Association, with assistance from a $1 million grant from the Verizon Foundation, has developed an online toolkit to aid librarians in serving this growing constituency.

The Librarian’s Guide to Gaming: An Online Toolkit for Building Gaming @ your library offers content contributed by expert gaming librarians across the country. The toolkit includes a wide range of resources to help librarians create, fund and evaluate gaming experiences in the library.

Games, from traditional chess games to authentic board games to popular video games, help libraries fulfill their mission by providing educational, cultural and recreational resources for patrons of all ages.

“Games of every type play an important role in developing fundamental competencies for life,” said ALA President Jim Rettig. “They require players to learn and follow complex sets of rules, make strategic and tactical decisions, and, collaborate with teammates and others, –all things they will have to do in college and in the workforce.”

By providing grant dollars to fund the project, Verizon recognizes the growing importance of gaming in promoting literacy.

“We at the Verizon Foundation believe that learning is not only for the hours between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. in the classroom,” said Albert J. Browne, national program director and vice president of education and technology for the Verizon Foundation. “We believe that libraries can help children learn more and continue to learn even when they are not in a classroom environment.

The Guide to Gaming toolkit is packed with valuable information for libraries or anyone interested in gaming.

I found some fun, inspiring, nonfiction books on gaming for kids. Check 'em out:

Journey to Gameland: How to Make a Board Game from Your Favorite Children's Book

Ben Buchanan (author) Doug Buchanan(illustrator) Lantern Books June 2001

More info about Journey to Gameland

Celebrating Board Games

Nina Chertoff Susan Kahn Sterling October 2006

More info about Celebrating Board Games

Theory of Fun for Game Design

Raph Koster Paraglyph November 2004

More info about Theory of Fun for Game Design

And, while you have their attention, make sure you tell the students all about the Young Inventor's Challenge - a wonderful opportunity for kids to present their toy and game concepts to the experts in the toy and game industry. The Young Inventor's Challenge is part of the Chicago Toy and Game Fair. This year promises some fun surprises so look out for updates. All the forms and information should be online soon, or please email me (ideasplash at annamlewis dot com) for any information. It's my goal to spread the word about this amazing program so all kids have a chance to share their ideas. The creativity and ideas of today's students are the future!

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Spreading the Word about Our Books

At the risk of blatantly tooting my own horn, I recently attended a banquet for the Florida Book Awards (for Missing Math: A Number Mystery, more info here.) Fellow author Donna Gephart mentioned that she had received a letter from Hilary Clinton about her book, As If Being 12 ¾ Isn’t Bad Enough, My Mother Is Running for President! Her blog post about it indicates that she had sent now Secretary of State Clinton a copy of the book when the latter was indeed running for President.

It was a great idea, wasn’t it? I have to confess that it hasn’t been my practice to think of similar gambits for my own books. Many authors like to think marketing is all up to the publisher, while others do quite a bit on their own initiative and it seems to pay off. Finding ways to reach the niche audiences for a topic seems especially suitable for nonfiction books.
In many cases the publisher will be glad to send a review copy to a person or group that seems appropriate. Recently I’ve been making a list of ideas to try; here are a few in no particular order:

1) Find Yahoo groups, blogs, or other online interest groups that are related to the book’s topic. Naturally you have to be aware of their promotion policy, but many groups love to hear about books about their favorite subject.

2) Make book signings a big event. My favorite story along this line is how author-illustrator Brian Lies (Bats at the Beach, et al.) had a graphic of the book’s artwork wrapped around the family car and 12 foot
bat wings attached on top. Now that’s making an entrance!

3) Search for specialized awards. I recently completed a picture book about energy, and during my research ran across the Green Book Award. I’ll make sure the publisher knows about it!

4) Dedicate a web site and/or blog to a book using the title as domain name if possible. Include downloadable activities and invite readers to contribute photos, etc.

5) Make a short video that gives the gist of the story to prospective readers. I’ve made two of these so far, for Missing Math and Crazy Like a Fox: A Simile Story, and have gotten enthusiastic responses.

6) Support a charity effort. For example, one author of a book that had feeding birds as part of the plot partnered with The Nature Conservancy, who sold the book as a fund raiser.

7) Create a stuffed animal, banner, or other tangible item that can be loaned to libraries as part of a display about the book.

8) Write a how-to article related to the book’s topic for a teacher/parent magazine.

9) Rent a table at a general public or trade show with your books. For example, my brother is a used book dealer, and recently mentioned he knows someone who does the majority of his annual business selling aviation-related books at one particular large air show.

These marketing tips are just a start, there are many more possibilities. Please add any brainstorms you’d care to share... thanks!

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Why we write for kids

If I had a nickel for every time someone said, “Why don’t you write for adults?” I’d have—well, probably just a latte from Starbucks, but still. It’s one of those comments, along with, “I would write a kid’s book, if I had the time,” that makes me a little nuts. (My friend Pamela Jane had the best answer for the second one when a real estate mogul said that to her at a party. She looked at him and responded, “I’d put together a multi-million dollar real estate deal if I had the time.")

So why do we write for kids and not adults? It might be easier for the outside world to understand why people write fiction for kids, but non-fiction? Why do we go through all the research, learn about our topic front and back, inside and out, and then write it as a picture book for preschool through second-graders, or as a middle grade book, or as a YA? We’d make more money, almost certainly, if we wrote it for adults. Get bigger advances, sell more copies. In some circles, we’d have more cache. (Though most of us learn, early on, those are not the circles we want to run in.) It’s just as much work—if not more—to write it for kids. As has been famously said (first, it seems, by Henry David Thoreau), it’s harder to write it short. (Also true for blogs, as I'm finding out.) And harder to write it simpler. So why do we do it? First, it's a great challenge. And that's huge. I am never, ever bored in my job!

But also, here's the truth: books matter more to kids. O.K. before I go on, I have to say, some of my best friends are grown-ups. Some of my best friends (and best husbands) even write for grown-ups. There’s nothing wrong with writing for grown-ups.

But a book can change a kid’s life.
A book can hit a kid in the solar plexus and never let go.

I remember the day I first discovered I could learn from books. And that changed my life.

For some reason in my school, Muhlenberg Elementary, in Allentown, PA, we weren’t allowed to check out books from the library until first grade. Maybe that was a good idea--we had to wait a whole year, and the anticipation was intoxicating. Then one day, we walked into the library—I can still see the beautiful wooden shelves, smell that old-book, old-paper, new-book, new-paper library smell. (I was back there for a school visit a few years ago and the library smells the same!) For some reason, maybe it was because it was straight ahead, I walked over to the non-fiction section and I pulled this book off the shelf.

I walked home, book in hand, and asked my mother to read it to me. Up until that point, the books my mother read to me were all fiction: The Little House, a book about twins who didn't want to look the same any more (oh, how I wanted a twin sister!), and my favorite, the eponymous, Debbie and Her Nap, which my mother bought and read to me for pure propaganda purposes, which did not work. Though though I am a heckuva good napper now.

But on that day when I was six, as my mother read What is a Butterfly to me on my bed (I honestly remember this moment--my back was up against the wall, my legs too short to reach the other side of the bed), I discovered that a book could teach me things, a book could help me understand how the world works, a book could make me smart. It was my own personal (excuse me) metamorphosis. I returned What is a Butterfly and came back home with What is a Frog? then What is a Tree? and there was a whole series! I was hooked--on non-fiction. I didn't stop reading fiction, I kept it in the mix, but I gobbled up non-fiction. And as soon as I was old enough, I turned to biographies--and they became my new love. I found that for me the best way into a subject was through people, through a person's story, a person's life. This also came from my mother, an inveterate people watcher. Hence my love for writing biography now. But it all started with What is a Butterfly.

And years later, in a pure coincidence, an editor asked me to do a book about metamorphosis. I wrote From Caterpillar to Butterfly, and as I wrote it, in the months just after my mother died, it was as if she was right beside me again, reading me my first non-fiction book, the one that opened up the world for me.

Preparing for this blog I asked friends and family to tell me some stories about how a book changed their life, or a kid's life. Here are some of their answers. I hope readers of I.N.K. and other I.N.K. bloggers will also contribute.

Elvira Woodruff, author of many wonderful children's books based on historical events, started reading the Landmark Edition Biographies when she was ten or eleven and "Reading about how these people transformed their lives gave me encouragement and hope that I could change my own life. Those biographies were inspiring in a way that today's reality tv could never be. Rather than just a snapshot of a moment these biographies gave you an entire life to reflect on and I do believe my outlook on life was changed for the better because of them."

Another friend, a librarian and an author, brought home Jean Fritz's books for her daughter who hated history and social studies. Corrie was hooked, and she is now an enthusiastic middle school social studies teacher!

We as authors, and as people who put books into kids’ hands, can be real instruments of change. A book can help to change the world, one child or one class at a time. Marfe Ferguson Delano's new book, Earth in the Hot Seat will change kids' lives and will help change the world, I have no doubt. It grew out of kids and adults doing things to help save the world, and the book is generating more action. She tells me that when she talks about the book with kids, it gets the ball rolling, and then the kids pick it up and run with it, thinking of new ways to help the planet. Of course there have been surprises. One boy said that electronic books are really much greener than the paper-and-ink variety, and asked what she thought about trees being cut down to make paper for her books. It got Marfe thinking, and I'm sure that boy, or one like him, will effect change (whether we old fogies like it or not.)

Here's a, perhaps, cautionary tale: One day my older son, who was an avid reader, picked up a used book by John Holt called How Schools Fail. It was written for adults, obviously, but it spoke to him in a very big way. He was in fourth grade. Therein ensued years of discussions, arguments, and campaigns, which ended in Aaron finally convincing us to let him homeschool for high school. I have the gray hairs to prove it. (Though I know now it was the right thing for him.) And, thankfully, another book, Computers and the Human Mind, also grabbed him around the same time, and set him off on a course that ended up in a job in software engineering right after college. He's still an avid reader, though, mostly, I will say, on the screen, and would definitely advocate for books on screens, like that other boy. (But that's another blog.)

Books matter to kids. Books can change a kid's life. So that's why I write for kids. That and, frankly, that it's fun.

Please share your stories--how did a non-fiction book change your life, or the life of a child you know?

Monday, May 18, 2009

Cronette on the Road

So. The season for visiting schools is coming to an end: an appropriate time to be coming home to read Jan Greenburg's artful notes on aging. Grateful and thrilled I continue to be, getting to gallivant around the country, talking to kids about the virtues of studying history ["Any nation is a COMBI-nation of all of the stories of all of the people who've lived in the land down the years..."] and answering their questions. How old am I? 57 Never before been so old in my entire life. My favorite book? Different ones for different reasons. GEORGE WASHINGTON because I'm a sissypants who's too often given up too easily so I admire someone who persevered no matter what. GHOSTS OF THE CIVIL WAR because it was the most difficult and "No, it's not some Casper-deal that's going to rot your brain & give you nightmares. It's more like old Scrooge seeing the 'shades' of the departed going about their business back in the living past."
Man oh man oh man, drawing pictures for kids, making them laugh, meeting librarians and classroom teachers, rattling off factoids, reinforcing those teachers' messages - this is the best part of my job. But golly, the falling into hotel beds at the end of the day, pooped flat. Being shamed by the computer savvy of 3rd graders. I reckon that I'm not exactly a crone yet - maybe a cronette. An analog cronette in a digital world. Still, on a cloudy day, or when I find myself using terms such as 'reckon,' I can see my old coot self limping down the road.
It seems that reinventing, re-imagining one's mode of working is becoming less optional & dreamy as I cast about for new ways of telling old stories. (But that's the cool thing about biography: People never get sick of reading about people, right?) As editors scramble for the perfect project with which money can be seduced from the puckered pockets of the people. (Still, life and recessions are short. Art is long, right? Right.) As one's mortality becomes less and less a fairy tale. (Yup.)
It's all pretty galvanizing, come to think of it. Only a sissypants would be lollygagging when the great work of one's life remains to be done. Think of all we've done, preparing for it. Think what we need to know and set about learning it. Think what George Washington would do.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Writing, Creativity and Aging

Here is a question that comes up every now and then in my writers workshops with adults. How does aging affect your writing, especially your ability to connect with kids? I usually answer jokingly. “ Who me? Age?” or something to that effect.
Recently, when I was invited to be on a panel, sponsored by Washington University Medical School, entitled “In the Words of the Artist: The Influence of Age on Creativity and Expression,” I was forced to give this subject more thought. I mentioned to my daughter that I actually had agreed to participate on such a panel, and she remarked, “Perhaps you’ve decided finally to act your age.” It occurs to me that our children expect us to age gracefully, to age with dignity. What popped into my head was a line from Dylan Thomas’ poem “Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night.” “Rage, rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Well, forget the rage. I prefer to age creatively.
In preparation for the panel, I began to consider how my writing had changed over the years. I began my first novel for young readers when I was thirty-five. It was motivated by the challenges of raising three daughters. I wrote every day, five days a week, while they were in school, and the books focused on domestic issues, having to do with peer pressure, illness in the family, or sibling rivalry. Editors called this genre “the problem novel.”
But when the girls grew up and went off to college, those teenage stories didn’t interest me as much anymore. I knew I had to stretch my brain in a new direction.
Letting go of that stage in my life was difficult for several reasons. I no longer had a prescribed schedule to my days. And I needed to find a new subject. My husband and I began to travel more, and through the places we went and the people we met, my world view changed, broadened. Working on a novel, I used to immerse myself in the characters, the voice, and the rhythm of language. I had to stay in the room. But when I started my first book on contemporary art, The Painter’s Eye,” with Sandra Jordan, I found myself visiting artists’ studios, museum exhibitions, and art educators all over the country. In other words, I definitely left the room!!
What I found as we wrote books about artists Chuck Close, Louise Bourgeois, and Christo and Jeanne-Claude was that their most ambitious artworks were done past the age of sixty. The architect Frank Gehry’s iconic museum in Bilbao, Spain opened just before his seventieth birthday. What drives them, I think, is the need to be remembered, to get it better, to do one more great work. Their art-making stimulates and challenges them. Problem solving energizes them. They’re not stepping aside.
Several weeks ago there was an intriguing article in the New York Times, entitled “The Artful Codger,” which talked about aging writers and the fact that improvements in health care allow us to work longer and more productively. “Shakespeare didn’t have Blue Cross,” the writer quipped. Writers, such as Saul Bellow, John Updike, and Philip Roth, have written novels full of ardor and energy way into their seventies. According to the article, “late style” tends to be provocative, energetic. Instead of rocking their way to old age, these authors write of “romantic yearnings” and “memories of the flesh.” As for me, I’m still in my “middle style.” I’ll wait until I’m much older to start writing my “late style” lusty novel. In answer to my students’ questions about relating to young readers as I grow older, I can say that my grandchildren supply me with endless material. In fact my next two books are geared toward younger children, inspired by Alexander, age 9, and Coco, age 6. And as I age, I’m celebrating my creativity, instead of worrying about losing it.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Bringing The World Home

In 1981, when I was fresh out of college, I joined the Peace Corps. My decision to sign up was certainly motivated by a desire to do something worthwhile, and the altruism of the job appealed to me.

But the other major reason I went was entirely selfish: I wanted to go because I was curious. I knew that many people in the world did not live as I did. I had a comfortable home, the security of abundant food, easy access to medical care, and a family with enough resources to provide a safety net should I ever – literally or figuratively – stumble and fall.

I did not, however, have the foggiest idea how people in poorer parts of the world did live.

And so, I went to live and teach in Nepal.

Altruism might be the best reason to join the Peace Corps, but I don’t think curiosity is necessarily the worst. Curiosity implies at least a certain openness to new ideas. (I don’t think it’s possible to be truly curious if your mind is already completely made up.)

And since part of the Peace Corps mission is to bring a greater understanding and tolerance of the world back home to America, I think my curiosity served me well.

On the surface, of course, life in my rural Nepali village was very different than my life had been back home. The village lacked electricity; the homes had no running water; kids went barefoot to school; moms cooked the family’s dinner over an open fire in the middle of the kitchen floor.

But beneath the surface, I found that much about life in my Nepali village was exactly like my life had been at home. Parents worked hard to feed their families. Kids studied and played with friends. And everyone gathered to relax at the end of the day.

By the time I left, I knew that the woman I saw hauling water home from the community water tap in a copper jug, had many of the same values and goals that I did.

Today we live in a much more global society than ever before. And it’s crucial that we help our kids learn about other cultures. It’s only through learning about other cultures that we can begin to develop tolerance for our differences, and look past them to seek common ground.

That’s why I write books about other countries. I’ve written about water around the world, about families, and about peace. My latest title with National Geographic, ONE WORLD, ONE DAY, is about school kids around the world. The book shows how their lives may be a little bit different. But more importantly, it shows how their lives are a lot alike.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009


What if, rather than composing an original blog, an author simply took the text of a recent (this morning) on-line interview — the interviewer's questions and their answers — and posted them? One might suspect this blogger of being lazy. Or (full disclosure) of being way behind schedule on a few projects.

That being said, however, I thought this particular interview might be of interest. It's interesting to me, of course, because it's all about me. There might be one or two other people out there who also find it fascinating for this reason. But probably not. The other reason that it might be of interest is that the questions come from a magazine in Korea — Mom & Enfant — and the cultural and language differences have resulted in questions that are sometimes charmingly disingenuous. They are, in many ways, more like the quetions that kids ask during school visits that those that come from people in the U.S. who write about children's books. I hope the folks at Mom & Enfant do not mind me posting this. If so, I apologize.

What is the most important thing when you make a picture book?

The idea. If it’s a good one, the text and art seem to come together in a natural way (not necessarily easily, but in a way that seems to make sense as it happens).

Where do you get the idea and inspiration for your works?
From your childhood, life, family, friends?

I used to get many of my ideas from questions my own children asked. But now even my youngest child (he’s almost 11) is getting a little old to ask some of the really simple questions that used to lead to book concepts. So my wife (and co-author) Robin Page have become sounding boards for each other – we frequently bounce book ideas back and forth, and in the process sometimes hit upon something we both like. Ideas also come from books, films about nature, and just looking around.

I think you enjoy painting animals. Why? Why crocodile?

Illustrations of animals seem to have more energy than illustrations of many other subjects. I also find that the distortions and inaccuracies that always creep into my pictures have the effect of giving the animals a bit of personality. Those same distortions would probably make an illustration of a human downright creepy. And, of course, animals are frequent subjects because kids are fascinated by them. Animals can be used to introduce lots of concepts other than biology – geological time scales, the qualities of different habitats, the relationship between size, strength and weight, and so on. Crocodiles are a favorite subject because their wrinkled skin and the well-defined seams where different parts of their bodies meet lend themselves well to translation into cut-paper. Insects and fish are also good subjects.

What kind of influence do you want to give people? What kind of feeling and emotion do you expect to give people?

Ideally a reader would look at the world from a slightly different perspective — and maybe look a little more closely — and experience a greater appreciation of the complexity and beauty of nature. It’s easy to take something absolutely extraordinary – a tree, say – for granted, because it’s so familiar.

I think all of you works are precious. But please choose the best. What is the reason?

I guess I’d choose ‘Life on Earth’, because it was the most difficult book to write. I wasn’t sure if I could explain the Theory of Evolution to a seven-year-old, but I think that perhaps I succeeded. And, as you know, there is a lot of controversy in this country about teaching evolution to children, which is a real shame. So I hope that this book helped a few children see past the politics to the clarity and elegance of Darwin’s ideas.

Did you enjoy reading a picture book during your childhood? Which one was your favorite? Why?

I read lots of picture books – mostly fiction. There were not that many non-fiction picture books around when I was a child. My favorite – it was illustrated, but not really a picture book – was “All About Strange Beasts of the Past” by Roy Chapman Andrews. It was about his search for fossils in Mongolia in the 1930s.

What kind of a boy were you? Did you enjoy painting? How about your family? Were they interested in painting?

I was a bookish boy, but I enjoyed sports. I had a microscope, a chemistry set, and kept lots of bugs, frogs, turtles, etc. that I captured in nearby fields and ponds. My father was a scientist – a physicist – but he painted as a hobby.

Did your parents have an influence on your job and painting?

My Father encouraged my interest in science and art.

If not, which environment and education make what you are?

I attended design school in college and have worked for many years as a graphic designer. I’m sure this helped me become an illustrator.

What activities do you think could help to improve children’s creativity and imagination?

Reading, being read to, travel, reading, going to museums, reading, watching some of the amazing films about nature that are now available (e.g., David Attenborough’s BBC films on the ocean, birds, mammals, etc.). Being listened to and taken seriously by adults when a child asks a question. Looking up the answer with a child if you don’t know it. Reading and being read to. And providing simple tools like a magnifying glass or butterfly net will often lead to an exploration of some aspect of the natural world.

What did you do when you were a kid?

Read a lot, drew pictures, explored the fields and woods around my house, played basketball, thought about girls, made dangerous concoctions with my chemistry set.

What kind of book do you think is a good picture book? What kind of illustration is the best? Why?

A good picture book has words that wouldn’t work without the pictures and (usually) pictures that wouldn’t work without the words. They don’t restate each other, but each adds something essential. A good picture book respects the intelligence of the child and doesn’t try to preach or teach an overt moral lesson.

There is no ‘best’ illustration. Illustration that is an honest expression of the way an artist sees the world will have a truth and power that children intuitively recognize.

There are various cultures all over the world. What do you think the reason lots of people from foreign countries like your works regardless of culture difference?

I think a child’s interest in nature and animals is universal. I’d speculate (without any real scientific data to support my speculation) that it’s part of our shared cultural memory. For most of human history an awareness of animals – as food, danger, or as a source of information about weather, water, and so on – was essential to our survival as a species.

In the world, there are so many countries, so many customs. Did you recognize the characteristics and differences of illustration and picture books each country? What kind of difference did you recognize?

I do see some differences in, for instance, Asian illustration and European illustration. Artists are naturally influenced by and refer to the visual arts traditions and popular culture of the places they live. But one can’t apply this sort of generalization to an individual illustrator. There might be an American illustrator who references Japanese prints and a Korean illustrator who is influenced by American comic books.

What do you think is the characteristic of picture book or illustration of USA?

Children's book illustration is amazingly diverse, so I don't think I can characterize US illustration in any overall way. The US is also a very young country and doesn’t have the centuries of art heritage that an illustrator working in China or Italy might refer to.

What kind of efforts have you made to read children’s mind and understand their world?

I don’t try to read children’s minds. I do try to keep in perspective their language skills and what I imagine is their general knowledge of the world, so I don’t write text that is too difficult for them to understand. I’m referring here to vocabulary, grammar, and metaphors or comparisons rather than concepts. I think even young children can grasp most of the ideas I’m writing about in as easily as an adult – they just need them explained in words they understand and in a context they can relate to. Other than that, I write about things that I find interesting myself. If I’m truly interested, I think that comes through in a book’s word’s and images.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Librarians Rule

Guest-posting for me today is Dorcas Hand, Library Goddess, aka Director of Libraries, at Annunciation Orthodox School in Houston, Texas. More information about the innovative "History as Story" program she describes is in her article "Adolescent Literacies: Reading, Writing, Thinking," Knowledge Quest (AASL), October, 2006.

I’m so honored to be asked to contribute a piece to this effort. I am fascinated by the literary nonfiction you all write, and can only hope one day to join your number as a writer. Kathleen asked me to write about our experiences together this past January. Kathleen visited the Annunciation Orthodox School in Houston for four intense days of assemblies and master classes focused around the writing of nonfiction.

Six years ago, I began a program for 4th-8th grade students called History as Story. I had several goals: an in-depth research project embedded in the regular curriculum; a writing project based on the research that required the students to take the facts and make them more than an encyclopedia recitation. They need to turn the facts back into a story. And I wanted to move beyond the “talking heads” author assembly programs to allow the students to interact with an author long enough to make the visit more memorable. Master classes by a prominent author assist the students to understand how to write, in this case, how to write a story that uses only the facts. I recently heard Geraldine Brooks, who described how she follows the facts as far as they go, and then fills in the gaps. These students certainly aren’t to her stage of understanding, but the concept helped them accomplish the task.

My first guest author was Susan Bartoletti Campbell, followed by Jane Kurtz, William Durbin, Phil Hoose, Jennifer Armstrong, and this year Kathleen Krull. Inevitably, the authors tell the students some of the same things like “Show, don’t tell,” and use your five senses to take us there. But the students experience the project in sequential years with different authors, different books as models, different topics and somewhat different assignments. When I look back to samples saved from the first year, I see broad improvement in both actual writing, and in understanding of how to use the technique of story to improve understanding of facts.

Fourth graders write travel journals as if they are visiting the country they have been researching. They must use details from the research like weather, famous places, language, money, clothing.

Fifth grade write biographical essays and journal entries as if they were famous explorers from history, ranging from Vasco da Gama to Sally Ride.

Sixth graders study Ancient History, and their topics for this project have been things like “Slavery in the Roman Empire,” or this year Cleopatra and Moses. The opening paragraph works to take a reader to the time and place, including details of life at the time. It is not possible to borrow sentences from an encyclopedia. And it is not possible to write the paragraph without any understanding of the topic.

Seventh graders write Biographies in Context, a 6-month research and writing effort where they work to understand the effect important (but not necessarily famous) from early American history had on their times as well as the effect the times had on them. The opening paragraph is written as a factual story to bring the person to life in some way; the rest of the paper is much more traditional.

Eighth graders research an American artist or athlete of the early 20th century – Ella Fitzgerald, Jesse Owens, Babe Ruth. They write a short piece that aims to bring to life a seminal day or time in the person’s youth, a point of decision or awakening to talent. Again, they must add to the basic biographical information details about life at the time and place where the incident takes place.

Exciting as this is for me, the librarian, it is also exciting for the teachers and the authors. The teachers appreciate that many of the kids achieve a deeper understanding of their topic through this writing process. The authors appreciate the opportunity to work with kids who are trying to do what you authors do professionally.

I choose authors that I think will have some credibility with the kids, meaning some of their books are of wide interest. Kathleen’s short biographies were really great for the teachers to use as they prepared for the visit. The visit included assemblies where Kathleen could introduce herself and her work, describing where and how she writes. Then there are the master classes, where she, 1-2 teachers and I worked with about 35 students at a time to begin their writing. They had completed the research before her arrival, but not begun the writing. It is very exciting to see what they do develop in a single hour.

Yes, the students are well prepared. But this project would not have nearly the life it has without the visiting authors. The variety in their books and in their personalities models for the students that writers are regular people just like them, except for the BIC trick. That would be “Butt In Chair,” Jane Yolen's wonderful acronym I learned from Kathleen. I’ve since seen the video where Jane Yolen explains the concept. Knowing that all of you have as much challenge practicing BIC as I do, I continue to be thankful that you all persist in the practice of BIC, modeling for the students the need for persistence in pursuit of excellent writing of nonfiction or any other form.

Friday, May 8, 2009

School Visits Redux

On Wednesday May 6th, Vicki Cobb posted an interesting, insightful entry about making a living, which, thank god, includes school visits. But I thought I might spin off of Vicki’s post to mention a few more school visit advantages.

1. Isn’t it great to get OUT OF THE HOUSE?!? I love my profession, but it’s a solitary one. I love writing, but on bad days I wonder how I got into the position where I am, in essence, spending my life doing term papers (albeit very good ones). Going on school visits is still working, but you get to talk to people.

2. As I say when asked, a writer’s ideas come from everywhere. I always add that some of my ideas have been inspired by school visits. Four, in fact. Two original ideas that each led to companion books as offshoots.

For the first, I was looking for a way to make part of my presentation about my book Ultimate Field Trip One: Adventures in the Amazon Rain Forest more interactive. So instead of just showing images of the animals we saw in the jungle and telling kids about them, I started explaining about adaptations and having the kids tell me the different ways these creatures had adapted to their environment. They really seemed to really enjoy it. The result?

The other time I was doing the same presentation and a picture of a little three-toed sloth flashed on the screen. I was talking to third graders and went into my sloth routine, showing them how slowly sloth actually move. And because I knew they would enjoy it, I added another fact I knew, that sloth don’t just move slowly, they poop slowly—or infrequently at least. About once every 10 days or so. The kids laughed and then we moved on. After the assembly, the principal who had been in the back of the gym, came up to me and said, "Mrs. Goodman (that’s when I knew I was in trouble), that was a wonderful presentation, just wonderful. Now, for the 10:30, drop the sloth fact."

Of course I did, it was her school. But in that moment there were two people listening to her. The grownup me was thinking, Isn’t it strange that we have this taboo? That was a perfectly reasonable biological fact, we all do this activity everyday, blah, blah, blah. And the six year old me mentally put her hands on her hips and said, “Oh yeah?” Not long after, The Truth about Poop and its companion were born.

3. I have gotten emails from kids years after a visit saying that something I said struck a chord and they had never forgotten it. Sometimes it encouraged them to work harder on writing or ultimately want to be a writer. Once it started an interest in biology. Those notes were a REAL gift.

4. Sometimes kids say something so funny it just makes your day. A little while ago, I was standing at the front of the school library watching the kids file in and sit down. One fourth-grade boy, who thought he was too cool for words, looked at me and said, “You the author?” “Yup.” “You famous?” he asked. “Not really.” He was quiet for a second and then asked, “But do you still get to live large?”

I nodded—and then added, “You better believe it!”

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Sneed Collard on Lists

Our friend Sneed Collard has a new novel out called Double Eagle. It's a mystery/adventure with some juicy Civil War history thrown in. He's one very busy, prolific kind of guy. Back in March 2008, he wrote a blog for us about the kind of nonfiction that has become his trademark. Here he elaborates on his approach to mastering "list" books.

“List” books—those which basically include collections of items—are very popular, and appear in almost all subject matters from history to biography to science. My first list book, Animal Dads (illustrated by Steve Jenkins), did so well that I immediately bent my mind to other subjects that might fit into the list format.

The question here, though, is how does one create these books?As always, the first step is research. Go learn everything you can about a subject. For a book like Teeth (illustrated by Phyllis V. Saroff), for instance, I’ll start with some animal encyclopedias, then grab some comprehensive books on different animals groups, then dive into scientific journals, which often have the most interesting facts about animals. I don’t try to write anything immediately, just let all this information percolate through my brain.

My second step is to make a list. What’s important is that I’m not listing specific animals at this point. Instead, I am asking myself “How many different ways do (fill in subject) function? For teeth, do they grind? Do they munch? How many can an animal have? What do teeth do for an animal besides eating? I write all of these things down in one column. Then, in the column next to it, I begin filling in species or examples that fit the bill. Usually, I end up with several examples that satisfy any one requirement. This is nice since it allows a greater overall variety of subjects.

Once I’ve got my list, then I work on my main text. I try to group common elements in my list together. For Teeth, these groups include teeth types, numbers, display uses, unusual teeth (such as tusks), and so forth. This is probably the most critical stage of the project, because I have to make the writing come alive, using both halves of my brain. The text not only has to flow, it has to have surprises in sentence structure and word choice. For instance…Teeth slice.Teeth stab.Teeth crack.And they grind, mash, and munch.Teeth can be very different.Or all the same.Teeth can be small.Or very large.Tusks are teeth.So are fangs.Antlers and horns are not teeth—but you probably knew that already.And so forth. Really, what I’m creating here is a poem, hopefully with a voice that draws in the reader.

Now doing this can take some work. I’ll bet I went through twenty versions of Animal Dads before I hit just the right style and voice I was looking for. When you’ve got it, though, you’ll know.So far, I’ve published about eight list-type books, but the list approach isn’t just for professional writers. Once Animal Dads came out, schools I visited began presenting me with all kinds of their own list books that students had created. Taking a topic—almost any topic—and writing a list book proves a great way to get kids interested in a subject and in writing. A typical list book has about twenty entries—just about the size of a typical classroom. By giving one aspect of a subject to each student, teachers offer them a bite he or she can handle without being overwhelmed. Then, when the kids put their book together (often creating art at the same time), they can all learn together in a way that is fun and fascinating.

Making a Living

With one exception that lasted about a year, I have not held a real job since 1969. I am not rich but I have managed to financially support myself and my two sons as a single mother and put a few dollars away for a rainy day (which is now). Needless to say, I have had a number of white knuckle months, wondering if I should throw in the towel on my free-lance lifestyle. I read want ads and reassured myself that I was qualified for a number of different kinds of jobs including teaching and public relations, but then I would decide to just hang in there one more day. And the money gods always came through. Over the years my income has had its ups and downs but has been reasonably steady. However, its nature has changed. Early in my career most of my income came from writing and I did very little public speaking. In the last fifteen years, more than half of my income came from speaking engagements, with advance money and royalties making up the other half. There were a few very good years in there when I could relax—the money just came, mostly from a very busy lecture business. The increasing importance of paid speaking engagements compared to paid writing may be echoing what has happened to artists in the music business. Years ago, musicians gave concerts to sell albums. Today, in the era of 99-cent downloads from I-Tunes, concerts have become the big money makers for recording artists and their recorded songs have become the necessary credentials to be in the concert business. People seem to want live contact with artists even if it is from a bird's eye view high in stadium seats. In the olden days, when I visited schools, kids were very familiar with my books. Lately, schools use contact with authors to motivate and initiate students' interest in books. The recent economic downturn has made huge inroads into my lucrative lecture business and has me dusting off my financial survival skills, which you may find useful.

My focus has always been on getting work rather than cutting costs. (How much can we cut, anyhow, working from home?) Go to conventions and meetings. Join professional organizations. Network, network, network. Collect business cards and make notes. I carry a little spiral-bound notebook and tiny stapler. Then I staple people’s cards into the notebook with notes for follow-up. Listen to what people are looking for. Gone are the days when publishers asked writers for ideas and books were sold over lunch. (There are no more free lunches.) Recognize that samples of your work may just be calling cards. Publishers are looking for suppliers of product, not just product itself. Don’t let rejection affect your personal self-worth. It’s all about the marketplace and publishers are now doing their own share of sweating. Timing is a key factor over which one has little control. If someone offers you work that is not your usual thing, learn to say, "Let me think about it." Never reject something out of hand. Remember, a learning experience is what you get when you don’t get what you want. My marching orders for taking on a job:
1. You might learn something
2. It might lead someplace
3. It pays well.
If a job fulfills two out of three of these criteria, take it, including work that pays nothing (like writing a blog).

Don’t be afraid to invest in yourself. This could mean acquiring new skills that could eventually be marketable. In this downturn, I have learned how to be a videographer and I am set up to do videoconferencing. Neither has yet given me a ROI (return on investment) but I am hopeful. Investing in yourself may also mean spending some money on a website, advertising and promotion.

Follow the money. The economic stimulus package has funding for teachers’ professional development and for literacy under Title I. Grant money pays for school visits. Do some research and provide it to your market.

Do something every day that could potentially lead to work. This means sitting and thinking every day, “What CAN I do?” It allows you to be proactive, keeps hope alive and anxiety at bay. I keep a list of all my breads cast upon the waters. Currently I have sixteen active items on my list.

It also helps to have a solvent spouse and to be collecting social security.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009


Back in 1809, a parson named Mason Locke Weems wanted to teach kids to tell the truth, which he making up a big fat lie. You already know the story, and plenty of children believe it to this very day. It's the one about George Washington chopping down the cherry tree and then admitting that "I can't tell a lie, Pa...I did cut it with my hatchet." Then dear little George's dad gave him a great big hug for telling the truth, and he grew up to be so honest that he was elected president.

Hmmmm. The obvious unintended consequences of such stories-with-a-moral (and there are plenty) are that the minute kids find out they're false, they either lose respect for the grown-up who tells the tale or they learn that certain lies must be OK. On a personal level, here's another unintended consequence. When my elementary school teacher told us this "true" story, we thought it was totally lame, that George Washington was a Little Goody Two-Shoe, and that we never wanted to hear about George's corny self ever again.

On general principle, I'm in favor of telling the unvarnished truth to kids (and not because of Parson Weems either). For example, if "bad" things were done in the past, we'd profit more by learning from history's mistakes than by covering them up. Besides, the truth is so much more interesting than the cover-ups. But what's most important is that rewriting history leads to unintended consequences even when the authors' intentions are good.

Are things any better today? Enormously--but only up to a point. As we speak, all sorts of books, TV, and movies for young kids are still skirting the truth. Sometimes inaccuracies have wormed their way into the media because the authors didn't do their homework. But many twisted tales were planned on purpose in an effort to do some good. What's that supposed to mean? Read on.

Let's fast forward to the time between 1940 and the mid 1960's, when women and minorities regularly got short shrift in children's media. Elementary school students learned to read by slogging through textbooks such as Fun with Dick and Jane, which aimed to set a good example by starring an exemplary perfect white family: Father was the Provider in his suit and hat. Mother was the Happy Homemaker wearing an apron and holding a mop. And their perfectly behaved children, Dick, Jane, and Sally, frolicked on the lawn with their dog, Spot.

At the same time, kids' cowboy movies and radio shows starred white cowboy heroes as the Good Guys. But the Indians were practically all Bad Guys except for The Lone Ranger's sidekick, Tonto, who could barely speak English and liked to say "Ugh." Women were pious weaklings who cried into their hankies and had to be rescued by white Good Guys. And most black people fit into about 4 simple stereotypes; they had menial jobs, were great tap dancers, were Mammies on plantations, or were the butt of jokes. Hispanics and Asians were barely part of the picture during peacetime, but prejudice against all minorities was unrepentant.

Enter the unintended consequences. Surely millions of kids who didn't live like Dick and Jane's perfect white family felt somehow deficient and people who did live like Dick and Jane felt righteous if not downright superior. As time went by, members of minorities got mad--who can blame them? And by the way, everyone thought schoolbooks were the most boring things on the planet.

So to set things straight, publishers thought up a new approach. Around 1975, all the big textbook publishers started sending out guidelines for the stories and pictures in their books. I know this because I illustrated literally hundreds of these books in my hungry days and I still have their guidelines. In the usual effort to do some good, they required us to show all minorities (an equal number on every page) as heroic, brilliant leaders who did everything right. But any characters who played the part of fools, bad guys, cripples, or inferiors had to be white males. I am NOT making this up!

In one series of stories I illustrated, I had to show a stupid white male who fell asleep on his job of cutting a long strip of marshmallow goop flowing out of a tube into bite-sized pieces. But while this poor dummy was sleeping, the goop grew into a marshmallow the size of a house....and was discovered by his smart female boss (get it?) when she was up on the roof fixing a leak and saw it hidden in the alley. Then there was one tale about a brave young girl who raced over an icy mountain during a storm to deliver an urgent message to a black king, and another tale about a stupid white king who was outsmarted by his youngest daughter. In yet another story, a single mother and her daughter were remodeling their house and convinced 6 kids (3 girls, 3 boys of all races) to paint their fence, but the kids accidentally used glue instead of paint and got stuck. I drew one girl whose back was stuck to the fence from the tips of her braids all the way down to her feet. Whadaya know--the art had to be redone. My art director wrote "Girl too passive. Do not show females in passive roles." A fellow artist was told to draw a very muscular woman in a crowd who was a head taller than the wimpy white male standing next to her. His next story had to picture a white male secretary in an apron trying to cook. The untended consequence was that a whole generation of little readers must have thought all white males were idiots.

I know these readers and so do you. But popular opinion to the contrary, white males are not the sole source of evil and stupidity in the world. Kindly remember that there are good and bad and smart and dumb people in every ethnic group regardless of gender. You'd never know it, though, because the next wave of messing with the truth for the "greater good" was to make stories for kids Politically Correct. This effort is still part of the picture today and has plenty of unintended consequences, which I hope to address in my next blog.

And by the way, have any of these rules or unintended consequences ever affected any of you?

Saturday, May 2, 2009

I.N.K. News

I.N.K. News for May

Kathleen Krull and Gretchen Woelfle are appearing at An Evening of Authors and Artists at The New Children's Museum in San Diego on Friday, May 15, 6-9 p.m. This is a fundraiser for Rolling Readers, a non-profit literacy organization that sponsors Read Aloud and Book Giveaway programs. Food, music, art auctions and book sales are planned.

Vicki Cobb will be speaking at the Oakland Zoo for the "Science is Alive" Bay Area Association of Children's Librarians Institute on May 8. She was also featured at the recent Monmouth University Spring Symposium.

From Deborah Heiligman:

Charles and Emma gets a lovely review in the May 10 New York Times Children's Book issue. The headline is The Darwins' Prenup.

Susan Goodman writes the monthly "Green Hour" feature for National Wildlife's magazine, Your Big Backyard. It has been chosen as a finalist in the Pre-K Department/Column category of the Association of Educational Publishers' Distinguished Achievement Awards. Winners will be announced in June.

Barbara Kerley's latest book, ONE WORLD, ONE DAY, debuts this month. The National Geographic title, illustrated with beautiful photographs, depicts a day in the life of school kids around the world.

Cheryl Harness is going to be signing books, including her new Harry Book, her comic book bio of President Truman (125th birthday on the 8th of May!) at the American History Museum bookstore at the Smithsonian, Washington, DC, from 1 to 3 PM, Saturday, May 9. And, thanks to Booktenders Secret Garden in Doylestown, PA, I'll be talking to school children thereabouts, May 11-15.

Dorothy Patent recently completed a resident fellowship at the Cody Institute for Western American Studies in Cody, WY, where she carried out research for a book on the relationship between Indians and horses. The book will be published by Clarion Books in Fall, 2010.

From Rosalyn Schanzer.

In April I got to do a fun little interview about my book What Darwin Saw on BlogTalkRadio. Anyone who has the latest edition of Flash can listen in by clicking here: . Scroll down to the bottom of the page where it says “Click to hear BlogTalkRadio's interview with Rosalyn Schanzer” and voila!

Susanna Reich will be welcoming visitors at the PEN American Center booth at BEA on Friday, May 29. Stop by to talk about PEN and nonfiction for kids!

Friday, May 1, 2009

Team Effort

During a recent school visit to the Bronx Early College Academy in the Bronx, NY, a sixth-grade boy asked me if I “make” the covers for my own books. I sometimes find the photographs, I told him, but then a designer and a whole bunch of other people work to make the covers look the way they do.

I’m returning to that class on Tuesday to give a PowerPoint presentation on how a book is made. Like this post I’m calling it “Team Effort,” because despite all the glory that authors get, it takes several football teams’ worth of people to make a book. I asked Marty Ittner, who’s designed four of my books for National Geographic, to help me put together a list of all the stages a book goes through from idea to bound volume. Looking at that list is awe-inspiring and not a little bit humbling.

Sometimes the process does start with the author, if she is the one who has the initial idea. Occasionally, though, a wise editor will plant the seed. The idea for Bull’s-Eye, my photobiography of Annie Oakley, came from National Geographic Editor in Chief Nancy Feresten, while Jennifer Emmett at National Geographic initially suggested that I think about a book on the Olympics. That prompt led to two books, Swifter, Higher, Stronger and Freeze Frame.

After the idea comes the research. Although I once hired a research assistant to do some on-the-spot digging in California, I usually do my own content research as well as my own photo research. But even then I depend on scores of librarians and archivists to point me in the right direction, as well as experts in the field I’m writing about. If the subjects of the book are still alive, I try to interview them and people associated with them, too.

Once the research is done I start writing. I’m pretty self-directed, but I occasionally consult with my editor and bounce ideas off one or two trusted friends. Months or even years later, when the manuscript is done, it seems that hoards of people descend upon it to make it a book. The editor and sometimes her colleagues read it and ask for changes; the designer comes up with an overall look and then painstakingly lays out the pages; the photo editor helps find and/or obtain photos; the mapmaker creates the maps; the copyeditor checks the style and grammar; the design director consults on the design; the manufacturing people settle on a printer, buy the paper, and arrange for a prepress house to process the images.

When I and everyone at the publisher finally sign off on the designed pages of the book, the files with all the supporting artwork and fonts are sent to the printer. From there a whole other set of people take over, monitoring machines that burn the plates, ink the paper, stitch the pages together, make the cover, and trim and bind the finished book. Along the way people have scoured over proofs and done press checks to make sure the pages look like they’re supposed to. But the process of birthing a book doesn’t end with the binding. After that comes the shipping, the warehousing, the marketing and promotion, the order processing, and the bookselling. Instead of a few football teams, it’s looking like it actually takes a small city to make one book.

Even so, when all is said and done I still feel like it’s “my” book. But I wouldn’t be surprised or upset if some of those other people feel the same way.