Monday, July 30, 2012

Soaking Up The Sun

We're all stepping away from our blogging desks for a well-deserved blog vacation. We will be back with brand new posts right after Labor Day.

Until then, feel free to search through our archives to read any of our intriguing posts from the past. And join our I.N.K. Facebook Group. We welcome anybody to post there and start a discussion, even during our blog vacation. If you are reading anything good, do let us know.

See you back here in September!

Friday, July 27, 2012

Making Nonfiction Interesting for Kids

Today while writing my current book, I'm reminded of my History of Design professor, Pat Allred --- who made design history come alive. And, in doing so, gave me a life long love of design history. 

So, here's a reposting of my piece from February of this year titled Making Nonfiction Interesting for Kids. 
 My 50th post!
*OK, maybe my 50th tag... about my 47th post. But, I worked so hard on that graphic that I had to leave it. 

Recently, I’ve been thinking way back to my senior year in college. That year, while fulfilling the last electives to graduate, I took the most interesting classes of my college experience – History of Design, Art and Environment and History of the Home. I just unearthed my class notebooks and those were the actual titles. Until now, I haven’t had to use what I learned in those classes, except for help in Jeopardy or Trivial Pursuit*, of course.

As I think back, Pat Allred, my professor for History of Design, did a fabulous job making the information interesting and relatable. With each design time period –Victorian, Bauhaus, Moderne, etc, she first explained the historical facts of the time. Then, she went through each design discipline and related it to the time period and the other areas – Graphic, Furniture, Architecture, etc. I totally got it.

Then, as I was writing my senior paper on Doll Design, I was able to use what I learned from Professor Allred and mix the evolution of dolls within a historical timeline combining how children were perceived through the years, manufacturing processes, social and fashion trends. For the entire three hours of class time, she had slides to illustrate what she was teaching. As I said above, I found my notebook complete with extensive outline, notes, bibliography and copies of every slide – an absolute goldmine.

As I begin the research and writing on my new book, I’m aiming to make the information interesting and relatable. All that architecture and design history fodder is finally going to be of use as I research and write biographies for 22 women architects, landscape architects and engineers. I’m so inspired and passionate about these women, but how can I make the information interesting and engaging for kids? With any luck, I can incorporate what I learned in Professor Allred’s classes as I write and inspire future architects and engineers. Anyone else have a similar experience with clearing off the cobwebs and making use of material stored way back in the back of your brain?

*Once, in an intense game of Trivial Pursuit, I won by knowing about the Dionne Quintuplets. They were the first quintuplets that survived through infancy – and were made into a doll line. Gotta love design history.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012


I just sent in the final photos, graphs, and manuscript for the second edition of The Wind at Work, due out in March 2013, and to celebrate I’m rerunning my blog on writing the book -- pre- and post-internet.

Back in 1995 I wrote my first book The Wind At Work, a history of wind energy, 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? 

All this took place back in the Dark Ages, aka 1990s, aka pre–internet.


To research the book I read books and more books, using public and university libraries, interlibrary loans, and used bookstores. I traveled to the Netherlands, the American Midwest, and a wind turbine factory in Tehachapi, California. 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!

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 small towns all around the US and Canada – this in pre-free-long-distance-phone-plan days.

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 that my first kiss on my name on my book lingers on…..

Aside: 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 last 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. [July, 2012 – I’m still planning to.]


I’d been thinking of doing an updated version of The Wind at Work for a while, for the contemporary section on wind turbines was woefully out of date. Last spring (2011,) 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, 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 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 Plant 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. Here’s a Jacobs ‘wind plant’ spinning in Antarctica in 1933!

As for “Where to Find a Windmill.” I didn’t make one phone call, I just googled them all.

Aside: As I began my photo research, I unearthed old paper files from a box in a closet. I found the manila file marked “picture permissions.” With trembling hands, I plucked a letter from dozens nestled there. I let out a cheer 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 days and weeks of work. I sent a silent blessing to the forgotten hero who helped me compose that permission letter back in 1997.


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.

Happy Summer Reading - whichever device you use!

Tuesday, July 24, 2012


This summer I am working with kids in three different capacities and managing to use I.N.K. books as a teaching tool with all of them. My students currently range from age eight to eighteen and I am successfully using a mix of the same books with all of them. (More on this in September). It's interesting for me to revisit this post I wrote back in October when I first muddled my way to start using non fiction books in a classroom environment.

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 although, 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, July 23, 2012

Saguaro By The Numbers. Maybe.

We are reposting this month and I have chosen to repeat this post, even though it originally appeared only two months ago. It received more comments (12) than any other post I've ever written for the INK (or any other) blog.I guess people are interested in how an author's mind takes an inchoate assemblage of ideas and facts ant turns it into a book. Or tries, anyway. And, you know, I'm interested in that, too! In fact, it interests me more than anything else about writing a book because that process is what determines whether I'm going to have a book or not and, if I am, what it will look like. Happy summer, everyone!

I’m going to install a little window in my mind so you can see how it works. At least how it is working at this moment. It may not work in quite the same way at any future time. Here’s my promise: other than having decided on the overall idea, I have not planned the specifics of what I’m about to write. Instead, I will record my thought processes (if there are any) as they occur, to see if something interesting, useful or otherwise worthwhile happens. And if not, you’ll get to see that, too. Ready?

Here’s the context. It happened earlier this month. I was in Phoenix for school visits, and I had a free afternoon so I went to the Desert Botanical Garden. Great place! I was looking at an exhibit on saguaro cacti, the Sonoran Desert’s quintessential plant. A mental image of this charismatic cactus with upcurving arms may be the first association many people have with the word "desert," although saguaros grow only in this relatively small desert of southern Arizona, northwestern Mexico and a sliver of southesastern California. I knew these are very cool plants from a very hot place, but of course I was eager to know more.

So I read the interpretive signs and I was bowled over… with numbers. That is to say, numerical facts about saguaros. Being a numbers guy and a math author, the hairs on the back of my neck stuck up like cactus thorns. Here are a few of those numbers:

 — a single saguaro plant releases up to 40 million seeds in its lifetime
 — saguraros grow incredibly slowly: about ½ inch in the first year and one foot in the first 15 years. Then they start cruising: in 40 or 50 years, they may reach ten feet and it is not until they are 50-100 years old that they begin to sprout arm buds. Some live up to 300. Their maximum height is 40-60 feet. When a cactus poacher (oh yes, they do exist) digs up a six-foot saguaro to plant in front of his house, a replacement in the wild will take about 30 years reach the size of the poached plant (which will probably die).
 — one mature saguaro can store 1,500 gallons of water (that’s 6 tons) in its spongy pulp  — enough to last several months. It can lose 2/3 of its stored water and survive.

There were many other numbers but that’s enough for now.

So here’s what happened. I thought to myself, “Hey, how about a book about saguaros and their numbers?” Saguro Numbers or Saguaros by the Numbers or Number the Saguaros or something like that. Or maybe not like that. But let’s not get hung up on the title. The thought did not evade me that if I could pull it off, sequel possibilities would be countless:  Elephants by the Numbers, Great White Sharks, Dinosaurs ... even Oceans, Earth, The Solar System, etc.

So what about it? Having an idea for a book (or a series) is the easy part. Figuring out a way to execute the idea is another matter. It’s kind of like the business plan for a book. Without it, all you've got is something to talk about at cocktail parties. With it, you're in business. Maybe. So what should I do with this inchoate idea of saguaros and numbers? Let’s see…

First thought out of the gate: like Harper’s Index. You know, “Rank of Portland, Oregon, of all cities in per capita consumption of Grape-Nuts: 1” or “Number of incidents worldwide last Christmas (2005) of ‘Santanarchy,’ which involves roving mobs of unruly Santas: 29”

So, instead we could have, “Number of seeds a saguaro cactus produces in its lifetime: 40,000,000.”

OK. Possible. But a bit dry, and it seems a bit too much like, well, Harper’s Index. A derivative work. Heaven forbid. And it might get tedious. But with additional text to explain and fill out the saguaro's story, it could work. 
So, maybe this instead: I’ll build the book around a number line. One gargantuan number line could extend across all the pages. Number lines are an important way for children to understand number concepts, and along the number line I could mark numbers of importance in understanding saguaros. At the number 10, there could be an arrow or an indicator that you can follow to an explanation that in 10 years, if all goes well, the saguaro will reach a height of one foot. (I suppose I could just as well put the marker at the number 1 and say that one foot is the height of the saguaro after ten years.) At 1,500, you’d have the number of gallons of water a plant can store. (Or it could be 6 for 6 tons.) And at 40,000,000 the number of seeds produced in a lifetime. Of course there would be many opportunities to add supplemental information to fill out the picture. (Let me not discuss right now the question of whether to use metric units of American units or both. We'll save that for another day. We're just brainstormin' here.)

OK, but a few problems with my number line idea come to mind. For one, how can I set up a number line on a scale that shows 1 and 6 as well as 1,500 and 40,000,000 and plenty of points in between? I guess there are ways. I could leave out sections (showing jagged lines to indicate discontinuities). Yeah, that’s possible. Or how about this: multiple number lines on different scales. One for growth. That would work. Another for production of things like seeds. Forty million. But what else could go on that number line? Maybe nothing else. Does it make sense to create a number line with only one point on it? Maybe not.

But wait a minute, suppose I created a bunch of number lines, on different scales, and I showed not only the saguaro-relevant numbers (example: 1,500 gallons of water stored) but other values that could put it into perspective, such as how much water is found in a large watermelon, in the body of a human, in an Olympic-size swimming pool. 

That could work. But let’s think about it. Do I really want a book of number lines to tell the story of a saguaro cactus? Maybe. Maybe not.

How about a book of math problems related to saguaros? "It has rained for 30 hours in the Sonoran Desert. A 40-foot saguaro's roots spread 40 feet in all directions, and in the area above the roots, 100 gallons of water fall each hour. The saguaro can absorb half of that water. How much water can this giant cactus absorbed?” (Do you need the Teachers Edition? The answer is 1,500 gallons.) Then some narrative can explain that these plants really do this, how amazing they are, etc., etc. Nah, too much like a math textbook.

OK, how about a book with chapters that are numbered in an odd way. Instead of Chapters 1, 2, 3, etc., we can number the chapters according to the number being discussed. So it could start with Chapter 1 in which we feature the number 1. All the things about saguaros that come in ones. Or just one thing: in one year it grows half an inch. But then we might skip to chapter 10. That's how many years it takes for the saguaro to grow to a height of one foot. And I would talk about water absorption in Chapter 1,500.  Chapter 40,000,000 is for the seeds. (Hey, I could start with Chapter ½ because it grows half an inch in the first year.)

Hmmm. Not bad. Original (I think). Maybe I could pull it off. Maybe not. That’s all I’m coming up with right now: lots of maybes and maybe nots. 

And maybe, since the great horned owl of my bird clock just hooted (as the clock’s little hand reached the number 12), I’ll sleep on it. Tomorrow is another day for a few more maybes. And then maybe I’ll start writing to see which of these maybes I like best. Or maybe I’ll think of a better one. (In the meantime, feel free to vote for your favorite or suggest your own maybe.)

Friday, July 20, 2012

Exploring the thing that makes the light bulbs glow (and our screens!)

I have enjoyed being a part of the I.N.K. blog since the beginning but am now stepping down to let others have a chance...while I will no longer be a regular monthly blogger, an article by me will be popping up from time to time. Here is my repost from April 21, 2010:

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.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Learning Through Story

As teacher friends ask for suggestions to add to their reading lists, this seems like a good time to re-post this past favorite:

In a recent thought-provoking Washington Post article, journalist and author Joy Hakim wrote the following: “As they [education historians] document the tale, it was decades ago that we gave up teaching history as an idea-centered discipline played out by a succession of characters—heroes and villains—whose actions led to results that can be analyzed. That kind of story-based history is engaging. We replaced it with litanies of facts.”

She was talking about the state of textbooks, as well as the lack of integration of standard curriculum with the stories of science and social studies that, without, leave gaping holes in education. That’s where we nonfiction writers today come in.

As depressing and infuriating as much of Hakim’s article was to me, I also felt myself saying “but we do that—those stories are being written!” And so, with the intention of offering a tiny bit of assistance to all those who teach and/or otherwise influence the education of young minds, I decided to begin compiling a recommended reading list of stories for older readers—true stories; i.e., nonfiction (or veritas, truthiness or True Dat!)—that will surely supplement and complement and enhance the experience of anyone taking social studies and science classes using textbooks.

Please—I mean this—please, add to this beginning of a list. Let’s make it grow. I will incorporate your comments and update the list accordingly. Next time, I’ll make a picture book list!

History and Science Through Story:

Armstrong, Jennifer. The American Story: 100 True Tales from American History

Aronson, Marc and Budhos, Marina. Sugar Changed the World: A Story of Magic, Spice, Slavery, Freedom, and Science

Aronson, Marc. Witch-Hunt: Mysteries of the Salem Witch Trials

Bartoletti, Susan Campbell. Hitler Youth: Growing up in Hitler’s Shadow

Burns, Loree Griffin. Tracking Trash: Flotsam, Jetsam, and the Science of Ocean Motion

Cobb, Vicki. What's the Big Idea?: Amazing Science Questions for the Curious Kid.

Colman, Penny. Where the Action Was: Women War Correspondents in World War II

Deem, James. Bodies from the Ice: Melting Glaciers and Rediscovery of the Past

Delano, Marfe Ferguson. Earth in the Hot Seat: Bulletins from a Warming World

Freedman, Russell. Who Was First?: Discovering the Americas

Giblin, James Cross. The Many Rides of Paul Revere

Hakim, Joy. The Story of Science: Aristotle Leads the Way

Harness, Cheryl. The Ground-Breaking, Chance-Taking Life of George Washington Carver and Science and Invention in America

Heiligman, Deborah. Charles & Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith

Hoose, Phillip. Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice

Jackson, Ellen and Bishop Nic. Mysterious Universe: Supernovae, Dark Energy and Black Holes

Jackson, Donna M. The Wildlife Detectives: How Forensic Scientists Fight Crimes Against Nature

Murphy, Jim. An American Plague: The True and Terrifying Story of the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793

Nelson, Kadir. We are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball

Partridge, Elizabeth. Marching for Freedom: Walk Together Children and Don’t You Grow Weary

Sis, Peter. The Wall: Growing up Behind the Iron Curtain

Stone, Tanya Lee. Almost Astronauts: Thirteen Women Who Dared to Dream

Thimmesh, Catherine. Team Moon: How 400,000 People Landed Apollo 11 On the Moon

Walker, Sally. Written In Bone: Buried Lives of Jamestown and Colonial Maryland

Weatherford, Carole Boston. Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Breaking Up Is Hard To Do, Redux

Yesterday morning there was an article in the NY Times that touched on my former subject, Mary Sullivan. Although the article in case the link doesn't work it's called

100 Years After a Murder, Questions About a Police Officer’s Guilt 

 doesn't mention Mary, she had a minor roll in the case, though not in solving it (one of the many reasons I, sob, dropped the book). Seeing it there in the paper, I had a pang and so I decided to re-post this blog from early last year. If we weren't posting old blogs, I probably would have written an entire blog about my newly adopted dog, Ketzie. I guess I'm lucky because I am such a doting new parent I would have embarrassed myself by writing thousands of words about her and showing you a picture. OK. Since you asked. I'll show you a picture.

and one more just so you can see what she really looks like:

Now on to the "real" blog post, the repeat:

If it were up to me, you'd listen to this song while reading this post.

So. It's been a very, very long time since I broke up with a sweetheart, given that I've been married for almost 30 years. (In  my culture, you get married at 11.) And I don't intend to ever break up with him. But there comes a time in every writer's life when she has to break up with a topic. Actually, many times. Usually the break-up comes early on in the project. At least for me. I work on something for a short time and realize that there's just no there there, or that it's not for me. Or someone or something else pulls at me, grabs my attention. ("Oh you over there, come hither...")

But sometimes, it seems, you go out with someone for a very long time before you realize he or she was not your bashert. This has just happened to me. It was a long relationship, but it was going nowhere. It just took me a very long time to realize that because I thought... I was sure...though I had niggling doubts...that I was in love.

But breaking up really IS hard to do.

(By the way, I also like this version of the song. My friend Judy Blundell votes for the slow version, which I also like. Ok, maybe I'm spending too much time listening to Neil Sedaka.)

I mean, look at her. An early NYC policewoman. A detective.  And we had spent so many, many months together.

The more time, energy, money, time, time, time, you invest in a topic, the more reluctant you are to let it go. I bought and read very many books.

I spent many hours looking for people who knew the person I had fallen in love with. After much detective work, I found her descendants. That was a great day! And then her great granddaughter became an enthusiastic helper, inviting me to come to her house, where I combed through boxes of clippings, notes, photos, memorabilia, and even recordings, hoping for the big break in the case. 

I dug deep into the web, into online newspapers, books, footnotes of journal articles. I reached out to authors, researchers, professors, librarians... But I just couldn't get enough primary source information. There was no great case, no story arc, and much of the information was that kind of early 20th century, questionable, surfacey--maybe even fictionalized--storytelling that made this researcher queasy. I could write a great novel about her, sure. And I always wanted to try writing historical fiction, but I was determined to write about her as nonfiction. She was such a character, such an important person, I was convinced that I wanted to write about her for real. If you find a great real person, a trailblazer, you want to write about her as nonfiction. At least that is my predilection. I spent hours in archives, looking at microfilm and microfiche, begging archivists for help. (I even wrote about my research problems in an article in The Horn Book, vowing to bribe the gatekeepers with chocolate. I almost resorted to that.) I told everyone I knew in NYC what I was working on. I told strangers at dinner parties. I buttonholed the state archivist and begged her for help. She gave me a great lead to another archivist. Who tried to help.... I pleaded my case to a group of librarians in PA, and that plea led to another great lead--which ended up going nowhere. I had so many leads that went nowhere I felt like a dog-walker walking invisible dogs. But I kept going. And going. And going. I revised and finished a novel during this time. I wrote a picture book. But I kept coming back to my sweetheart. 

Probably the moment I should have known that it was not meant to be was way back in February of 2010. I finally heard back from a man I'd written to months before. I'd asked for his help in getting into Harlem jail records from the 1920's.  He wrote back a very lovely email: 

I  have an interesting angle you might use in connection with the lack of Harlem Jail records. There's a secret room in the jail holding records from the era that includes MS's undercover work there. It was accessible only by pigeons or by persons who climb a ladder from a room below. The ladder is not a permanent fixture but must be moved into position and held in place by one person while another climbs up, pushes open a panel in the ceiling and climbs into the secret store. It is secret in the sense that unless you knew the room was there, you wouldn't encounter it touring the building on your own.  The story goes a caretaker for the abandoned city jail discovered it one day by accident when cleaning the ceiling of the room below. Of course, the pigeons discovered the secret room long before that, flying in through a broken window, and making use of the place as their private toilet. Thus the bundled up records are covered with their dried droppings. The city uses the health hazards presented as the reason for not retrieving the records. In other words, much of Harlem Jail history is held being held hostage by pigeons.

But no, this did not stop me. I would not be daunted or deterred by pigeon poop! My husband and I joked about buying Hazmat suits. A friend said she's go with me, too. I actually considered it.

I reached out to more and more people, which eventually led to: having dinner with a roomful of retired policewomen; interviewing a 92-year-old policewoman as she lay on her sofa recovering from back surgery (she argued with her friend who brought me there that, no, she would NOT take the clips out of her guns); and, finally, hanging out with a really bright and interesting drug-enforcement officer who, after a dinner in a strange restaurant a few months ago, left me alone in a deserted parking garage late at night while I waited for her to make a phone call inside an unmarked building. When she got back into the car I calmly explained to her how a writer's mind worked, and how she owed me big for the 20 minutes of scenarios that ran through my head during the time she was gone...(all the while texting my husband, saying, "I dont know where I am...!").... It turned out the detective's call was about a fish. A tropical fish. A pufferfish, to be exact. 

It seemed after almost two years the relationship had no future. There was no there there. But I so very much wanted there to be! I felt a strong duty to my subject, to her family, to the policewomen I talked to--but mostly, to myself. I had spent so much time on this project. It was to be my long narrative nonfiction book after Charles and Emma (which is out in paperback next week!)  and I just hated to admit it wasn't working. During this whole time I talked to both my agent and my editor about my progress (or lack of it), and they were encouraging, sweet, supportive, and knew, I'm sure, long before I did, that it was time to say goodbye. I asked the great granddaughter to put in a Freedom Of Information Act request, which she did, willingly. We waited. And waited. We are still waiting. (So it's not truly over yet.) 

Finally, one day last month, I moved the books from my desk to the shelves you see above.  I took down the timeline from my bulletin board. I filed my notes, clippings, print-outs. I archived my interviews. I talked to my agent and my editor again.They both said, Move On. They both said, you might come back to it. As fiction, or maybe someday even as nonfiction. But it is time to move on. You can still be friends, but.... 

It was very painful, folks. It took me weeks to get over it. Really, it felt like a break-up. I walked around dazed, confused, humiliated, disappointed, angry... but mostly sad.

But finally I knew it was time. To find someone new. I might come back. I hope to come back, but for now... I'm moving on. 

Fortunately, fortunately, while I was travelling last summer, I met someone else. He stood in the corner waiting while I realized my relationship was over. He was respectful. He didn't pounce. He whispered, "Come hither, come hither..." 

And now, friends, I have committed. And I am in love. And this one is going to work. This one is Mr. Right. 

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Best Of... A Literary Bucket List

July is the month we INKers take a moment to repost one of our favorites from the preceding year. This post first appeared in April, 2012.

A Literary Bucket List

Recently we had a houseguest, a great guy—funny, smart, and kind—who had just turned 50.  I, myself, am pushing (ed. note: have reached!) 52.  My husband, a few years older.

We are in what I consider the sweet spot: old enough to have gained a touch of wisdom and perspective, but still young enough to pretty much do what we want (with a bit of Advil.)

The world is still basically our oyster.

And yet, my time on this planet does not seem as infinite to me as it did in my 20s.  “One day I’ll try that” is more and more becoming “Do it NOW.”

One night at dinner, we got to discussing Bucket Lists.  I’ve always liked the idea of one, not so much for the “before you die” part as the “identifying what you REALLY want to do” part.  Our houseguest, in fact, has already started writing stuff down.

I haven’t put mine down on paper, yet, though I have a few items in my head.  One is a dream I’ve had ever since I was a kid—to go to Holland in the middle of winter and skate and skate and skate down miles of canals.  That’s do-able, for sure.  Another is to go to Las Vegas at night with all the neon lights lit up in crazy colors.  That’s so do-able I’m kinda surprised I haven’t done it yet.  Another was, as an adult, to sing Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus in a full choir (something I hadn’t done since high school choir class).  That one I actually did, a few years back—in one of those holiday community sing-alongs—and discovered that while I used to be an alto, I am now a tenor.

Coincidentally enough, at the same time we had our lovely houseguest, I noticed in the newspaper that coming to Portland, OR, where I live, was Mark Twain himself!!

OK, not quite, but the next best thing: Hal Holbrook’s show, “Mark Twain Tonight!”

If you’re not familiar with the show: the wonderful actor Hal Holbrook (who among other roles played the shadowy figure “Deep Throat” in the movie, “All the President’s Men") has been portraying Mark Twain for years in an old-timey stage show where he imparts, with impeccable timing, Twain’s wisdom and signature wit. (Check out this wonderful clip.)

The first thing I thought when I read the newspaper announcement was, “I’ve always wanted to see that.”  The second thought was, “Do it NOW.” 

I have a particular connection to Mark Twain as I spent over a year in his fine company while working on The Extraordinary Mark Twain (According to Susy.)

And so, I bought a ticket.  The show was wonderful, and Mr. Holbrook brought such warmth, humor, and scholarship to the role that it did feel like I was seeing Mark Twain himself.

Seeing “Mark Twain Tonight!” made me realize that in addition to my regular Bucket List, I must have the yen to create a literary one.

And why not?

So now, it’s got me thinking: What other literary experiences do I want?  And when I can I start doing them?

The correct answer is: NOW.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

There's a Sea-Change Coming to Education

One of the advantages of the new blogger format is that we can see how many people read a post.  This post, which originally ran on May 2, not very long ago, had almost 800 views. This is substantially more than the average post.  For this reason, as per our July reruns, I'm posting it again.

One person I’ve gotten to know well and admire this year is Dr. Myra Zarnowski, Professor of Children’s Literature at Queens College School of Education, part of the City University of NY.  Myra specializes in teaching undergraduate and graduate students how to teach nonfiction literature in the classroom.  She has studied the books written by iNK authors and she is an expert on the Common Core Standards, now the new educational objectives adopted by 47 states.  Recently she gave a webinar for Capstone,a leading educational publisher, with Marc Aronson and Mary Ann Cappiello about how to meet Common Core Standards using  various strategies and children’s nonfiction.  Usually Myra interviews authors (including moi) but today, I thought I’d turn the tables and interview her.

Myra, Can you explain, in a nutshell, what the Common Core Standards are about and how they will change the educational culture in this country?
The stated goal of the CCSS is to prepare students to be college and career ready. To get the skills they need, students in every grade will be spending more time reading nonfiction literature and thoughtfully responding to it—50% of all reading in elementary school and 70% in high school. That’s the exciting part.  Nonfiction is going to be central to much of what we do. Teachers at all levels will be using more nonfiction, and they will be using it to study selected topics in depth. It is our green light to dig deeply into topics in math, science, and history. We’ll be doing some close reading--comparing, integrating, synthesizing, and evaluating books and related materials. We’ll be looking at the craft of writing as well as the content.  Above all, we’ll be supporting students as they develop their own evidence-based ideas.

What are some of the problems teachers articulate about using children’s nonfiction in the classroom?
The biggest problem teachers talk about is that they don’t know nonfiction books.  As they strive to provide a better balance between fiction and nonfiction in their classes, teachers will be on the lookout for quality nonfiction.  That means that we all have to do our part to help teachers find the books they need. The curriculum isn’t going away. Teachers will still be teaching math, science, and social studies. So what they need is a means of finding nonfiction literature that can enhance what they are already doing.  They also need to understand the wide range of formats offered by nonfiction literature and its unique features. The iNK website is clearly a major “go-to” place to find this information.

Another problem is envisioning what teaching will be like as we incorporate the CCSS. There will be changes in how we teach as we focus on meeting these new standards. The standards call for finding key ideas and details, examining the craft and structure of nonfiction, and integrating knowledge and ideas from several sources. We will be doing this at all grade levels, K-12. For many of us, that will mean rethinking and redesigning what we do.  I think these changes will be exciting and productive, but like any change it will take getting used to.

Finally, some teachers think that nonfiction is too hard for their students. That’s because we have a history of believing that narrative is easier to understand than information. That’s wrong on two counts. First, nonfiction is as understandable as fiction. Second, much nonfiction is narrative. It tells a story, but the story must be true. Even nonfiction that doesn’t tell a story is understandable when it is well written and has quality features like descriptive details, clear organization, an enthusiastic voice, and an appealing design. We teachers need to “jump in” and start using quality nonfiction and simply watch our students’ reactions.

What are some of your favorite strategies using our books?  Can you give some specific example from iNK authors?
Don’t get me started! Here’s a sampling of strategies I use:
  1. This year I am working with 5 first grade teachers to study animal size and shape. What better way to begin than using Steve Jenkins’ books What Can You Do With a Tail Like This? and Actual Size. We used the first book to tap into how the author structured the information. We constructed a “Question-Answer-Detail” (QAD) chart to collect information about how animals use their noses, tails, eyes, feet, and mouths. The author so clearly organized the information that collecting this information was easy. Then it was available to use for other purposes.
We used both books as the basis for a bunch of math activities. We made a Venn diagram comparing similarities and difference between the ways in which humans and animals use their noses, ears, eyes, feet, and mouths. We made up math problems based on animals’ weights and lengths and constructed graphs. We even made riddles about animals.

2.       I always use Andrea Warren’s books—especially Orphan Train Rider: One Boy’s True Story—to show my college students how an author can provide background information and create strong feelings of empathy and emotion in readers. This book about how Lee Nailling and his brother  were placed in an orphanage and later rode the orphan train to find homes in Texas truly grabs not only my undergrads who are about to become teachers, it grabs their students as well. The structure is very supportive of young learners. One chapter tells the specific story of Lee Nailling, and the next chapter gives historical background information. The chapters alternate throughout the book. At the end of the book, you are both informed and emotionally hooked on this topic!

I use Orphan Train Rider as a basis of literature circles. I divide my students into groups of four or five to discuss the book. They each try out a discussion role: Big Idea Booster (the reader reports on the main idea), Fantastic Fact Finder (the reader tells about interesting facts and why she selected them), Photo Picker (the reader selects and discusses several photos), Setting Spotter (the reader discusses descriptions of time and place), and Discussion Director (the reader raises question she wants to discuss). By participating in a literature circle, my students experience what they can then do with their students.

  1. I use two books by different authors—for example, The Remarkable Benjamin Franklin by Cheryl Harness and How Ben Franklin Stole the Lightening by Rosalyn Schanzer—to show how different authors deal with the same subject. This strategy is helps students see that different historical accounts are really different.

What do you see is the role of the school media specialist in helping teachers?
The role of the school media specialist is crucial. Teachers and librarians are natural allies and need to work together as we figure out how to incorporate the CCSS. Each person brings a different set of skills to the table. Media specialists know about nonfiction books and a range of supporting materials like primary source documents that we need to develop quality instruction.  They are experts at finding the material we need. Media specialists can play a central role in helping us put together lessons and units. Teachers, in turn, know their students—their strengths, needs, and strong interests. They also know the curriculum they need to teach. Together teachers and media specialists are a strong team.

Do you have any suggestions for us authors about our roles in this transition?
Authors can really help us during this time of transition and beyond. A major contribution authors can make is by being more transparent about the processes you use to write your books. Even though I know that you are constantly researching; thinking; and sifting and shaping information, most students who read your books don’t. You can help us by unpacking your process of writing.  How do you find the topics you write about? What makes you passionate about a topic? What do you do to investigate?  Once you find your information, how do you shape it? Do you work with an editor? How?  It would be great if we could learn more about your decision making.

Authors can also tell us more about their books. Specifically, since we are going to be looking at key ideas and details, craft and structure, and integration of ideas, it would help if you could discuss those features specifically in terms of your books. We are also going to be having our students consider an author’s point of view. How is your point of view revealed in your books? We are going to be doing more informative and argumentative writing. Tell us how you introduce ideas and concepts to your readers. Tell us how you make claims and write original interpretations and then back them up with evidence. This would really be helpful.
We are trying to help students communicate clearly. Since that is what you do, we are really interested in knowing how you do it.  Many of you give us this information in author’s notes. Keep on doing this. It’s extraordinarily helpful. We are trying to help students communicate clearly. Since that is what you do, we are really interested in knowing how you do it.  Many of you give us this information in author’s notes. Keep on doing this. It’s extraordinarily helpful. 

Monday, July 9, 2012

Letter...We Still Get Letters

Hi All--

Like most of my fellow bloggers, I am selecting a popular (and, I think, interesting) blog from previous years to republish for July.  Hope you enjoy it.

I also want to take the opportunity to announce that I have had two new books come out in this month: It's a Dog's Life on July 3rd and an updated version of See How They Run: Campaign Dreams, Election Schemes, and the Race to the White House on July 5th in time for the new election season. It's exciting.


Friday, November 13, 2009

Letters...We Get Letters

This week many of us have been writing about the questions kids ask. Maybe you are tired of the subject, but frankly, I can’t help myself. To add a little variety, I’ll change up and talk about some of the letters and emails I’ve received from students.

Furthermore I’ll begin by quoting my favorite email from a kid, one which wasn’t even sent to me. I’ve asked Lois Lowry if I could borrow it for this blog entry and she graciously sent me the exact wording. It read:

I am working on a research paper and in my thesis statement I have to identify you. Would you be considered a 19th century author? Please let me know ASAP.

Okay, on to me. I love the thank you notes that teachers assign after I’ve made a school visit. Certainly my mother would have approved. Here’s an excerpt from one letter that came from a school where I talked about Ultimate Field Trip 1: Adventures in the Amazon Rain Forest, illustrated by my frequent collaborator, photographer Michael J. Doolittle.

Dear Susan Goodman, I’m one of the many people who were in your second grade group. Here’s one question I wanted to ask you: Is your photographer Michel Dolittle related to Dr. Dolittle?

Here’s another note that asked a question (name changed, mistakes included).

Dear Susan, Will you please dedicate a story to my bear Oatmeal and me. My name is Mary Jones. I am very happy to meet you. I admiare you a very lot. I have read 4 of your books. I am a big fan on yours. It would be a great honor to have one of your books dedicated to me. Please word it like this. I dedicate this book to Mary Jones and her bear Oatmeal because she admiars me so very much. Sinserly Mary

I couldn’t resist. I had a book going to press and my husband ended up sharing his dedication, although I did invoke poetic license and changed her suggested wording.

Last one for this post, although I could keep going. One Sunday evening, I happened to be online and received a desperate email from a young lady with an assignment due the next morning. She asked me if my underlying reason for writing Ultimate Field Trip 4: A Week in the 1800s was…and then gave me two alternatives. I immediately wrote back saying that neither answer was right and then explained the message I was hoping to convey with the book.

Moments later I got another email, this time from her mother. She explained that her daughter was filling out a multiple-choice assignment created by the textbook company that had excerpted my book. And she provided me with all four possible explanations for my motivation. I studied them and decided the answer was E, none of the above. I wrote back and suggested her daughter bring this email chain between her and the author who explained her real intent to class. Who knows, maybe she’d get extra credit for taking some initiative.

HA! A week later I received an email from the mother who thought I might be interested in the upshot. Her daughter didn’t get any credit for the question, the answer was B.

As a lover of irony, I suppose this email exchange should be my favorite. But it’s just so wrong on so many levels. We can talk about: A) the issue of textbooks in general (although I’m grateful that this one used my writing as a good example). We can talk about: B) making children limit or reduce their interpretations of what they read to previously digested categories (which may well be wrong). We can talk about: C) the fact that assignments should help kids learn to think on their own rather than letting others tell them what they think (perhaps wrongly). We can talk about: D) not rewarding initiative and imagination.

Which do you think wins the “most wrong” award—A, B, C, or D? Give me your answer. But don’t forget that there’s always E, none of the above.
Blogger Lael said...
This is why when I was in school I learned to "study for the test" rather than try to learn the material :eyeroll: Gave me a good laugh this morning though :D
November 13, 2009 2:06 PM
Blogger Shannon O'Donnell said...
Wow - what an interesting post. As a high school English teacher, my vote goes to "B" as the most wrong answer.

I hate it when we pigeon-hole reponses to literature. I believe that we react to all forms of literature on a deeply personal level - as we should. Literature is meant to teach us what it means to be human. Humanity has no easy or pre-set answers; we are all individual and unique.

The best way to convince kids that reading books or poetry is painful is to convince them the text is "hiding" only one "right answer".

Shannon O'Donnell
November 13, 2009 2:08 PM
Blogger Melody said...
What about F, "All of the above"? That's annoying on so many levels. Ugh. But kudos to the girl for actually trying to get the answer from a primary source. : )
November 13, 2009 2:16 PM
Blogger The Book Chook said...
What a wonderful post! I am still chuckling over you not knowing the "right" answer. It could perhaps be because you too belong to that 19thC era? And bless you for taking care of Oatmeal.
November 13, 2009 8:25 PM
Anonymous Emily B said...
My reaction is a little different.
Is one question so important that it justifies contacting the author the night before the assignment was due?
And should a parent be that involved in a student's homework that she would intervene on her daughter's behalf at such a late hour? I'm a reading teacher and I find this rather shameful. I would not expect an answer from an author under these circumstances. It would be more appropriate to ask the question in a polite letter or email that reflected a genuine interest in the book's material, theme, author's craft, etc. My opinion.
November 14, 2009 11:54 PM
Blogger Susan E. Goodman said...
Well, perhaps all these comments prove the point. Stories are springboards for discussion--and interpretation. Everyone's comment here has a valid point, even though they contradict each other in some ways.
November 15, 2009 10:19 AM
Blogger Dorothy Patent said...
Stories like this are one of the reasons we I.N.K authors created our database at in hopes it would help teachers get the ammunition to use nonfiction trade books in their classrooms, books that kids can enjoy reading in their entirety to gain information and insight about subjects they are studying, instead of textbooks that use snippets from our books and then ask limiting questions like this one.
I once took the Accelerated Reading test on one of my books and missed at least one answer, which was for a silly question that queried a picky detail in the text!
November 16, 2009 3:49 PM
Anonymous Anonymous said...
You can always count on the grade curve too.

headlight cleaner and restorer
November 17, 2009 1:45 AM
Blogger School for Us said...
I wonder what the little girl with the "wrong answer" learned from this assigment? Not to trust teachers? or textbooks? That she can be "right" and still be counted "wrong"? That some things are just hopeless? That you can go the extra mile... go above and beyond... and it isn't worth it?
November 23, 2009 9:37 AM