Friday, December 21, 2012
Wednesday, December 19, 2012
at 6:00 AM
Tuesday, December 18, 2012
I had a different post written. About ethics in nonfiction. I'd like to publish that post some day. I'm sure I will. But not today.
Because as much as we debate and discuss what is the best way for our children to learn, the best way for us to write for children, what constitutes nonfiction, how angry it makes me when people play fast and loose with the facts, all of that is moot if unstable people are able to have easy access to guns.
What good is it to create books for children, to teach them, to care so much, if people in power are too cowardly and bull-headed, too self-interested about their own political futures and too caught up in rhetoric, to legislate wisely to protect children? To protect all of us?
I don't have the words to talk about the calamity in Newtown, CT, in a way that will make the (mostly) men in power change the laws in this country. I don't have the perfect way of describing how angry I feel about the fact that it is really difficult for many mentally ill people to get good treatment and really easy for people in most states in our nation to get guns. Guns not for hunting, or killing the odd rabid raccoon on your land, but guns for murdering people.
People I've been writing with and talking with since Friday understand legislation better than I do. They understand guns and gun laws and gerrymandering and all the reasons why there is more regulation in automobile safety (which is of course a good thing to have) than in the purchase of guns. They understand that in some states it takes a month to get a gun while in a neighboring state you can walk into Walmart and buy one. (I really like what Nicholas Kristoff had to say the other day in "Do We Have the Courage To Stop This?")
There is no reason why there should be so many guns in this country--250,000,000 plus. There is no reason why there are so many guns that are easily concealable. Guns that you don't have to reload so you can murder people in movie theaters and children coloring at their first-grade tables. There is no reason. Don't give me the right to bear arms. Don't give me the argument that you want to defend yourself. A gun in your home is more likely to kill you or someone you love than an intruder. Don't give me that.
Give me a country like most of the other civilized countries in the world where people recognize that guns kill innocent people. Give me a country where we put health and safety first, where we put love first, where we put children first. (I really like what Gail Collins had to say about finding the best in our country again in "Looking for America." )
I did a school visit in Newtown, CT, in April, 2010. Not at Sandy Hook, but at the Catholic school a mile and a half away, St. Rose of Lima. It was a good day, really nice people, though there were a couple of snafus (on my part), funny things that happened that I liked to tell people about afterwards. Now all I can think about is those kids I met, their lovely parents and teachers, and how they've been touched by unspeakable tragedy.
So many people I know are one degree away from this tragedy.
But aren't we all?
There's a Mr. Rogers quote that's been making the rounds. Have you seen it? Here it is, from this site, in case you haven't:
"When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, "Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping." To this day, especially in times of "disaster," I remember my mother's words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world."
Let's be those people that children look at and say, Those are the helpers. Those are the caring people in the world.
Monday, December 17, 2012
|Humphry Davy - |
cool cravat, no?
The thing is, this past Saturday, while listening to the dreadful, unfolding news from Connecticut, about a man-boy who sought to right the wrongs of his life by ending it, along with those of his mother and, as a demented bonus, little children, all gaga with the holiday season, and those who spent their days teaching and guiding them, I came across these words of playwright, Maxwell Anderson, born 15 Dec. 1888 – one of his works was adapting a novel into the play > wonderfully creepy 1956 film, The Bad Seed - how's that for appropriate? How is it that that quiet child was, in fact, a heartless killer, sans conscience and empathy? – but I digress. As a matter of fact, I could use some laughing gas right about now.... Maxwell Anderson: "If you practice an art, be proud of it and make it proud of you. It may break your heart, but it will fill your heart before it breaks it. It will make you a person in your own right."
And that long-gone playwright's words got me to thinking about the art we practice, that of examining, delving into real events, real people, and explaining them. Illuminating them. The proper pride we feel, at times, in getting to do this for a living. In knowing that kids will find, in our books, a little more about their world, about the people who have gone before.
And how is it that we could make our art proud of us? By making certain that we're reporting the facts. The genuine words and actions. By writing, showing, telling about them in a way that is juicy and engaging. Heck, by pulling back the curtain and revealing a STORY that's cool, vivid, and real. Suspenseful. On which lives and nations hung in the balance.
But then, how can this art of nonfiction break our hearts? Oh, that's easy: Finding a life, a chapter in the life of the world, with which or with whom you've fallen in love, for which no skittish editor is willing to gamble. 'No, too obscure.' 'No, I can't quite wrap my head around this concept.' 'No, I couldn't convince the marketing people. How about....?'
But look at what this person DID!
But look at how amazing this person, this time, this event was!
But look at what could have happened!
But, in the end, look what and/or who we learned. And in doing so, our lives were enriched, in the ever-onward bumble towards a book that would sell, that would, that might give us another season of employment. And there it is: that which makes us people in our own right. The learning. The discovering that fills our patched-up human hearts, in this here vale of tears.
Friday, December 14, 2012
It was nearly five years from proposal to publication, but now I'm finally holding Master George's People in my hot little hands. To say I'm pleased with how it turned out is an understatement—I'm over the moon! Lori Epstein's stunning photographs are a big reason why. So is the beautiful, powerful design created by National Geographic's Jim Hiscott. Both were true collaborators on this project. Back in June, I wrote in INK about our photo shoot with Lori at Mount Vernon, George Washington's Virginia plantation. Today I asked Jim if he would share with us his process of designing the book.
Jim: The initial design construct, at least in regard to the typography, came from the idea of broadsides used for the search and capture of runaway slaves, utilizing a blocky and distressed typography. In fact in the title, "Master George's People," there are two different styles that work in concert with each other, one an extended serif font and the other a condensed stencil style. The counterpoint to this is the use of a more elegant and refined condensed serif display font for the subtitle and the large cap indents that launch each chapter. The use of the distressed rules on the cover and the interior was another reference to newspapers and a graphic approach of the period.
How about the inside of the book? The little decorative doodads at the end of the picture captions have a colonial feel to me. Were you aiming to create a sense of period with this and other design elements?
Jim: The overall design tenet I always use, no matter the style, is to create contrasts between things, elements, no matter what they may be, as a way to create energy, impact, and tension. For this book I wanted to reflect the contrast between these two worlds—that of George Washington and the refined manners of the day compared to the life of slaves. Hard/soft if you will. And by using color on the cover as well as on the inside, it was a way to be respectful of the NGKids brand while also trying to create a look that was respectful of two periods of time—present day and the Colonial period. This all helped to give the book a certain dynamic that allowed me to present it in a strong, elegant, and sophisticated manner that hopefully feels contemporary as well.
What were the challenges of designing a book illustrated with so many different kinds of images, from archival illustrations to historical documents to reenactment photography? (By the way, the photo above was taken by yours truly and does NOT do justice to the real thing.)
Jim: I know this kind of thing always causes some trepidation from the editorial side of a project. However, I look at having to rely on a diversity of visual images/styles to flesh out a visual story as an asset. Given the challenges of finding images to represent different points of the story, to me, only makes it visually richer, especially when they are framed with the use of photography of reenactments. When you speak of HISTORY many people aren't going to think of it as very interesting. I want to try to create a visual package that helps make the book engaging on one level so it is appealing for the reader to then get absorbed into the story. It also helps to have a captivating manuscript.
Why thank you, Jim. Is there anything else you'd like to share about designing Master George's People?
Jim: I loved working on this book. It was a true pleasure to be able to try and package it in a way that was respectful of the period and the story, while trying to make it visually appealing to today's readers, and to create a sophisticated book that kids would want to read, as if something really special had been created especially for them. Yes, it is a very serious topic, but that doesn't mean it can't be presented in an attractive and sophisticated way that is clean, fresh, and hopefully not so trendy as to become dated. You want a design that has as long a shelf life as possible.
Many thanks to Jim for giving us a glimpse into his creative process. And my personal thanks to him for helping me tell the story of George Washington and the people he held in bondage.
|Left to right: Jennifer Emmett (my wonderful editor), me, Jim Hiscott (art director and designer) and Hillary Moloney (illustrations assistant) at Mount Vernon. Missing is photographer Lori Epstein. She's behind the lens!|
Thursday, December 13, 2012
Wednesday, December 12, 2012
|Library of Congress, LC-DIG-ggbain-19173|
|Photo courtesy Library of Congress, LC-DIG-highsm-01901|
|Courtesy Library of Congress, LC-DIG-highsm-03177|
Tuesday, December 11, 2012
I've had the distinct pleasure to be a part of several Children's literary conferences since the beginning of September, including the Rutgers Council on Children's Literature Conference (now 40 years young and still going strong. Yes, I'm on the council and it's a unique and amazing one day event). Anyway, at every conference I've attended this year the changes in the CCSS came up for discussion, but the talk at Rutgers made me pause. And worry.
Part of the confenece is a Five-On-Five discussion, an hour where 5 veterans of the publishing wars (writers, illustrators, agents and editors) talk to 5 hopeful writers about their publishing concerns. In the past such things as "do I need an agent?" "how should I write a proposal?" "what does a personal rejection really mean?" were some of the main concerns and drove the conversations. This year it was the changes to the CCSS.
Almost the entire time was consumed (in a good way) by "the changes," which I said out loud at one point and realized it sounded like some sort of medical condition. We were fortunate to have Marc Aronson (google Marc Aronson and there's more info about him and the CCSS on his website) in the group since he's spent a great deal of time in the past couple of years explaining the changes. But the rest of us added our opinions and ideas as well.
During all of the discussion I noticed that the younger writers were taking notes. Lots of them. This seemed fine for the most part, but then the question was raised (and I'm paraphrasing here): "what sort of topics would fit these changes?"
The discussion about topics went on and so did the note taking. And then I began to worry. At which point I said (blurted out?!?) "but you shouldn't write to the CCSS. You need to write about things you really know and love and..." Yes, that's the old chestnut, the line of advice we've all heard forever and been urged to follow.
Why was I worried? Newer writers like a certain amount of direction -- from established writers, editors, and agents, from survivors! -- on how to take their ideas and early drafts and make them into wonderful books. That's always been so; I know, I was the same way. But I started to worry that we might breed a line of writers who write to the CCSS and not from their inner beliefs and passions.
I wasn't selling short the 5 at our discussion. They were all very thoughtful, very aware, and all seemed to have individual areas in interest, so I think they'll process and use the information wisely. I was worried about myself.
The changes in the CCSS have opened a door for children's nonfiction writers as never before. It has tried to put a new and long-overdue focus on our writing. That's wonderful. But with that comes a certain pressure. Textbooks companies seem to be hunting out and purchasing books that are CCSS compatible; I noticed one major reviewer was going to focus serious attention on books that fulfill the CCSS standards and assume all other reviewers will, too; I know that trade publishers are much more aware of the standards then ever before.
I wondered, for instance, will reviewers begin giving books CCSS scores (you know, 10 being a book that meets a great many of the standards). Silly? Well, twenty years ago most people would have said scoring wine with number ratings was not just silly, but impossible. And then along came Robert Parker. And some wine makers followed (a number of very good French growers made special batches of wine specifically to please -- and get higher rating's numbers -- from Parker and his associates). Why wouldn't some writers -- me -- be influenced by the possible attention and money a perfectly sculpted CCSS book might bring.
Anyone who's read this far is probably thinking: relax, Jim; there are enough smart, honest gatekeepers out there to criticize and marginalize such obviously engineered books. I'm good with that. But in the past all the gatekeepers didn't stop textbooks from being, well, textbooks, and amassing great power nationally. So you never can tell. As I said, this only has me a tiny bit worried, though it's the sort of worry that I think I -- we -- should carefully monitor over the coming years.
at 3:30 AM
Monday, December 10, 2012
I had another I.N.K. post just about finished when Kelly Milner Halls' plea for school librarians and a package pushed me in another direction.
The mailer came from Carol Sweny, the Henniker Community School librarian, in Henniker, NH, where I had recently talked to kids, K-8. The disc of photos recording my two days there included all the ingredients of a great school visit and reminded me how often a school librarian is at its core.
In the school visit's section of my web site, I have a version of what most authors say on theirs: I find that when kids are prepared for a school visit, they get more out of it. So I ask that students have access to some of my books beforehand, and read (or are read) at least one of them. I also have downloadable pictures of me and book covers to make a poster for your hallway. These efforts alone will invoke kids’ interest and enthusiasm, making the visit more memorable for them.
|Remember you can click on all these pictures to make them larger.|
This statement isn't an ego thing or a plea to buy more of my books beforehand. When kids know I'm coming, when they have read or heard some of my books, they are psyched to see me. They have had time to think and wonder about things, they listen more attentively, they ask more questions. They get more out of the experience. It's not that I can't grab an uniformed class or auditorium's attention; I can. But time after time, I notice that prepared kids have a better experience.
Like Kelly, I know that classroom teachers and principals are overloaded. Some may not even know an author is coming in time to prepare. Besides they are trying to get through their curriculum and whatever enrichments they have planned, let alone teaching to whatever state test is coming up next. PTO parents work hard to raise money for author visits, but their role doesn't usually extend to the classroom or library. The school librarian is the perfect person to rally the troops: to prepare the kids in library class, to suggest and facilitate related classroom exercises, to organize book order forms, to generate excitement.
The Henniker has one author come each year, and Carol Sweny makes the most of it. I'm not suggesting that every school or school librarian wants or needs to put in the time and effort she did. Perhaps showing how she rallied her school, however, will remind people how important it is to have school librarians and how much their efforts, with school visits and everything else, help kids learn and grow.
|Here is part of the flyer Carol made to pass around to the teachers.|
As you saw, grades K through 4 saw a presentation based on my book On This Spot, which takes New York City back in time to when it was home to forests, glaciers, dinosaurs, towering mountains, even a tropical sea. This presentation included, among other things, kids taking many different objects and sorting themselves into a timeline.
Carol asked the teachers to have their classes use timelines to supplement normal learning. They did so in different and wonderful ways. The school's corridors were festooned with examples of this interesting way to think about time and history.
|The kindergarteners made timelines of their days.|
|First graders created a timeline that would record a whole year of learning month by month.|
|The 2nd graders made illustrated lifelines.|
|Third graders did their lifelines too.|
|Here's a new way for a 4th grade class to think about the making of the Statue of Library.|
|The 5th grade concentrated on learning new computer skills while doing their personal timelines.|
|The 6th grades' timeline of our presidents was perfectly timed since my visit occurred shortly after the election in November.|
|The 7th graders learned research and computer skills creating a timeline of Henniker's history that took up an entire hallway.|
|The 8th grade's timeline cascading down the stairway brought their study of the Harlem Renaissance to life.|
I would fight for Carol Sweny. Besides a great school visit, she gave me a moment of feeling like a rock star. Check out what greeted me when I pulled into the school parking lot.
Friday, December 7, 2012
Thursday, December 6, 2012
at 2:00 AM