Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Just A Jig?

As a lover of Shakespeare and opera, the quality of acting and singing in any production is, of course, primary. But I’m also intrigued by contemporary stagings of the old works. Sometimes they don’t work for me, but when they do, it’s glorious – opening a new window on a familiar landscape. LA Opera is in the midst of a Wagner Ring Cycle designed by Achim Freyer that blows me away. Many hate it. I love every weird minute of it. One of my all-time favorite Shakespeare experiences was a staging of Cymbeline with six actors and actresses in identical costumes playing all 26 roles at the Globe in London.

[What does this have to do with Interesting Nonfiction for Kids, you ask? Well, perhaps I’m taking a cue from Will S. himself who (oftimes reluctantly) included singing, dancing, and bawdy improv (called jigs) that were unrelated to his dramas, at the end of his plays. But hang on....]

145 Years of Alice

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is decked out in new togs every year. (Full disclosure: I’ve got a daughter named Alice, and a modest collection of old and new AIW editions.*) So I was curious to see the version from Chronicle Books, compiled by Cooper Edens in his Classic Illustrated Edition series. This large format book mixes up various illustrations from the 19th and early 20th centuries. As you read the story, you’ll see Arthur Rackham on one spread and Willy Pogany on the next. It’s a fascinating ride, traveling through the decades with different artistic visions. And it fits the surreal story.

Alice has spawned many nonfiction books as well – about Carroll, about the ‘real’ Alice Liddell, as well as Freudian, social, and political interpretations of what it all means. All Things Alice: the Wit, Wisdom and Wonderland of Lewis Carroll by Linda Sunshine (Clarkson Potter, 2004) gives us selected quotes from Alice, excerpts from Carroll’s letters, poems and other stories, along with hundreds of illustrations.

Enter Johnny Depp

With my penchant for experimental productions, my skepticism about sequels, my indifference to Hollywood 3-D animation, and my love of Alice – I went to Tim Burton’s new film with some trepidation. However the prospect of seeing lots of Johnny Depp certainly brightened my outlook. I’m not going to give a proper review of the film, but I was rather surprised that I liked it. You’ve no doubt seen it or read reviews about the almost-grownup Alice returning to Underland.

Despite the inevitable 3-D battle scenes and dive-bombing winged creatures, the new story contained the old favorite characters and, most important of all, the hilariously satiric tone of the original, thanks in large part to the magnificent Mr. Depp and Helen Bonham Carter (and the screenwriters, of course.)

Back in Lewis Carroll’s time, satire had already been defined as the ridiculing of vice, folly, and humbug, and Carroll did a superb job of slicing and dicing his Victorian world. Tim Burton takes on Hollywood as well, mocking some of the clichés we find in mainstream movies. And so, for me, he honored Carroll’s brilliant comic voice that makes Alice in Wonderland a tale for the ages.

OK, here’s how I relate all this to writing nonfiction for kids. In researching history, one encounters not only what happened, but how people interpreted what happened. History books tell us as much about the culture and values of the era in which the books were written, as the events they present and interpret. So it is with artists (and filmmakers) who take on Alice in Wonderland. They show us how that wonderfully curious girl remains alive in our time.

Curiouser and Curiouser

Check out Alice's (my daughter, the farmer) Adventures with Wonder Lamb at


*Three of my own favorite contemporary Alice illustrators are Helen Oxenbury (Candlewick, 1999,) DeLoss McGraw (HarperCollins, 2001,) and Alice nel paese delle meraviglie ill. by Emanuele Luzzati (Nuages, Milan, 1998.)

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Greetings from the Twilight Zone

I have entered the Twilight Zone. I strayed into this dimension when I checked out the page for my book Earth in the Hot Seat and discovered "what customers ultimately buy after viewing this item." Ninety-eight percent of them buy my book, which is about global warming. Two percent of them buy...Twilight (The Twilight Saga, Book 1).

My first thought was that the 2% who bought Twilight opted for escapism over realism, hot romance over true tales of a warming planet. Could it have been my cousins in Arkansas, I wondered? Last spring when I visited I saw Twilight lying around at both of their homes, but no trace of the latest by yours truly. Hmmm.

My next thought was that the 98% who bought Earth in the Hot Seat knew exactly what they were looking for and had already decided to buy it. I wouldn't be surprised if they knew me personally. I mean, the book's not exactly in the ranks of top sellers, although I was pleased to see that it moved from a six-digit rank (this morning) to a five-digit rank (this afternoon). I suspect that all it takes is one copy sold for a book to make a seemingly dramatic advance up the ranks. Maybe my neighbor who said she was going to check it out actually bought a copy! And just maybe someone bought it after learning that it won the 2010 Green Earth Book Award for nonfiction, a recent honor that makes me beam.

Anyway, while I'm lingering in the twilight zone, I'd like to turn from our usual focus on nonfiction and give a shout-out to fellow winners of this year's Green Earth Book Awards, which are awarded to books that "best raise awareness of environmental stewardship, and the beauty of our natural world and the responsibility that we have to protect it." Congratulations to:

MIss Fox's Class Goes Green Miss Fox’s Class Goes Green, written by Eileen Spinelli and illustrated by Anne Kennedy (picture book category)

OPeration Redwood Operation Redwood, written by S. Terrell French (children's fiction category)

The  Carbon Diaries: 2015The Carbon Diaries: 2015, written by Saci Lloyd (young adult fiction category)

Monday, March 29, 2010

African Acrostics by Avis Harley, photos by Deborah Noyes

I am fortunate to serve as the poetry coordinator for the CYBILS awards, and in 2009 I was doubly fortunate because I was also on the nominating panel. This meant I got to read all of the eligible books that were nominated in the poetry category. Among my favorites was a wonderful book by poet Avis Harley, which was "illustrated" with wildlife photographs taken by Deborah Noyes, entitled AFRICAN ACROSTICS: A Word in Edgeways.

In addition to providing spectacular photographs of African wildlife including elephants, hippos, crocodiles, giraffes, zebras, impalas and more, the poems include factual information about the animals, all in the form of acrostic poems - a form known by many teachers and children, and one that usually results in rather simplistic poems. Not so with Harley's work - she takes acrostics to a whole new level of clever.

To write an acrostic, you take a word (or phrase) and write it down the left-hand side of the page, then you start each line with the applicable letter. In the case of the poem entitled "A Croc Acrostic", the acrostic is the name of the profiled animal: "CROCODILE". Harley, however, got creative with other animals. The poem about the rhinoceros is not a 10-line poem based on the animal's name. Rather, it is a 16-line poem based on the acrostic "BEAUTY IN THE BEAST".

Interior spread showing the rhinoceros photo

The accompanying poem:

Moody Guy
by Avis Harley

Boulders for shoulders,
Elegant horn --
A pointed reminder of the
Thick leg-pillars bruising tawny
Yellow grass

In huge hide shoes,
Nobody argues

This is a colossal
Holdover from
Earth's primeval swamp.

Even so, I know
A rhino when I
See one, and this is the time not
The book includes fabulous back matter, including an explanation of what an acrostic is and how to write one as well as short, factual paragraphs on each of the species profiled in the book. A must-have for libraries, poetry lovers, and animal lovers - particularly those interested in the wildlife of Africa.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Art Picture Books for Youth Art Month

March is Youth Art Month. Couldn’t let this month go by without mentioning some of my favorite art books for kids.
Youth Art Month is an annual observance each March to emphasize the value of art education for all children and to encourage support for quality school art programs. Youth Art Month was created in 1961 by ACMI, a non-profit association of art and craft materials manufacturers, in cooperation with the NAEA.  In 1984, ACMI created CFAE to administer the national Youth Art Month program and encourage funding for the program.

Six years ago for part of an Art Volunteer In the Classroom presentation, I chose to read Jonah Winter’s Frida to both a Kindergarten and fourth-grade class and was surprised by the results. In both classes, the students intently listened to every word. They scooted and maneuvered to get a better look at the illustrations. And, the active discussion after I read the book was full of insightful comments and observations. They developed a firm grasp of who Frida Kahlo was as an artist.

All the experts recommend that the main focus of Art Enrichment presentations should be on the conversations about art; i.e. how it makes you feel, what was the artist trying to express in his or her work, can you relate to the painting. Winter's picture book did everything necessary to get the kids experiencing the work of Frida Kahlo. All that was left to do was fill in a few biographical facts. That day, I experienced the magic of lyrical, polished writing and lively, unique illustrations in harmony that creates an inspiring and memorable picture book.

Though an art project wasn't necessary, the students drew their portraits with images of their dreams and passions floating around in the backgrounds.

Some recent books that I have found that are perfect reads for Art Appreciation presentations:
The Vermeer Interviews Conversations with Seven Works of Art
By Bob Raczka
Millbrook Press 2009

Love this latest book by Bob Raczka. Bob’s books always look at art in an unique perspective; this time from the painting’s point of view. I learned so much by the way the text was written. Who knew there was so much to discover in a Vermeer painting?

In Her Hands : the Story of Sculptor Augusta Savage
By Alan Schroeder (author), JaeMe Bereal (Illustrator)
Lee and Low Books  October 2009

In this window into Savage’s early experiences as a child and artist, children connect with the passion and story behind her work. Wonderful to see a new picture book biography about a sculptor and the Harlem Renaissance.

Just finished reading The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova and it might be my new favorite book. If you like painting with a late 1880's back story mixed with a few love stories and a mystery, put it on your must-read pile.  

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Something About Sea Turtles

The life of a book is a curious thing. It ripples outward into places you never expected it to go. Such as been the life of Turtle, Turtle, Watch Out! When I first wrote this book, I knew about sea turtles. But I hadn't lived turtles, not the way I have in the years since. Where the book has taken me and other readers has surprised and thrilled me.

Like many authors, I have always been intrigued by sea turtles and the sea turtle journey, particularly the way females find their way back to the beach where they hatched. But what also impressed me is how many people love sea turtles and what they are doing to help them: turning off beach lights, guarding beaches, avoiding driving on beaches, preventing plastic pollution, and installing Turtle Excluder Devices (TEDs) on nets. (As an intern at National Wildlife Federation in 1987, I wrote conservation articles to encourage people to enact TEDs laws.)

The first book came to me as a circle of hands. In fact, I called the first versions of my manuscript "Turtle and the Unseen Hands." Because that's the way I imagined this loving circle of people working hard to help sea turtles survive. The book title changed but it was this human participation and positive environmental message that made the book popular in a field that already had some lovely sea turtle books. Schoolchildren celebrated the book by crafting paper plate turtles, setting the book to music, tracking the turtle's journey, and writing turtle poetry. Sea turtles connect with people on some kind of heart level. I cannot count the number of sea turtle shaped necklaces that librarians have worn. (Okay, so I have turtle earrings and scarf!)

Yet the book went out of print years later when Orchard was slimming its backlist. Soon, anguished teachers contacted me to try to buy the book, which was at times going for $400 on ebay. (Wow, why didn't I keep a few cases of those ol' books around? Could have paid off my mortgage!) Extraordinary science educators Emily Morgan and Karen Ansberry were championing the book in their NSTA bestseller, Picture Perfect Science Lessons. Many of my nonfiction books have had this slow burn, where they catch on in multiple formats or languages several years after their release.

Fortunately Charlesbridge, then spearheaded by Judy O'Malley who'd loved the book years before as a reviewer, rescued the turtle—okay, turtle book—again. The book was reborn with luminous new illustrations by Annie Patterson and additions to the main text plus whole new swaths of endmatter on recent conservation action and profiles of all sea turtle species.

For me it is a fully new book. Yes, I loved the first one. But Patterson's illustrations are joyful in a whole new way. The editor and art director worked to craft a book that would appeal to older children who could really dig into the conservation message. The new text, and the comments I made on art stages were informed by experiences my family has had with sea turtles in the intervening years.

Late one night on a beach in Grand Cayman, we went out to meet sea turtle scientist Janice Blumenthal. As we walked out on the sand, my nephews said to me, "Look, look, Aunt April, it's just like in your book!" And it was, magically. The moon made a rippled track on the sea just as Lee Christiansen had drawn it in the original Turtle, Turtle, Watch Out! edited by Rebecca Davis. The book had come to life.

Yet there were fascinating aspects of sea turtle hatching that weren't in that original book. I had never quite understood, before that night, that the sea turtles spend days scrambling to the surface. They crawl over each other, using each other as stairsteps. We see them pop out of the sand as if their journey had just started. Yet their upward journey has already taken days of struggle!

In the time since that first book, my family and I have seen loggerhead hatchlings emerge from the sand. We have pulled 125 green turtle hatchlings out of a wire mesh cage and felt their tiny flippers slap-a-slapping at our hands. We have hiked miles and miles of beach, searching for turtle tracks and reporting nest sites to scientists. We have watched, by computer, on as the adult green turtle that was tagged by my family made its way through the ocean. We have obseved hawksbill turtles nibbling on sponges and swimming 40 feet deep in coral reefs. I have snorkeled with turtles that surfaced inches from my face and heard them intake breath. All these experiences informed the new Turtle, Turtle Watch Out! main text, illustrations, and endmatter.

Sea turtles are intimately tied with so many memories in my family's life. Fortunately, sea turtles are a part of other families' lives, too. Caribbean Conservation Corporation, Sea, the Leatherback Trust, and environmental conservation departments in many states have programs that get teachers, students, and families out doing hands on work to help these turtles survive. Lots of students I meet while doing school visits in South Carolina, my home state, have encountered turtles and turtle science. The wonder of it leaves a huge impression on them.

There's just something about sea turtles. Perhaps that's why I also have an almost-finished sea turtle novel in my desk drawer here plus an older science book about them languishing as well. I expect sea turtles will swim back in and out of my life (and I will swim in and out of theirs) over and over again.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Ada Lovelace Day at I.N.K.

Ada Lovelace Day

“Women’s contributions often go unacknowledged, their innovations seldom mentioned, their faces rarely recognized. We want you to tell the world about these unsung heroines, whatever they do.” -- Ada Lovelace Day website

Augusta Ada King, the Countess of Lovelace (1815-1852) wrote the first computer programs, which were used by the Analytical Engine invented by Charles Babbage.

Ada Lovelace Day celebrates the legacy of a lone woman scientist in a field of men. -- and does so, in part, through across-the-board blogging about women in the sciences.

The first Ada Lovelace Day, March 24, 2009, generated hundreds of blogs worldwide, as well as attention on Facebook and in the media.

I decided to sign up on behalf of I.N.K. to blog about women scientists on this day and soon found out that 1,110 other bloggers signed up, as well.

It’s Monday morning, and I’m putting the finishing touches on my Ada Lovelace blog when I find this article in the New York Times: “Bias Called Persistent Hurdle for Women in Sciences”. Tamar Lewin describes the American Association of University Women’s report, "Why So Few?" on the gains that women have made in the sciences, and the issues that still get in their way. Thirty years ago, among high schoolers scoring 700 or more on their math SATs, boys outnumbered girls 13 to 1. The ratio has dropped to 3 to 1, but that’s still proof of chopped sides.

Despite increasing numbers of women receiving doctorates in science, math, and computer science, women don’t represent a parallel percentage of workers or tenured faculty in those fields. The AAUW report focused more on factors that can make a difference in the accomplishments of women and girls -- such as learning that ability can grow with effort -- than on differences in innate ability between the sexes. Researchers found that cultural bias -- an underlying impression that women can’t cut the mustard -- had considerable impact. This bias takes root in any who feel themselves to be on shaky ground, as evidenced by a dramatic difference in performance between groups told that men and women have equal abilities in math and science and those told that men are stronger in these areas.

Many I.N.K. writers have devoted their work to science and to telling children about women in the field. Ada Lovelace Day seemed like the right time to ask some of them to spotlight their stars.

Vicki Cobb: I want the world to know more about Marie Curie because of her passion for science that overcame all the roadblocks life and her times threw in her path. As I summed her up in my biography: Poverty didn’t stop her from getting and education. Marriage only enhanced her personal growth; it didn’t stop it. Children didn’t stop her from pursuing a career, and her career didn’t stop her from being a good mother. Lack of money didn’t stop her from building up the Radium Institute into the world’s premier laboratory for research into radioactivity. Illnesses, off and on throughout her life, didn’t stop her. Grief and the loss of a beloved partner didn’t stop her. Above all, being female at a time when women were second-class citizens who didn’t even have the right to vote didn’t stop her. She was in the news because of her achievements, and because she was a woman she became a target for the press… She was not tempted by fame or the possibility of fortune. Marie Curie was a truly worthy role model for generations to come.

Deborah Heiligman: I would like the world to know more about Barbara McClintock, the geneticist who was the first woman to win an unshared Nobel Prize in the category of Physiology or Medicine. O.K., the way I wrote that, it (and she) sounds dry, but let me tell you, Barbara McClintock, and the story of her hard work and long-delayed recognition, is anything but dry. Barbara McClintock won the Nobel Prize for a discovery she had made decades earlier. She discovered "jumping genes" and it took most other scientists decades to realize she was right. The most amazing part of her story is that even though she was pretty much ignored, and even ridiculed at times, she kept on working on her beloved maize to hone her discovery. How did she have such perseverance? She loved her work, and, as she once said, "I knew it would all come out in the wash." And it did. Her discovery led to great advances in science, especially in studies of cancer, AIDs and other fields of medicine. You can read more about her in my book, Barbara McClintock: Alone in Her Field. I wrote the book because I really wanted to know what kind of person keeps going, working alone, even though no one else understands or appreciates what she is doing. The book is out of print, but if you can't find it in your library, email me. I have some copies.

Tanya Lee Stone: I want kids to know about Rosalind Franklin because her research was paramount to the discovery of the structure of DNA. This London-born female scientist was not given proper credit alongside Francis Crick and James Watson even though some of her data was instrumental in Crick and Watson constructing their DNA model. Learn more about Rosalind Franklin in the children's book Rosalind Franklin by Lara Anderson and the brand-new adult book The Madame Curie Complex: The Hidden History of Women in Science, by Julie Des Jardins.

Karen Romano Young: I want the world to know about Marie Tharp (shown in the picture above), who drew the first image of the ocean floor. It was the U.S. Navy’s Matthew Maury who first mapped the North Atlantic by dropping weighted lines and measuring how far they went, and using his data to draw a profile. In the 1940s and 50s, scientists Maurice Ewing and Bruce Heezen used sonar massively increased Maury’s data to confirm the existence of the underwater mountain chain now known as the MidAtlantic Ridge. Nowadays, we use satellite data to see detailed false-color images of the ocean floor. Ewing and Heezen’s data wound up on the desk of Marie Tharp, who painstakingly drew and painted them into a map by hand, revealing the rift valley that lay between the MidAtlantic range -- and which would later be revealed as a vital center of previously unknown life. There’s more in my books Small Worlds: Maps and Mapmaking and in Across the Wide Ocean: the Why, How, and Where of Navigation for Humans and Animals at Sea.

I also want to mention Temple Grandin, for her kindness to animals, advocacy for them, and contribution to the understanding of different thinkers, including people with autism like herself, whose unique way of seeing the world allows them to make exceptional contributions and encourages the rest of us to take a look at our own thinking and how we, too, can contribute through our own uniqueness. To read Grandin’s book Thinking in Pictures and Other Reports from My Life with Autism is to find all kinds of shared attributes -- when my father read it he decided he, too, might be autistic -- but also to be awed at the way this woman has learned to understand her own mind. As someone who continually struggles with feeling like I don’t have the right kind of mind for certain subjects (history and linear processes in particular), Grandin helped me to look more closely at what I am good at, and to find ways to value and emphasize my strengths.

I hope Ada Lovelace Day inspires other people to spread the word about finding your own strengths in the sciences.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Whose Got Issues?

I was really excited to be involved from the beginning with our Reading Club unit on social issues. I think discussing the variety of race, ethnic, language, physical, emotional and social differences among kids is critical for elementary school children. And I believe I knew an effective way to introduce these issues.

I had been waiting to fit in some of my favorite nonfiction books into a lesson and this seemed like the perfect opportunity. I mean, who has more social issues than famous people? There are many excellent picture book biographies that talk about the struggles well-known people went through as children. As usual, it's better than the stuff people make up.

So I brought in some of my favorite biographies to share with the students. I introduced each book by talking about some of the social issues faced by the boy or girl in the book and then gave their name and what they had accomplished with their lives. It was a very successful strategy to get the kids thinking about these famous people as ordinary kids who all struggled with something. First I read Odd Boy Out by Don Brown, about a young boy named Albert Einstein. He had so many social issues we had a long list before we were halfway through the story. They were excited to see books about people they had heard of like Vincent Van Gogh and Teddy Roosevelt and intrigued by others I introduced to them with names like Dizzy Gillespe and Woody Guthrie.

They asked if we could read one more book. Taking a quick group vote we chose Eleanor by Barbara Cooney. After reading the moving biography of Eleanor Roosevelt's difficult childhood, I could tell the kids and I had a shared respect for her.

The next day I was pleased to hear students speak thoughtfully on both Albert and Eleanor when Mr. B continued the discussion on social issues. Reading about real people had opened the discussion to discrimination and prejudices on a more personal level. In other words, it had started them thinking. Mission accomplished.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Happy Pi Day!

In case you missed it, March 14th was an important international holiday. Every year, math enthusiasts worldwide celebrate the date as Pi Day. March 14th. 3/14. 3.14. Pi. Get it? If you'd like a higher degree of accuracy, you can celebrate Pi Minute at 1:59 on that date (as in 3.14159). Or why not Pi Second at 26 seconds into the Pi Minute (3.1415926)?

“It’s crazy! It’s irrational!” crows the website of the Exploratorium, San Francisco’s famously quirky hands-on science museum. The Exploratorium invented the holiday twenty-one years ago. In a delightful coincidence, Pi Day coincides with Albert Einstein's birthday. Exploratorium revelers circumambulate the "Pi Shrine" 3.14 times while singing Happy Birthday to Albert.

Pi Day celebrations have spread to schools. Just over a year ago, I visited Singapore American School to give a week's worth of presentations and I found parent volunteers serving pie to appreciative students whose math teachers were trying to sweeten their understanding of the world’s most famous irrational number. Just as pi is endless, so is the list of activities, from memory challenges and problem solving to finding how pi is connected to hat size ... and writing a new form of poetry called “pi-ku," which uses a 3-1-4 syllable pattern instead of haiku’s 5-7-5.

It's Pi Day!
math's mysteries.

It is indeed the mysteriousness of pi that makes it so fascinating. For 3,500 years, according to David Blatner, author of The Joy of Pi, pi-lovers have tried to solve the "puzzle of pi" -- calculating the exact ratio of a circle's circumference to its diameter. But there is no such thing as "exact." No matter how successful, pi can only be estimated.

A refresher course for the pi-challenged: The 16th letter of the Greek alphabet, π or “pi,” is used to represent the number you get when you divide a circle’s circumference (the distance around) by its diameter (distance across, through the center). Try it on any circle with a ruler and string and you'll get something a little over 3 1/8 or approximately 22/7 (some have therefore proposed the 22nd of July for Pi Day). Measured with a little more precision, the ratio comes out to 3.14. But don’t stop there. Pi is an irrational number, meaning that, expressed as a decimal, its digits go on forever without a repeating pattern. Hence the obsession of some with memorizing pi to 100, even 1,000 places. As a Pi Day gift from 5th graders at a school I visited this year on March 15th, I received a sheet of paper with pi written out to 10,000 digits. In 2002, a computer scientist found 1.24 trillion digits. Never mind that astrophysicists calculating the size of galaxies don't seem to need an accuracy of pi any greater than 10 to 15 digits. Playing with pi offers endless hours of good, clean mathematical fun. So what if it's irrational.

Happy (belated) Pi Day, everybody!

Friday, March 19, 2010

Pearls of Wisdom from I.N.K. Bloggers

Back in March, 2008, in one of my first I.N.K. blogs, Truth or Fiction??, I went on a rant about the publication of adult books purported to be memoirs that turned out to be fiction.
This is how I began: "This morning in the New York Times I read about another outed memoirist, Margaret B, Jones, whose account of life as a foster child growing up in the drug infested L.A. projects, Love and Consequences, turns out to be pure fiction. This follows on the footsteps of another recent fabrication, Misha Defonseca’s Misha:A Memoir of the Holocaust, which includes a story about being raised by wolves. Wolves? Did anybody who read it believe this? Meanwhile I’m slogging away with my writing partner Sandra Jordan, trying to copyedit for the twentieth time every detail, including a complicated List of Artworks, Bibliography, Quotes, text and more of a non-fiction project Christo and Jeanne-Claude:Through The Gates and Beyond."
Sue Macy responded to my blog the next day. Here is an excerpt from her thoughtful essay. “In recent years, the trend in kids’ nonfiction has been toward more attribution and accountability. When my editors first told me they would require footnotes for quotations and statistics, I balked, flashing back to those long ago days of writing college papers. But now I embrace the chance to hold the veracity of my work up to public scrutiny by including footnotes and inviting readers to e-mail me with questions about sources. And when those sources conflict with no clear consensus, as in the spelling of Annie Oakley’s real last name (Moses or Mozee), I do my best to report the disagreement and explain why I chose the option I did. In kids’ nonfiction, honesty is the best policy and accuracy always matters.”
Just a month ago the New York Times reported another case of fiction disguised as non-fiction. When this was revealed by historians, veterans, and scientists denouncing the book, “The Last Train from Hiroshima,” its’ author, Charles Pellegrino, said he was duped by a source. The man claimed to have substituted for the plane’s regular flight engineer on the bombing run to Hiroshima. He turned out to be an imposter. Experts pointed out other factual and technical errors. Henry Holt & Company stopped printing and selling the book. (Guess who wanted to make a movie out of it? Hint: Who produced Avatar?)
Does this happen in children’s book publishing? My research tells me there have been cases of plagiary accusations in fiction for children. (But very few.) If there have been scandals in non-fiction books for young readers, I cannot find any documentation. That doesn’t mean they don’t exist. But reading through the many commentaries on research by participating authors of I.N.K., I have been impressed, even awed, by their diligent, creative, and passionate research and fact-finding. You can read some of my past blogs on the subject, as well as one by Sandra Jordan, by highlighting my name in the sidebar. Here are some of my favorite nuggets of wisdom gleaned from this group of dedicated non-fiction writers.
David Schwartz: “To rewrite Kenneth Grahame’s delightful line (which, as it happens, was spoken by the character Mole in Wind in the Willows), “There is nothing—absolutely nothing—half so much worth doing as messing about in boats.” In this case, Grahame’s ode to blissful aimlessness might be rewritten for researchers as “There is nothing so delightful — or fruitful — as messing about in libraries.”
Cheryl Harness: “I grew up reading the encyclopedia just for fun. In all my books (40 or so) through the years, I always begin my research with a regular, old, paper World Book. It gives me more than enough information with which to make my outline.” (told to me by Cheryl at the Warrensburg Children Literature Festival on March 16.)
Gretchen Woelfle: “An old adage tells us to write about what we know. I disagree. I choose to write about what I don’t know, but want to learn. Full disclosure: I – and other writers I could name, but won’t – enjoy research at least as much, and sometimes more than, writing. Especially when it means traveling to beauty spots like the Pacific Northwest.”

Melissa Stewart: “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.”

Barbara Kerley: “A picture book biographer, constrained by the physical limitations of the genre (these books are short!), looks for a theme to carry the book, a simple concept to give focus and clarity to a complex life.”

Deborah Heiligman: “Writing fiction is about looking at people and asking what makes them tick. Writing biography is exactly the same, only you can’t make anything up. Writing all non-fiction is about asking questions you don’t have the answers to. So you have to do research to find out. For that all it takes is being nosy…….
Reading primary sources—letters, journals, diaries—is heaven to a nosy person. Reading primary sources is a fantastic way for a writer to get great material, unique insights, and, we hope, give the world valuable new information.And it’s completely legitimate! And legal! And moral!Unlike reading a person’s journal just because she left it lying around….”

Suzanna Reich: “ Dr. Troccoli's talk traced intriguing connections between Clinton and Catlin. But what struck me was the way it showed that studying history is like holding a prism that refracts light in all directions. By looking closely at any one incident in a person's life, you can find myriad connections to other people, places, and events. This is why scholars constantly re-examine familiar texts and mine old information for new insights, and why nonfiction authors tromp through cemeteries, always on the hunt for a good story.”

Tanya Lee Stone: “On the Internet, to be sure, one can learn a little bit about a lot of things. But it takes the skill and craft and research and patience and love of a writer dedicated to learning every possible piece of a story to put it together with context and meaning in a way that kids will find engaging.”

Susan E. Goodman: “The Internet will never replace the depth and perspective that you can get in books. Or the immediacy you get in primary documents. Or the detail you get from interviews. And, yes, I understand and always explain to kids that not all web sites are created equal and must be checked for accuracy. for space info, yes. SpaceshotBob’, no….That said, let me mention a few ways Google has changed my life. A while ago, I was reading a book and noticed an anecdote in a footnote that seemed like a promising book idea. I googled the author of this book, got his email address and was soon told this story came from a monograph. He knew the name of the guy who wrote it and that he taught in Denmark. No problem, a Google search quickly gave me his email address at University of Copenhagen. Within two days of my seeing this citation, its author offered me a copy—in English or Danish, no less.”

And to make it even more fun, we help each other out!!!!

Thursday, March 18, 2010

It all started with the Big BANG!

You might not think that watching the average sitcom on a school night would provoke any thoughts about nonfiction, but stranger things have happened. The other night The Big Bang Theory came on, with its stupendous theme song by The Barenaked Ladies, or as many affectionately refer to them, the BNL.

Now there’s not much nonfiction content in the actual show, even though the main characters are astrophysicists, aside from a few stray facts here and there. But that theme song packs a wallop. And thinking about the lyrics got me thinking about a few nonfiction books that do a bang up job of getting kids to pay attention to the Big Bang Theory for real.
Of course, there is The Universe by the indomitable Seymour Simon.
Big Bang: The Story of the Universe by Nigel Henbest and Heather Cooper is good for the YA audience, and will challenge readers.

There is also: Big Bang! The Tongue-Tickling Tale of a Speck That Became Spectacular, by Carolyn Cinami Decristofano, illustrated by Michael Carroll, which takes kids on a wild ride in a picture book about the origins of the universe.

And last but not least, is a book by fellow INKer Steve Jenkins. Life on Earth: The Story of Evolution

Happy Thinking!

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The art of diversity

In this third post about the process of illustration, we’ll take a look at books that feature diverse cultures. 
Written by Geneva Cobb Iijima and illustrated by Paige Billin-Frye, The Way We Do it in Japan is about a boy whose family moves from San Francisco to Japan and discovers the many differences between the two countries. He is surprised that he has to remove his shoes and wear slippers inside homes, sit on pillows at the table, take a shower before entering the bath, and other puzzling requirements.

Paige consulted several people who had lived in Japan and became invaluable resources in the quest for visual accuracy. For example, one friend lent her some yen and demonstrated how a typical lunch was packed and eaten. A museum with a timely exhibition of a Japanese house and school room allowed the artist to photograph her son sitting at the low table, eating with chopsticks, standing by the tub, and other scenes.

Soap, Soap, Soap: Jabón, Jabón, Jabón, written and illustrated by Elizabeth O. Dulemba, tells the story of Hugo. He keeps forgetting what he is supposed to buy at the store, but mishaps along the way keep reminding him. Set in a small rural town, the story is told primarily in English with some Spanish words in rojo.

Elizabeth says about making sketches, “I prefer the wonky interpretation my brain comes up with and find that if I use too much photo reference, it takes the life out of my drawings. So, I wait to look at photos until later, just to make sure I get the details right.“ The illustrations were digitally painted during seven months of very long hours. A trailer for the book plus several activities are available on her site.

The Best Eid Ever was written by Asma Mobin-Uddin and illustrated by Laura Jacobsen. It tells the story of a girl who spends the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha with her grandmother.

Laura explains that she had to do a great deal of research in addition to the input from the author, who provided photographs of her daughter posing in various outfits and of her mosque. There were several pages of revisions after the first sketch phase to correct details such as not showing feet (which is considered insulting.) For more information about the book, see this page on Laura’s site.

In Grandmother, Have the Angels Come?, written by Denise Vega and illustrated by Erin Eitter Kono, the grandmother gently reassures her granddaughter about the aging process. 

Erin researched the traditional dress of the Purhépechas peoples in Mexico for the characters’ clothing. Inspired by a line in the story, she incorporated Monarch butterflies which are seen as symbolizing the souls of departed loved ones, and also because of their famous migration through Mexico. She  collected reference photos of the textiles, pottery, folk art, and glassware of the Michoacan region to add to her illustrations.

This is the final post (for now, anyway) about how illustrators go about creating the art for their books. Thanks again to my colleagues of the Picture Book Artists Association for sharing a little bit about their process. (Apologies for not having any books with an Irish theme today... please don’t pinch me!)

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Another Modest Proposal On Doing Research with Kids

I promised to follow up on my Oh Wow notes post and my MODEST PROPOSAL post about how to separate the research piece from the writing piece when working with children. As many people pointed out, the tips I've given are really insider tips--we professional writers work this way, or variations of this way.

So I'm going to surprise you with this suggestion, I bet, but I did hint at it. When you are ready to have your kids write up something based on their research, tell them to put away their notes. Or better yet, HIDE THEIR NOTES!


When I sit down to write a first draft of a book, I hide my own notes. I know I can always go back and check on the facts that I don't remember, so I put a little tk if I don't remember, say, a birthdate, or a place, or even a sequence of events. (That stands for to come. Why is it a K? I don't know! O.K., I had to go look it up. Here's what Media Bistro says: TK: A place marker used in drafts of an article to indicate missing information. It's short for tokum, which is the intentional misspelling of "to come," as in "more info to come.")

The idea is this: the meat of the story, the things that made you go OH WOW will stick with you, and you will pour that out in a first draft. And you (or they) will do it in your (their) own words! In their own words. Not copying from a source. [Bells ring, fireworks go off, teachers sigh with happiness....]

You're skeptical that kids will remember enough, aren't you? Start short and small, and start with topics they're already familiar with just as we did in my modest proposal. AND here's another idea: have them TELL it, not write it. Depending on your set-up if you're a teacher in a classroom, and depending on the atmosphere of the class, you can have each child stand up and tell a few things about her topic, just from memory. Or you could divide them into pairs or groups. If the kids are old enough, have one person in the pair or group write down what the researcher says aloud.

If you're doing this at home with one or two kids, it's easy. Have them just tell you all the things they remember and you can write it down in their words.

If you have a tape recorder use that.

The idea, to repeat myself, is that what you remember is the juicy stuff. That's what you want kids to write down. That's what people want to read, isn't it?

If your situation is such that you can't have the kids say it aloud, have them write down what they remember. That's the first draft. The second draft is going back to the notes and putting in the tks and other things that they (or you) think should be there.

Do NOT make a list of things that must be there, though. Or at least don't make a long list. If it's about someONE, sure, say they should include birth date and death date. But that's it. The idea here is to get kids away from copying things from books, from writing things in other people's words or voices. The idea here is to get kids used to writing things in their own words, in their own voices. The way to do it is to hide the notes.

Trust me.

When this posts, I will be away, in hiding, without my computer, in an undisclosed location. It's called a vacation. For four whole days! And then I will be at the Virginia Festival of the Book (come say hi if you're there. I'm on two panels.)

Anyway, I will answer questions, or defend myself, either in between the two trips or when I get back.

Monday, March 15, 2010

For Those of Us Who Were Born as Girls

So, by official decree, this being Women's History Month (also, I've read, Irish-American Heritage month and the time of year in which we are to be particularly aware of the American Red Cross and Colorectal Cancer), I most respectfully wish to call your attention to a few of the dames, written about by my fellow INKers. Many a young citizen has learned more about Pocahontas (Do you yearn, as I do, to know what she really looked like?), Hillary Clinton, and sister presidential candidate, Victoria Woodhull; thanks to Kathleen Krull. Determined dames, Annie Oakley, Nellie Bly, and many an athlete: We know them better thanks to the efforts of Sue Macy. Me, I contented myself with brief introductions (threaded into a social history) of 100 American women and girls in my Remember the Ladies. (Me favorite page? All 100 of them, all together, on a pair o' pages at the back o' the book. Did I tell you that me ancestor, Eliza Stewart came over from Ireland, County Tyrone, in 1825? Well, that she did.)
Helen's Eyes, Marfé Ferguson Delano helped us see into the lives of Annie Sullivan and her student, Helen Keller. Tanya Lee Stone shone her bright light on the life of Amelia Earhart (Where the heck is she anyway?), upon 13 Women who were Almost Astronauts, and upon the great Ella Fitzgerald. Thanks be to all that's holy that we live in an era in which Ella's music was clearly captured before she left the world's stage. None of us can hear how beautifully Clara Wieck Schumann played the piano. Look at those still, pale fingers in the picture here, belying the strength and wisdom they contained. Stuck here in the present, we can only imagine her and her music, but we're better able to do so, with the help of Susanna Reich's biography. And why should we bother? Why should we reflect upon the spirits and stories that lie behind the calm, pretty (more or less) faces in those antique photographs, tintypes, paintings, and engravings? Because they lived and their lives shine down the years, illuminating ours with their courage, their examples, if only we'll look and read, learn and reflect.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Thank You, David Small

One of the first entries I wrote for this blog was about reading Philip Isaacson’s Round Buildings, Square Buildings, and Buildings that Wiggled like a Fish long ago—how its beauty and complexity blew me away and made me realize that nonfiction for kids could be an art form and I wanted to try writing it.

When Stitches was nominated for a National Book Award in the kids category, I figured I should read it. I had read a few graphic novels before, some okay, some very good, but they didn’t change my reading habits much. No aspersions cast, there are many types of books I don’t read much.

Stitches had me at hello. I would love to say it was literary merit alone, but it was actually because Small's first spread had a single word on it—DETROIT. I live in Boston now, but come from Detroit and have very strong feelings about it.

His second spread had a panel with a row of postwar houses built for returning GIs—one of them looked exactly my childhood house. As subsequent panels slowly drew us toward and inside his home, I noticed his address was 19458. Mine was 18073. As a nonfiction writer, it didn’t take long for me to find out that Small had lived on Pinehurst, not my street, Sorrento. Nevertheless, the hook was set.

It was Small’s story and how he told it that reeled me in, though. Especially that amazing interplay between word and image, where pictures are telling the story, then language carries the narrative baton for a little while, only to pass it off to an image where emotion and action are so perfectly aligned that it takes you someplace else entirely. I was trying to explain this to a friend and she said, “Like a picture is worth a thousand words, basically?” “No,” I answered. “Like the picture does something no words could do.” Examples in this book—pp 62-63, 174, and 250 for starters.

This is not a new insight. Millions (multi-millions) have always known it and I guess I did to. But there’s a difference between knowing something and feeling the one-two punch of its impact, especially within the context of a story. Thank you, David Small, for whacking me over the head.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

A 'Detective' Weighs In

I recently had the pleasure of hearing a talk about narrative nonfiction by Paul Collins—a professor at Portland State University, author of five books, and, if that isn’t enough, National Public Radio’s Weekend Edition Saturday “Literary Detective.”

Collins gave his lecture as part of the Multnomah County Library’s Everybody Reads program.

He presented an engaging overview of narrative nonfiction—nonfiction that tells a story—and discussed just how narrative nonfiction authors bring their stories to life.

Here are my notes (with apologies to Mr. Collins, who was way more insightful and engaging than the snippets below will reflect)…

* Narrative nonfiction is storytelling using facts. It is based in scenes, with characters and dialog, and thus is novelistic or cinematic. Instead of summarizing events, it places the reader in the scene, among the people. Unlike a novel, however, a narrative nonfiction storyteller must work strictly from facts.

* Not every event can be written about using a narrative nonfiction approach. In order to work as a story, there needs to be:
-- a specific setting
-- identifiable characters, and ideally a central character to hang the story around (a protagonist, as it were)
-- a beginning, middle, and end

*So just how does a narrative nonfiction author gather the facts needed to recreate a specific setting and the characters who people the story?

Through research. (And from what Collins described, plenty of it—he talked about a trip to New York City where for weeks, he showed up at the NY Public Library as soon as it opened each morning and stayed until closing, reading microfilm literally all day long, and then returning to his hotel room utterly spent.)

To gather enough facts to recreate a single scene, an author might:
-- interview participants
-- read letters, reports, and accounts written at the time
-- check a census or other history of area
-- utilize new digital sources to search for nuggets of information (more on that below)

From these sources, an author can begin to get a sense of how to place the reader in that scene, among the people. For example:

-- an interview could provide a wealth of information: who was there, what mood they were in, what people said (the ‘dialog’ for the scene), etc.
-- letters/reports/accounts can provide similar facts (and are especially helpful if there is no one available to interview)
-- a census or history of the area provides additional details that can be used to recreate a scene. (An example Collins gave was a historian learning that a horse stable/blacksmith were across the street from the event he was writing about, which let him know that in the scene he was recreating, there would be the background sounds of the blacksmith clanging and horses clopping down the street. These kinds of sensory details go a long way toward placing the reader in the scene.)

Also helpful to narrative nonfiction authors, and especially to historians, are all the new digitized books and newspapers, because they allow authors to search in whole new ways, accessing information that is not, and probably never will be, indexed.

In searching digitized newspapers, an author can type in a character’s name, or the street address of an event, and pull up articles and even relevant advertising. (Collins described how one such ad for a hardware store in the 1800s—the setting of one of his scenes—included a drawing of the inside of the store, right in the ad. It was a bonanza of information that he might not have had access to before newspapers were digitized.)

Digitized newspapers include the New York Times and the Washington Post, and sources such as the Library of Congress and a fee-based service, Newspaper Archive (dot) com.

Similarly, a keyword search in google books can point an author toward, say, a mention of their main character in someone else’s memoir—the kind of information that is not indexed.

Collins’s talk gave me a greater appreciation for the amount of work narrative nonfiction authors do to create each scene—literary detectives, indeed.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Ink Think Tank's Newest Link

When I visit a school, I'm always happy to see a classroom library in addition to the school library. Then I know the teacher understands the importance of books other than texts to the learning of children. When I see that at least some of those books are nonfiction trade books, I rejoice, because I see that the teacher realizes the special benefits of combining the learning of literacy skills with learning "cool facts." When children's innate curiosity about the world is stimulated, they want to learn more, which means reading more. When this happens, they can learn about curriculum subjects at the same time as they develop their reading skills. And when the teacher has a classroom library at her disposal, she can immediately provide the child with just the right book to satisfy his curiosity and keep him reading.

I'm especially aware of this effect because as a child, I wasn't in the least bit interested in "story books." I wanted to learn about "real" things, not read made-up stories. My favorite birthday or Christmas gift was a big fat book filled with color photos of butterflies or frogs and lots of information about the subject matter. The kinds of nonfiction trade books we write today were rare back then, so I sometimes I had to struggle to understand the text of the books, but I worked at it because I wanted to learn.

Because of my background and my convictions, I'm especially delighted to let you know that the final links have been formed to connect our database with our book supplier, Mackin. Now it's easy to purchase any of our books you want.

The process is simple. Just go to to register. You don't have to be a teacher or librarian to use the system; anyone is welcome. After you register, you can sign on right away, click on "Use database," and proceed. Choose the grade level(s) and either search terms or curriculum needs from the detailed form and the system will generate a list of our books that meet your needs. You can choose those you want to purchase and order them or print out a list of books for your own reference or for your school librarian to purchase--it's simple.

As you are transferred over to Mackin’s website to place your order, you will most likely notice that your total order amount will change. This is because the prices on Mackin’s website are already discounted up to 35% off list price for your added benefit.

So even if you're not in the market for books, try out the new system and discover the resources that are now available so easily for us all.

Friday, March 5, 2010

The Birth of a Blockhead

This month, I happily cede my space on this blog to a friend and former Scholastic colleague, Joe (Joseph) D'Agnese, in honor of the upcoming publication of his long-awaited picture book, Blockhead: The Life of Fibonacci (Holt BYR) on March 30. Enjoy!
--Sue Macy

I have a confession to make. I don't belong here. I wanted to write a nonfiction book, honest, but something got the better of me: a divine being more powerful than us all.

In 1996, I was floundering with a manuscript on the life of the medieval mathematician Leonardo of Pisa, better known as Fibonacci. Leonardo helped convert Europe from I-II-III to 1-2-3, and bequeathed to us the world's most important nonentity:
zero. Without it, we'd have no concept of place value. He is best known for a problem about multiplying rabbits, and the number pattern derived from it called the Fibonacci Sequence.

My dilemma was two-fold: First, Leonardo never knew that Fibonacci numbers recur in nature. Either I wrote about Fibonacci or I wrote about the Sequence. I had trouble unifying the two because it didn't happen that way.

Second, facts on Leonardo's life are sparce: He grew up in Pisa, sailed to Algeria to keep his merchant father's accounts, and later traveled the world studying mathematics. A few of his math tomes have survived, but they tell us little of his internal life. To write a picture book about him, one ought to know what made him tick.

What, I wondered, drives a person to chase numbers across the seas?

I was intrigued by Leonardo's Latin nickname, Bigollus. A funny name could make a good book title, but I couldn't find an authoritative translation. The Fibonacci Association offered an expert. I dreaded making that call. I'm not a mathematician. Indeed, who was I to write such a book?

Herta Taussig Freitag, a professor emeritus of mathematics, took the call in Virginia. She had a thick German accent, and proved to be a delightful, friendly, patient person who was tickled to be speaking with a (then) editor of a math magazine for children. She had wanted to be a teacher of mathematics since age 12. We had a long chat, and she reassured me that no one was satisfied with the translation of Fibonacci's nickname. It could mean "wanderer," "daydreamer," or "absent-minded." The words seemed in line with modern stereotypes of academics.

Days later, a note from the professor came in the mail. "As I have said over the phone," it read in part, "I feel like praising you and thanking you for doing such valuable service to our Goddess Mathesis!"

The note cheered me. Mathesis is a feminine divine creature said to inspire math scholars. She inspired me now: What if Fibonacci knew the secret of his famous numbers all along? What if this book was in fact his sly manifesto written only for children?

I've never told anyone the secret of my numbers, he could say, but now I've told you.

Having Fibonacci speak directly to the reader could make the book playful. Kids--not to mention a certain octogenarian academic--might like it. The manuscript came together nicely, and a year or so later, Holt offered to publish it. I called it Blockhead. An illustrator got to work on the sketches. I phoned the professor to tell her the news. It had been a while since our first talk, and her fragile voice spoke volumes. I rang off, apologizing for disturbing her. She and I never spoke again. She died in 2000 at the age of 91.

Soon after, the book became a problem project, dragging on for years with little progress. Finally, the illustrator quit, forcing us to start from scratch. All told, the book took fourteen years to come to fruition. I was frustrated and angry, but now consider myself fortunate. I had time to polish the prose, understand my hero, and learn about the woman who brought Mathesis to my doorstep.

Professor Freitag had earned a degree in mathematics in Austria, but fled her homeland after Hitler's invasion. For six years, she put her dream of teaching on hold while working as a domestic in England, angling for a visa to the USA. She finally came by freighter. She earned her PhD at Columbia University at age 45. She built the math department at Hollins University in Roanoke, and for decades inspired young women. She published papers well into her last decade, gave a "last lecture" for 20 years, and never missed a meeting of the Fibonacci Association. (This color photo of her was taken in Lucca, Italy, during a conference at Leonardo's hometown, Pisa.)

How can I complain about a book's long genesis? Imagine leaving your home forever, and putting your career on hold for six years while you worked as a chambermaid. How many of us would have given up? Yet she clung to her passion.

With time I came to understand him through her. A young boy boards a medieval ship and sets sail on a journey to a faraway land. A young woman steps on a freighter bound for New York with only $10 in her purse. I picture them both and know they are plying the seas toward something only they can hear: the ancient call of Mathesis.

I now believe that Mathesis speaks to us all. She is Passion, Inspiration, Imagination, and she strikes young and old alike. Hand a book to a child and you never know what will enchant them. With her voice in their ears, some kids chase math, others art, still others music, rocks, dance, nuclear physics, whatever. She goes by various names, but she is the same goddess.

You can download a bibliography of other Fibonacci books for kids and a Fibonacci scavenger hunt on the teacher page of Joe's website.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Good Writing is Memorable: Scientific Proof

When we posted the Ink Think Tank website we included a link to articles supporting our contention that literature enhances learning. Recently I was informed of another study that is quite convincing. I cite the original study below, but the results were succinctly summed up by Marjorie Scardino, a former editor of a Pulizer prize-winning newspaper and the first female CEO of a Fortune 100 company, when she gave the keynote address at an award dinner in 1998 at the Columbia University School of Journalism. She said in part:

Having looked for many years for a way to prove the obvious truth – that journalists tell it better, I finally have found, while rambling through the field of education, scientific proof:
About 10 years ago there was a study done – documented in education journals, in fact, though with little publicity – about how people best learn history.

The study went like this: three pairs of writers, each representing different training and therefore different styles, taught a history lesson to students in their own way, and the results were calculated.

The first pair was text linguists, people who are trained in linguistics and psychology and tend to take a structured, formal approach to writing and language. They think about writing, but they don’t teach people how to write.

The second pair was college composition teachers. They were trained in English or education. They tended to focus on the process one goes through in writing rather than the product produced. They did teach people to write, using this process approach.

The third pair was magazine editors, from Time magazine, in fact. Their training ranged generally through a liberal arts education, and they learned much of their craft on-the-job. They wrote for a living, and their job was to get the story told memorably … and quickly.

These three pairs were asked to re-write two passages from a U.S. history book to make them more readable, understandable and most of all memorable. To aid learning.

One of the passages dealt mainly with the end of the Korean war and problems over Formosa; and the other dealt with early American involvement in the Vietnam war.

The pairs were then matched with groups of [300] 16-17 year-old students, who were asked to judge their work. For each pair, one group read the original passages, and the other read the revisions. They then immediately wrote down everything they remembered from the passages, and the number of ideas they had retained were scored. Although I’m simplifying, I’m assured the methodology was kosher.

Without going through the intricacies of how each revision team worked, the results were stark:
1) Students reading the text linguists’ revision recalled 2% more than those reading the original versions, a trivial difference
2) Students reading the composition instructors’ revisions recalled 2% less than those reading the originals. Wrong direction, and also not significant.
3) Students reading the magazine editors’ versions, however, recalled 40% more than those reading the originals.

Needless to say, the academics were dismayed, and they wanted another chance. So the study was run again, with the same methodology.

The second time, with the benefit of learning what the successful versions had been, there was a little change for the academics, but not much. The basic results were exactly the same.
So while this could be an advertisement for the brilliance of journalists, it is probably better used as a reminder, to us as publishers as much as anyone, of the importance of presentation to substance. The power of clarity and style.

I believe the lesson is that Bagehot [the nineteenth century British financial and political essayist for whom the award being given at this dinner is named] wrote clearly about the most complex subjects because he had something to steer by. He related everything to the human condition, to being human. Common sense and a little bit of history informed him. Nothing more complicated.

"The knack in style," he said, "is to write like a human being. Some think they must be wise, some elaborate, some concise. But legibility is given to those who neglect these notions, and are willing to be themselves, to write their own thoughts in their own words, in the simplest words, in the words wherein they were thought in the first place."

The original study was done in 1988 by seven academics at five different universities. But science is science. Time doesn’t change the significance of the work of Galileo or Darwin. This study seems quite relevant to me over twenty years later. What amazes me is that there are editors and educators out there who still don’t get it. Good writing and high interest stories trump low reading levels and student apathy and enable higher performance on assessment tests. Duh!

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

On Looking good from the Waist up Whilst Wearing Running Pants and Tennis Shoes

Last week, my fellow I.N.K. blogger Vicki Cobb and I tried out something new—at least, it was new for me. We walked over to our very own computers in our very own home offices and put on a live joint videoconference with a group of curriculum specialists, media specialists, and techies down in Allendale, South Carolina.

Vicki lives in New York where it was about to snow. I live in Virginia where the side roads were still impassable from our own monster blizzard. But all the little video interconnections and sample slide shows and cameras and sound systems and live shots of the participants worked just fine—and we never even had to leave home. Besides that, the audience members could ask questions and make comments as though they were sitting next to us in the same room. It was all very laid back and friendly, and the audience was terrific too. (Fortunately, they couldn’t see our shoes.) How cool is that?

Our specific goal was to do what we often do for teachers when we go far far away from home; present a sampling of great ways to get kids so excited about learning that they can’t wait to come to class. Vicki introduced some amazing hands-on science experiments kids can try out in class using everyday items (think plastic bags, paper cups, and toilet paper)! I introduced some wild factoids about famous people from history that can wake up any kid, and I also revealed a few secret tricks teachers can use to help themselves become amazing storytellers—and nonfiction storytellers at that.

Our more general goal was to do a test run on an upcoming offering from INK THINK TANK called INK LINK: Authors on Call. Even though we won’t be hanging out our shingle until mid-April, we were very excited about this trial run. We’re hoping to bring high quality award-winning non-fiction into the classroom. Seems like most schools feature fiction instead! If you’re reading this blog, well, you are probably already a kindred spirit.

Videoconferencing is an exciting technology, I think. I shall now put my hand over my heart and announce that if we can get this project on just the right track, we’ll be able to let groups enter a “virtual classroom” with one or more of our Authors on Call, who will share their experiences, wisdom, and insights, enhanced by a colorful array of slides and other visuals.

Besides that, audience members will be able to make comments or ask questions to some truly inspiring and informative nonfiction authors. And our videoconferencing packages will offer in-services, panel discussions and much more to teachers and other professionals. We’d also like to provide virtual assembly programs for children at a fraction of the cost of an actual school visit. That way, people of every age will have a chance to see, hear, question and interact with well-known authors from afar, as if they were sitting together right in the same room the way we did last week. So far the future is looking very's hoping we're ready to come out dancing!