Friday, December 21, 2012


Person of the year, event of the year, book of the year, movie of the year – it’s that time again. Though my tax-woman will soon want my income/expense statements, only I need a literary balance sheet.  A few years ago I began writing goals at the beginning of each month, printed them, and taped them to my printer.  That scrap of paper staring at me motivated me to do what I said I would do.

The other day I revisited that file and saw that my last entry was September 2011, when I wrote down goals for the coming year. Measuring years from September is a habit this student/teacher apparently hasn’t broken yet.

As 2012 nears its end, here’s my balance sheet. It illustrates the ups and downs, twists and turns, detours and dead ends of this writer’s life.

GOALS FOR 2012, from 2011

Project #1 – My editor wanted a revision of a picture book biography. 
Progress: I did two (or was it three?) rewrites and then she rejected the project, asking for a 
new approach to the subject.  My disappointment led me to ignore the whole thing until…. a couple of days ago. I want to tackle this one in 2013.

Project #2 – A big biographical project (over three years old now.)
Progress: I worked on this intermittently, revising old chapters and writing a couple of new ones.  Almost ready to submit.

Projects #3 & 4 Resurrect an old novel and a YA biography.
Progress: Still interred.

Project #5 Proposal for a book about rock and roll
Progress:  Abandoned when I learned there was no budget for photos and lyrics permissions.

Project #6: Biography of a neglected female subject
Progress: none, but I’m still interested

THE BOTTOM LINE: not as bad as it first appears

OK, I only worked on two of those six projects, but ….

Project #7 My sojourn in London brought forth a new biographical subject which I researched there, wrote at home, and submitted. 
Progress: Fingers metaphorically crossed.

Project #8 I completed the photo research for a new edition of The Wind at Work last year (more than enough for the book.) When my editor made the final choices *all* I had to do was get high res scans and permissions. What I thought would be a few days’ work turned into weeks.
Progress: DONE

Project #9 Raise your hand if your research on one book led to another one. I thought so. Work on project #2 (above) led to #9, a picture book biography.
Progress: First draft completed, research ongoing.


Progress on four projects.
Motivated to revisit one more.
Some possibles for next year

I’ve got ten days left in 2012 to come up with goals for 2013. One of those will be the revival of my monthly list of goals.

But looking at what I did and didn’t do this year, I see some of what it takes to keep at this writing gig. 
• openness to new opportunities
• discipline to finish projects when inspiration might be waning
• flexibility to reconsider everything
• willingness to let go when the spirit – or the publisher – doesn’t feel moved


Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Humbled by Questions

I was going to write about outlining today -- a discussion of how, for me, what we teach about writing doesn’t address how I write. But this I.N.K. blog, which sometimes can seem like a chain of unrelated, individually-crafted essays, is really a conversation about writing and the world we write about. In the face of reading Cheryl Harness’ and Deborah Heiligman’s eloquent and heartfelt Monday and Tuesday blog posts about Sandy Hook Elementary School, I feel that jumping off into an entirely different area isn’t going to work for me. 
Sandy Hook is five miles from my house. Just about halfway in between is Newtown’s Ferris Acres Creamery, a paradise of green meadows, cows and ice cream where I (along with the rest of the neighborhood) spend way too much time. Half the fun is the people watching -- babies and puppies and “kids with the jitters in their legs and those wide, wide open stares,” in the beautiful words of Joni Mitchell. Parents and grandparents and people on motorcycles... You get the idea, and you know where I’m going with this: what happened, happened to those people I see at the Creamery, and in the library, and at the comic book store and movie theater. While I feel unequal to the task of figuring out what to say, I know that when you’re grieving just having someone say they don’t know what to say is a balm, so consider it said.
This past September, I went on a whale watch, shadowing Joanne Jarzobski, a Cape Cod high school biology teacher and naturalist. Joanne is the person at the front of the whale watch boat on the microphone who tells you whether the shadow in the water is a humpback or a finback or what. She’s the first to spot a spout or a fin or a fluke,  indicates where whale watchers should look (one o’clock? five o’clock?) to get a glimpse, and is usually able to provide a whale’s identity and even a little biography, employing an internal database (as well as an external one) of identifying features.
The veteran of more than 1,600 whale watches, Joanne draws on her own experiences and those of a network of other naturalists in sharing and spreading understanding of animals that live mostly out of human view.  I have a sense that she is never completely back on shore; part of Joanne is always out at sea, and her imagination takes her under the sea. When I talk to her, check her Facebook page, check a fact for the book I’m writing about her, I see that Joanne is often right about the whales -- and often surprised, too. 
Even those with the most knowledge, it seems, are subject to wonderment about what is actually going. on. When I ask Joanne why a whale follows the boat or jumps out of the water or hangs around one spot in the ocean or migrates a thousand miles south, she often shrugs. Like the biologists who spend their lives studying whales, she recognizes the limits of human knowledge about whales. We may know more than we’ve ever known, but that’s still not saying much. 
Yes, we know that whales’ ears -- and behavior -- appear to be affected by loud noises from ship engines and sonar booms in the sea.  We know where some of the whales go over the course of the year -- but not where they all go, nor all of the reasons why they migrate.  We know that different pods of orca have different feeding practices, comparable to the different ways families cook their Thanksgiving turkeys.  But what scientists are seeing -- and naturalists are interpreting -- and writers and illustrators try to convey -- is only part of the story. 
This isn’t what you’d call a profound or original observation on my part. Consider the proverbial tip of the iceberg that is only mildly indicative of what lies beneath. Consider the blind men who examine the elephant and extrapolate that it is, alternately, ropy like its tail or stumpy like its legs or floppy like its ears. My message gets at what  the essence of science writing is for me: how complex and deep and inaccessible and humbling the world is. How continually I feel like I know nothing. How difficult it is to talk about something enormously misunderstood or under-understood. How you wind up talking about questions, not giving answers. 
It’s science, but it’s also life. How many of us this week have pored over the reports from Newtown, Connecticut, trying to divine the dark mystery, the great why, the answer to the questions that seems to lie invisibly between the photographs of people crying, descriptions of the local Christmas tree lighting, quotes from the neighbor or the cousin or the friend? At the same time that we criticize the media for intruding on this stricken, grieving community, we cannot ignore and even seem to need their stories and pictures. How else can we try to understand the enormity of life, other than by the glimpses they provide? 
So we writers follow people or events or ideas around, trying to explain, humbled by our subjects, obsessed with the questions, and aware that we’re not the only ones trying to answer them. 

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

If Not Now, When?

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 helpers, folks. Let's demand better gun legislation. Let's demand that it be REALLY HARD to get access to guns. Let's demand that the kinds of guns that are created only to murder people are BANNED. Let's demand EASY access to health care, including mental health care. Let's talk about other ways that we can make our country safe for children, for all of us. Let's work together to tell the grown-ups what children already know: guns are bad. And: grown-ups are supposed to protect children. Are supposed to be ABLE to protect children. 

Let's be those people that children look at and say, Those are the helpers. Those are the caring people in the world. 

If not now, when? 

Monday, December 17, 2012

Patch, patch, patch.

       So, those of you who happen to be friends of mine, Facebook-wise, know that I post the words of any notable someone who'd chanced to have been been born that day in history. It gives me the chance to find out a bit about one of my fellow humans who entered the world's stage on, perhaps, a day like today - and, as a bonus, some insight or heartening quip to copy down in my little book, the existence of which, along with its fellows will probably inspire some lifting of eyebrows among those who'll go through my belongings someday after I get my ticket punched. ['Man oh man, Aunt Cheryl needed to get out more.'] For the record, the chemist Humphry Davy was born in Cornwall, on the 17th of December, 1778. He, most notably, appears to have detected the felicitous effects of nitrous oxide, a.k.a. laughing gas.  Anyway, what did Humphry have to say? For one thing: "The most important of my discoveries have been suggested to me by my failures." 
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

Cover Story

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.

What look and feel were you striving for with the cover?

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


I’m working on the Author Note for a new biography, and it’s got me thinking about the goodies-at-the-back-of-the-book.

I’ve been a big fan of back matter ever since I wrote my first biography, The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins. There was simply so much interesting information that didn’t fit into the main text, and I couldn’t bear the idea of not passing it along. So I wrote an author note—a long author note in itty-bitty font—and Brian Selznick added an illustrator note of his own. The result is like dessert after a great meal: you were already happy and utterly satisfied and then yay, you get even more.

Because nonfiction pictures books have such a tight focus, lots of great stuff gets left out. This makes for a stronger book—it needs one clean storyline, anchored in person, place and time, and any extra details you include need to do the work of developing theme. But including back matter does give you a chance to shine the spotlight, briefly, on something else.

For my biographies, the back matter often shares the story of what happened after the story told in the main text. In The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins, you get to find out what happened to the villain, Boss Tweed, after he had Waterhouse’s dinosaurs destroyed. In Walt Whitman: Words for America, you learn about Walt’s life after his great sacrifice and service during the Civil War.

You get to meet wild-and-crazy Alice as the wife of a congressman, running around Washington, D.C., in the author note for What To Do About Alice? (and see that becoming a grownup did not temper her behavior one iota.) And in the author note for The Extraordinary Mark Twain (According to Susy), you come to appreciate just how important Susy’s little biography became to her father as time went on.

In Those Rebels, John and Tom—the story of a great partnership and all that it accomplished for American Independence—you see that friendship strained to the breaking point and then how these two champions of democracy reconciled and forged an even tighter bond in their final years.

A solid story will stand alone—complete and satisfying in itself. But if a book has back matter, I always take a peek. Because at the end of a nice meal, who doesn’t like a little dessert?

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

A Picture Is Worth 1,000 Words

Library of Congress, LC-DIG-ggbain-19173

Well, maybe not 1,000, but even as a writer I can’t deny the power of a photograph. One click of a shutter release and BAM, we see a story. Photos capture drama (left, survivors from the 1915 sinking of the Lusitania). They convey emotion. Sometimes they offer clarity. At other times they fill us with questions. And that’s where the words come in (thank goodness, say the writers).

I owe at least two of my books to photos. I became so captivated by the Earnest Withers “I AM A MAN” image from Memphis 1968 that I wrote a whole book about it, Marching to the Mountaintop. Ditto for the “Blood Brothers” image of John Lewis and Jim Zwerg, following their beating as Freedom Riders on May 20, 1961. (See page 42 of this title.)

I’m not sure which I love more, writing or photo research. Both are passions for me, so I am lucky to work in a genre that seamlessly weaves the two media into a powerful forum for conveying the stories of history. If you read these words on their magical 12-12-12 posting date, you can imagine me engaged in photo research. I’ll be in Washington, D.C., that day, wrapping up three days of research for my latest project which, come to think of it, started with an image, too. (Or at least it started during an earlier round of photo research when my efforts to track down the background of one picture led to the discovery of a whole new story from the past.)

Photo courtesy Library of Congress, LC-DIG-highsm-01901
So what is photo research like? Truthfully it’s about as glamorous as a day of writing, which is to say not very. By the end of the day my back aches for bending over images. My mind is so warped by time traveling through thousands of windows into the past that it is jarring to step out into real time. My sleep is animated by disjointed pictures as my mind races to process all the scenes it has observed.

But photo research is also as rewarding as writing. That moment when you revise to the perfect conclusion is matched by the discovery of a gotta-have-it photograph. I suspect there is some chemical parallel between gambling and photo research, because that rush of excitement from finding one great picture becomes the fuel for the next few hours of fruitless searching.

Sometimes I do photo research using on-line databases. Sometimes I’m on site, glove-adorned, paging through carefully catalogued original prints. And sometimes I’m cut loose in an archive of dog-eared, we-should-organize-these-some-day gems. I become a treasure hunter, gently sifting through the sheets of chemical-infused paper to find just the right shades of sepia and cream. Here a dramatic smile. There a scene filled with action. Now a glimpse of a forgotten figure. Then a fresh look at a favorite icon. Sorting the wheat from the chaff, the powerful from the mundane.

Courtesy Library of Congress, LC-DIG-highsm-03177
One of my favorite places to conduct photo research is the Library of Congress, and I will be there at least twice during my current research trip. Those on-site trips offer access to materials that are otherwise inaccessible, but these days it’s getting easier and easier to find treasures using the online databases of the Library’s Prints and Photographs Collection. I’m a big booster of this site, especially when I do school visits. Anyone who hasn’t used it should kill an hour or two playing around with the search engines. More and more material is now accessible off-site, and any images that can be downloaded from a remote location can be used with a clear conscience as material in the public domain. These are our tax dollars at work, people. It’s wonderful! Enjoy!

P.S.: I’ve developed an online tutorial for using the collections of the Library of Congress Prints & Photographs division. For more information, visit the Muckrakers page of my author website and follow the tab marked “Behind the scenes—photo research.”

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

A Tiny Bit Worried

   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.                               

Monday, December 10, 2012

Ingredients for a Great School Visit

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.

As Kelly so wisely said, school librarians (any librarians) are teachers. They build relationships, spark imagination.  We should fight for them.

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

Legacy? Never Mind

I don’t know if people are willing to admit it, but many of us, and I suspect especially those of us who write books, have given some thought to what our legacy will be. I know I have. Since I am childfree—a term I recently heard for the first time—I won’t be leaving any progeny to carry on the family name. But I will be leaving my books to inform future generations. Even if libraries purge their holdings to make way for newer volumes, I’m thinking (hoping) that some of my writings will survive on the dusty shelves, or at the very least, in Cyberspace. I know it won’t really matter to me after I’m gone, but right now, I find the thought comforting.

Perhaps that’s why I had such a visceral reaction to the Gilda’s Club brouhaha that erupted last week. For those who don’t know, Gilda’s Club is a community organization with more than 20 affiliates that is dedicated to offering support to people who are living with cancer, and their loved ones. It was founded in the 1990s in honor of Gilda Radner, one of the original “Not Ready for Prime Time Players” on Saturday Night Live, who died of ovarian cancer in 1989. During her illness, Gilda found encouragement and solace at a California organization called the Wellness Community. Gilda’s Club was modeled after that group. (The name refers to Gilda’s quote that “having cancer gave me membership in an elite club I’d rather not belong to.”)

In 2009, Gilda’s Club Worldwide merged with the Wellness Community to create the Cancer Support Community. After the merger, the home office decreed that affiliates could determine which of three names worked best for them: Gilda’s Club, the Wellness Community, or the Cancer Support Community. A few weeks ago, the affiliate in Madison, Wisconsin, held a ribbon-cutting ceremony to celebrate its new name, the Cancer Support Community Southwest Wisconsin. The executive director, Lannia Syren Stenz, told the Wisconsin State Journal the name was being changed because the population they serve is getting younger. "One of the realizations we had this year is that our college students were born after Gilda Radner passed," she said. "We want to make sure that what we are is clear to them and that there’s not a lot of confusion that would cause people not to come in our doors.”

Coverage of this event jumped from the Wisconsin State Journal to and pretty much all over the Internet, thanks to Twitter and Facebook. Fans of Gilda, and common sense, pointed out that it would be more meaningful to teach people who Gilda was than to obliterate her from the organization that was founded in her name. Toward that end, actress Martha Plimpton tweeted that she had ordered five copies of Gilda’s moving memoir, It’s Always Something, to be sent to the Madison chapter. Others pointed out that few of us know who Mayo was, or Sloan and Kettering, or Dana and Farber, but we still can find our way to their hospitals when necessary. Among the hundreds of comments on the Madison branch’s Facebook page (now taken down) was this one: "The only educating you're doing is teaching kids that when they die from cancer, their name will be erased from history in 20 years because the next generation doesn't know who they are. Way to give them hope!"

While the Wisconsin affiliate doesn’t seem to have been swayed by the petitions, tweets, and articles blasting their decision, other branches were quick to reassure the public that they had no intention of changing their name. “As the flagship Clubhouse, we value our brand and our association with Gilda Radner,” the New York club posted on their Facebook page. The Chicago branch tweeted, “Gilda’s Club Chicago will remain Gilda’s Club Chicago in honor of the courageous way Gilda, and all of our members, live with cancer.”

Just two months ago, I blogged about the importance of naming buildings and public memorials after women, so there’s no mystery about where I stand on this matter. I was also a big fan of Gilda, who had the guts to bare her soul in the process of reaching her audience. (Just watch this clip from her movie, Gilda Live, to see what I mean.) She did the same in her book, an admirable, intimate account of her struggle with cancer which is back in print with a new Resource Guide and a new chapter on Living with Cancer. And besides all that, she was really funny. Just check out these clips of her characters Roseanne Roseannadanna and Emily Litella.  

I joined the New York chapter of Gilda’s Club when a close friend was dealing with cancer. The other day, she reminded me that not too long ago, cancer was something you didn’t discuss. Friends would shy away from you if they knew you were sick and you pretty much suffered in silence. Thanks to Gilda and the movement she inspired, people with cancer have a place to talk about what the “civilians” in their lives might not want to hear, the gritty details of survival. Helping each other empowers them in their own fight. That's why if people don’t know who Gilda Radner was, they sure as heck should find out.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Librarians as an Endangered Species

Thanks to the new emphasis on nonfiction in the Common Core standards, my school visit dance card has been filled for months (and for months, even years to come).  Books about Sasquatch and UFOs may not land me a place on most award lists, but they make it easy to define critical thinking skills and the value of diligent research.  

My job seems secure.  Not so for librarians. 

Coast to coast, city to city, I’ve seen a disturbing trend.  Librarians are fighting for their lives. IMHO, we should be fighting right alongside them.  Librarians are the living, breathing bridges between writers and readers.  And they need our help to survive. 

Public education budgets are stretched to their limits and administrators are search for ways to cut costs.  Librarians are an easy target, thanks to the ready availability of paraprofessionals.  “We can fire our librarians,” the ill-informed conclude, “and hire paraprofessionals at half the expense. After all, how hard is it to check out books?”  

Our educational administrators are stretched so thin with the demands of academic life, they’ve failed to recognize how much their librarians do, beyond checking out books.  So I hope we can gently remind them.
Librarians ARE Teachers

They are professionals with years of academic study behind their credentials.  Like classroom teachers, they have worked hard to achieve their professional degrees and to keep their credentials current.  They are specially trained to work with books for young readers – and the kids who will discover them.

Librarians Build Relationships

Consider an elementary school librarian’s awesome reach.  He or she meets a student as a five-year-old checking out books for the very first time.  He knows if the kindergartener had trouble being away from home.  He knows if they recognize their letters and colors.  He knows if there are signs of abuse or neglect.  He knows if the child is gifted or needs extra help.  A year later, he sees the progress the six-year-old has made.  He knows the second grader got a new step-father, and he knows the marriage crumbled by the time the boy turned ten.   Year after year, the librarian offers her students a safe place to go – and a witness.  The relationship between a librarian and a child is far deeper than most people recognize.  It is long term and it is vitally important. 

Librarians Spark Imagination

Because of their long term relationships with an entire school population, librarians acquire books with specific readers in mind.  They target their purchases with precision and sharp consideration.  When a librarian buys IN SEARCH OF SASQUATCH, she knows exactly who will check it out first – and who will line up to check it out later.  She knows which readers are waiting for the new Lisa Yee novel.  She knows who’s aching for BABY MOUSE and who’s secretly ready for Chris Crutcher.  Years of professional observation, years of trust have created the potential for great reader growth, thanks to the careful selection that goes into an exceptional library collection.  It’s personal.  And it matters. 

Librarians Are Media Specialists

Common Core standards emphasize the need for students to read and understand nonfiction in all of its research applications.  College students will be required to research and write in depth papers.  Our schools are charged with making sure they’re ready once they graduate.  Who better to teach young people about research than our media specialists?  Librarians know their collections inside and out.  They know what books are available on loan.  They also know their electronic devices, their computers, their access to online material.  Classroom teachers are charged with teaching math, science, English, history and social studies.  Librarians should be celebrated for their ability to teach research skills.  

Librarians Have Heart

Where principals are the heads of every school, librarians are the hearts.  They are the gentle glue that binds the whole school population.  Like the books they choose, protect and repair, librarians reach out to needy children and remind them they are never alone.  As long as they can find the perfect books, they can find their kindred, even when traditional friends are scarce.  As long as a librarian is on call, kids will find those perfect books.  It’s what librarians are trained to do, thanks to years of education.

Librarians ARE Appreciated

Well, they SHOULD be.  They are the gatekeepers, poised to unlock every young reader’s passion for reading.  But they are far too often cast aside.  I did a school visit yesterday where the librarians had been fired, district wide.  One librarian had been retained to care for the collections and populations of twelve different elementary schools.  One librarian, twelve schools.  She happened to be at the school I visited, though she was not aware of my visit and the library had almost none of my books. 

I asked her how she managed twelve schools as one individual. She shook her head and laughed.  “I don’t.”

The squeaky wheel gets the librarian grease – she goes, at any given moment, where she is most needed.  But she doesn’t know any of the kids.  How could she?   She’s never building relationships.  She’s always putting out fires.  She teaches a research unit one week, weeds a collection the next.  She can’t buy books for readers she doesn’t know.  So she buys, hoping she’ll hit the mark – never knowing if she's even come close. 

I asked what we could do to help.  She said, “Oh god, if you could only speak up.”  

When the district fired the librarians, she said loud voices made it possible -- voices fighting for music; voices fighting for art; voices fighting for physical education.  And I’m glad those programs were defended.  I would have been lost without P.E. and art.  But the silence disturbs me.  No one fought for the librarians, so they were easy to scrap without the threat of angry reaction.   

As we face the onset of 2013, I hope we’ll look for opportunities to celebrate our librarian friends the way I did at that same school visit.  I knew when I walked into the school that the librarians had been fired – even before I spoke to the over taxed one to twelve remainder.  As I watched one teacher search for the projector while another looked for a table, and still another searched for a microphone that worked, the principal apologized. 

“It’s hard to pull things together,” he said with a smile.  I smiled when I answered, too. 

“I know exactly what you need,” I said.  

He seemed so sincere as he asked his one word question.  “What?”

“You need your librarian,” I said.  “They are the keepers of the keys.” 

“Ah…” he said, almost wistfully.  “I’m beginning to think you may be right.” 

I smiled again.  “I’ve always loved new beginnings.” 

Bless the principal for inviting me.  I am grateful.  He cares about his students, and the visit went very well.  The kids were enchanted by my books – only one of which was in their library collection, one published in 2003.  I donated seven more before I left because the value of a school visit to a student depends on the chance to explore the books after the author’s gone.  

The paraprofessional was delighted.  She loved my presentations, even if she had no idea who I was or what I wrote when I walked through the door.  And we had a good day.  But I couldn’t help wishing I’d fought harder to save the librarian along with the paraprofessional.   A good author visit could have been great, in the hands of a devoted librarian.  

An academic team works best when it has all its most crucial players.  Librarians should be at the top of that list.