Friday, April 30, 2010

You're STILL Working on the Same Book?

As writers of nonfiction for children, we all know that when people ask us, “What do you do?” and we answer, “I write children’s books,” the next question that comes tumbling out is, “So what are you working on now?” Several times when I’ve responded, “I just finished updating a nonfiction science-based book of mine that was published some fifteen years ago” and go on to say that I’d spent four months doing so, people look incredulous. Their responses range from, “You’re still working on the same book?” to “Why change it at all if it’s still in print and doing well?” to “Aren’t you bored with the topic?”

The truth is that when I wrote IT’S PERFECTLY NORMAL, Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, and Sexual Health many long years ago, I never, ever thought I would STILL be working on the same book some fifteen years later. But soon after the book was published, I read in the newspaper that new methods of contraception were available. And that’s when I realized that as an nonfiction author, it was my responsibility to make sure that kids and teens, the audiences for this book, would have the latest and most accurate science and medical information in order to help them stay healthy. At that moment I knew that as long as this book was in print and went back to reprint, I would have more work to do.

But I figured that since I had spent so many hours, days and years creating this book, any new material that needed to be added would be easy as pie to integrate into the existing book. So no problem. Just write up the new material and plunk it into the book. But doing that was not easy and it did not happen fast. Adding new science material or new legal material still meant hours of research, hours of talking with experts about the new material and how to write about it in an age-appropriate manner, hours pondering over how to say something with as few words as possible while making sure that the science remained accurate, and hours of working with my editor and designer to fit the text and new art by Michael Emberley on existing pages. Each updated or new topic demanded as much work as I had done in the original book.

The most recent topics I’ve added is information about the HPV vaccine and a brand-new chapter on staying safe and healthy on the Internet. (The Internet was not a part of our lives when this book was first written and published.) Once I learned that the HPV vaccine can prevent girls and women from getting HPV and cervical cancer, it was clear to me that girls need to have this information, including the fact that in the U.S., girls as young as nine and women up to age twenty-six can be given this vaccination. So why not just write this up? What else did I need to do? Well, first I had to understand how and to whom the vaccine is given as well as the feelings that girls and parents had about this new vaccine, and then figure out how to write up this material in a nonbiased manner. When I talked with nine and ten-year-old girls, many knew about the vaccine and said things such as, “Hey, it’s just another shot the doctor gives you. And nobody wants to get cancer!” Most pediatricians and parents I talked with agreed that giving the vaccine could keep girls healthy. But other parents were concerned that if girls as young as nine learn that HPV is a sexually transmitted disease, these young girls may become sexually active before it is healthy to do so. And other parents for legitimate religious and cultural reasons choose not to have their daughters vaccinated. I had to take all of this into consideration before adding this new material, and writing it in tone that would not scare kids, but give them the facts they needed.

In the midst of updating IT’S PERFECTLY NORMAL for the recent fifteenth anniversary edition, I realized that given that the Internet is so prevalent in our pre-teens’ and teens’ lives, the only responsible thing for me to do was write a new chapter about staying healthy and safe on the Internet. Everywhere I spoke, parents and educators were highly concerned about the Internet and the number of kids who were sexting, the number of kids who were being bullied, and the inappropriate sites kids and teens were going to. For the most part, kids and teens were not all that concerned, but I felt that they needed to understand the risks and responsibilities for themselves and their friends when it came to Internet use. But how much did I know about this? Not a lot. What would I say about this? I had some ideas. So again, I began to research this topic by talking with kids and teens and their parents and teachers, and to experts who were dealing with these issues. Researching and writing this one chapter took me about four months. One of the biggest challenges to was to acknowledge that while kids and teens can find great and responsible information about sex, sexual health, and puberty on the Internet, they can also find information that is wrong, outdated or even harmful or dangerous. Another challenge was to figure out what to tell kids to do if they land on a site that is upsetting, confusing, scary, or even exciting. This information is now part of the new chapter I wrote called HELPFUL, FUN, CREEPY, DANGEROUS, Getting Information and Staying Safe on the Internet.

This chapter also lets kids know what personal information about themselves or their family and friends is or is not safe to post on the Internet, to text, or send in an e-mail, or in any other electronic form that exists. It also talks about the serious risks that can ensue when kids use the Internet or other electronic devices to communicate with friends or sometimes even with strangers. It states that it is not safe and can even be dangerous to meet someone in person, someone you have met only online. And it counsels them that once information is online in any form—the written word or photos—that something you intended to be private can be sent on to anyone, even other friends, your parents, your principal, or all around the world. That’s why I caution kids to think carefully about what they say or send online about themselves or another person, and that they need to understand that cyber-bullying another person online can be harmful to that person and to themselves as well. And the truth is that no matter how hard it was for me to write that chapter, I loved the challenge and loved writing it.

A couple of times a week, I still find myself scanning the news and reading reproductive and pediatric heath websites. And often, many of the wonderful experts I’ve met over the last twenty years email me when something new comes up that kids and teens need to know about to stay healthy. And then the process of researching and rewriting begins all over again. And the truth is that each time I update the material, it’s still a challenge for me to find the words and tone to talk with today’s kids and teens. But perhaps it’s the challenge that makes me want to do the research and rewrite or perhaps it’s also my sense that kids and teens deserve and have a right to have the latest and best information about their health. So I suspect that soon again, “I’ll be working on the same book.”

—Robie H. Harris

Wednesday, April 28, 2010


I love reading and writing fiction, I love reading and writing nonfiction – as do many of my fellow INK bloggers.

So Rosalyn Schanzer’s blog earlier this month (April 6) on fiction vs. nonfiction got me thinking. I don’t mean to argue with Ros – I agree with everything she said about nonfiction. I guess I just squirm a bit at the “vs” in her title.

The Case for Fiction

Ros and I both write historical fiction and all the delights she described for nonfiction apply. (I expect she would agree.) My first novel, about Elizabethan London, is coming out next year, and I had a glorious time traveling, meeting people, discovering stories, and learning new things – all her nonfiction perks. I’ve got a contemporary novel in-progress and I’ve done all those things for that too.

All my published fiction has been based on actual historical events around which I build a story. In a way, it’s the best of both worlds – I can fill in the gaps and elucidate the history by creating extra characters and scenes, but I can also lean on history to help me construct the plot. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy. (Few things about writing are easy.)

Complaints, Complaints

When I get stuck writing fiction I often complain (to myself) that nonfiction is a whole lot easier, because I know what happens all along the way. When I get stuck writing nonfiction I often complain (to myself) that it’s so much harder relying only on historical evidence – or the lack thereof – and if only I could make it all up! However, after I finish ranting (to myself,) I admit that each genre offers an equal number of challenges – and rewards.

What I Like Best About Each Genre That The Other Doesn’t Offer

Fiction: I love creating dialogue, letting my characters talk it out, joke, complain, argue, and reveal themselves through their conversations.

Nonfiction: I love digging through my heaps of research and turgid first draft to discover the theme of a biography or general nonfiction topic, all the while staying within bounds of the evidence.

As I think about it, writing both fiction and nonfiction probably increases my facility in each genre. Because I write fiction, I find it a bit easier bringing historical figures to life and constructing a narrative arc to tell a nonfiction story. Because I write nonfiction, I know how to ferret out the details of period and setting to enrich my fictional world.

I’ve heard industry folks say that it’s not a smart career move to wander back and forth through the genres – not to mention age levels – because they can’t “place” you in the market. But it’s a habit I’m not about to break. I’ve having too much fun.

Monday, April 26, 2010

To Be a Writer: Read, Read, Read. But...

Last week, I had the pleasure of working with Linda Sue Park and Ed Young at the American Embassy School of New Delhi, India. We were the featured authors at AES's annual Authors' Week. During one of our many dinners together, Linda Sue and I talked about the importance of reading children's books as a prerequisite to writing children's books. Linda Sue is a Newbury Award-winning novelist and picture book author. Although she is essentially a fiction writer, the crafts of writing fiction and non-fiction probably have more in common than they have differences, and the need for reading is surely a commonality.

Linda Sue has posted something about reading for writing on her website, I am traveling in India this week, checking email intermittently at internet cafes (and wondering why they call themselves cafes when they serve neither coffee nor tea nor anything else one can drink or eat). For this post -- if I can squeeze it out before the power goes off again -- I am going to quote this portion of Linda Sue's website, and then comment upon it briefly.

The Importance of Reading

Read. That's the single best thing an aspiring writer can do for his or her work. I once heard an editor say, "Read a thousand books of the genre you're interested in. THEN write yours."

I was astonished and pleased to hear her say this--because that's exactly what I did. During the years when I had no thought of writing for children (see About the Author), I read and read and read. Middle-grade novels. Hundreds of them--easily more than a thousand. Then I wrote mine--and it sold on its first submission. Luck? Coincidence? Maybe...but I doubt it.

My personal reading list draws from a wide variety of genres. I love middle-grade novels best, but I also read Young Adult novels and picture books. I read adult literary fiction, mysteries and nonfiction. I read poetry. I love books on food and travel. Whether a wondrous story or a hilarious passage of dialogue or a beautiful sentence or a memorable image, every bit of reading I do helps my own writing. The rhythm of language and the way words combine to communicate more than their dictionary meanings infuse the serious reader's mind and emerge transformed when that reader sits down to write.

That's really the best possible advice I could give any writer--read. But I find that folks are often disappointed with this advice, so I'll offer a few more basic tips.

Please do read Linda Sue's valuable tips ( but that's all I will quote here. I agree with absolutely everything she says on this subject and I would encourage any writer, whether previously published or not, to read extensively. But there is a "but." The "but" has to do with my own early experience as a writer. Question: How many children's books in the mathematical genre did I read before writing my first book, How Much Is a Million? Answer: none.

This is only in part because there weren't many back in the late 70's and early 80's when I was working on the disorganized morass of handwritten and typed pages that eventually coalesced into that book. Mainly it is because I didn't think of myself as a writer and I guess I didn't take my project seriously. I had no idea if what I was working on would ever become a book. I simply had an idea that went back to my childhood fascination with big numbers, and I wondered if I could turn it into something anyone would want to read. In writing it, I just went with my instincts.

Perhaps -- though I'm not really sure-- this had something to do with the content of the telephone call I eventually got telling my that my manuscript was going to be published. "It's so original," said Barbara Lalicki, senior editor at Lothrop, Lee & Shepard Books. "We've seen plenty of number book manuscripts, but we've never seen one like this."

Original. Would my manuscript have been considered so original if I had read a thousand books before reading it? Maybe. Maybe not. I don't know but I have a hunch that my naivite had something to do with the ultimate product.

Yet I completey agree with Linda Sue. And here's an irony. In preparing to write the 50 books since that one, I have always read as extensively as I could. But is any of these books as original as my first one? I have no idea. Please feel free to weigh in with your two rupees. I have to sign off because they're about to close the internet cafe. Namaste.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Monster Nonfiction for Kids - Oh, my!

One of my current super secret projects has a little something to do with monsters. (Oh, my!) In a quest to hunt out a vast array of curious creatures, I scurried over to my local library to find some fact-filled nonfiction books on the subject of monsters. While ravaging the bookshelves, I pondered a few things about monsters and books about them. (By the way, I didn't ravage the bookshelves --- just a little too into the theme.)

1.  Are monsters fiction or nonfiction? If they can be found in the nonfiction shelves, does that make monsters real? At my library, I found one title shelved in fiction, and, in another library, the same book was shelved in nonfiction. One of my favorite monster books is Everything I Know About Monsters by Tom Lichtenheld. Tom writes "The most important thing I know about monsters is that there really are no such things!... But, monsters DO exist in our imaginations." Don't you just love our imaginations?

2.  How scary is too scary for kids? I don't have an answer - just a thought. So, I'm wondering if this wise group of INK contributors and readers of this blog have some comments to share. From my experience, I think some of the nonfiction books about monsters would have scared the heck out of my daughter, now a graduating senior. Of course, the picture book that all three of my kids had to have read to them every night was The Monster at the End of This Book by Jon Stone (author) and Michael Smollin (illustrator). 
And, in writing this, I discovered that there's a new book:
Another Monster at the End of This Book   
by Jon Stone (author) and Michael Smollin (illustrator)
(I think I found a great addition to add to my favorite "new baby" gift, aka basket full o' books.) 

(Sorry, back to the subject at claw... I mean, hand.)
3. Where does a green-haired 1,000 pound three-eyed monster sleep?*

A few good general reference nonfiction books I found were:
Encyclopedia horrifica : the terrifying truth! about vampires, ghosts, monsters, and more  
Scholastic 2007
by Joshua Gee
Monster hunt : the guide to cryptozoology
Sterling 2008
by Rory Storm
What a beast! : a look-it-up guide to the monsters and mutants of mythology! 
Franklin Watts/ Scholastic 2010
by Sophia Kelly
Monsterology: The Complete Book of Monstrous Beasts
Candlewick 2009
by Dr. Ernest Drake
I found this book shelved in both fiction and nonfiction.

*Answer to question #3: Anywhere he wants to!

In writing this post, I think I answered my own questions. Adding humor to books about monsters might make them seem just a little less scary. But, you still might need some monster spray at night --- a spritz under the bed and a sprinkle into the closet should do the trick... at least it did in my house.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Celebrating Earth Day with Books

Having grown up with an environmental education professor, I have done my fair share of celebrating the earth out of doors—canoe trips down the Connecticut River, cleaning up state parks, reducing our camping footprint—you name it. So today, now that I’m all grown up and frankly never want to sleep on the hard ground again, I am celebrating Earth Day my way—with books. Several years ago I wrote many books about wildlife and conservation, and I still love to read books on these topics. This past year, I contributed to Recycle This Book, compiled by Dan Gutman, which is a collection of stories by 100 children’s book authors of things we have done for the environment.

Here is a selection of books to read, books to share, and in general, books that help us see what we can all do to help sustain our planet.

Tracking Trash by Loree Griffin Burns. This book combines two things I love—cool, interesting science with social mission. It’s amazing to track the trash and learn about ocean currents—and even more emotionally meaningful to understand why we need to work to protect our ocean environments.

The same can be said for Sy Montgomery’s absolutely gorgeous Saving the Ghost of the Mountain. A stunning look at an animal we rarely, if ever, get a chance to see—and a moving account of its importance in our world’s life cycle. I also really love Ellen Jackson's Earth Mother, illustrated by Leo & Diane Dillon.

When it comes to big, complicated issues like global warming and sustainability, I’m all for the young readers’ edition of Al Gore’s book, An Inconvenient Truth. The graphics are clear and the text makes a complex topic easy to grasp for kids.

If you’re looking for good hands-on books to point you in the right direction for things you can DO, check out the Everything Kids’ Environment Book by Sheri Amsel is a classic—fun, inspiring, and a great resource for anyone looking for effective yet manageable project to do with kids for Earth Day—and any day. The Green Teen: The Eco-Friendly Teen’s Guide to Saving the Planet is an excellent choice to hand young adult readers. And for the littlest readers Todd Parr has a new book out—just in time for Earth Day—The Earth Book. As colorful and appealing as all of Parr’s books, get those little hands on this one and you’ll be ready for an Earth Day Celebration!

Happy Earth Day everyone!

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Exploring the thing that makes the light bulbs glow

Tomorrow is the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, so it’s nice to be able to talk about The Shocking Truth about Energy (I just received my copies last week.) The characters include a lightning bolt named Erg and a gaggle of household appliances, toys, and tools. With their help, young readers learn how energy can change into many different forms such as heat, light, or electricity. To begin with, kids find out that their own bodies can convert the energy embedded in fuel (food) into motion via muscle power. 

A power plant burning coal to generate electricity is shown, then various sources of energy are discussed from fossil fuels to nuclear power to solar, wind, hydro, geothermal, and plant-based (i.e. biofuels) in colorful spreads. 
Included are simple explanations of how prehistoric plants and algae became fossil fuels, how atoms are split to release heat, plus multiple ways to capture energy from the Sun, water, and green plants. 

One of the most important aspects of this project to me was to include both the positive aspects of each power source as well as the downsides. For example, the good news about fossil fuels is that they are a very concentrated form of energy. The bad news is that they cause pollution, are not renewable, and contribute to climate change (an abbreviated list, by necessity.) The next spread explains how the extra carbon dioxide from fossil fuels causes global warming, and shows the negative results such as higher sea levels, drought, more wildfires, and habitat loss.

Since no energy source is devoid of drawbacks, the final few pages include energy-saving tips because efficiency is one of the largest resources we have. As Erg says, when you save ENERGY, you also save the Earth! A question posed in the end notes asks Does it matter if one kid tries to save energy? Most people agree that it matters a great deal for each one of us, and my hope is that this book can be part of the solution.

An excellent online resource for kids and teachers on this topic (one of several listed in the book) is the Energy Information Administration’s web site for students, Energy Kids.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

How Do We Know What We Know?

I am probably writing this blog post too soon because it is a thought process in progress. But that also suits the topic. I’ve been thinking about this question a lot lately, I just haven’t figured it out. But I might never figure it out. So here goes:

How do we know what we know? Or another way of putting this is: how can we be sure that what we know is true? That it won’t be disproved in a month, two years, a decade?

I read a lot about diet and exercise and weight loss and keeping weight off. O.K., who doesn’t? This topic is everywhere, all the time, and each article promises the Answer in the headline. And never really delivers. Because there’s always another study or expert to contradict. Here are just a few of the things I’ve learned from reading articles and books lately:

  1. If you want to build muscles you should lift heavier weights with fewer repetitions. (Sister-in-law Essie’s response to that: “That’s not what my trainer says; she says lighter weights, more repetitions." Essie’s trainer is out of date. Until the next study. Ditto pretty much everything else I’m going to say, I’m sure.)
  2. For weight loss/maintenance of weight loss you should run longer, but at a slower pace.
  3. For weight loss/maintenance of weight loss you should give up your chair and stand a lot.
  4. For weight loss/maintenance of weight loss you should do moderate exercise for an hour a day, or more vigorous exercise for half an hour a day.
  5. You should run barefoot because that is better for your feet and your whole body. (My father, who admonished me never to go barefoot even in the house—he had seen too many awful foreign objects get stuck in peoples’ feet—is turning over in his grave at the thought of this one.)

I could go on, but you get the idea. Weight loss and exercise and health is just one of the areas where this is prevalent. What about the discovery that the great Roman Vishniac faked some of his photographs?

I have begun to think that there are very few things that we really do know. Death and Taxes, right? But my husband just finished a book about scientists who think maybe we don’t have to die after all. We being not necessarily us, but our descendants. Yes. Maybe our great grandchildren won't die. But that defies everything we know now to be true.

O.K., then, so how do we know what we know, and how do we know what we don’t really know and how do we deal with the uncertainty not just in our lives but MORE IMPORTANTLY when we are writing for children? Those children trust us to tell them the truth. But truth changes. Facts are disproved. New truths are discovered. Books are bound and printed. Sometimes you can make changes in a later edition, but that doesn't help you to nail down what the truth is NOW as you are writing.

My head hurts.

I've been thinking about this not only as I read but also as I start work on my new long non-fiction book. This book will present some problems because I just may not know the answer to everything, may not know the whole truth. It's not science, but it's history, and just like science, history can be a murky thing.

At a school visit last week, one of the PTO mothers asked me what happened if I was writing a non-fiction book and I just couldn't find something out. "Does it change the course of your writing?" she asked. The answer is: sometimes. Sometimes it changes the course of your writing, sometimes you have to figure out a way to finesse it. Usually when you can't find something out, you veer off to the side, or you go in a different direction entirely. Or you fill in what you can in a way that works almost as well. For example, I couldn't say in Charles and Emma exactly what Charles Darwin thought about God because I couldn't get into his head or even interview him (I'm good, but not that good). I could however, present what he had written at different times of his life. That is as close as I could get to the truth. But the question that people ask me all the time that I could not answer in the book is: What was wrong with Charles? What made him so sick? Will I ever have the answer to that? If I do, would I dare to publish it? What if new information came out that proved otherwise?

Sometimes you are lucky and you can write about something that you don't know for sure in a way that owns up to the uncertainty. That's a great way for our readers to begin to understand that truth can be slippery.

Speaking of luck--sometimes what you know changes in the course of writing a book, and that's a great thing. Back in 2001-2, I was working on a photobiography of John F. Kennedy. Between the time I said yes to the editor who wanted me to write the book and the time I had to turn in my first draft, there was new information discovered about J.F.K.'s health and his family's hard work to suppress his illnesses. That became a central theme of my book High Hopes. If I had written the book a year earlier, that theme, that truth, would not have been there. Now I just read that there are newly found interviews with Jackie Kennedy that will be published in a book. How different High Hopes might have been if those had been available. There might be new truths in those interviews that will supplant what I thought were truths. I very likely would have written a different book.

A similar bit of good fortune occurred while I was working on Charles and Emma. The people at The Complete Works of Charles Darwin Online published images of Emma's diaries. Her entries gave me truths I would not have had otherwise. They were golden puzzle pieces that helped me put together the story, the truth. The truth as I came to see and understand it.

You are probably wondering why I have the picture of the seagull with the starfish. A few years ago on the ferry from North Vancouver (where we had taken a harrowing hike) back to Vancouver, we watched this poor seagull try over and over again try to swallow that starfish, but he just couldn't figure out how to get it down. Too many points. He kept turning it around and around but no matter how he turned it, he couldn't swallow that starfish. I am not sure why, but that for me is symbolic of this problem.

Monday, April 19, 2010


[Now I'm home from the conference about which you'll read below and only now do I find that I'd not managed to get this posted on time, tech feeb that I am...]

So, I'm typing this out quite late at night, here in a hotel room, here at a conference of school librarians from all over my home state of Missouri. I, along with my good & dear writer friends, (Veda Boyd Jones and Vicki Grove) spoke to a few of them earlier today, about historical writing, research, and about Laura Ingalls Wilder. I have to give a presentation in the morning on the uses of history. Sure I am of my feelings and notions about the study of and the writing about historical figures, but this particular talk I'm planning is rather new to me. Ah well. We breathe then we throw our silly selves out upon the people, trusting that one's trusty brain will rise to the challenge, and the word-loving listeners, smile, nod, catch us in their expectant arms. I'll remember tomorrow morning, the 19th of April, that today marks the beginning of the Revolutionary War [remembering how school librarians led me to books that explained it] and the explosion of a government building full of Oklahomans, going about their business. It's Marie Antoinette's wedding anniversary, too, 1770, I think. I'll talk to a gaggle of school librarians, i.e. kindred spirits, about reading and learning about people and things historical. Talk about preaching to the choir. In any case, in thinking of what I must write and what I must say, I dilly-dallied about, quote-questing, and came to these marvelous words of Paula Poundstone: "It's funny that we think of libraries as quiet demure places where we are shushed by dusty, bun-balancing, bespectacled women. The truth is libraries are raucous clubhouses for free speech, controversy and community. Librarians have stood up to the Patriot Act, sat down with noisy toddlers and reached out to illiterate adults. Libraries can never be shushed." This brilliant, swellegant nugget I found at Iowa's State Library website. May Ms. P's words hearten you, fellow lovers of books and libraries, as they have heartened me.


[Now I'm home from the conference about you'll read below and only now do I find that I'd not managed to get this posted on time. Tech Feeb, i.e. me]
So, I was typing this out quite late last night, here in a hotel room, here at a conference of school librarians from all over my home state of Missouri. I, along with my good & dear writer friends, (Veda Boyd Jones and Vicki Grove) spoke to a few of them earlier today, about historical writing, research, and about Laura Ingalls Wilder. I have to give a presentation in the morning on the uses of history. Sure I am of my feelings and notions about the study of and the writing about historical figures, but this particular talk I'm planning is rather new to me. Ah well. We breathe then we throw our silly selves out upon the people, trusting that one's trusty brain will rise to the challenge, and the word-loving listeners, smile, nod, catch us in their expectant arms. I'll remember tomorrow morning, the 19th of April, that today marks the beginning of the Revolutionary War [remembering how school librarians led me to books that explained it] and the explosion of a government building full of Oklahomans, going about their business. It's Marie Antoinette's wedding anniversary, too, 1770, I think. I'll talk to a gaggle of school librarians, i.e. kindred spirits, about reading and learning about people and things historical. Talk about preaching to the choir. In any case, in thinking of what I must write and what I must say, I dilly-dallied about, quote-questing, and came to these marvelous words of Paula Poundstone: "It's funny that we think of libraries as quiet demure places where we are shushed by dusty, bun-balancing, bespectacled women. The truth is libraries are raucous clubhouses for free speech, controversy and community. Librarians have stood up to the Patriot Act, sat down with noisy toddlers and reached out to illiterate adults. Libraries can never be shushed." This brilliant, swellegant nugget I found at Iowa's State Library website. May Ms. P's words hearten you, fellow lovers of books and libraries, as they have heartened me.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Those Bloody Permission Fees!!!

The other night at a dinner party, a museum professional was talking about how expensive and time consuming it is to both borrow artworks for exhibitions and to publish catalogues. Insurance, shipping, permission fees, not to mention reams of paperwork, make the whole process grueling, if not sometimes impossible. Since I have spent many frustrating hours working on permissions to reproduce artworks in over a dozen books from poetry anthologies to biographies of artists, his remarks resonated with me.

Recently I had to track down a photograph of an artist in his studio. There was a sculpture in the photo. Permission was needed for both the photo and the sculpture. The archives of the artist's work belong to a university. The photograph belongs to a foundation, which is represented by an artist’s rights organization. No one could find a transparency or a high definition image. But everyone wanted a fee. And the fee varied accoding to the print run of the book and the size of the image on the page. I finally tracked down the original photograph by writing to the photographer’s widow. Hundreds of dollars later and weeks of e mails back and forth, the transaction was finally completed. This is not an isolated incident. I call it the “scavenger hunt” aspect of writing non-fiction. One clue leads to another. The more trouble it is to ferret out source material, the more determined I am to find it.

In a non-fiction book that depends on photographs, quoted material, and artworks to help the reader understand and appreciate the subject matter, there always are considerable fees for the copyrighted material. No wonder some publishers of children’s books would prefer getting an illustrator to imitate the works of dead artists. Yet the children reading the book are seeing copies instead of the real thing.

Writing about living artists is much easier. Chuck Close, Christo and Jeanne-Claude, and Louise Bourgeois, to mention a few artists Sandra Jordan and I worked with, were unbelievably helpful about sending images without charging a fee. In fact I’ve been fortunate that all my publishers, Abrams, Random House, and Roaring Brook Press, have been generous with permission budgets. I’ve never had to scale back on reproducing artworks. But budget cuts in publishing, coupled with rising costs in permission fees, will force publishers and authors to face a difficult future.

In a recent article in the NYT, The End of History (Books), Marc Aronson, award-winning editor and author for adults and children, noted, “Unless we nonfiction writers are lucky and hit a public-domain mother lode, we have to pay for the right to use just about anything – from a single line of a song to any part of a poem; from the vast archives of the world’s art (now managed by gimlet-eyed venture capitalists) to the historical images that serve as profit centers for museums and academic libraries.”

Aronson is concerned that the removal of photos and even text from print books converted to e-books to avoid the expense of permission fees will result in dull and lackluster products. He has some suggestions, calling for a new model for permissions, which involves paying rights based on accounting of actual downloads, instead of upfront fees. In terms of print books, he suggests that perhaps the Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers get together and create standard rates for quotes and images keyed to print runs and prices. If something isn’t done about expensive rights fees, he says, then “entirely new or the overly familiar” will be published and “History’s outsiders and untold stories will be left behind.” Apple’s IPad may never replace what I call “real books,” the ones with covers and pages we can lovingly touch, but all of us who write nonfiction need to work together to insure that artworks and quoted material do not disappear in the coming (already here?) digital age.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Joys of Sharing

Writers often comment that their work is lonely, or at least that it's carried out mostly alone. But some of us also enjoy collaboration--I had a coauthor on all three of the adult books I've written, two with a dear friend and one with my husband. Nonfiction writers for children also have a chance at collaboration in working with a photographer or an illustrator. While editors do their best to keep picture book writers away from picture book illustrators, a nonfiction writer needs to work with an artist to make sure the illustrations work factually. And with photos, there are always some images that the text requires, and the author must make sure the photographer produces them.

Lucky authors like me find illustrators who help create a happy collaboration, and the illustrators' influence can expand the author's ideas of what she can write about. In the late 1980s, I needed photos of different horse breeds for my book, "Horses of America." I happened across a newspaper ad that led me to Bill Muñoz, who lived in a small town nearby. Within a few years the two of us became frequent partners in creating books, first ones on domesticated animals like horses and cows and then on wildlife topics, a much more challenging type of subject.
Bill would do his best to get the photos I needed, and every once in awhile, he'd get an image he was so fond of he'd ask me please to find a way of getting it into the book. I always managed to oblige him, and in the process, sometimes expanded the text into an interesting area I hadn't originally considered.

Bill's strongest influence, however, was on the actual topics for books. I'm trained as a biologist, so my mind tends to go to animal and nature topics when I'm searching for subjects. Bill is trained as an historian, so he is able to see opportunities for us way beyond what I do, and his perspective helped expand our work together into the history of the American West. Our first foray into history came about because Bill was fascinated by a neighbor farmer who restored old covered wagons. Bill loved the beautiful restorations and found out that a whole group of folks would take their wagons on a wilderness trip every Memorial Day weekend, living out of their wagons drawn by draft horses or mules. The result of that project was "West by Covered Wagon," which used photos of that group and information about them to bring freshness to the story of the Oregon Trail.

My one obsession in life is learning new "stuff," and writing books involving history means learning lots of fascinating new material, so I've been happy to go along with Bill's suggestions. Our next history project was "Homesteading," which I especially enjoyed as my father had grown up on a homestead in Idaho.

I credit Bill with an especially busy period in our collaboration after he listened to "Undaunted Courage," Stephen Ambrose's biography of Meriwether Lewis in the late 1990s. Bill realized there'd be a boom in interest about the Lewis and Clark Expedition in the early 2000s as the bicentennial approached. We got busy and ended up producing three books, a set of classroom posters, and a number of magazine articles about the expedition. My own curiosity about life in early America was further whetted, but not satisfied, and we've continued to explore this topic through "The Buffalo and the Indians: A Shared Destiny" and our 2011 book, "The Horse and the Plains Indians: A Powerful Partnership." Without Bill's influence, none of these books would have been written.

I've also collaborated with several illustrators, but particularly with Kendahl Jan Jubb, a popular Missoula fine artist. When I wanted to find an artist to illustrate a book about tropical frogs, Kendahl came immediately to mind. She loves painting animals, and the brilliant colors she uses are perfect for tropical topics. That collaboration led to several other books, and we always decided on topics together, taking into consideration the potential market for the subject matter as well as its potential for great illustrations and interesting text.

There's something special to me about a book I've worked on with another person, an extra sense of accomplishment that we did this together, that we helped bring out the best in one another, and that we are still friends after the project is finished!

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

It’s National Library Week!

As many of you know, Newbery medalist Sid Fleischman recently passed away. During his long career, Sid wrote many wonderful fiction and nonfiction books. Among his nonfiction titles were brilliant biographies of Mark Twain and Harry Houdini. Studying these books has helped to make me a better writer.

But before I was a writer, I was a reader. And I have Sid Fleischman and an astute librarian named Carol Freeborn to thank for that.

As a child, I was labeled a reluctant reader. But Mrs. Freeborn didn’t believe in labels. She knew that a reluctant reader can quickly transform into a voracious reader. All it takes is the right book.

One day she handed me Mr. Mysterious & Company, Sid Fleischman’s first book for children. I didn’t want to seem ungrateful, so I sat down in one of the library’s comfy chairs and started to read while I waited for my dad to come and pick me up.

Simply put, that book had me at hello. Its combination of intriguing setting, quirky characters, and magic grabbed hold of me and wouldn’t let go. I loved it. I devoured the book. And as soon as I was done, I turned back to page 1 and read it again. And again. And again.

I checked that book out so many times that Mrs. Freeborn finally told me I could keep it. I still have it today. That’s the power of a great book, and a great librarian. Thank you, Mrs. Freeborn.

For me, the transformative book happened to be fiction. But for some kids, the magical book that opens the doors to a whole new world is nonfiction. How do I know? Because once in a while, I get a letter or email from an adult who tells me the tremendous impact one of my books has had on a child they know.

Like my well-worn copy of Mr. Mysterious & Company, I treasure those notes. They provide tangible evidence that the right book at the right moment can make all the difference. No one knows that better than librarians. That’s why we need them.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

No New Ideas - Ever?

Recent blogs about the author’s process have been personally helpful and reaffirming, so I’d like to continue the discussion by writing about the author’s pre-process – ways to uncover the perfect, albeit illusive, idea. Even more to the point, how does the author deal with that period of time just before the kernel of an idea breaks out? Hint: space.

Consider this: The last book has just gone through its final edit and it is out of your hands. The baby is on its own, to sink or swim, to sing or clunk. What’s next? Everyone and their mothers-in-law seem to ask the big question: “So, what are you doing next?” Gulp! Next? Is there a next? How often does this happen to you?

If you are lucky a new and exciting project awaits. But that’s not always the case. And it’s one thing to have a next project, and another to have a next project that is desirable. For example, when I finish a demanding human rights topic for young adults, I like to follow it with a colorful photo essay for very young children. Professionally, it gives me a sense of balance and breathing space. It acknowledges both the joys and the sorrows nonfiction undertakes as we realistically depict the world around us.

But there are times when I’ve experienced the absolute reality that I have no new ideas. There will never, ever be an idea as interesting, fun, saleable as my last book! “So what are you working on now?” That phrase haunts my waking hours. It creeps into dreams. It’s the 500 pound gorilla in the room – along with how old are you? and how much money do you make? – asked during school visits. Nothing. Nada. No idea. Try saying this at a party. It’s a great way to drink alone.

Over the years I’ve developed a few tricks – do’s and don’ts – to get me over the no-idea hump. Here are but a few. Please feel free to add, subtract, or challenge this list.


Don’t devote entire days to household projects. It only keeps you from thinking about writing. You can clean closets anytime, even when on a deadline. Don’t try to make every recipe in the Barefoot Contessa’s latest cookbook. Again, it takes away from literary thinking and you will gain about eight pounds. Trust me, I know this. If you don’t heed my advice on this one, change the quantity of butter to olive oil.

Don’t take on your craziest family members’ problems and try to reform them. It will only lead to a fight and won’t change anything. You will still have no new ideas – that are legal or printable. Don’t go shopping. It’s depressing to see all the beautiful things you can’t afford because you have no new ideas to help pay for them. On second thought, maybe this should go into the “do” section as it reaffirms that you will have a new idea eventually, hopefully before the bills arrive. You’re on your own with this one. Don’t indulge the notion that you will never have a new idea for more than 72 hours. After that, it gets old and boring to those near and dear. Of all the don’ts, if you can handle the time frame of the last don’t, feel free to indulge in the other four, but try to keep it down to as few hours as possible.

All these “don’ts” are getting me down. Let’s move on to …


Isabel Allende, in a Q & A about writing, said, “Few people know how to be still and find a quiet place inside themselves …. From that place of silence and stillness the creative forces emerge; there we find faith, hope, strength, and wisdom.” I couldn't agree more.

Give yourself the gift of silence. Let silence, like the pause between musical movements or the white spaces around Asian poetry and art, give your creative juices time to recoup. Visit someplace beautiful: spend time with a favorite painting in a museum, walk along the river, look up at a big sky. The ocean and a white sandy beach work best for me, but that’s not always accessible. For those of you who live in New York, there is a room in the Japanese Gallery of the Metropolitan Museum of Art that is very spare, Zen, with the soft, trickling sound of water on stone. No chatter, no cell phones – heaven!

Spend time writing your own stuff: journals, blogs, word prompts. Or not! I know an author who simply stares at a blank screen on his computer for hours. Eventually, he says, the screen fills with ideas. Sometimes your last book can lead to your next book.
Revisit old research notes and see if anything new pops up. Read something unrelated to your work. Sun rises, birds singing, and good poetry anthologies often jump start my creative juices. Take a yoga class!

These do’s and don’ts are not just for writers. They work well for school projects, lesson planning, and library talks. I bet many of you have even better ways to get the imagination back on track. If you have a particular gem, will you share it with us?

I began this blog about two weeks ago when, panicked, I had no new ideas. Then, I followed my own advice – silly girl – and tried out the do’s. Lo and behold, it worked! Not one, but four, four new ideas are currently at various levels of proposals. Oops! Here comes another one!

Susan Kuklin

Friday, April 9, 2010

What a Difference a Day Makes

This was one of those months when I began to fret as my day to blog drew near. I couldn’t think of anything to say—except, “I don’t have anything to say,” which I actually spent some time trying to develop into an interesting theme. (Advice for writers—it didn’t work for me!) Then I woke up two days ago realizing that the previous day's events gave me all the material I’d need.

1. I read about Discovery’s successful launch. I already had known this would be the last nighttime takeoff, starting a countdown of only three more launches before the Shuttle system is dismantled and perhaps the astronaut program as well. I thought about how ironic it was that this last nighttime takeoff was also historic because it was the first time so many (4) women were in orbit together. As someone who has written about space travel in several books, I’m deeply saddened. Humans going to Mars or even the Moon—not the best use of our national money right now. But the space program gives us so much more. It once produced what’s now called “the Sputnik Moment,” an event that excited educators and kids about science and it can give us one again. Furthermore the research that got in space has spun off whole industries from medical imaging and cordless tools to TV satellite dishes—and high tech research, manufacturing and implementation is what’s going to save this country’s job base and economy. Don’t get me started…

2. I attended a meeting in my Boston neighborhood where residents talked with library trustees about the proposed closing of up to eight of our city’s 26 local branches. Boston, like everywhere else, has huge shortfalls and the library is in trouble. I wanted to make sure a critical mass attended and was delighted to be part of a crowd at least 500 strong. I didn’t try to speak, others said it all. The branch library is our diverse community's melting pot. Libraries are the resource of a civilized society. And in hard economic times, they are needed more than ever. Book circulation is up in Boston by 31 percent. Seventy-seven million Americans nationwide use the library for their Internet access, including their all-important job searches. Keeping libraries open is a moral imperative for real democracy.

3. Then I went to a friend’s for dinner. Another guest, in charge of the computer system for one of our hospitals mentioned he had just signed up again for home delivery of the Boston Globe after reading it on line for years. "I just like the feel of it," he said, "the tradition of turning its pages while drinking my coffee."

Seems like a mishmash of experiences, doesn’t it? Information usually does until you work it through to make sense of it. Here are the reminders for nonfiction writers that popped up in my day:
*Trust your subconscious, it’s busy working and will come through for you.
*Re. the space program and the day in general: some of the best ideas sneak in while you’re looking for something else. Never be so focused that you don’t notice.
*The paper v. e-version of the newspaper? Luddites must realize that the world and its technology are changing and that has value. Techies should savor the unique pleasure of traditional forms.
*Libraries: We need them. They established our course as readers and writers as kids; we use them to do our research now. And they need us as authors, patrons, and champions. They not only buy our books; they also introduce generations of kids to our ideas. We owe them. Big time.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Whipped Syllabubs

One of the greatest joys—and challenges—of researching and writing biography is uncovering the man (or woman) behind the myth.

Writing about a person no one has ever heard of, as I did in the mid 1990s when I wrote about Waterhouse Hawkins, can be tricky: it’s often difficult to find enough research material to write your book, and even if you can, you then face the challenge of convincing a publisher that your ‘never-heard-of-him’ subject will be enticing enough to get noticed by readers.

Writing about a person everyone has heard of presents a different set of challenges. (I never imagined, as I searched and scraped for tidbits of info on Waterhouse, that I would one day bemoan having too much material to wade through while writing a biography, and yet at times, in the years since Waterhouse, I have been buried up to my eyeballs in primary and secondary sources about Walt Whitman, Alice Roosevelt, and Mark Twain.)

Famous people tend to have a lot of stuff written about them, and so while you might be able to convince a publisher that there will be plenty of interest in a book on your subject, you also need to have a fresh approach to counter the ‘already-know-too-much-about-him’ reality of today’s tight marketplace.

Famous people also tend to have a kind of mythology tied to their fame. I say “Mark Twain” and an image pops into people’s heads of a brilliant, funny man with crazy white hair and an exuberantly full mustache, dressed in a white suit and smoking a big cigar. And Twain was brilliant and funny, with crazy hair, a huge mustache, a white suit and often a big cigar. But he was a lot more, of course. And it is the job of a biographer to dig deeper and present a richer portrait, to take readers past the myth to the man.

How does a biographer do this?

Research, and lots of it.

Secondary sources are invaluable to paint an overall picture and provide a cultural and historical perspective. But my favorite source of information is primary sources—what I think of as ‘eyewitness accounts.’ That’s where all the juicy details come from.

I’m currently working on a biography of not one but two famous people, stuffed into the same book. (Yeah, I know. It seemed like a good idea at the time.) John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Talk about mythology! Jefferson is carved in stone on Mt. Rushmore, for heaven’s sake! And it is in primary sources that I am finding details to help uncover just who these men were.

And so we have Adams, portly Adams, detailing in his diary all the culinary wonders he experiences as a new delegate to Congress in 1774:

“A most sinfull Feast again! Every Thing which could delight the Eye, or allure the Taste, Curds and Creams, Jellies, Sweat meats of various sorts, 20 sorts of Tarts, fools, Trifles, floating Islands, whippd Sillabubs &c. &c.”

The champion of democracy had a real sweet tooth.

And we have Jefferson, elegant Jefferson, meticulously noting in his Memorandum Book his expenditures as he shops the Philadelphia markets in 1775 and 1776:

“Pd. Starr for shoes 21/”
“Pd. for handkerchiefs 6/8”
“Pd. for pr. of gloves 7/6”
“Pd. Currie for leather breeches 35/”
“Pd. For a straw hat 10/”

The author of the Declaration of Independences was a bit of a clotheshorse.

Biographies are built around the whipped syllabubs, the shoes, gloves and handkerchiefs, which take men and women off the pedestal (out of the portrait, off the face of Mt. Rushmore) and place them squarely before us, to be admired not as mythological figures, but as the extraordinary and all-too-human people they were.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

A Public Confession

With all the celebrities fearlessly (?) baring their souls in public, I thought I’d try a few confessions of my own. I’ve been inspired by Deb Heiligmann’s post in February about the way she meets deadlines and how she writes in fear. The truth is that my process is completely different from hers. One’s job as a writer is to willy-nilly get words down. It’s every writer’s job to figure out how to make themselves write. My guess is that there are no formulas here. Each writer has to figure it out for herself.

First, I don’t write in a bubble as Deb does. I can be easily interrupted. In fact, I welcome it. (I am psychologically unsuited to the solitary nature of writing. I love interacting with people. Perhaps becoming a writer is my way of facing my fear of being alone.) When I first started writing, while my kids were very small, I noticed that they were wherever I was. My first desk was in the corner of my bedroom. So all three of us were in that corner of the bedroom. When we moved to a larger apartment, I put my desk in the family room with a screen separating it from the television. Sometimes neighbor kids were in my apartment and it was not uncommon to have six little boys running around. I wrote through it all. (I do have a very strong ability to focus and can turn it on and off like a switch.)

I had a lot of preconceptions about professional writers in those days. I disciplined myself to sit down at my desk every day, like I believed the pros did. And I sat there painfully waiting for words to come. Every once in a while I would get up and look in the refrigerator or flop down on my bed. Sometimes sitting at my desk was pure torture.

At some point I made an amazing discovery. My brain works whether or not I’m sitting at my desk! So I’ve learned to treat my brain like the computer it is. A deadline is an instruction. I tell my brain when to have the thing done. Research is input. I read, interview people, track down leads, try experiments. I’m always thinking. In fact, I wake up each day with new ideas. Some kind of pressure builds inside me until I feel compelled to sit down at my keyboard and start writing. When I need to pause I segue into a game or two or even many of Solitaire. (Yes, I’m dependent on Solitaire, but it’s not your ordinary Solitaire; I play La Belle Lucie.) I call it a “sorbet for the brain.” It causes me to disengage and let those little synaptic links in my white matter do their work. Whenever I’ve had my say for the day I go do something else without guilt. Some days I might only write a sentence or two. Some days I can do several thousand words. I don’t worry about it. I’ve learned that just because I write something in white heat doesn’t mean it’s good. And, on the other hand, if it comes like blood from a stone, it doesn’t mean anyone can tell. Once it’s down, I revisit it many times over the next week or so, always finding ways to make it stronger. It’s amazing what your brain perceives long after you think your work as good as it will be.

I welcome deadlines because they gave me a time to shoot for. Often I set my own with my publishers and I somehow know just how much time I need and give myself an extra margin to be safe. I don’t like working under pressure so I never procrastinate and start as soon as I am certain that a project is real. Most, if not all, of my assignments have been turned in early. I have good time management skills (I don’t clean and cook as little as possible) and by now know myself well enough not to sweat about getting assignments done in time.

Some writers have trouble letting go of their work. Not me. I know when I’ve done my best and that just has to be good enough. I’m not a perfectionist; I’m not compulsive; I’m just a writer that turns stuff out. And according to Woody Allen, who’s made a career of public confessions, that’s 90% of success.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Writing Life: Fiction vs. Nonfiction

Dear talented writer or English major,

Let’s say you want to write picture books and you’re ready to pick your poison. Whoops, that sounds kinda negative… Anyway, you aim to make the leap. What genre will work best for you—fiction or nonfiction?

If the ability to pay for your room and board is important to you (yes, of course it is) and you still want to be a writer anyway, let’s be honest. In this often dicey field of endeavor, your best business model would be to choose fiction. Statistically speaking, fiction for kids usually sells better. A lot better. And at least in my experience, nonfiction takes about five times longer to write and illustrate than fiction. Besides, with fiction there are no constraints on your imagination. From flying pigs wearing bowler hats to space aliens to putting clever words in your characters’ mouths, anything goes and it’s all great fun. And nonfiction is hard. Every word and every picture has to be correct down to the minutest detail lest you get busted. I mean, the research alone can take months. Nolo contendere, right?

So why am I about to give a big plug in favor of writing nonfiction? Because it has the best perks! In my little mind, at least, the perks simply can’t be beat. What are they, and how can we use them? Let me count the ways.

You get to travel the world

To find research for my own books, for example, I’ve traveled to South America to trek though rainforests dripping with orchids, photographed a hundred kinds of hummingbirds, and climbed live volcanoes. I’ve looked African elephants and baboons and hippos and giraffes and lions in the eye, walked right up to the amazing iguanas and gigantic rare birds in the Galapagos Islands, and traveled all through the goldfields of California. And that’s just scratching the surface.

You get to be a private eye

You snoop you! You can virtually pry open the roofs of your choice and peer down into the homes of the greatest heroes and villains and other extraordinary characters of all time. You can take a look into their private lives and figure out what made them tick. You can read their love letters! Scout out their diaries! Check out the ways they spent their money! By the time you’re done, you feel as though you personally know these people. And it’s all in the name of good literature.

You get to uncover great stories that nobody else has found

They say there’s nothing new in the world, but you’d be surprised what new material turns up when you dig a little deeper into any given story, even if someone else already written about your subject. Trust me. You will be blown away by the kinds of things you find out there. You couldn’t make this stuff up if your life depended on it.

You have a great excuse to meet the most interesting people around

And I don’t just mean the people in your stories either. I mean rough-and-ready experts who study one place or person or thing for an entire lifetime. I mean the colorful folks you meet on your travels who act as guides or mentors or friends or someone you’d love to interview.

You have a great excuse to get into some places not just anyone can enter.

Hey, you’re writing a book about these places or the rare and unusual things they may contain. Go for it. Back rooms? Dangerous locales? Hidden archives? Sites and collections that are off limits to the general public? Offices of the rich and famous? You name it and if you play your cards right there’s probably a legitimate way in.

You get to learn something new every day

You will never be bored for a single minute, and while you’re learning all these brand new things, you can feel pretty good about putting these interesting gems into a book that kids can hold in their hands and enjoy….and learn from along with you.

And yes, you still get to be creative

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again. The things from real life worth writing about really are the best stories of all time. If you wrote a fictional tale about most of the kind of things that actually did happen in the real world of history or of science or of sports or you name it, nobody would believe you. You just have to figure out the best and most riveting (and therefore the most creative) way to tell these true stories so that you can bring them to life.

Have at it, and good luck!

Monday, April 5, 2010

I.N.K. News for April

Loreen Leedy is one of over 50 authors that will appear at the University of Central Florida’s inaugural Book Festival on Saturday, April 17 on the UCF campus. She will participate in the Adventures in Children's Books author panel at 10:30 am and will sign books immediately afterwards. For more information, please visit this web site:

Rosalyn Schanzer, Dorothy Hinshaw Patent and Vicki Cobb are launching the videoconferencing division of INK Think Tank (INK Link: Authors on Call) with a webinar on April 21. This highly-entertaining free webinar for professional development for teachers is being Spotlighted by, one of the most prominent marketplaces for videoconferencing in the educational arena. The title of the webinar is "Award-Winning Nonfiction Authors in Your Classroom."

Deborah Heiligman will be on a panel at the Los Angeles Festival of Books on Saturday, April 24, at 10:30: Fact vs. Fiction: Storytelling in Young Adult Nonfiction with Elizabeth Partridge and Stephanie Hemphill, moderated by Jonathan Hunt.
She will also be speaking about Charles and Emma at the Santa Monica Library on Sunday, April 25, at 3:00 with a reading by Rosalyn Landor, who performed the audio book.

From Susan Kuklin: I’m participating in PEN’s World Voices Festival of International Literature this year. The festival runs from April 26 – May 2. Here is the blurb about the panel I will be moderating.

War and the Novel

When: Saturday, May 1
Where: Scandinavia House, 58 Park Avenue, New York City
What time: 12:30–2 p.m.

With Bernardo Atxaga, Filip Florian, Assaf Gavron, and Atiq Rahimi; moderated by Susan Kuklin

Free and open to the public. No reservations.

Cheryl Harness signs copies of her book, They're Off! at the Pony Express Museum in St. Joseph, MO,
on Saturday, April 3, 2010, 150th anniversary of the launching of the Pony Express. Wahoo!

From David Schwartz: Where Else In the Wild? More Camouflaged Creatures Concealed and Revealed (the sequel to Where In the Wild? Camouflaged Creatures Concealed and Revealed) has been published and has received the following "awards":

Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) Choices 2010
National Science Foundation Outstanding Science Trade Books for Students K-12

and is already about to come out in Korean...

Friday, April 2, 2010

Age Appropriate

A few weeks ago, I received a lovely e-mail from a sophomore at a college in Buffalo, New York, telling me how much he enjoyed reading Bull’s-Eye, my biography of Annie Oakley. “I was sitting in the college library the other night at a computer that was located right across from the Education Center's collection of children's literature,” the young man explained. “In a display case for Women's History Month was your book, it immediately caught my eye.” The student, who grew up only a mile or two from Annie’s Ohio hometown, took a break from his statistics homework to check it out. “Although it's a story I've heard thousands of times it felt inspiring and new once again in your book.”

Interestingly enough, just a days before, I had presented Annie’s story to a class of second graders, each of whom received a paperback copy of
Bull’s-Eye to take home, courtesy of their school’s PTA. Many of these seven-year-olds immediately opened their copies and started reading.

Besides being great for my ego, these anecdotes are noteworthy because they involve readers who are seven and 19 years old, clearly outside of the publicized audience for the book, stated on the back cover flap as “Ages 10 and up.” So what’s going on here?

I have always known that those labels were arbitrary, provided more for marketing purposes than as a strict guideline. But I am a veteran of the educational publishing industry, including more than a few years in the early 1980s when I regularly had to use readability formulas to “level” my articles for Scholastic’s classroom magazines. Besides being a pain in the neck, it was a practice that I found distasteful and undignified. I love math, but the idea of applying a mathematical formula based on syllable counts and sentence lengths to a piece of writing reduces the art of reporting to a mechanical act.

Good writing, for kids or adults, is based on clarity and rhythm and content, not formulas. If someone is interested in the topic of a book or an article, they’ll read it, no matter what the readability formula says. I doubt that living through those years of “leveling” articles helped me internalize any insights about how to write for kids. Rather, I learned from writing a lot, reading my colleagues’ work, and listening to my editor, the wonderful Carol Drisko, about whom Karen Romano Young wrote a while back in this blog.

Still, those who think writing-by-numbers is the best way to reach kids persist. Four or five years ago, I broke my rule against writing for textbooks by taking an assignment to do an eight-page “leveled biography” for second graders that was to be an ancillary in a California social studies program. The subject was the late Dr. Wilson Riles, a pioneering educator who became the state’s superintendent of public instruction. The job appealed to me for personal reasons. I had worked on a project with Dr. Riles years before, and I liked the idea of learning more about him and presenting his story to young readers. But the guidelines for writing this 500-word “book” were much longer than the anticipated book itself, specifying the average words per sentence, maximum words per sentence, and even some vocabulary words to be used. What’s more, I had to write four versions, reducing the number of words per sentence and the total words significantly each time. It was like being locked in a room whose air was being sucked out. With each iteration, the storytelling grew shorter and more labored until the simplest version was told in short, desperate gasps. Dr. Riles deserved better.

I realize that changing the way textbooks are written is a tall order. And I understand that teachers, librarians, parents, and kids themselves may want to know that a trade book is somewhat age-appropriate before they choose it. But relying too heavily on labels or formulas can rob readers of the chance to connect with a story that will inform and inspire them. Great rewards await those who cast aside "magic numbers" and base their selections on something more intuitive.