Don Woulffson (author)
Jack Botermans (author)
The festival, which sent 39 authors to 21 schools yesterday, reaches 16,000 students a year. It’s organized by the Friends of the Children’s Library in Huntington Beach, an oceanside town in Orange County, south of Los Angeles. This library is to die for: a huge two-story light-filled building with a luscious aquarium in the lobby and a volunteer bookstore that brings in $15,000 a month. (My neighborhood cash-strapped branch of LAPL is another story….)
The Authors Festival serves HB and parts of two less affluent towns, so we authors visit schools across a wide economic stratum. Sometimes I sell several dozen books at the school, sometimes barely any. But that’s not the point. One year I arrived to a red carpet laid out as the kindergartners greeted me with a big banner. I burst into tears. This year I had four handlers to carry my stuff, show me around the cool open plan school, and best of all -- give me a tour of their one acre farm complete with pigs, goats, sheep, geese, chickens, and rabbits!
Festival planning begins in May when one volunteer writes to elementary and middle schools – do they want one or two authors and illustrators, for lower or upper grades? In July another intrepid volunteer, Gail Page, applies for a grant from the Boeing Employee Community Fund, which has contributed $5000 for several years now. Come August, Gail contacts her authors. We send her a short bio and information on our presentations and books. The procrastinators get a nudge in October. Then in November school reps converge on the library to draw author names from a fishbowl. A bit of brokering goes on as trades are made, and in December authors and schools connect to coordinate the event.
Meanwhile the Friends of the Library are hard at work. With the Boeing grant money they buy authors’ books for the school libraries to prepare for their presenter; they organize a students’ writing and illustrating contest with $1000 worth of prizes, and they arrange for an after-school reception at the town library.
Posters, balloons, and a Barnes and Noble bookseller greet you in the library lobby. Each author displays his/her wares on a table to meet and greet the public – hundreds of children and parents from the four school districts served by the library. About forty intrepid Library Friends show up to make this all happen. We authors schmooze with each other, kids meet “their author” and many more, books are bought and signed, and contest winners receive their awards.
When it’s all over, the library volunteers sift through evaluations from the schools to determine which authors will be invited back. Authors also evaluate the event to help the coordinators improve logistics. Then, a couple of months later, it’s time to begin work on next year’s Children’s Author Festival.
Honorariums for the day are low. Schools pay $150 and the Friends add another $50. Some authors don’t participate for this reason, and I accept their decision. But for me, it’s a day to celebrate schools and books, my fellow authors, indefatigable school and community volunteers, and my birthday. I say good job, well done, Huntington Beach.
The blog has started to bring me attention in unexpected ways. People have started to acknowledge the blog with awards and have been asking to interview me about how I successfully created the blog.
The question is confusing to me perhaps because of the simplicity of the answer. I had an idea and worked at it. I took a lot of rejection. I cried and tried a little harder. I kept working. That’s it. Nobody else was really interested in this idea at the beginning. But I was, so I gave up other things and worked at it. Now other people are finding it intriguing and inspirational as I did from the very beginning. But back then I was all alone.
This reminds me a lot of when my kids were little. I did things a little differently. I didn’t let them watch Disney movies when they were two years old, I didn’t buy them barbies or toy guns which all of their friends had. But I bought a lot of books. By the time they got to kindergarten, both kids could read very well. Parents asked me in astonishment what I had done. “I read to them, ” I said. No one had ever been interested in my child rearing approach before. I was the lone voice at playgroup in objecting to Cinderella. Now they wanted me to offer advice.
The lone voice has stuck with me over the years. Just last week I was sitting in an education class designed to train student teachers. The instructor was screaming at us in an angry, aggressive manner while explaining to us that it is essential that we remain professional at all times. Apparently I was the only one to see the irony in this situation or at least the only one to speak out about it.
Writing nonfiction has brought up many of these same issues over the last few years. I’ve felt like I have had a strong sense of what I wanted to accomplish, even if it hasn’t been done before. Yet while most of my rejections begin with “your writing is strong” it’s the inevitable “but” that follows that I haven’t been able to shake. I envisioned being outstanding in the field, but I now must admit to feeling only like I’m out standing in the field. I haven’t given up, not completely, although I have found myself on an extended hiatus over the last few months. I wonder if my new adventure in a classroom will bring any insight to my writing life. I’m anxious to incorporate nonfiction on a daily basis and see how I can play around with the curriculum. I’m fighting the urge to look up lesson plans on the Internet for some of my favorite nonfiction. I know the best thing I can do is to figure it out for myself.
I got an email the other day from a parent looking for good mathematical literature to interest and challenge older children. Is there any? Which books would I recommend?
This month I’ve invited Sandra Jordan, who has co-authored eleven books with me, to be my guest blogger. I asked her to write something about how we do research for our books about art and artists. When I read her remarks, I realized yet again how much fun we’ve had working together over the last twenty years, how much I value her friendship and warm heart. Our next book, Ballet for Martha: Making Appalachian Spring, comes out next fall. Her most recent picture book Mr. and Mrs. Portly (very funny!) came out last fall.
Sandra Jordan: Not every artist Jan and I want to write about is living. What then? We can read original material, soak ourselves in research, but when personal interviews aren’t possible (and sometimes even when they are) how do we go beyond our research give ourselves the sense of connection to the artist that we hope to translate to the reader?
One of our answers is road trips. Time spent in the library, in art archives is necessary. But for us, time spent on the road is just as necessary. Sometimes the travel is to view artworks. A trip to London to see a brilliantly curated Andy Warhol show that gave a new appreciation for the artist’s work. A journey up the river to Beacon Dia where a room full of Warhol’s Shadow paintings are displayed as he imagined when he made them. A walk around Storm King sculpture park in Mountainville, New York where no photograph can prepare you for the physical impact of spending an hour lying on the beams of Mother Peace by Mark di Suvero or clambering over Momo Toro by Isamu Noguchi. A quick trip to Washington, D.C. to look again at Lavender Mist, to get up close and squint at the way the color pooled to create a lavender effect (no purple paint), to trace in the air with our arms the sweeping arcs on the canvas and imagine how the artist felt.
But sometimes we are looking further than the artwork. A trip to Edward Hopper’s childhood home in Nyack was intended to see how close the Hudson River was to the house (the answer is he could see if from his bedroom window). The unexpected benefit was a super-helpful docent who arranged for us to hear a tape recorded interview with a long married couple both of whom went to grade school with young Edward. On the scratchy tape their high old voices piped “Oh, nobody liked him.” “Nobody!” They agreed that he was too tall and awkward to be popular and said his peers had called him “Grasshopper.” ? At Hopper House we also saw an old video of Hopper and his wife Josephine being interviewed, footage that we hadn't found anywhere else. It was apparent to us that even though he was born in Nyack into an old New York family and spent most of his adult life in New York City, Hopper clearly was a Yankee, with a Yankee's dry ironic humor, certainly not a WASP. And once that is perceived, his laconic silences and plain spoken manner take on a different resonance.
Another Hopper trip around Truro and Provincetown on Cape Cod where Edward Hopper and his wife Josephine spent their summers, yielded a dozen places that had been the subject of Hopper paintings. After a while everywhere we looked seemed like a painting. A climb up the very long set of stairs leading to the tiny historic Truro public library (then open only a few hours a week) led to meeting two native New England residents of the town who remembered Mr. Hopper very well. He was shy and polite they said with a very dry wit. They liked him, but when asked what books Mr. Hopper borrowed they exchanged glances and allowed as how he was interested in local history. Novels? Non fiction. Oh we couldn’t say, they said firmly. Obviously they could have said, but they wouldn’t. Mr. Hopper’s reading would stay Mr. Hopper’s business.
The trips are also to get a sense of place. There was no one we met in Sun Prairie and Madison Wisconsin who offered memories of the young Georgia O’Keeffe but standing in that very flat place took her remark about her first memories being of the big prairie sky of “Light, light all around,” from intellectual to visceral.
We went to Los Angeles to interview Frank O. Gehry and for two days toured various public and private Gehry designed buildings, including Mr. Gehry’s own iconic house. Then we spent many hours discussing our impressions of the materials, the spaces, and relationships in these buildings, trying to decide how to translate it into words for young readers.
Does sitting for an afternoon on the crumbling cement pad where Jackson Pollock set up a big sheet of glass so the young photographer Hans Namuth could photograph his painting process give us a better understanding of the artist? Not the surface. Only a few traces of white paint on the cement remain of that afternoon. But the view is the view that Pollock saw every day. The long stretch out over the marshes to the bay is a sight he loved. He walked the property for hours at a time. He collected the boulders piled in the sideyard of the house as surely as he collected the jazz records lined up in the living room of the house. Dare we say it is a tender, even poetic feeling we take away from this place. Yes we do dare say so. That brawling, conflicted, hard drinking artist connected to the landscape and we come back again and again, at different times and in different seasons, trying to look beyond the facts, to see what he saw.
We have piles of research, interviews, footnotes for everything, but how we choose what we say, how we select among the thousands of facts, quotes clamoring for our attention, that is often the result of our own rather subjective experience.
Since I.N.K. is all nonfiction, all the time, we must take a day out to revel in the love that was shown for nonfiction across the board at the annual ALA awards on January 18th. I was thrilled, excited, and proud to see the stellar representation of nonfiction authors in nearly every category. And they are:
Newbery Honor: “Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice” by Phillip Hoose.
Printz Honor: “Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith” by Deborah Heiligman. Congratulations to my dear friend Deb, and fellow INKer!!
Caldecott Honor: “Red Sings from Treetops: A Year in Colors,” illustrated by Pamela Zagarenski, written by Joyce Sidman.
Coretta Scott King (Author) Book Award: “Bad News for Outlaws: The Remarkable Life of Bass Reeves, Deputy U.S. Marshal,” written by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson, and illustrated by R. Gregory Christie.
Belpré Illustrator Honor: “Diego: Bigger Than Life,” illustrated by David Diaz, written by Carmen T. Bernier-Grand.
Schneider Family Book Award: “Django” written and illustrated by Bonnie Christensen. Another shout-out to a dear friend—Congratulations, Bonnie!!
This year, the Margaret A. Edwards Award for lifetime achievement in writing for young adults was given to a nonfiction author—the incredible Jim Murphy. Some of his books include: “An American Plague: The True and Terrifying Story of the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793,” “Blizzard! The Storm That Changed America,” and “A Young Patriot: The American Revolution as Experienced by One Boy.”
The last two awards round out the list and are, of course, dedicated to nonfiction. The shiny brand new YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction Award also went to Deb Heiligman (GO DEB!) for “Charles and Emma,” and the Honor Books were Sally Walker’s astonishing “Written In Bone,” “Claudette Colvin,” Candace Fleming’s “The Great and Only Barnum: The Tremendous, Stupendous Life of Showman P.T. Barnum,” (another peep I am proud to call friend) and Tanya Lee Stone’s “Almost Astronauts” (Hey wait, that’s ME!).
And last, the Robert F. Sibert Medal, which differs from the new YALSA award in that Sibert is for younger readers and YALSA is for older readers. The Honor Books for Sibert are: “The Day-Glo Brothers: The True Story of Bob and Joe Switzer's Bright Ideas and Brand-New Colors,” written by Chris Barton, illustrated by Tony Persiani; “Moonshot: The Flight of Apollo 11,” written and illustrated by Brian Floca (Way to go, Brian!); and “Claudette Colvin” written by Phillip Hoose (Congrats again!).
I am honored and humbled beyond belief to have been awarded the Sibert Medal for “Almost Astronauts: 13 Women Who Dared to Dream,” and am proud to stand in the company of so many great authors I have long admired. Getting “The Call” was something I had heard tell of from author friends in past years and never imagined actually receiving.
There is something completely surreal about receiving a call out of the blue from a librarian who identifies herself as the committee chair of an award on the day before the ALA awards are announced. You are not quite sure you have heard right. You are not quite sure why the room is beginning to look a bit hazy around the edges. And you are definitely not aware that you are on speaker phone and that the rest of the committee is listening to your reaction to the stunning news that, indeed, you have been awarded the Sibert Medal. “Wait, the medal?” I managed to say, after repeated utterances of “Oh my goodness!” and “Thank you!” and “Oh my goodness!” My “Wait…the Medal?” was met with cheers and laughter in the background. This WAS real, and there were real live Sibert-committee-member-librarians on the other end of the phone!
Congratulations to all the recipients from this year’s ALA awards—but special shout-outs to ALL the amazing nonfiction writers and illustrators who have contributed such stellar work to the body of informational books for kids! And now…I get to make The Call to the “Mercury 13” ladies from Almost Astronauts and tell them the good news!
Very often when I go into schools teachers tell me that they have problems with kids doing research. Two of the most common complaints are:
1.Their students want to use only the internet.
2.They copy sentences directly from their sources when writing up their reports.
I'm sure these two complaints are no surprise to anyone who works or lives with kids.
I have a modest proposal for something to try, either in a classroom or at home. It is a kind of follow up to my last post about "Oh Wow" notes.
When you first have kids do research, separate the research piece from the writing piece. Get them used to good research methods first. Here's a simple plan:
Assignment One: Have each child research something they already know about, and love, but want to know more about. (For this assignment it's really o.k. if the kid who adores engines and knows a lot about them wants to do engines. Don't fight it.) Help your kids narrow down the topics so they're not too general, like dinosaurs, to one kind of dinosaur, but not so specific that it will be difficult to get information. You want to help them make this easy and fun. Tell your students to find three to five OH WOW facts about their topic. Not basic facts, like birth or death date, or size (unless it's a wow), but cool facts that make them really sit up and say, "Oh Wow" or "Cool." Feel free to give these kinds of facts your own name. (Holy Camoly facts or You've Got to be Kidding Me facts...) But here's the rule: They have to use three different kinds of sources and find at least one fact from each source. Here are sources (feel free to add or modify):
1.The internet (you might want to set your own parameters here)
2.A hard copy encyclopedia or other reference book (like an atlas, almanac or dictionary)
3.A non-fiction book written for children
4.A person who knows something about the topic (an expert, or you could count a teacher or a parent or a friend, even--a classmate is good. Joe knows all about cars, so I am going to ask him to tell me something cool about how a hybrid runs).
6.A primary source (mostly for older kids, though if they are writing about, say, a favorite food, they could look at Dad's recipe for his very special blueberry pecan pancakes).
After each child has found the three to five cool facts, it is sharing time. Go around the room, and have them tell their classmates and you (or members of the family or homechooling group) what they found out. Aloud.
Repeat this assignment again if you feel like they didn't quite get it, didn't use three different kinds of sources, or didn't find cool enough facts.
Assignment Two: Same as above, but this time they should choose something they think is interesting but don't know very much about. Maybe a little. Or they know about one kind of dinosaur, but want to know about another. Or car. Or dog breed. Or children's book author.
Rinse and repeat if necessary.
Assignment Three: Same as previous two, but this time something they know nothing about, but are interested in. They are going to research to learn about a completely new topic now. But this topic has to be something that they really do want to know about. Feel free to help them, but let them choose. (Or have the illusion of choosing.)
Assignment Four: Assign them topics. You can be challenging to some of the kids who you think have got it down, and easier on some of the others and have them follow the same protocol.
I hope those of you who do this will either comment on the blog and let us know how it goes, or email me directly at Deborah@DeborahHeiligman.com. I will share the results in a future post AND in a future post I will suggest how you take it to the next step--having them do research and then actually writing it in their own words. Here's a hint: you're going to have to hide their notes.
Thanks for listening to my modest proposal. Hey, it didn't involve eating the kids.
“If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead and rotten, either write something worthy reading or do things worth the writing.” So wrote the wily old Philadelphia printer, born way back in another, long-gone January. By way of the calendar adopted by the British Empire in 1752, when said gent was 46, today (the 17th, as I be typing) would be his birthday. If you’re reading this, you most certainly know that I’m referring to the remarkable, Benj. Franklin, a man of many a worthy word and deed. I didn’t like his cracking wise about John Adams’s sanity or lack thereof, but then, nobody’s seamless. The fact that today makes 304 years since yet another baby was born in the already-crowded Franklin household doesn't mean so very much, all in all. Noting birthdays is a little game, pretty much. A good excuse, as if one needed one, to have cake. An anniversary just reminds us to flick a glance in the rearview mirror, reminds us to remember an event and its meaning or the life of a person who came into the world on, perhaps, just such a day as this: snow melting outdoors, turned to filthy slop, making footing even more difficult. Folks worried, then and now, about money and about the future.
On January 12th, Susan Kuklin wrote a great blog about the author visit she did with three fellow writers in New Orleans. I recently did a much more local school visit with just one other author, my Lesley University colleague David Elliott. Afterward we received a wonderful note from Mayre Plunkett, the PTO parent who shepherded us through. It was a great reminder that there are many reasons authors should be visiting schools besides the ones that obviously come to mind. Just take a look:
Dear Susan & David,
Just wanted to say THANK YOU so much for coming to the Ohrenberger last Friday; students & teachers alike are still all abuzz.
A bit of feedback to share:
The music teacher came up to me yesterday and told me he was so inspired that he is going back to work on his book.
A kindergartner leaped at the chance to go to a Fancy Nancy event so she could meet another 'live author.'
A fifth grader went home and started talking about character development with his parents.
All of the first & second graders illustrated their group poem.
I could go on and on. Please know that you both deeply impacted the school and we will always be grateful.
ps. One more to add, Nick (SG: Mayre’s son) was putting On This Spot (SG: my book that I read to the kindergarteners) to music Saturday night—at the top of his lungs!
These are all great reasons, aren't there? And hard to have predicted beforehand.
In 1906-1907, Mark Twain published “Chapters from My Autobiography” in the North American Review. He concluded the series with a hilarious story of how he once earned the three dollars he desperately needed by selling another man’s dog—for three dollars—and then buying the dog back—for the same three dollars—to return the dog to its rightful owner (and accept a three dollar reward!)
He ended the story:
To write nonfiction, you have to like research. I mean really like it a lot. You have to like it so much that sometimes it’s hard to know when to get the heck out of Dodge and move on to the next step in the process.
What's my favorite kind of research? Firsthand research, especially when it takes me to exotic places like the African savanna or a coral reef or a tropical rain forest. As far as I'm concerned, it's the best part of my job. Nothing beats observing animals in their natural environment. This kind of research provides key tidbits of information that are often missing from authoritative books and journal articles about wildlife and wild places.
Here’s an example. When I went to Costa Rica with my husband’s family, one of the animals on my wish list was a three-toed sloth. I was soooo jealous when my husband and brother-in-law spotted one while I was scouting out birds along the river.
Van Gogh and Cezanne liked to paint together. Although they worked in front of the same landscape, their own vision and talent led to totally different canvases. Sharing spaces of various kinds often encourages creativity. Many of us have been sharing this space by writing about our school visits. Your experiences have helped me discover, not copy, new ways to do school visits. In that vein, I’d like to tell you about a school visit I recently made with some very special colleagues.
Last fall, four authors – Robie Harris, Elizabeth Levy, Fatima Shaik and I – visited the Martin Luther King, Jr. Charter School in the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans. This trip was part of a program set up after hurricane Katrina by Fatima and PEN’s Children/Young Adult Committee. The committee adopted the school, sent them a children’s library, and arranged pro bono authors’ visits. [For more about this program, please visit CYA in NOLA]
Our plan was extravagant, to say the least. We would visit the school, each work with one class from different grades, and produce a student-authored hard cover book. [The student in this photograph is from a previous trip. At that time, each student produced his own, home-made book.]
Authors are used to working with teachers and librarians in preparation for a school visit, but I for one had not created a common project with other writers, much less with three other writers.
Food for Thought:
First off, we ate very well – in New Orleans, for sure, but also during planning sessions in New York. We met for breakfast at Le Grainne Café in Chelsea. After the first of endless cups of coffee, along with detailed meal orders, we set to work. Each of us brought to the table initial ideas about what we wanted to do and how we were going to do it. Everyone’s proposal was different. The trick was to turn these differences into a creative whole. [In fairness to my colleagues and our commitment to write about the entire project on the website of our sponsor, PEN, I will only write about the initial planning of my section of this project.] And in fairness to you, dear readers, I will stop writing about food.
Since our chapters were to be based on our latest books, my third grade class would create its own photo essay about dancing. Cheryl Asiola, the teacher who volunteered her class, agreed to do some advance work. Before our arrival, the students would each receive a copy of my book, Beautiful Ballerina, to get a sense of how to represent language with photographs. They would be put into four groups of five. Each group would choose the dance that best represented themselves or their city.
Once I arrived with camera, PhotoShop, and computer, the students would take turns photographing each other, doing interviews with each other, editing both the pictures and words, and making a layout for their chapter of the book.
This process is usually a year’s work for me. We had four days.
The four authors immediately focused on the numerous catch-22s imbedded in my proposal: If one person per group became the photographer, that person would not be in the photo. If the students took turns taking pictures, the chapter would be much too long. Someone was going to be left out – an absolute NO-NO. Also, I moaned to my colleagues, and this is a little nasty, nobody touches Susan’s cameras but her long-time assistant. The cameras are calibrated just so and I worry about changes or breakage.
As the gang of four listened to each other’s sticking points, suggestions flew around the table. Insurmountable conundrums were quickly resolved. No problem seemed to be too big or too small. Some solutions were so obvious I wondered, “Why didn’t I come up with that?” It takes a village – a village of wonderful, experienced writers.
Day One: I would spend about an hour working with the kids about writing and photographing a photo essay. Then, the rest of the day was devoted to photography. I will take the photographs! Each group will choose an area in the classroom that would become their stage. The nonperforming students would be the audience and vocalists – clapping and singing for their dancing friends.
Day Two: students in each group will conduct interviews using some of the techniques discussed the previous day. Ms. Aisola and I will go around and give each group personal attention. In the afternoon, all the photographs, downloaded into my computer the night before, will be shown on a large screen. The students would then choose their favorite pictures. We’ll talk about what makes a picture good.
Day Three: Match the words to the pictures. Edit. Copy edit. Edit more. Additional time saved for more photos, if necessary.
Day Four: Put the photo essay together. Upload the essay onto the big screen for one final edit.
Finally, a very important part of the project: meet with the other authors, teachers, and classes for a celebratory pub party!
Once we actually got to work there were changes and setbacks, including the threat of another hurricane which shortened our time even more. Going on the road with Robie, Liz, and Fatima was an intense, bonding, serious, fattening, laugh-filled experience. I highly recommend group school visits. One more thing: the jazz was fabulous!
There are so many reasons I love my local public library, the Sherwood Regional Library. One of 23 branches in the Fairfax County, Virginia, Public Library System, it's only a couple of miles from my home. I can walk there in about 30 minutes, bike there in 10 minutes, and drive there in practically no time. Dogwood trees and oak-leaf hydrangeas are planted on either side of the entrance. There's a bustling children's section, where my children and I spent many happy hours when they were younger. And at the back of the library there's a quiet reading room with floor to ceiling windows. Over the years I've spent a lot of time there working on my books. Every Tuesday morning from May through November there's a farmers' market in the library parking lot. Can it get any better than that?
Actually, it can! Another reason I love my library? The wonderful librarians give prime real estate to new children's nonfiction. One of the first things you see when you enter the building is a bookcase with a big sign on top of it that says "Brand New Juvenile Nonfiction." The other day I asked a couple of the librarians why they had chosen to give these books such a desirable location. ("Brand New Fiction," by the way, is shelved on the back of this bookcase, away from the entrance.) "Well," one of them told me, "we’re proud of our nonfiction collection and we want to show it off. We want to attract readers for these books, and this is just about the only time they can stand out. Later on most of them will be shelved with the adult nonfiction, and unfortunately, it’s pretty easy for them to get lost back there." (Sigh...) The other librarian I spoke with told me that the books just fly off the "new nonfiction" shelves, and that they're especially popular with boys. "We have such a hard time keeping new titles on these shelves," she said, "that we sometimes have to put out older books." Then the older nonfiction books get snapped up. It's all good.
One more reason I love my library? One of the librarians told me that their copy of Helen's Eyes has been checked out so many times that it's starting to fall apart. She's had to tape it back together. Music to this author's ears.
In case you're interested in what's considered new in this neck of the woods, here are some of the titles I found today on the Sherwood Library's "Brand New Juvenile Nonfiction" shelves:
Written in Bone: Buried Lives of Jamestown and Colonial Maryland
1776: A New Look at Revolutionary Williamsburg
Chile: Enchantment of the World
Ecuador: Enchantment of the World
A Den Is a Bed for a Bear: A Book about Hibernation
Albert Einstein: Universal Genius
Attila the Hun (A Wicked History)
Thunderstorms (A True Book)
Stars (A True Book)
A Savage Thunder: Antietam and the Bloody Road to Freedom
For the Duration: The War Years (Tomie DePaola biography)
The Story of the Washington Redskins (These librarians know their audience!)
Sharon McElroy was worried. Was I suggesting that, as a science project, kids should sit in the mall food court observing families to see which of two siblings got the most parental attention?That could be a problem, she told me. Just as any social science research must be approved by a Scientific Review Committee (SRC), a student doing a science fair project must get clearance from their Internal Review Board (IRB) prior to doing any work involving human subjects, any living subjects actually, and the reason is to keep anyone – or any living thing – from coming to harm. And here I was, suggesting that they spy? What if…?
Sharon is the teacher adviser to my series Science Fair Winners, published by National Geographic Children’s Books. She’s an esteemed high school teacher from Indiana, and the winner of the Presidential Award for Excellence in Math and Science Teaching and the Intel Excellence in Education Award. National Geographic picked her because her success in science competitions and her work on national and international science fair committees prepares her to offer advice regarding the projects in my books.
Sharon’s role was to make sure the projects made it simple for kids to do science work that was interesting, that was safe, that met science standards, and that wouldn’t violate the rules. And here she was, suggesting that my projects might get kids kicked out of science fair? As if!
Our NG editor did the rational thing. She pulled us out of the boxing ring, sat us down in our corners, had us pour ourselves a cup of coffee, and set up a conference call.
Putting together Family Science (due out in May) hasn’t been easy. YOU try coming up with 20 science workshops that involve family members – your own or someone else’s -- including those with four legs and two legs, the old and the young, the quick and the dead.
Make sure the science is good (meaning that the observations are measurable, the experiments can be replicated, and the conclusions are based on real data).
Make sure the science is current, that it relates to work actually being done in the field, and that the questions it raises promote further knowledge and understanding of concepts and processes.
Focus on fields that kids don’t typically get into in middle school, such as psychology, sociology, anthropology, or genetics. Consult scientists for their thoughts on how kids can do a version of the studies the scientists really do, and include advice for young scientists on how to get into their fields.
Keep it exciting, simple, sincere, safe, and legal.
And, most of all, keep it on the middle school level. Hit ‘em where they live: sibling rivalry, babysitting, afterschool activities, and hangouts like the park and mall.
Why bother? That’s the question that brings Sharon and me out of our corners shouting. There we are, in the middle of the mat, shouting about what lights kids up, about stupid science non-experiments that run rampant in science fair halls, about the problems inherent in putting anything under stress. We’re under stress. And then we realize we’re both saying the same thing:
The purpose of these books is to give middle schoolers guidelines to being a scientist at a young age.
Sharon tells me a story about one of her former students, a boy named Paul Lynch. Paul’s younger brother used to lose at video games and get up and yell and kick. Paul asked Sharon what she thought the cause was: was his brother mad at losing? Or did the video game make him more violent? How could he find out? Sharon helped him get started.
These days, Paul Lynch has contributed loads of research to the question of violence and video games. He is now an M.D. (You can google him.) And he began his work by considering a situation that he observed in his own home.
I wish every student could have a teacher like Sharon McElroy to help him or her figure out a way to study social science. And I’m grateful to have her helping me navigate the rules of science fair committees so that the projects in my books can potentially light the fire inside more social scientists.
P.S. The photo shows Sharon with a student. The book cover is for Bug Science, the first book in the Science Fair Winners series. The cover for Family Science is still underway
I recently read Barbara Walter’s fascinating memoir Audition. If you envy her life she says, “Then you have to take the whole package” complete with plenty of failures, heartaches, and sacrifices. The title of her book refers to her perception that she was always trying out, always subjecting herself to the judgment of other people and, of course, her audiences. I can relate to that. Every book I write and almost every performance or talk gets reviewed, often publicly, sometimes anonymously. You’d think that after all this time a less-than-stellar review would get easier. In some ways it does. But last week I discovered that my skin is still thin in places and that criticism has its place.
I’m learning about performing in a new medium--videoconferencing. I did my first two school visit videoconferences right before Christmas vacation. The first one got a rave review from teachers and kids and the second lukewarm approval—not negative but mixed and somewhat confusing. Since I had repeated the program and the kids in both presentations seemed similarly enthusiastic and attentive, I could only wonder what caused the difference. Tepid approval is not good enough for me. I need to “knock ‘em dead!” every time.
I was reminded of an incident in the past when I received a devastating evaluation. I had been hired by a California educational company to give a week’s tour of day-long inservices for teachers (the toughest of audiences). I prepared an extensive program of hands-on science activities based on my books. Thinking I would make things easier for the teachers, I attributed each exercise to the book I took it from (I also gave them handouts of with all the material copied from the sources). At the end of the day I read my evaluations (always a humbling experience). There was one frequent criticism: “I didn’t spend all this money to listen to a book commercial.” Dagger to the heart! What was I to do? I had to get up in front of a similar group the next day and I had no program other than the one I had so diligently prepared from what was in my books.
During a sleepless night, I analyzed the criticism. I figured that somehow I had not met the teachers’ expectations. What, then, did they expect? Most of the inservices offered by the company that had hired me were given by educators who had written one or two books that gave them credibility on some problem that concerned teachers. In contrast, I had written dozens of books directly for children on the content teachers were required to teach. Most teachers have little or no experience with children’s book authors, particularly nonfiction authors. I was clearly a different kind of consultant and my constantly reminding them of this worked against me. The next day I faced my new audience determined to appear to be more of what they were used to. This time I said nothing about my books. I presented each activity as if I had created it just for them and never alluded to the display of my books at the back of the room. Since many of the activities were new to them there was no question that I knew my subject. This time the evaluations of my performance were extremely favorable. A lot of criticism was leveled toward the company, however, for “not offering more of her books for sale.”
Now back to the present. The first videoconference had been set up by the school district media supervisor. She worked closely with two librarians who collaborated directly with their teachers. There was a lot of advance work, which also involved the support of the technology teachers (yes, a lot of schools have them now.). The second videoconference was set up five days before the date by the technology teacher who found the program “Science Surprises” listed on the CILC website. Since I need an extra computer projection set up to show videos during the presentation, I needed to talk to this teacher. When I explained what I wanted to do—show videos of kids doing science activities from my book—she said, “I’m not hiring you to do a book commercial.” Obviously I’m now dealing with yet another teacher who doesn’t know about children’s book authors. I explained a little to her about what we authors do for school visits and I asked her to get her school librarian involved. That didn’t happen. Not enough time. When I received her evaluation the next day from CILC I could sense her disappointment. Immediately, I went to my write-up of the program and inserted a paragraph about collaboration between librarians and teachers; something that needs to be fostered at every turn.
Definition of a “Learning Experience:” what you get when you don’t get what you want. Barbara Walters never stopped being open to them. Neither am I.
Happy New Year everybody, and welcome to the first I.N.K. blog of 2010. In honor of finding some firsts in nonfiction, I thought I’d try to dig up a few books with great first sentences or first paragraphs; the kind that surprise you at first glance and pull you into a first-rate story right away.
To begin, here are some attention-grabbing first sentences about animals. (Full disclosure: A couple of these come from our own I.N.K. bloggers):
“If you hopped like a frog you could jump from home plate to third base in one mighty leap!”
David Schwartz - If You Hopped Like a Frog
“Did you ever look a giant squid in the eye?”
Steve Jenkins - Actual Size
“Spiders were hunting long before lions and tigers. They were hunting even before Tyrannosaurus rex.”
Nic Bishop - Spiders
As another first for this kid-based blog, let’s add some openers from adult nonfiction too. I don’t know about you, but a little humor always pulls me in:
“As I write this, I have a beard that makes me resemble Moses. Or Abe Lincoln. Or Ted Kaczynski. I’ve been called all three.”
A. J. Jacobs - The Year of Living Biblically
“Welcome. And congratulations. I am delighted that you could make it. Getting here wasn’t easy, I know. In fact, I suspect it was a little tougher than you realize.”
Bill Bryson - A Short History of Nearly Everything
“I once joked in a book that there are three things you can’t do in life. You can’t beat the phone company, you can’t make a waiter see you until he is ready to see you, and you can’t go home again. Since the spring of 1995, I have been quietly, even gamely, reassessing point number three.”
Bill Bryson (again) - I’m a Stranger Here Myself
And check out these first few sentences about famous people who are going places. Some are old, some are new, and some are from adult books too:
“It was lucky that Christopher Columbus was born where he was or he might never have gone to sea.”
Jean Fritz - Where Do You Think you’re Going, Christopher Columbus?
“On most days, I enter the Capitol through the basement.”
Barack Obama -The Audacity of Hope
“I never knew when I might be taking my last ride. With so many ways to bust my butt flying research aircraft, I knew better than to think any test flight was routine.”
General Chuck Yeager -Yeager: An Autobiography
Here are some first paragraphs that make us wonder what the authors have up their collective sleeves:
“Mum says, ‘Don’t come creeping into our room at night.’ They sleep with loaded guns beside them on the bedside rugs. She says, ‘Don’t startle us when we’re sleeping.’ “
Alexandra Fuller - Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood
“Over ten years ago I stumbled upon an incredible discovery, a clue hidden in an ancient map which, though it did not lead to buried treasure, suggested that the history of the world as it has been known and handed down for centuries would have to be radically revised.”
Gavin Menzies - 1421: The Year China Discovered America
So. If you think of any books that include your favorite first sentences, please be the first to send them in! First things first; these evocative examples help the authors among us remember that our work has to shine from the very beginning.
Welcome back! We were supposed to have a brand spanking new version of I.N.K. News today. But I guess everyone's still hibernating from the harsh cold and the back to work/ back to school schedule because, well, nobody sent me anything. Nope, not a peep.
So I'll take this opportunity to proudly share some old but good news. I.N.K. received first runner up prize for best group blog from the Edublog Awards for 2009. Please see the snazzy award icon on our sidebar which links to their site.
Much more to come in 2010. I think. Yeah, I'm pretty sure.
at 8:09 AM