Friday, October 28, 2011

Design History - Interesting Nonfiction for Kids

Think I have told the story several times. Freshmen year of college. Art History class. Nine a.m., dark auditorium, most comfortable chairs in the world. Let's just say, I have no idea how I got an A in that class. Somehow I managed to memorize the names and dates from Janson's History of Art for a few hours. Fifteen or so years later, I'm researching an Art Appreciation lesson for my daughter's first grade class.  I remember thinking, "Wow, I know what a Matisse is. Finally, I understand the artwork and the artist. It all makes sense."  Light bulb moment.

The same light bulb moment occurred for me with Design History. Sophomore year of college, we all took History of Industrial Design. I don't remember one thing about that class. Well, I remember one thing - I did a fantastic presentation and slide show on the history of the umbrella. The book "The History of the Umbrella" was a great find. My light bulb Design History moment happened my senior year at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design in Pat Allred's six-credit hour History of Design class. Three hours, three times a week, Professor Allred had our attention for the entire class time weaving together all the design principles while relating the design style with the timeline. Complementing the information was three hours worth of slides showing the manufacturing/ technology, social and economic history and the parallel designs. It all made sense. Light bulb moment.

The reason for this trip down memory lane is that today I finally have in my hands the New Second Edition of A History of Design from the Victorian Era to the Present by Ann Ferebee, this second edition co-authored by Jeff Byles. The first edition paperback version was just published when we read it in class, 30 years ago. The subtitle is A Survey of the Modern Style in Architecture, Interior Design, Industrial Design, Graphic Design, and Photography.

A History of Design from the Victorian Era to the Present 
by Ann Ferebee with Jeff Byles
W. W. Norton  2011   Second Edition

The book not only is a must have for students with an interest in any design field, but can also be used in history classes. The history of our culture, our technologies, our materials can be illustrated by the history of our places and things. The material becomes relatable, and, well, makes sense. 

While having just received the book, I've only had a chance to flip through the pages and check out the great examples of design used to illustrate the book. My poor son and husband were with me in the room when I read the section of the book about the Brooklyn Bridge.  The information is correct that John Roebling did die just as the bridge started construction, but I think we need more information than "Washington Roebling, his son and disciple, completed it". In fact, Washington Roebling became bedridden with caissons disease/ the bends and overlooked the construction while his wife, Emily Warren Roebling, supervised the building of the bridge for the remaining 14 years. Had to sent that one straight.

Hope that the second edition of A History of Design from the Victorian Era to the Present becomes a staple in Design History classes like the first edition.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Chasing Windmills: The Sequel

In 1995 I wrote my first book The Wind At Work, a history of windmills, and sent it to Chicago Review Press. They liked it, but replied that all their children’s books include activities. Would I be willing to write some? Would I!

Creating activities was fun, relating windmills to science, creative writing, drawing and painting, sewing, cooking, singing, environmental research, and community action. Who knew?

Researching way back then

All this took place back in the Dark Ages, AKA pre–internet.

To research the book I read books and more books, using local and university libraries, interlibrary loans, and used bookstores. I traveled to the Netherlands, the American Midwest, and a wind turbine factory. To find photographs, paintings, etchings, and the like I searched through books. I visited and/or wrote to historical societies, the Library of Congress, tourist sites, and libraries. I received originals and photocopies and then sent purchase and permission letters, all by snail mail. And finally I sent off packages of photographs, slides, drawings, etc. to the publisher, all printed on paper!

In those pre-free-long-distance-phone-plan days, I spent a small fortune on long distance telephone calls interviewing windmill people, and trying to locate the addresses and phone numbers of restored windmills in towns all around the US and Canada, for the appendix "Where to Find Windmills."

Then in 1997, it all came together in The Wind at Work: An Activity Guide to Windmills. Like my first love, this book holds a special place in my heart. Yes, I went on to others, leaving it behind, making longer commitments, but the memory of my first kiss on my name on my book lingers on…..

Sidebar: The Wind at Work has stayed in print for nearly fifteen years. Let’s put our hands together for small presses in general, and Chicago Review Press in particular. I visited their offices in 1997 and again this summer. They have expanded from one floor to an entire building in downtown Chicago, and are doing very well, thank you. I plan to interview CRP publisher, Cynthia Sherry, in a future blog.

Fast forward to 2011

I’d been thinking of doing an updated version of The Wind at Work for a while, for the section on wind turbines was woefully out of date. Last spring, following the earthquake and nuclear disaster in Japan, I emailed Cynthia and….. the warehouse was low on stock. Could I do a new edition for 2012 publication? Could I!

I spent the summer reading, visiting wind farms, interviewing people, and searching for new photos, graphs, and charts. But I neither sent not received one letter by snail mail, visited no libraries, and read not one book. I did 100% of my research online. Why? Because that’s where the information lives.

I browsed the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Report that won the Nobel prize; material from American, Canadian, and Europeans Wind Energy Associations, Global Wind Energy Council, American Lung Association, U.S. Department of Energy, National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Audubon Society, and many more sources. I watched videos and read reports, scientific studies, congressional hearing statements, newspaper stories from around the world, and more – all at my computer. I’ve created some new activities for the new book. These and some of the old activities also use internet resources.

As for new illustrations – all online. Not only contemporary material, but historical photos as well.Since I wrote the first book, Steve Jacobs a scion of the Jacobs Wind Electric Company, found photos as far back as the 1920s and put them on their website, and on Flickr. A piece of history I could only describe in words in 1997, I can illustrate in 2012. As for “Where to Find Windmills,” I didn’t make one phone call, I just googled them all.

Sidebar: As I began my photo research, I unearthed old paper files from a box in a closet and found the manila folder marked “picture permissions.” With trembling hands, I plucked a letter from dozens nestled there. I let out a huge Hallelujah when I saw the words “I hereby grant Gretchen Woelfle…. license to reproduce in all editions of the book…” Those six precious words saved me weeks of work. I sent a silent blessing to the forgotten hero who helped me compose that permission letter back in 1997.

How on Earth…..

As I worked on the new The Wind at Work, I wondered – rather rhetorically and not for the first time – how I, and others, ever wrote books without the internet.

Despite all the above, I am writing a paper book – one that Chicago Review Press will publish in three electronic formats as well: kindle, e-pub, and pdf files. Of what use will my book be, as it begins to go out of date as soon as it’s published? An example, I hope. I read, analyzed, and interpreted the raw material on the web, and I hope to encourage students to do the same as the wind energy field changes week by week – using my book, along with the amazing electronic library we have at our fingertips.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011


A few weeks ago I was talking to a group of Korean parents about the education system in America. The topic started to stray, as things tend to do, towards books and reading. I asked how many parents read to their children. No hands were raised.

I began pushing them harder on the importance of reading to the youngest children as often as possible. No one seemed very interested in my point of view. One father started explaining how he used WII games to relate to his children and encouraged them to explore their curiosity. He mentioned how he played guitar hero with his two children and now one of them was taking guitar lessons. Nice, but not really my point.

Fast forward a few weeks later. Someone brought in a Korean newspaper that listed the top 200 colleges in the world according to said paper. They were very intrigued that my daughter is currently attending their so-called number eight. “I would like advice on how my children can attend such a prestigious university,” the guitar hero-loving Dad said to me. “How can I prepare them for admission to this university?” he asked.

Hmm. We’ve already been over this, I thought to myself, smiling ever so politely. Didn’t I mention the importance of reading to your kids? What kinds of reading passages will you find on the all required standardized test including the SATs? Mostly nonfiction. What is the most important piece of writing a student will do before college? A 500 word non fiction piece about themselves commonly called the college essay.

Korean students have even more pressure to perform well because the entrance exam is the sole determining factor for college acceptance. There are too many students for too few spots and the competition can cause parents to push their children to start preparing for the exam in after school classes as early as elementary school. With a secure career totally dependent upon the kind of college a student attends, prestige takes a surprisingly prominent role in early childhood development.

There are plenty of practical reasons for children to read, especially nonfiction, if prestige is your ultimate goal. But phooey on prestige. What kind of goal is that for your children’s ultimate well being? Reading a vast assortment of books to your kids encourages in them a love of reading, gathering and synthesizing information, and exploring fantasy worlds and far away planets. They will then read about things that intrigue them and things they knew nothing about. In other words, reading early and often will encourage their own intellectual curiosity. They don’t have rankings for that, but if they did, that would be a list worth aiming for.

Update: Last week I connived a way to fit a favorite children's book into my lesson plan. One student asked if she could borrow it for a few days. Today she returned it, smiling, and said her son had really enjoyed it. Slow but sure, one convert at a time. I'll take it!

Monday, October 24, 2011

Guest Blogger Marissa Moss: "Finding the Story in History"

This month I am taking a break from blogging. In my slot, I am proud to present my friend and collaborator (on G Is for Googol: A Math Alphabet Book), an esteemed author and illustrator of both fiction and non-fiction, Marissa Moss. You may be familiar with Marissa's popular Amelia's Notebook series or her other fictional series including Max Disaster and Daphne's Diary. She is also the author of several highly-praised (and highly-researched) journal-style historical fiction novels and a half-dozen non-fiction biographical picture books telling the remarkable stories of remarkable women. Here, Marissa shares the backstory of the history she writes.

I love stumbling on little-known stories that grab my imagination and sense of history. Those are the stories I turn into books, the tales of courage and achievement against the odds that deserve to be widely known. Is it a coincidence that many of these undiscovered gems are about women?

Women have mostly been absent from the grand epic of history. The ones that are recognized are an elite few, Queen Elizabeth I, Cleopatra, Marie Curie. Much more fascinating to me are the ordinary women doing extraordinary things.

Maggie Gee is one such woman. I found her in a local newspaper story about WWII veterans, published naturally on veteran’s day. I didn’t know that women had flown warplanes in WWII and it seemed like an important story for kids (and adults) to know about.

I looked Maggie up in the phone book, called her and asked for an interview. That interview and the many conversations that followed became SKY HIGH: THE TRUE STORY OF MAGGIE GEE. What impressed me about Maggie was her drive, her optimism, her courage. She didn’t see barriers, but opportunities. Sure, there was discrimination against her, both as a woman, and as a Chinese-American, but she barely mentioned such problems when she talked about her life. Although her mother had lost her U.S. citizenship when she married Maggie’s father, a Chinese immigrant, that didn’t deter her from working as a welder on Liberty ships during the war, nor from encouraging her daughter to join the Women’s Army Service Pilots. After the WASP were disbanded, Maggie went on to charge through more doors, becoming a physicist and working on weapon systems at the Lawrence Livermore labs, another job that was rare for a woman, let alone an Asian-American woman.

I thought of Maggie’s grit, her enthusiasm for taking risks and following her dreams, when I started looking for a Civil War story. I wanted to find a woman who had made similar daring choices, but I wasn’t sure where to look. So I read widely, about both the North and the South. I learned that more than 400 women had disguised themselves as men and fought as soldiers for one side or the other. Could one of those women be the story I wanted?

I plowed through books about nurses, soldiers, spies, but they all lacked some essential characteristic. Some were there to be with a husband, brother, father, or fiancé. Some were adventurous, but not particularly patriotic or admirable. Very few cared about the issue of slavery.

Sorting through all these women, I found one that seemed promising. The first book I read about her didn’t tell me much, but it gave me enough of a sense that I wanted to learn more. When I saw she’d written her own memoir of her soldiering life, that I could hear in her own voice her motives and intentions, it was like finding a treasure trove.

That woman was Sara Emma Edmonds, aka Frank Thompson. She was everything I’d hoped for – she had integrity, bravery, loyalty to the Union. As a bonus, she wrote movingly about the horrors and wrongs of slavery. But there was more. Edmonds was the only woman to successfully petition the government after the war for status as a veteran. She wanted her charge of desertion changed to an honorable discharge, and she wanted a pension for her years of service. Suffering from malaria she’d caught in the Virgina peninsula campaign early in the war, she needed medical care she couldn’t afford without it.

It took several years and two separate acts of Congress, but Edmonds received the legal recognition she so richly deserved. Men she’d served with testified on her behalf, praising her steadiness under fire, her work as a battlefield nurse, a general’s adjutant, a postmaster, and even a spy.

Hers was a great story, a vast canvas that covered many of the pivotal battles of the war. Now that I’d found my subject, I had to shape this big life into a book. And a short book at that. I first wrote about Sara Emma Edmonds for a picture book, choosing to showcase her first spy mission, one emblematic event to stand for such a complicated life. That text became NURSE, SOLDIER, SPY, beautifully illustrated by John Hendrix, and published this past April by Abrams.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Field Trips, Parties, and Where do I Get my Ideas?

In response to Roz Schanzer’s hilarious post “Writing Right, Right?” about Rules for Writing, Jim Murphy commented, “You have to have some fun writing if you expect me to still be awake when I get to the conclusion.” That reminds me of a funny story.

Most of the books I do with Sandra Jordan begin with a field trip. But not all field trips turn into books. A few years ago Sandra and I had what we thought was a great idea. We set off for the Museum of Modern Art to do some research. After two hours there, we went back to my apartment, sat down, and promptly fell asleep. Later we realized if our great idea put us to sleep, what would it do to our readers?

Where do you get your ideas? That’s the question I’ve been asked hundreds of times for the last thirty years. Some of my ideas seem quite interesting when I come up with them, often in the middle of the night when I can’t sleep. But in the light of day (is that a cliché, Roz?) in the midst of researching, I get so bored I end up eating lunch at 9:30 in the morning or writing frantic e mails to my daughters about nothing.

Here are some of my favorite field trips that did work out:

  1. A drive out to Storm King Sculpture Park resulted in our book “The Sculptor’s Eye.”

  2. On a visit to the National Gallery in Washington DC, Sandra and I stood transfixed in front of Jackson Pollock’s painting Lavender Mist and featured it in “Action Jackson.”

  3. A trip to the Isamu Noguchi Foundation in Long Island City to see his stage sets for dances by Martha Graham sparked our interest in doing a book on collaboration that resulted in “Ballet for Martha.”

Going to a party doesn’t constitute a field trip but it may inspire an idea. I once met the artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude at a cocktail party and she and I struck up a conversation about …no not art…but her Issey Miake dress. She was so charming that when Sandra and I decided to do a book about the Christos, I knew we would enjoy interviewing them.

Although I usually don’t get ideas for books at parties, social events seem to produce a multitude of suggestions by well meaning friends. It usually begins like this: “I’ve got an amazing story that would make a great book for kids. If I had the time, I would write it myself.” Here are some recent offerings:

A children’s book about the Bhagavad Gita from my friend Maxine who’s a Buddhist.

A story about Lucy’s schnauzer Morgan, who recently ran away and went missing for 19 hours.

Stanley’s grandson’s 9th birthday party at Busch Stadium.

And so on…

Occasionally, I’ve felt compelled to explain that I write nonfiction about the arts. This pronouncement is sometimes followed by blank looks, which prompt me to discourse on the dearth of arts education in the schools and the fact that perception in the arts encourages abstract thinking skills and inspires creativity. More blank looks. Perhaps I’m preaching to the wrong audience, which is why I’ve vowed to avoid parties (except on Halloween) this month, and stay home and write (and have fun doing it).

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Visual Storytelling

I am currently in the thick of telling a story visually. What do I mean by that? The text of Courage Has No Color is nearly done, and now it is time for me to choose the images that will add additional layers of meaning to that text. It is not at all as simple as choosing photographs to illustrate something I have said. That is what I used to think I was doing when gathering images and writing captions. But I have learned over the years that it is much, much more than that. It is an opportunity to tell MORE of the story. To elaborate, both with an image and with its caption, upon an aspect of the story that did not necessarily belong smack dab in the middle of the text. It can be distracting to the narrative to go off on an interesting-yet-not-crucial point. That is one of the many powerful uses of visual storytelling.

For example, if I wanted to show how television had a powerful impact on how we saw women in society in the 1950s, but didn’t want to veer off my beaten track with a lengthy description, I can (and did, in Almost Astronauts) show this quite effectively using images from Father Knows Best, the Mary Tyler Moore Show, and I Love Lucy. Looking at photographs also stirs ideas in me about what the images do NOT show as well as what they do show. This classic photo may conjure heroic images of America’s fearless astronauts to most people, but what I saw in this photo when collecting images for Almost Astronauts was what was NOT represented. The road not taken. The opportunity missed. The women in my story whose tale needs to be told.

It is the same for my newest book (Courage Has No Color) about the Triple Nickles. I continue to see what is—and sometimes more tellingly what is not—in the hundreds of photos I am looking through. I don’t just look at them; I listen to them. They speak to me. What are the images saying? What pops out at me that needs attention; that needs a voice? What more of the story is lurking in these photos, waiting for me to tease out and add to the overall narrative in the form of images?

This is my job, and I love it so, so much. I believe it is this love that makes my hands stop on one photo rather than another and take a closer look. What will I find? I can’t wait to find out!

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The life of a children's book…is it over when it's over?

The biography of a typical children’s book goes something like this:

The beginning
  • Author gets a fabulous idea and writes a manuscript or proposal
  • An editor likes it and contract terms are agreed upon
  • The ms is revised and edited (repeat as necessary)
  • Interior artwork (if applicable) is obtained, plus jacket art
  • Book is typeset, printed, bound, sent out into the world
  • Marketing happens
  • Reviews are written, hopefully rave
  • Orders are taken and fulfilled
  • Royalties are paid to authors and illustrators
  • As stock runs low, the book is reprinted
  • When orders decline, the book goes out of print
The end


Or not so much. Authors have always had the option of reprinting their book themselves. Boxes of books piled in the garage may be the result. Or so I hear, not having tried it myself. 

As everyone knows, things are different now because of the devices, digital book formats, and ebookstores now available. For quite awhile I’ve been wanting to put one of my out-of-print titles into ebook form and it's a thrill to announce that Tracks in the Sand is now available again on the iBookstore. Here is the trailer: Tracks originally had two printings and according to an inside source at the time was still selling several thousand copies a year when the publisher decided not to reprint. Perhaps they were more interested in selling their novelization of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie? (Just a theory.) My recent thinking is that Tracks is a good candidate for a digital version because, among other factors, sea turtles have been around for over 100 million years. Therefore, the basic facts of their life cycle story are not likely to change in the foreseeable future, barring oil spills and many other threats to their survival. My hope is that this book can now continue to serve as a tool to help young readers learn about these wonderful reptiles.

There are many pros and cons to the various digital options…iPad or Android app? Kindle book? NOOK book? I chose the iBooks format to start with for two main reasons:

  • The image quality is excellent.
  • There is now an inexpensive iPad app, Book Creator, that made the process relatively easy. Note: Book Creator is also great for students to make their own EPUB books.
One of the nice features of iBooks is that readers can download a sample to see how a book looks. Rather than allow a short automatic sample to be generated, I uploaded one with additional pages. More information about Tracks plus a coloring page can be found on this page of my web site.

For a fun classroom extension, check out the Tour de Turtles, a project by the Sea Turtle Conservancy that uses satellites to follow individual sea turtles as they roam around in the ocean. Here is a post with many additional resources.

Not every OP book is a candidate for a digital version…some complex layouts don’t shrink down well to the screen size of a tablet, for example. However, I anticipate that many books that have otherwise been relegated to file cabinets will soon find a new life. So, maybe when it's over, it's a new beginning instead.

If anyone has questions about the overall iBooks publishing process, here is my post on E is for Book with many details and links. Or, feel free to leave a comment with a specific question and I’ll try to answer it.


Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Trips of a Lifetime

In 1999, when we were all worried that Y2K was going to wreck the world as we knew it, maybe even blow it up, my family went to the Galapagos. My husband, who had written a book called The Beak of the Finch, about scientists Rosemary and Peter Grant studying Darwin's finches in the Galapagos, was invited to go on two back-to-back one week trips (on Lindblad Expeditions) and give some talks. He was allowed to bring our family along. Our sons were then 14 and almost 11. We all went for two weeks--Christmas week into New Year's week. If the world blew up, we'd be on the equator, in the Galapagos. What a way to go.
It was a magical trip. Our older son, in true teenager style, said to his father while walking on a gorgeous beach New Year's day, 2000, "Well Dad, short of taking us to the moon, this was the most amazing thing you could have done for us."
Writers are mostly poor. I don't know if you realize that. Especially if one writer is not married to, say, an investment banker. We two independent writers brought up our sons often wondering if we were going to be able to keep the show going. Some days (what am I saying?, some months, some years), I would go to the grocery store and panic--how was I going to buy pasta, cereal, laundry detergent, and still pay the electric bill? And then came the Pulitzer Prize, with all its shine. And still not a lot of money. We worked very hard, both of us, and loved our jobs, but.... not a lot of money, not a budget for luxuries like expensive family trips. But then. The Galapagos. Every once in a while, we were thrown a plum, and that trip to the Galapagos was a whole bushel of plums every day for two weeks. That bushel of plums lasted for years afterwards--unlike real plums. Someone once said, spend your money on experiences because experiences last longer than things. Let me chime in and say: YES! Because in our case it was really true.
When Jon was asked again to go to the Galapagos and yes, he could bring the family, I didn't know how the boys--now young men--would react. Could they commit, a year in advance, to spending two weeks with their parents? Would they even want to? Jon barely got the sentence out of his mouth. They each said YES without thinking about it. The Galapagos is that amazing a place.
So we went this past summer, again for two weeks. An added bonus was that I was also asked to speak, about Charles and Emma. To tell that story while on a ship in the Galapagos was pure joy. And going back with our now-grown sons (25 and 22) was also pure joy. It was epic and monumental and perhaps the most beautiful thing in the world. For what the Galapagos is about, for me, is the essence of life. As you walk the paths of the islands, paths lovingly created, guarded, and protected by the Galapagos Park Service and the Guides, without whom you would not be able to visit, you are surrounded by nature in all its glory--and brutality, sometimes. The animals are not at all scared of humans, so you can walk right next to (and I mean RIGHT NEXT to) a Blue-footed Booby

Or a Red-Footed Booby and chick:

You have to be careful not step on an iguana

or a sea lion.

You can see, up close, from literally inches or feet away, the Waved Albatross's mating dance, a male-Frigate bird's red-sack display, a sea-lion pup nursing. You snorkel with sea lions and angel fish, sea turtles, sharks and eels and octopi, and your grown sons. Who watch out for you. Who help you scramble over boulders on land and make sure you are not far away if there is something beautiful to see in the water.
(I have no digital photos from the first trip. But younger son brought a copy of a photo taken back then of a sea lion kissing his knee. With the help of a guide, we found the exact spot where that photo was taken. Tears-mine-were shed.)
The trip was so special that when Hurricane Irene forced us to drive, the four of us, from Miami home to New York city, we didn't balk. We packed our stuff into the trunk, our long-legged sons into the back seat, and drove home. It took us two and a half days and we had. A. Great. Time. Really.
Recently there was a story in the paper, a story that my husband had researched back when the boys were 4 and 1, the first time he went to the islands (that time, not on a gorgeous ship, but on a rented fishing boat that he found out later had sunk the previous year). He did not use the research in The Beak partly because it was not yet finished and partly, I think, because it was so gory. The researcher Jon toured the Galapagos with that first time, David Anderson, has been studying Nazca Boobies
and their cycle of abuse on a beautiful island called Española. As you will see if you read about his study, abuse begets abuse in birds. Not a surprise, really. Scientists are now saying that abuse seems to beget abuse in humans as well. Also not a surprise. Happily, the converse seems also to be true. Love begets love, and good experiences lead, one hopes, to more good experiences.
Of course when we write books for children, we are hoping to do the same thing. We can't take the world's children with us to the Galapagos, or to meet an historic person, or even to personally hang out with living scientists, but we can try to bring those experiences to them through books. By writing them, and by reading them. (Read to a child today!)
I know not everyone can go to the Galapagos. I can't believe we were fortunate enough to be able to go twice (and in my husband's case, three times). But I do know that taking children on trips, and exposing them to nature--in all its beauty as well as red in tooth and claw--will give them a lifelong interest in and support of the natural world. On our trip there were grandparents taking grandchildren around the islands.
Our sons.
I'm just saying.

Photos courtesy Jonathan Weiner and Lock McKelvey.

Monday, October 17, 2011

The Fall of the Year

So, as I begin to write, very late on a Sunday night, having just remembered that this posting is to appear quite early tomorrow morning – dang! – I'll note, by way of limbering up, as it were, that 218 years ago today (16 Oct.), Queen Marie Antoinette got it in the neck, had her head separated from her body, exited the ornate and filthy building, just a couple weeks short of her 38th birthday. And tomorrow (17 Oct.) which is your today, marks 162 years since the music died. Or at least Frédéric Chopin did and after a little over 39 years of life. The poor fellow is said to have said, when he had one slender foot in the grave, the other on a banana peel, "Comme cette terre m'etouffera, je vous conjure de faire ouvrir mon corps pour [que] je ne sois pas enterré vif." ("As this earth will suffocate me, I implore you to have my body opened so that I will not be buried alive.")
Pretty apt, all in all, considering the public squares are alive these days, protesting the heedless greed of oligarchs, comfortable and sneering; Halloween being right around the corner. A fine time for the pondering of downfalls, of being interred whilst breathing, albeit labored, white fingers moving in the dark, playing silently on remembered keys.
In any case, I'm just back in town from talking to one, two, three, four groups of school children at the Children's Literature Festival of the Ozarks, held at Missouri's university at Springfield.
Kid: "How come you're not a comedian?"
Snappy comeback: "What makes you think I'm not?" I mean, the little squirts laughed, God bless 'em; I plied them with history, implored them to revise whatever they wrote, "if you have any self-respect whatsoever," and I got paid for the gig.
I love America.
Then I drove the forty miles or so over to Mansfield, once the home of short-in-stature, long-in-legacy Laura Ingalls Wilder, whose books probably sit untouched by legions of school children, fearful of being bored out of their minds by an old-fashioned volume or, if they're boys, fearful of being thought gay if they should be seen by their lumpish peers, reading a book containing girls, girls wearing bonnets & petticoats, for crying out loud. It's all so dispiriting, but oh well. Anyway, I stood in the very room just yesterday (Saturday), where that stubborn little country woman wrote this about her slow-footed, horse-loving old husband, when he was an almost unbelievably sturdy 'farmer boy:'

"In the cold dawn, before breakfast, Almanzo helped Royal set up the big iron caldron near the barn. They set it on stones, and filled it with water, and lighted a bonfire under it. It held three barrels of water.
Before they had finished, Lazy John and French Joe had come, and there was time to snatch only a bite of breakfast. Five hogs and a yearling beef were to be killed that day.
As soon as one was killed, Father and Joe and John dipped the carcass into the boiling caldron..."

Happily for me, the book is all the richer now, because I walked about the little red house, the yard, the reconstructed barns, where the Wilders lived and worked. Happily for me, a lover of books with food in them, young Almanzo Wilder had a very healthy appetite. Speaking of which, do visit this link and go buy a little pumpkin. And happily for me, I had the chance to tell a bunch of kids [and will again on Wednesday], how rich history really, truly is – if, that is, it's souped up with some imagination & empathy, turbocharged by visits to the places where it happened; after all, a pan of pigment's bright and pretty, but it's flat worthless until you hit it with water & a paintbrush.
So yes, the fall of the year's a far out time to be considering the bloody, awful, inconvenient, battle-strewn, un-airconditioned past, all smelly with sweat, manure and wood smoke. What's good about it? It's gone - that was my grandmother's opinion of it. But what place is more seductive than one to which you can never, ever go? Filled with people, none of whom you can ever see? Knowing that they were every bit as alive, as fearful, as hopeful as we are, knowing that, for better or worse, their stories, their music, all their screwed up lives led us here.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Hooray for gardens--and gardening books!

A couple of days ago I started wondering what to blog about this month. I was feeling pretty smug about not waiting until the last minute this time, but guess what? No ideas, nothing, nada, nichts, rien, niente, nihil, tidak ada, wala, nic, ingenting, kitu. (Google Translate--so much fun!) Anyway, as usual when I'm feeling stuck or squirmy, I laced up my sneakers and whistled for my pup (that's kutsikas in Estonian). "Wanna go look for ideas? Wanna go look for squirrels?" Wise dog wagged his tail yes to both.

We took our usual route, heading east toward the Potomac River and River Farm, which was part of George Washington's huge estate in the 18th century. Now it's the headquarters of the American Horticultural Society (AHS). Aha, inspiration, less than a mile from home! The mission of AHS, according to its website, is
"To open the eyes of all Americans to the vital connection between people and plants, to inspire all Americans to become responsible caretakers of the Earth, to celebrate America's diversity through the art and science of horticulture; and to lead this effort by sharing the Society's unique national resources with all Americans."

One way AHS seeks to fulfill these goals is by promoting youth gardening programs. It also paired up with the Junior Master Gardener Program to create the
“Growing Good Kids – Excellence in Children’s Literature” award program, which honors outstanding children’s books that promote "an understanding of, and appreciation for, gardening and the environment." Of the 22 winners selected since the first awards were given in 2006, by my count four have been nonfiction titles. They are:

Big Yellow Sunflower, by Frances Barry
Flip, Float, Fly: Seeds on the Move, by JoAnn Macken, illustrated by Pamela Paparone
A Seed is Sleepy, by
Dianna Hutts Aston, illustrated by Sylvia Long
Miss Lady Bird’s Wildflowers: How a First Lady Changed America, by Kathi Appelt, illustrated by Joy Fisher Hein
Surely there's room for more nonfiction books here. I hope you'll help spread the word about these awards! (If I were April Pulley Sayre's publisher, by the way, I would definitely submit her wonderful RAH, RAH, RADISHES!) And if you're ever in the Alexandria, Virginia, area, I encourage you to visit AHS headquarters at George Washington's River Farm. Take time to enjoy the beautiful grounds and gardens, to learn from hands-on demonstrations about composting and raised vegetable beds, to play in the Children's Garden, to stroll through the Andre Bluemel Meadow down to the Potomac. You might see a bald eagle. You'll almost certainly be inspired.

P.S. In case you're wondering:
nada - Spanish; nichts - German; rien - French; niente - Italian; nihil - Latin; tidak ada - Indonesian; wala - Filipino; nic - Polish; ingenting - Swedish, kitu - Swahili

Thursday, October 13, 2011


One of the joys of living in Portland is the community’s vibrant literary scene. Last weekend was no exception, and I spent two days at the literary festival Wordstock, listening to a wealth of authors talking about their craft and their passion for writing.

One of the highlights was hearing Barry Lopez speak. Lopez writes both nonfiction and fiction and has won numerous honors for his work. The San Francisco Chronicle has called him “the nation’s premier nature writer.”

When he spoke about writing, he referred a lot to place—and his attempt as a writer not to be an authority, but to “apprentice” himself to a place and seek out the story to be found there.

When I think about an apprentice, I think of Luke Skywalker in the bog with Yoda, or Mickey Mouse trying to control all those the bucket-wielding brooms. An apprentice is someone brash and enthusiastic, who still has a LOT to learn.

Until now, I’d never considered that an author is an apprentice, not just to an editor (though we are that, too) but also, when beginning a new project, to the story we are trying to tell: we bring our enthusiasm and the brash assumption that we will be able to tell it. But we still have a lot to learn.

In the section “On Writing,” on Lopez’s website, he says:

“If I were to offer any advice to young writers, it would be this: be discriminating and be discerning about the work you set for yourself. That done, be the untutored traveler, the eager reader, the enthusiastic listener. Put what you learn together carefully, and then write thoughtfully, with respect both for the reader and your sources.”

Untutored, eager, enthusiastic: in other words, an apprentice.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Hearing Voices

I think fellow INK writers will relate to this. Do you ever send in what you consider a really good first draft of a manuscript, knowing—fearing is a better word—that your editor is going to focus on a particular story, and tell you that story should probably be cut?

It happens to me, and the more I work with the same great editor at Roaring Brook, the more certain I am ahead of time about the passages she’s going to flag. Even as I’m writing, I can hear her voice in my head: “This is great, but aren’t you veering off the course of the narrative here?” Sometimes I’ll listen to the voice and make preemptive cuts. But not always. Usually I’ll send in a first draft with a couple of beloved bits that veer off course. Even when I know what she’s going to say—and that she’s going to be right when she says it.

Why do I do this? I think it’s just hard to let go of a great story. In my Benedict Arnold book, there was a scene, early in the Revolution, where a bunch of Green Mountain Boys set out to steal some boats so they could cross Lake Champlain to attack Fort Ticonderoga. The Boys go to a Loyalist’s estate and find a nice boat tied up at the waterfront. But then, realizing the place is abandoned, they decide to break into the mansion and see if there’s anything worth stealing. They bust into the living room—and find a lead coffin sitting there. Turns out the Loyalist, Philip Skeene, had married a woman from a rich London family, and the family agreed to continue sending the wife a hefty annuity “whilst she is above ground”—meaning alive, obviously. But when his wife died, Skeene devised a different interpretation, sealing the woman inside this coffin, which locked in the stench of her rotting corpse. Skeene was able to report to London that his wife was very much “above ground,” and her family money kept rolling in. Great business, but my editor was worried it slowed down the more important action of attacking Fort Ti. It did. So we agreed to cut it.

My new book will be WWII thriller about the race to make—and steal—the world’s first atomic bomb. There’s a lot going on, and early drafts threatened to balloon out of control. But still, I couldn’t part with chapter 17, “The Getaway,” possibly my favorite in the book.

In short, the Germans are using a cliff-side factory in occupied Norway to make a key component for their atomic bomb project. Ten Norwegian resistance fighters sneak in, blow up key equipment, and ski off into the night. That’s a crucial part of the bomb race story, so it’s in. But next, furious Nazi commanders send out a 10,000-man force to hunt down the saboteurs. In chapter 17, one of the commandoes, Claus Helberg, is spotted by a German patrol. There’s a day-long ski chase, a shootout, and a series of Indiana Jones-style close calls finally leading to Helberg’s capture and one more escape.

It’s incredibly exciting, but while writing the chapter I definitely heard my editor’s voice. As the first draft took shape, I kept putting the chapter in and taking it back out. Finally I put it back in, and sent in the draft. Now it’s back out again. I knew all along it would be. The successful attack on the factory is vital to the story; the post-attack escape is not.

I know, I know. Readers won’t miss stories they never knew were there. And narrative speed is certainly essential, especially when trying to convince kids that history can be as fun to read as any novel. So why is it so painful to let go? I’d be curious to hear any thoughts/advice. And I bet INK writers could make a great book out of favorite stories left out of their books. I’d love to hear a few.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011


Did anyone else happen to read the September 30, New York Times Weekend Arts article about the new exhibition at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C.? The exhibit is titled Manifold Greatness and its subtitle makes clear what it's about: "The Creation and Afterlife of the King James Bible."
It sounds like a wonderful exhibit, especially for those who love words and real books -- manuscripts from the year 1000, the King James Bibles used by Queen Elizabeth I, King James' son, Henry, and Frederick Douglas, among others. And there's the history of how the King James version came to be, and especially the contribultions made by William Tyndale (who was condemned by the church and state for his English translation of the Bible and subsequently strangled to death by the crown, then burned. Talk about a bad review!) But what caught my attention and gave me a chuckle was the work of printerRobert Barker and his associate, Martin Lucas.
Seems that Barker/Lucas printed a version of the King James Bible in 1613 where in one book he set "Jesus" as "Judas." Oooops, my bad, he probably explained to the authorities. He fixed the error by pasting Jesus' name over that of his betrayer. But the Barker/Lucas masterpiece of mangled setting was their "Wicked Bible" from 1631. In this version they managed to leave out a single word, "not," so that one commandment reads "Thou shalt commit adultery." I thought this sounded very 60s, but clearly it didn't please the authorites back then, since both men were fined for the error. Barker probably wished he'd hired a real proofreader when he was later put into debtors' prison where he subsequently died.
Reading about Barker/Lucas made me think of errors that have appeared in my books. Usually a new book arrives and I leaf through it quickly, just to get an idea of what readers will experience. Later (a week, two weeks, sometimes longer) I'll go over the book start to finish with a red pen in hand. I read every word, marking sentences/paragraphs I wish I could have done better or that need to be changed in a subsequent printing. I remember being very embarrassed when I discovered that three sentences in a book began with "It was..." Two on the same page! How could I have possibly missed that, I wondered. Actually, I was really furious with myself and set about figuring out how to avoid the same thing ever happening again. Not that I really figured out how to do this. But at least I give myself a lecture about watching for repetitions whenever I'm readying a manuscript to be sent off to one of my editors.
Then there was the endpaper map for Across America on an Emigrant Train. Oh, my, this one hurt. The map was a last minute addition (the book was actually at the printer when the decision was made to have it drawn), so I didn't get to see it before the book was finsihed. Not that that would have made a difference. When the book arrived I looked at the map, wanting to be sure the artist had gotten Rober Louis Stevenson's 1879 train trip across America correct. Satisfied, I glanced through the book, then put it aside. Several months later, a letter arrived from an alert twelve-year-old reader. "Dear Mr. Murphy. I really liked your book. I liked that Robert Louis Stevenson almost died while trying to get to his girlfriend in California. The only thing I didn't like about the book was that you put the state where I live -- Vermont -- in the wrong place. Thanks for...." But I didn't read his letter all the way through; I was already fumbling for a copy of the book and right away (and way too late) saw that we'd switched both VT and NH.
Why hadn't I noticed this when I first looked at the book? I was too focused on checking RLT's route and had assumed that the map was correct. At a glance it looked correct (the state's all looked as I remembered them to be). It was a case of familiarity breeding a form of arrogance, or at least a form of laziness. No one could possibly mix up the states or fail to see them mixed up, so there was no need to check each and every one. But obviously, it happened.
Once my publisher knew about the problem they started the process to correct the error. But it would take months before another printing would be scheduled, and there were already a lot of books out there already. As embarrassed as I was, I decided to fess up immediately whenever I spoke at a school. I would tell kids that there was a mistake in the map, that two states had their positions swapped and challenged them to find them. Which they usually did pretty quickly. Then I would tell them that we all make mistakes and how important it is to check whatever we're working on, be it written or drawn or whatever, very, very carefully. Even if we think we know the material inside-out. So at least I turned a public mistake into a bit of a learning lesson.
Was the error ever changed. Yes. The only solution was to cut the VT/NH out of the map and stick them in the right state. This left all subsequent versions with those two states' initals gleaming white and very obvious, a little like the Barker/Lucas patch job over Judas.