Tuesday, April 15, 2014

A Day for Biographers

Today's guest blogger is Catherine Reef, author of Leonard Bernstein and American Music; The Bronte Sisters: The Brief Lives of Charlotte, Emily, and Anne; and Jane Austen: A Life Revealed.

I can easily conjure up little Eleanor Roosevelt suffering through her lonely childhood, or Helen Keller, on the cusp of adult life, announcing her intention to go to Harvard; both scenes were imprinted on my memory by my early reading of biographies.
Biography thrives as a literary genre because people love to read about other people. This is true for readers of any age. A good biography breathes life into a figure readers may have met only briefly in a classroom or history book; it takes them behind the scenes, where they get to know the subject in family life; it places them on the spot as the subject experiences triumphs and setbacks, sorrow and joy, and learns how to navigate life.
                  I still like reading about people, but today I like writing about them as well. Biography lets me do what writers love to do: tell good stories. Even better, through biography I can explore a character in depth and create a vivid portrait in words. But writing is a solitary task, so like many writers I welcome opportunities to mingle with other people doing the same kind of work, to talk shop and gain from others’ wisdom. This is why I was happy to discover Biographers International Organization, or BIO for short.
                  BIO is young (founded in 2010), but it has been strong and active from the start. Having as its mission “to promote the art and craft of biography, and to further the professional interests of its practitioners,” BIO presents the annual BIO Award to a distinguished biographer for his or her body of work. This year’s recipient is Stacy Schiff, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Véra and other notable works. BIO also hosts a terrific annual conference that always sends me home with many new ideas to think about and apply to my work.
                  At this year’s Compleat Biographer Conference, which will be held at the University of Massachusetts Boston on May 17 and 18, I will moderate a panel on young adult biography. On the panel will be two accomplished biographers, Mary Morton Cowan and Kem Knapp Sawyer, and a representative of the world of children’s book blogging, Dorothy Dahm.
Cowan received a 2010 National Outdoor Book Award and other honors for Captain Mac: The Life of Donald Baxter MacMillan, Arctic Explorer (Calkins Creek). She has also published numerous magazine stories and articles, a novel based on MacMillan’s experiences, and a book on logging in New England. Cowan has said about her work, “I am pleased and proud that these books give young readers a glimpse of relatively unknown history—dangerous and adventurous chapters of history!”
Sawyer’s recent biographies are of Mohandas Gandhi and Nelson Mandela (both from Morgan Reynolds) and Harriet Tubman and Abigail Adams (both from DK Publishing). “I try to figure out what gave my subjects the ambition and the drive to set out to change the world,” she said in a recent interview. “And I like to focus on what they were like when they were young, before they went on to become leaders.” Sawyer has written as well about current social issues such as the situation of refugees worldwide, and historical subjects such as the Underground Railroad. She also reports on youth in developing countries for the Pulitzer Center, an organization that supports journalism and education.
In recent years, book bloggers and online reviewers have become increasingly influential in the world of children’s literature. Dahm’s lifelong interest in biography for young readers led her to launch the Kidsbiographer’s Blog (http://kidsbiographer.com/), where she reviews new and noteworthy biographies for children and young adults and interviews their authors. A professor of English at Castleton State College in Vermont, Dahm has contributed articles and reviews to publications in the United States and Great Britain. I’m eager to hear what she has to say about the state of young adult biography today and what she looks for in a book of this genre.
Other conference sessions will focus on such matters of craft as creating suspense in biography and finding the right balance between a subject’s life and work, and on practical aspects of the writing life: dealing with agents, marketing, and the like. There will be plenty to interest biographers writing for any age level. You can learn more about the Compleat Biographer Conference from BIO’s website: http://biographersinternational.org/conference/. I hope to see you in May!

Friday, April 11, 2014

Drawing it True

Today’s guest blogger is Cynthia Levinson.

With my first nonfiction picture book under development, I’ve begun to think about—and look hard at—the illustrations in nonfiction books for younger readers. Although it was challenging to ferret out photographs, pamphlets, legal documents, and memorabilia for images in my first nonfiction middle-grade, We’ve Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children’s March, they served at least two purposes. Above all, as primary sources, they informed me about the times and events I was writing about. In addition, placed in the book, they broke the text and provided both visual interest and verisimilitude for readers.

Illustrations, I’m realizing, are very different. They’re not artifacts. They’re the artists’ imagined representations of time, place, events, and mood. Although they can be very precise and accurate, water colors, collages, oils, etc., don’t necessarily show the reader exactly how the spur attached to the boot, say, or that the temperature was 99 degrees. They can be more atmospheric and still be valid—not just valid but also emotionally true.

I’m beginning to think of the artwork in nonfiction picture books as the visual voice of the book. And, just as I struggled to make the textual voice in The Youngest Marcher authentic, even when I wasn’t quoting someone, I’ve been looking at illustrations for authenticity—even if they’re not photographically accurate.

Here’s a range of pictorial styles, in recently published and lauded picture books, from the concrete to the imagistic. (Warning: I am not an artist! These are merely my impressions.)

Brian Floca’s illustrations in Locomotive are as precise and detailed as those in any Richard Scarry word
book. After looking at the end papers’ labeled diagrams, I’d recognize a piston rod, throttle lever, and Johnson Bar anywhere! And the accuracy of those drawings tells me that every other illustration must be right also, even the water-colored elevation map of the Great Basin in the frontispiece and the sketch of a man chasing his horse, who must have been spooked by an approaching train. Floca not only conveys depth of information but he also gives the reader confidence that he knows what he’s writing—and drawing—about.

Similarly, many of Melissa Sweet’s illustrations, such as the medical drawings, in Jen Bryant’s A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams seem to be completely accurate. Other, blurrier ones, however, appear metaphoric, which seems appropriate for a book about a man who was a poet as well as a physician. Sweet’s blocky collages display a conglomeration on each page of neat facts and lyrical tone.
To Dare Mighty Things: The Life of Theodore Roosevelt, written by Doreen Rappaport and illustrated by C. F. Payne, takes the realistic cum impressionistic approach a step further. Clothing is appropriate to the times, of course, as are saddles and ten-dollar bills. Furthermore, Payne might well have drawn the faces of politicians and bystanders by copying them exactly
from contemporary sketchbooks or photographs. Today’s facial recognition software could practically identify them! Yet, snow falling in the Dakota Territory looks like unnaturally soft polka-dots, and Teddy sometimes appears unrealistically eyeless behind his spectacles— appropriate for someone who was hard-of-seeing. And, in a spread of young Teddy’s dream, he seems to float along with a butterfly and a polar bear. As with Sweet’s illustrations, both accuracy and mood prevail.

There are many superlative nonfiction picture books I could focus on. Georgia in Hawaii: When Georgia O’Keefe Painted What She Pleased, written by Amy Novesky and illustrated by Yuyi Morales, must have been particularly challenging for Morales because it needed to convey both the truth of the paintings by its artist-subject and also the mood of O’Keefe’s lush surroundings.

Possibly at the furthest extreme of dispensing with concrete accuracy while maintaining recognizability might be On a Beam of Light: A Story of Albert Einstein by author Jennifer Berne. Most of illustrator Vladimir Radunsky’s images are sweetly cartoon-like. Yet, Einstein is obvious with his brushy mustache and distracted gaze.

I’d like to round off my exploration of visuals in nonfiction picture books with Grandfather Gandhi by Arun Gandhi and my friend Bethany Hegedus and illustrated by Evan Turk. Cloth and paint collages of the Mahatma’s posture and emaciated frame make him instantly recognizable, even in crowd scenes. The vivid background coloration sequence from beige to yellow to orange to red and back to beige again conveys not only India’s searing heat but also young Arun’s moods, from awe of his famous grandfather to anger and back, appropriately, to peace with himself and his family. Readers will sense the place, the times, and the moods without the need for photographic detail.

I’m curious to see how Vanessa Brantley-Newton, the wonderful illustrator of The Youngest Marcher, will choose to visualize its voice. Will she portray scenes of, say, jailed civil rights protesters by drawing hundreds of them packed into a cell, just the way they endured those stifling conditions? Or, will she take a more atmospheric approach?

The Youngest Marcher focuses on one of the people highlighted in We’ve Got a Job. While the books address the same topic, the readership is entirely different. Seeing them side-by-side will further inform me about the various ways that text and visuals can enhance each other. Check back in in January 2016 to see how she accounts for the same facts for a different audience.

Thursday, April 10, 2014


Who could resist an invitation like this:

3 July 1872
Dear Mr Thayer, 
Come be a brave good cousin, and face our heats and solitudes on Friday eve… and we will give you a cup of tea, and piece of a moon and all the possibilities of Saturday….   
Your friend, R. W. Emerson                                                                                           
This sweet, quirky invitation was one of the first things I read as I began researching the life of Ralph Waldo Emerson. And as soon as I read it, I thought, ‘I’ve got to write this book!’

Not that I knew what ‘this book’ was, of course—not at first. (It was only after months of reading and thinking and writing that A Home For Mr. Emerson began to take shape.)

But from the start, I was inspired by this man who believed that each of us can create the life we dream of living.

For Emerson, that was a life centered on friendship and home. 

In his study, brimming with books and journals, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote many letters to friends far and near. Come to my home in Concord, he invited them. Come on the four o’clock train.

I love how Edwin Fotheringham’s illustration invites readers into Emerson’s home AND into a book about his life.

And this invitation sums up in a nutshell my sense of what a picture book biography is meant to do: to invite young readers into a new life, to meet someone they might like to know better.

If you think about it, all nonfiction for kids is an invitation. Here’s something interesting, a nonfiction book says. Here’s something you might like to know about. Come on in.

I’ve been lucky these past few years to work in concert with the other authors on INK, issuing invitations to kids—offering them through our books a “piece of a moon and all the possibilities of Saturday.”

And I’ve loved getting to know the readers of this blog, folks just as passionate about nonfiction as I am.

This is my last post on INK, brainchild of the amazing Linda Salzman. The past five years have been an honor and a pleasure. Thank you, all.

Monday, April 7, 2014

INK Author News for April


Beneath the Sun by Melissa Stewart, ill. by Constance Bergum (Peachtree)

A Place for Butterflies by Melissa Stewart (revised edition, Peachtree)


The Mad PotterGeorge E. Ohr, Eccentric Genius by Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan (Roaring Brook)
            • Orbis Pictus Recommended
            • Booklist Best Book
            • School Library Journal Best Book
            • CBC/NCSS Notable for Social Studies
            • Dorothy Canfield Fisher Children’s Book Award Master List

The Animal Book by Steve Jenkins (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
            • John Burroughs Riverby Award
            • featured title, New England Book Show eBook category.

The Mystery of Darwin's Frog by Marty Crump, ill. by Steve Jenkins and Edel Rodriguez (Boyds Mills)
            • John Burroughs Riverby Award

Animals Upside Down by Steve Jenkins & Robin Page (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
            • featured selection, New England Book Show

Eruption!: Volcanoes and the Science of Saving Lives by Elizabeth Rusch (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
            • 2014 CCBC Choices

Volcano Rising by Elizabeth Rusch (Charlesbridge)
            • 2014 CCBC Choices

Rotten Pumpkin, by David Schwartz (Creston Books)
            • 2013 Distinguished Book, Association of Children's Librarians of Northern California

Courage Has No Color, by Tanya Lee Stone (Candlewick)
            • NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literature for Youth/Teens


April 3-5 Melissa Stewart will speak at the National Science Teachers Association conference in Boston, MA.

April 7: Deborah Heiligman will speak at the Simons Foundation in New York City: Lyrical And Logical: A Reading of Children's Books About Math.  

April 9: Steve Jenkins and his co-author Robin Page will speak at the TLA (Texas Library Association) Conference in San Antonio, TX.

April 10-11 Melissa Stewart will speak at the Massachusetts Reading Association annual meeting in Quincy, MA.

April 10-11: David Schwartz will speak at the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics National Meeting, New Orleans, LA.

April 10-12: Deborah Heiligman will speak at the Festival of Faith and Writing, Calvin College, Grand Rapids MI.

April 26: Steve Jenkins will speak at the 32nd annual Spring Festival of Children’s Literature at Frostburg State, MD.

April 26: Susan Kuklin will be guest speaker at the 2014 Stamford Literary Competition Award Ceremony, Stamford, CT. 

Friday, April 4, 2014

Who Gets To Write What?

I tuned into ESPN the other night, clicking away at my laptop as I waited for the Stanford-North Carolina women’s basketball game to begin. The end of the Louisville-Maryland contest was on. There was about a minute left, and Louisville was losing by 10 points, which pretty much guaranteed Maryland the win. But wait. A Louisville player, number 23, floated in a terrific three-point shot with 30 seconds left. Then the same player hit another three-pointer with 18 seconds left. And yet another with five seconds left. Maryland had made two foul shots during the Louisville run, and the score was now 76-73. But it was Louisville’s ball. One more three-pointer would send the game into overtime.

I’m a sucker for an athlete who performs well under pressure, so I put down my laptop and stared at the screen. The announcers were full of praise for the Louisville player, a senior named Shoni Schimmel. I have rarely seen anyone with a smoother, more poetic stroke. When Maryland took a timeout before the game's last play, I went back to my computer and Googled her.

I admit I don’t follow college basketball as much as I should. If I did, I would have known that Shoni, and her sister Jude, who also plays for the University of Louisville, are a genuine phenomenon. Their games attract thousands of people who drive from all over the U.S. and Canada to see them. The sisters are Native Americans who grew up on the Umatilla reservation in Pendleton, Oregon. Their success has galvanized Native fans and even attracted a filmmaker, who made a documentary about them titled Off the Rez.

As I read about the Schimmel sisters, I thought, “This is a great story. I should write it.” You probably know that I’ve made a career bringing the true tales of athletes and other bold and brilliant women to the mainstream. As first Shoni and then Jude graduate from college and enter the WNBA, their journeys should have the makings of a great book.

But then I wondered, “Should I write it?” In recent months, there has been a lot of discussion about the underrepresentation of people of color in children’s books. The postings on multicultural literature on the listserv of the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, were coming fast and furious the entire month of February. A few weeks later, Walter Dean Myers and Christopher Myers wrote companion essays in the Sunday Review section of The New York Times under the title, “Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Books?”

One of the strands on the CCBC listserv focused on who actually writes books with characters or subjects of color, and as a corollary, who should write those books. A number of posters were pretty adamant that they thought books were more authentic—and by extension more acceptable—when they were written by members of the groups they portrayed. By that logic, a book about the Schimmel sisters would be best by a Native person. But why should authors be limited by their backgrounds? I’ve written more than a dozen books, including three biographies, and I’ve never written one with a main character who shares my Jewish heritage. For me, part of the joy of writing nonfiction is getting to explore new worlds while developing the context to tell the story.

That’s what I was thinking as I read many of the CCBC posts. And now I’m finally putting it into words. People expressed a valid concern about getting a more diverse pool of authors (and editors) producing children’s books, but I don’t feel that any authors should be dissuaded from tackling any topics that ignite their passions. Every voice is valid and every perspective is worth considering as we inspire kids' curiosity about and understanding of the world around them.
For the record, Louisville didn’t win the game, despite an inspired play that put the ball in Schimmel’s hands for one more three-point attempt. She shot, and the ball hit the rim and ricocheted away as time ran out. It was Shoni’s last college game, but hopefully the prelude to an exciting professional career. Perhaps someone will write a book about Shoni and her sister one day. Perhaps it will be me.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Eating Dessert First

The whole idea of traveling is to learn about new places and new people.  You can buy tours where the itinerary is planned by someone else.  But for me, the best trips are the ones where I start the process that will create a trip to research a new project.  Make no mistake; it takes time and attention to plan such a trip.  This winter I made two trips to research my next book How Could We Foil a Flood? I’m particularly interested in the engineering aspect of flood control because more than forty percent of loss of life and property from natural disasters comes from flooding, and because we’ve been engineering to prevent flooding for at least 1000 years.  Most other natural disasters have had little to no engineering applied to controlling the phenomenon—we’re struggling hard enough learning how to predict them.

So the first question I ask, after reading extensively on the subject, is, who knows about this?  It is always useful to start looking for contact information through tourism or government sources.  So I made contact with the Mississippi Army Corps of Engineers (ACE) who connected me to the ACE in New Orleans, where they’re putting the finishing touches on an enormous post-Katrina resiliency post-flooding  project.  (It is no longer politically correct to call it “flood control.”) 
Lexi poses next to the new West Closure Pumping Station
--the most powerful pump in the world.
It can fill an olympic-sized swimming pool in 5 seconds.
Next, I contact the tourism people and tell them where I plan to visit and ask if I can get media rates on accommodations, freebies, etc.  Since New Orleans, a tourism mecca,  was on the itinerary, I was booked into a great hotel in the French Quarter at an affordable price.  My nineteen-year-old granddaughter, Lexi, had approached me last fall, “Please, please, please Gran, I’ve never been anywhere or seen anything.  Take me with you.”  How could I resist that gift?  My response,  “Okay, but you’ll have to work.  I need you to listen to all the interviews, take photos and videos, and keep track of all my contacts.”  And so the deal was struck.  It took a good three months to make the arrangements.
Here I am in front of some major sluices that keep the North Sea from flooding
the lowlands.  It was cold and windy with wind turbines everywhere.

The second trip I made was to the place where they know more about keeping the sea at bay than any other nation—the Netherlands.  Here, a peculiar serendipity  (not unusual for these amazing trips) played a role.  Over Thanksgiving my son had new guests—his wife’s mother’s first cousin from Scotland and her Dutch husband, Wim—were visiting from Canada. I told Wim I was planning to visit his country, so he offered the help of his brother Giovanni and his wife, Mechtild, who lived in the Hague.  Giovanni was a recently retired diplomat with time on his hands.  They stepped up and offered me a place to stay and would drive me to all my venues. In effect, they would do the job Lexi had done.  (I had been planning to take Lexi along, but she’s in her first year of college/nursing school with a heavy schedule and prioritized well.  She couldn’t take the time to come.  I’m proud of her for that.) 
I always thank the people I interview with a signed book and
an acknowledgment when the new book is published
The arrangements and schedule of what I’d see and who I’d interview was done by Arjan Braamskamp of the Dutch Consulate in NYC.  It was an amazing, exhausting and rigorous schedule.  I was wished “bon voyage” in person by Rob de Vos, the Consul General who happens to be a friend of Giovanni (talk about a small world!)
My one day to relax was two weeks before the tulips so I settled for
tiptoeing through the crocuses in the Hague.
These trips are like eating dessert first. Now comes the hard part of sifting through all the material and crafting it into something new, which will ignite the desire to learn from my readers.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Postcard Preview

Greetings from my desk! 
This will be my last post for I.N.K. I’m taking off, so I thought I’d send a few postcards from the future, because I’m pretty excited about the places I’m going -- or planning to go, or hoping to go. 

1. Key Largo 
Date: Tomorrow 

Would you, could you? Writing is like eating green eggs and ham: you can do it anywhere: on a boat! on a train! in a tunnel! in the rain!  So when I was invited to “do a residency” -- live in a little house somewhere away from home, and do my work -- and when the residency in question was starting April 1 in a place that, unlike my hometown, doesn’t still have big piles of dirty snow and death puddles of cold floodwater -- I said yes.  I will be researching sea turtles for a book called Mission: Sea Turtle Rescue, (National Geographic, 2015)  finding out about manatee migration for a new Humanimal Doodle, learning to scuba, and learning to identify fish, with the help of REEF. REEF teaches divers and snorkelers to identify their neighborhood fish, then puts the fish they find into a big database that helps them assess the health of the coral reef ecosystem.  It’s kind of like the Cornell Backyard Bird Survey -- but instead of counting birds at your backyard feeder, you snorkel around and count fish. 

2. Alaska
Date: The next three months 

Sadly, I’m not actually going to Alaska, either. I won’t be visiting virtually, either. The stories of LaVern Beier, the subject of my book Looking for Bears (Collins Big Cat, 2016), will be transporting me there in words -- and I’ll be trying to take readers along by illustrating his experiences. LaVern is a bear guide -- someone who knows how to find bears and work with them. He assists scientists doing research as they tag bears with satellite transmitters or attach little cameras to their collars.  

3. Wherever Alvin is
Date: Eternal 

I have been following this little submarine around for close to twenty years, but Alvin is a lot older than that. This submarine carried scientists to the first hydrothermal vents, deep volcanic cracks on the sea floor. Robert Ballard used it to locate the wreck of the Titanic.  Now, after a two-year refitting from stem to stern, Alvin is in the water again working for scientists.   For several years I’ve been working on an infographic book about deep sea exploration, and the illustration here  -- printed on a sweatshirt, which I think looks cool -- is the beginning of this new adventure for me. What’s next with this adventure is . . . 

4. The Ocean Floor, via E/V (Exploration Vessel) Nautilus and ROV Hercules (shown here) 
Date: Summer 2014 

This August I’ll go to sea as a Communications Fellow with Dr. Ballard’s group, the Ocean Exploration Trust.  (Teachers, you can apply to do this, too!) This group of scientists, educators, and ship crew work to map the 95% of the ocean floor that has not yet been mapped, and explore the 99% of the ocean that has not yet been explored.  I will be working on an expedition leg sited in the Windward Passage, off the coasts of Haiti, Cuba, and Jamaica. One thing we want from this trip is a better understanding of the causes of the 2010 earthquake that devastated Haiti. During my expedition, I’ll be one of the voices narrating dives to the ocean floor, and one of the faces doing Q and A’s between ship and shore. I’ll also be drawing and writing, working on science comics about our expedition and adding to my book. You can follow us (starting in June) through the Nautilus Live site.

Thank you, I.N.K. I have loved being a part of this group of authors.  And thank you, I.N.K. readers.  Best wishes and long life to all those who work to bring science and stories to children. 

Friday, March 28, 2014

Research and Discovery After Book is Published

On my mini book tour last week, I visited the lovely town of Bellefonte, Pennsylvania. While writing and researching about Anna Keichline for Women of Steel and Stone, Anna's grandniece, Nancy Perkins, asked if I'd be willing to allow the Bellefonte Art Museum to host an author reception when the book was published. I responded immediately, "But, of course."
Fast forward two years later and scheduled considering good driving conditions, I headed toward the center of Pennsylvania. My trip was filled with many fun surprises and observations.
Here are just a few of them:
Stayed in a Anna-designed house!
Anna's grandniece, Nancy, owns a home designed by Anna and asked me if I wanted to stay with her during my visit. What a treat! Almost surreal. What surprised me was the realization that one really doesn't get the true feel of a piece of architecture until you see the work first hand.
Anna Keichline Designed Home
Anna's houses were designed with many unique details.
The house reminded me of the California Bungalow I owned in Long Beach California - built in 1930 - but Anna's house had a basement, a second floor, and stairs to an attic. Some details that stood out to me were a cozy breakfast nook, beautiful fireplace, hardware for drapes on french doors, arched windows and matching doorknobs. 
Breakfast Nook 
 Hardware for Drapes
Kitchen Patent #1,612,730 1924
First Floor Bathroom
Harvey Apartments 1935
Decker House 1931
Bible Home 1916
Harvey House 1939
Model House 

Beautiful architecture can be torn down.
Sadly, the beautiful Garman Opera House was recently torn down. Anna's Cadillac Building is disrepair but the community is hoping that it will escape the wrecking ball.
Cadillac Building

Beautiful architecture can be transformed into other uses. 
In 2001, the Plaza Theatre was shut down and turned into the Plaza Centre Antique Gallery. Turning a art deco theatre to a two-story store changed the entire structure and feel of the building, but the beautiful ceiling details and unique wall coverings still remain. If you go to the very back of the second floor, you can still peek into the "crying room"--- a room for mothers to take their fussy babies and toddlers, a feature not found in theaters in the 1920s. 

Plaza Theatre 1925

Plaza Theatre Ceiling Detail
Crying Room in Back of Theatre
Anna's Life

Anna's Childhood Home
Anna's Cabin in Fishermen's Paradise

Grave Marker
Office Where Anna Worked w/ her Father
Historical Marker

Anna Featured on Bellefonte Monopoly

Book Signing in Anna K Exhibit

Nancy and I next to Anna

To get another perspective of Anna's life and the town of Bellefonte, Pennsylvania, here's an entertaining and informative YouTube video, that I just found.