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Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

Tag Archives | biography

Getting Inside the Head of the Long Dead

Samurai RisingDon’t be alarmed by the ghoulishness of my title. Trying to resurrect the life of someone who turned to dust centuries ago is a challenge, especially if the person left behind no personal writings such as letters or diaries. But it can be done. In preparation for writing Samurai Rising: The Epic Life of Minamoto Yoshitsune, I read all the academic and primary sources I could find about late-twelfth-century Japan. And while what-happened-when is the basis of biography, you can challenge students (or adults) to dig deeper. If you really want to try to get into the head of the long dead, go beyond the obvious. Try answering these questions.

What did this person believe was going to happen after they died?

No, I don’t mean what they thought might happen to their kingdom or their reputation. I mean: did they believe in an afterlife? How would such a belief (or lack of belief) color their perception of the world? Twelfth-century Japanese of Yoshitsune’s social class were Buddhists. In all likelihood, at the very end of his life Yoshitsune accepted that his fate was determined by karma (the sum of good and bad deeds during his current and past lives). He hoped that his next life would be kinder and he would be reunited with his friends and family.

What assumptions did this person have about their place in society?

In other words … there was probably something about this person’s role or status that they never questioned. What was it?

We are all members of human society. Each society, in each time period, has some underlying assumptions that are rarely (if ever) questioned. Nobody in Yoshitsune’s time questioned the notion that the Emperor was semi-divine … or that some people were better than others because of their imperial descent … or that loyalty should be based on bloodlines. I think it’s safe to say that Yoshitsune enthusiastically believed in his own superiority. If you insisted to him that “all human beings are equal” he would’ve thought you were nuts.

(Extra credit if you can articulate an assumption from contemporary culture that may seem really bonkers to your great-great-great-great grandchildren.)

How was this person impacted by technology (or lack of it)?

Here’s an example. The technology of warfare in twelfth-century Japan demanded that samurai leaders display personal bravery and credible martial skills. In those days you had to get up close and personal to kill your enemy—within ten yards to be really accurate in horseback archery, and much closer with spear or sword. There were no guns, no cannons, no sitting in HQ and phoning orders to your troops. To be an effective leader Yoshitsune had to be willing to risk his life.

What’s underneath all that armor?

What kind of underpants did this person wear?

What’s underneath all that armor?

Someone actually asked me this about Yoshitsune. Amusingly trivial? Well, as it turns out, you can’t answer the question without an understanding of the material culture specific to the society and time period. So here we go.

When Yoshitsune was an apprentice monk, he would have worn a loincloth (a strip of cloth wrapped and tied around his privates). It would’ve been made of hemp cloth because that’s what poor people used as fabric in twelfth-century Japan. (Cotton wasn’t introduced until centuries later.) When Yoshitsune was older and living in Hiraizumi, Kamakura, and Kyoto, he would have had clothes benefitting his status, and high-status Japanese wore silk. However, I strongly suspect that when dressed in full armor, wearing a loincloth under his hakama (wide-legged trousers) would’ve made relieving himself quite a hassle. In that case I think Yoshitsune would’ve gone commando.

See how much fun biographical research is?

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Driving Miss Daisy

limousineWhen I was a kid, one of my neighborhood gang’s favorite summer games was to “play chauffeur.” We’d jump on our bikes and gather for shoptalk at chauffeur headquarters (a.k.a. the middle of our quiet side street). Then we’d race off in different directions to pick up members of the enviably wealthy and pampered (yet of course imaginary) families that utilized our driving services.

A big part of the fun was that we each got to invent detailed back stories for our fantasy employers, constructing elaborate scenarios around the parents’ demanding work, the children’s exotic activities, and a multitude of overheard backseat battles—all while driving “our families” along the street and up and down various driveways and around Blue Jay Way (the dirt path that curved through Mrs. Elliott’s yard). And then we’d all meet up again at chauffeur headquarters to trade stories about our family’s doings, seeding each other’s imaginations for potential new gossip-worthy developments for the next day.

When I talk with writers about developing their characters, I encourage them to develop such detailed biographies for their characters that it seems as if they are spying on them from the vantage point of a trusted family servant. I know from my own experience that even details that don’t make it into my stories still inform my work in an important way.

I’ve created multi-generational family trees and imaginary iTunes lists for past characters. So at some early point in your students’ story-writing journey, have them try the following character-development brainstorming activity.

banana seatFirst, ask them to create a list of details about their main character: name, age, likes and dislikes, personality traits, physical details, report card grades, locker contents, secret crushes. Once they have a list started but seem to be running out of steam on their own, have students divide into small groups. Ask them to take turns going around the group, adding one more detail about their character each time it’s their turn. Even those whose lists weren’t long to begin with will have their group’s examples as inspiration for more ideas.

I bet you the banana seat off my old bike that if you try this simple exercise, your students will discover, with each other’s help, new details to help fully flesh out their characters.

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Word Search: Presenting Buffalo Bill

Presenting Buffalo BillWhen Candace Fleming chose William “Buffalo Bill” Cody as a subject for her latest biography, she was intrigued by his storytelling, exaggeration, propensity for marketing, and the truth of his life’s adventures and accomplishment. After reading her book, we’re intrigued by the man, not the legend, who would most likely be using Twitter and Instagram to promote his Wild West shows today. If you love puzzles and games, we hope you have a good time solving this Word Search. 

Simply use your mouse or touch pad to draw a line over your found words and the program will mark them off for you. Words can be found forwards, backwards, horizontally, vertically, and diagonally. As you find a word, it will be highlighted on the board and it will disappear from the word list.

Have fun!

Hidden Words

Puzzle by mypuzzle.org
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Candace Fleming Tames the Wild West

credit: Michael Lionstar

credit: Michael Lionstar

Our thanks to author Candace Fleming for sitting still long enough to answer in-depth questions about her conception for, research into, and writing decisions for Presenting Buffalo Bill: the Man Who Invented the Wild West, our Bookstorm™ this month. Fleming’s answers will inform educators, providing direct quotes from an oft-published biographer of beloved books that will be useful for teaching writing and research skills in the classroom. 

When did you first suspect that you’d like to write about William Cody?

Buffalo Bill Cody 1875

William “Buffalo Bill” Cody, ©1875

My first inkling occurred the morning I opened my email to find a message from editor Neal Porter. The subject-heading read: “Yo, Candy, want to do a book?” Neal had just returned from a trip to Cody, Wyoming, where he’d bumped into Buffalo Bill. Neal was not only intrigued by Bill, but he also realized that it had been decades since an in-depth biography of the showman had been written for young readers. But who should write it? He thought of me. Even though Neal and I had never worked together before, we’d been making eyes at each other for years. He hoped this project would finally bring us together. But I wasn’t so sure. Buffalo Bill Cody? In my mind, he was just another dusty frontiersman. A myth. A trope. Still, I decided to give him a shot (no pun intended) and ordered up his autobiography through inter-library loan. As I opened the book’s cover, I remember giving a little yawn. My expectations were low. And then … I fell into his life story. What a self-aggrandizing, exaggerating, exasperating, endearing, amusing, question-provoking storyteller! The man who wrote that book mystified me. Who was Buffalo Bill? Was he a hero or was he a charlatan? Was he an honest man or a liar? Was he a real frontiersman or was he a showman? I found myself suddenly brimming with questions. And I was eager to discover the answers. ©

At what point did you know that you’d present his life in terms of truth and maybe-not-so-true?

Buffalo Bill Cody by José Maria Mora

Buffalo Bill Cody by José Maria Mora

I knew right away that I would have to address the ambiguities in Will’s story. In fact, it was one of the reasons I was drawn to the project. I love the gray areas in history. I’m not just talking about gaps in the historical records. You know, those places where we don’t know for sure what happened. I’m talking about those places where we don’t know what to make of the historical truth. For example, Benjamin Franklin owned slaves. How do we fit that with with our image of the jovial, witty inventor and statesman? What are we to make of that? Or, take Amelia Earhart. Many of the most often-repeated stories about her aren’t true. Amelia made them up out of whole cloth. She lied. How does that jibe with our image of the daring, but doomed aviator? What are we to make of that?

Too often, especially in nonfiction for young readers, we avoid the gray areas. We don’t include these truths because we’re worried what kids will make of them. But I believe these areas are especially important for young readers … and most especially for middle school and teen readers. These are readers who are struggling to discover who they are and what they can be; they’re struggling to figure out their place in the world.

What’s right?

What’s fair?

What’s moral?

The last thing they need is another sanitized, pedestal-inhabiting, never-do-wrong person from history.

Buffalo Bill Cody Wild West ShowAnd so I decided to include both Will’s versions of events, as well as accounts that conflict with his. I intentionally incorporated opposing viewpoints from both historical figures and modern-day historians. And I purposely refrained from drawing any conclusions from the historical evidence. Instead, I chose to just lay it before my readers. Why? Because I want them to wrestle with the ambiguities. I want them to come to their own conclusions. I want them to see that stories—especially true stories from history—are not black and white. They’re gray.

Who was right?

Who was wrong?

I don’t think it’s my job to tell them. I’m not sure I could tell them.

Rather, I choose to tell all sides of the Wild West story—Will’s side, the Native performers’ side—with what I hope was equal clarity and compassion. What choices do each make under pressure? Why? No one is all good. No one is all bad.

You see, it’s in the gray area between those opposing values that I hope readers will ask themselves: What would I do in this situation?

By including history’s ambiguities, I am “kicking it to the reader,” as my friend Tonya Bolden likes to say.

And this, I believe, is the purpose of nonfiction in the 21st century—to encourage thought, not simply to provide facts for reports.

When you begin your research, how do you lay out a strategy for that research?

I confess I never have much of a strategy plan when I begin researching. Instead, the process is pretty organic. I start with archival sources. What’s already been written and collected? I focus on primary sources: letters, diaries, memoirs, interviews. This is where defining, intimate details are found. As I read, I keep an open mind. I’m curious and nosy and I ask lots of questions. I actually write those questions down on yellow ledger pads. And let me tell you, I end up with lots of questions. I won’t find the answers to all of them. I may not even try to find the answers to all of them. But in this way, I remind myself that I’m exploring, making discoveries. In truth, I have no specific idea of what I’m looking for or what I’ll find. I let the research lead me. And, slowly, I begin to understand what it is I want to say with this particular piece of history.

In those initial stages, do you use the library? The internet? Other sources?

In the first throes of research, I’ll use the Internet to discover the collections and archives that hold my subject’s papers. I’ll search for autobiographies and other firsthand accounts of the person’s life. I’ll note the names of scholars or historians whose names pop up in association with my subject. That’s the very first step.

Buffalo Bill Center of the West

Did you visit the McCracken Research Library or the Buffalo Bill Center of the West?

The McCracken Research Library is part of the Buffalo Bill Center of the West. In fact, the library is just down the stairs from their museum. Yes, I visited both. And I spent a week in the library, culling through years of scrapbooks kept by Will, and Annie Oakley and others, reading memoirs and letters and diaries.

Would you recommend that your readers visit those locations?

I would definitely recommend the museum to my readers. So much of the detritus of Will’s life is on display: his buffalo skin coat, his favorite rifle that he named Lucretia Borgia, the famous stagecoach from the Wild West. They even have his childhood home moved in its entirety from Iowa to Cody! The place really brings Will and his times alive.

Buffalo Bill's personal saddle

Buffalo Bill’s personal saddle

What do you find to be most helpful about visiting a museum where artifacts are on display?

Those artifacts—leftovers of a person’s life, if you will—are so human. Sometimes we forget that a person from history was real flesh and blood. But then we’ll see that person’s well-worn carpet slippers, or read a love letter he wrote to his wife, and we’re reminded of that person’s humanity. Despite his place in history, he still suffered from both love and sore feet, just like all of us do.

How do you go about finding an expert to consult with about your book?

 During research, certain names starting appearing again and again. I will not only note these names, I’ll do a quick Google to check on qualifications, as well as how up-to-date their scholarship is. For example, a name that’s cited again and again in Cody research is Don Russell. But Russell wrote his seminal work almost forty years ago. Certainly, his work is valuable, but it’s no longer the most recent scholarship. Young readers deserve the latest discoveries and newest interpretations. History is, after all, an ongoing process, one in which new facts are discovered, and old facts are reconsidered. So I turned to Dr. Louis S. Warren, a highly respected scholar of the Western US history at the University of California, Davis, as well as author of the critically acclaimed Buffalo Bill’s America. He very generously offered to read the manuscript, making several suggestions for changes, as well as pointing me in the direction of the latest Cody scholarship. He also suggested I contact Dr. Jeffery Means, an associate professor of Native American History at the University of Wyoming and an enrolled Member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe for his unique perspective on my book, particularly in regards to Great Plains Indian culture.

Do you research the photos you’ll include in the book at the same time as you research the historical and biographical elements? Or is that a separate process at a separate time?

I do my own photo research. While researching, I keep an eye open for things that might make for interesting visuals. I keep a list, and in most cases, a copy of those images. But I never know what I’m going to use until I start writing. The text really does determine what photographs end up in the book. Because of this, I always end up searching for photos late in the project.

Buffalo Bill's Wild West show poster

How did you write the dramatic scenes from the Wild West Show? They’re filled with tension, vivid descriptions, and a movie-like quality. Were these actual scenes in the Show? And were you present to see them performed? It sure seems like it.

Presenting Buffalo BillIt was important to open each chapter of the book with a scene from the Wild West. Not only was I trying to show the parallels between Will’s personal experiences and the acts that eventually sprang from them, but also I wanted readers to have a clear understanding of what the show entailed. The best way to do this, I decided, was to write those scenes in a way that would make readers feel as if they were actually sitting in the stands. I wanted them to feel the tension, the excitement, the drama of the performance. I wanted them to experience (at least in a small way) the awe that show goers felt when they watched those re-enactments of buffalo hunts and Pony Express riders. After all, this is vital to the book’s theme—that the Wild West created our collective memory of the American West; that we still tend to think in tropes, and those tropes come directly from Buffalo Bill Cody. So, I wrote those scenes in great detail, almost in slow motion. Not a single description is made up. Everything comes from the historical record, including thoughts and comments from the people in the bleachers. I merely used present tense to make the action feel more immediate. But the action really and truly happened just as I’ve presented it.

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Bookstorm™: Presenting Buffalo Bill

Bookmap Presenting Buffalo Bill

Presenting Buffalo BillPresenting Buffalo Bill provides an excellent opportunity to teach differentiation between fiction and nonfiction, mythology and fact, as well as the discernment, research, and discussion skills that are naturally born out of this type of close reading. Buffalo Bill’s life and Wild West Show are exciting and the author makes them all the more vivid and engaging with her writing. In her sections on “Panning for the Truth,” the differences between myth (or storytelling or marketing) are called out for further examination.

Our perceptions of the Wild West have changed as we have listened to voices from many cultures, sharing their experiences, opening our eyes, communicating in ways those who immigrated to America didn’t have available. Westerns, movies and books set in the “Old West” can now be looked at with different eyes and more understanding minds. Thoughtful papers on then and now can encourage heightened awareness. A Tall Tale Contest might point out how exaggeration and deception work in marketing and internet articles.

We’ve included books on truth and lies, mythology versus authenticity, as well as fiction and nonfiction written at various points in our history. There are excellent resources in the back matter of Candace Fleming’s book as well. We trust you will find inspiration and resources aplenty to accompany your study of Presenting Buffalo Bill. 

Downloadables

 

 

You’ll find more information about Candace Fleming on her website.

BOOKSTORM TOPICS

Buffalo Bill. He was once one of the most famous men in the world. Hundreds of dime novels were written about him. Several versions of his autobiography are available. Many authors have chosen to chronicle his life and his Wild West Show. We’ve chosen a few that will provide a means for students to contrast and compare. Online resources will add depth to research.

Art of the 19th Century. Buffalo Bill’s most famous portrait was painted by the French artist Rosa Bonheur. Hundreds of posters from the Wild West Show can be studied to reveal how they tell a persuasive story or influence the audience to attend the shows.

Exaggeration, Lies, and Storytelling. One of the most thought-provoking aspects of Presenting Buffalo Bill is the attention Candace Fleming pays to the veracity of the stories Will Cody told and others told about him. We’ve included current books about truth, lying, deception, and marketing. An in-depth study that caroms off Candace’s book will fascinate your students.

Mythology versus Authenticity. Comparing other myths to that of the Wild West, including folk heroes of the same era such as Davy Crockett, and modern-day myths such as Star Wars and Star Trek, will help with comparative analysis.

Native Americans. Buffalo Bill employed hundreds of American Indians in his Wild West shows. He interacted with famous chiefs and brought entire families into his show encampments. We’ve included biographies of heroes such as Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, and Red Cloud, as well as contemporary novels and nonfiction.

The West During Bill Cody’s Lifetime. Fleming sets the Wild West Show and Bill’s life within the context of geography, history, and politics. The Bookstorm includes books about the children, women, men, and politics of Bill’s life, those who lived in the authentic West.

Let us know how you are making use of this Bookstorm™. Share your ideas and any other books you’d add to this Bookstorm™.

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Anita Silvey

Let Your Voice Be HeardWe are so pleased to have author and educator Anita Silvey talk with us about her book Let Your Voice Be Heard: The Life and Times of Pete Seeger, our Bookstorm this month.

Do you remember when you were first aware of Pete Seeger as a child or teenager?

In my sophomore year in college, I came down with mono and had to be sequestered from other students. So I taught myself guitar as a way to pass the long convalescent hours. That was the semester I fell in love with Pete Seeger.

What made you want to write a book about Pete Seeger?

I had interviewed Pete for Everything I Need to Know I Learned from a Children’s Book. I was talking to Dinah Stevenson of Clarion about that interview, and she mentioned that she had tried, unsuccessfully, to get one of her writers interested in a book on the Weavers. I myself didn’t see the Weavers as the subject of a book but mentioned that a biography of Pete, with a chapter on the Weavers, would be an exciting project. That conversation began an eight-year publishing process.

You begin the book with the Peekskill concert which turned out to be life-threatening. Why did you choose to begin there?

Pete always talked about the Peekskill concert and the ride home as among the most frightening moments of his life. That incident showcases one of the themes of the book. No matter what happened to him, Pete Seeger did not allow anything to keep him from singing.

Pete Seeger

Pete Seeger, 2011, Creative Commons

Were there any “truths” you thought were true but your research proved were otherwise?

There were so many things I didn’t know: for 10 years he was harassed during the McCarthy era; he had difficulties appearing on television, even after he was cleared. The extent of his activities—for unions, civil rights, peace, the environment—amazed me. I could have written 10,000 words about any year in Pete’s life.

Did you find a lot of factual material that you had to check in several sources before you included it in the book?

You have just described the process of writing narrative nonfiction—lots of sources, both primary and secondary, lots of balancing opinions. Basically I had to do that for every sentence that I wrote.

How do you plan an interview with the subject of a biography?

With Pete it was easy. I would have a couple of questions that I needed clarifying. He would do all the rest. Two hours later I’d be off the phone with information I didn’t even know I needed.

When you interviewed Pete Seeger, what surprised you the most in his responses?

His generosity of time. And he sang to me.

Pete Seeger's banjo

Pete Seeger’s banjo, Creative Commons

What proved to be the hardest information for you to find about Pete Seeger?

Toshi Seeger and Pete clearly tried to keep family information out of the press. In the end I honored that desire and kept details about the family to a minimum.

In your Afterword, you write, “Biographers have a responsibility to examine the facts, remain as unbiased as possible, and tell the truth about their subjects.” You follow this up by sharing that “When I read the files that the FBI had gathered about Pete Seeger, and I studied the complete testimony of Pete Seeger’s appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee, I became angry and disturbed.” In conclusion, you stated, “I offer up his story in the hope that as a nation we never again turn on our own citizens and do them the same kind of injustice.”

After writing this book, do you feel that taking a stance in a nonfiction book is acceptable for an author?

I think writers for children need to admit to a bias if they have one. I didn’t make this type of statement in Untamed: The Wild Life of Jane Goodall. For that book, I remained much more impartial throughout the process. Alerting children to the bias of a writer helps them interpret nonfiction and can send them to other sources. Sometimes when asked by an adult friend about something, I remind them that I am not impartial on this topic. I believe children deserve the same respect.

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Apples, Well-Being, and Family

Bring Me Some Apples and I'll Make You a PieBring Me Some Apples and I’ll Make You a Pie: A Story about Edna Lewis is a memorable book about growing food throughout the seasons and living off the land in Virginia. Wild strawberry, purslane, dandelions, sassafras, honey. As spring rides the breeze into summer, this extended family tends to their larder, taking full advantage of the fruits, nuts, and vegetables growing around them. Summer subdues itself into fall. Time to bring in the corn and beans, take a last harvest of pecans before winter sets in.

This way of life may be unfamiliar to a large percentage of children, but even though the book is set in the 1920s, everything about the story feels contemporary. Perhaps it is a way of life that withstands time.

Food is the focus because this is a glimpse of the early life of Edna Lewis, renowned chef and Southern cookbook author. As the author and watercolor illustrator Robbin Gourley writes, “But her most significant contribution was to make people aware of the importance of preserving traditional methods of growing and preparing food and of bringing ingredients directly from the field to the table.” With our current resurgence of interest in a farm-to-table lifestyle, this book is a good way to talk about food and nutrition with your children.

Bring Me Some Apples and I'll Bake You a Pie

Quite a few traditional sayings are included in the book:

“Raccoon up the pecan tree.
Possum on the ground.
Raccoon shake the pecans down.
Possum pass ‘em round.”

Your mouth will water so much while you’re reading this book that you’ll be glad there are five recipes in the back of the book, from Strawberry Shortcake to Pecan Drops.

The watercolor illustrations throughout are charming and informative, warm and loving. The color palette of clear, bright tones adds to the feeling of health and well-being.

It’s a worthwhile addition to your home, school, or public library.

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Bookstorm™: Let Your Voice Be Heard

Bookmap Let Your Voice Be Heard

Let Your Voice Be HeardWhether you include social justice, community service, activism, or social action in your curriculum or at your library, this is the ideal book for you. A biography of Pete Seeger, recipient of our National Medal for the Arts, and champion of the people for his 94 years, our Bookstorm this month, Let Your Voice Be Heard: The Life and Times of Pete Seeger, celebrates his life while it inspires each reader to carry on his work. At once informative and entertaining, Anita Silvey has written a book that looks at Seeger’s childhood, his evolution from singer to worldwide change leader to deeply admired man. Eminently readable, this would be a good book to share with students as  you lead into deeper discussions about involvement and service in your own community.

The book is written at a level for 4th to 6th grade readers, so you can use this with these students, but we also encourage you to use the book in middle school, high school, and with adult groups. It’s an excellent choice for a book club discussion.

In each Bookstorm™, we offer a bibliography of books that have close ties to the the featured book. You’ll find books, articles, websites, and videos for a variety of tastes and interests. This month, we’re focusing on books about the ways in which Pete Seeger influenced our world. 

Downloadables

 

 

You’ll find more information about Anita Silvey on her website.

BOOKSTORM TOPICS

About Pete Seeger. To supplement the information Anita Silvey has included in her biography, we’ve suggested a few other books that offer another perspective.

Written by Pete Seeger. He was remarkably prolific in writing books, or introductions, or collaborating on quite a few books. You’ll certainly recognize Abiyoyo but there are more books for study, enjoyment, and for singing!

Pete Seeger’s Music. He’s so well-known for his music and he recorded a great number of folk songs for children and all ages. We’ve pointed you in the direction of some of the best that you can share in your classroom or library. 

Civil Rights. Well-known for his efforts on behalf of the Civil Rights Movement, for over  70 years, we offer recommendations so you can gather a shelf full of paired books including fiction, true stories, and poetry.

Labor Movement. September is the month when we honor the hard work of those who have fought for workers’ rights, outlawing child labor, ensuring health and vacation and sick leave benefits. Pete Seeger was a tireless proponent of this work. You’ll find a number of recommendations to support this aspect of his biography, certainly engendering discussion. We’ve included recommendations for songs to accompany this study.

Folk Music, Collecting, Playing, Singing. Do you know the work of Alan and John Lomax, Woody Guthrie, Charles and Ruth Seeger, Smithsonian Folkways, and other musicologists? This is a fascinating aspect of Pete Seeger’s life that can lead to discussions of preserving culture, the intrinsic place of music within a culture … and more singing! Suggestions are made for further study of many individuals important to the preservation of folk music.

Politics: Under Suspicion and Blacklisted (Censorship). During those times of the year when your classroom or library is focusing on censorship, Anita Silvey focuses on the House Un-American Activities Committee of the 1950s, Communism, and blacklisting. All of these can be compared to the political climate in contemporary America. We have included a variety of fiction and nonfiction recommendations.

Protesting War (Vietnam). The protests of the 1960s and 1970s in America left an indelible change on the country that a number of anthropologists argue continues to affect America today. Pete Seeger was active in this protest movement. Books on the war, its aftermath, and songs of protest are a part of this Bookstorm.

Think Globally, Act Locally. Pete Seeger’s social action with The Clearwater Project, gathering communities to clean up The Hudson River in New York, was accomplished through song, community gatherings, fundraising, and hard work. We provide quotes, videos, websites, and a lot of books for students to use for learning more and making their own plans for involvement.

Let us know how you are making use of this Bookstorm™. Share your ideas and any other books you’d add to this Bookstorm™.

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Books Like This Are Convincing

Lives of the ScientistsI’m more comfortable with magic than I am with science. Married to a science guy, I work harder to be interested in science. It gives us something to talk about. When I find narrative nonfiction that tells a compelling story, I’m thankful … and intrigued. I’m particularly happy to find books that feature lesser-known aspects of science, thereby taunting my curiosity.

Do you know the Lives of … series, written by Kathleen Krull and illustrated with disproportionately big heads by Kathryn Hewitt? First published in 2013 and now in paperback for less than $10, I had a ball reading Lives of the Scientists: Experiments, Explosions (and What the Neighbors Thought). It reminds me of People magazine in tone, leaning toward gossipy aspects of these most curious of people past and present but balanced by the right amount of tantalizing information about their work (for many of them, their obsession). And you may not have heard of many of these people.

For instance, William and Caroline Herschel, brother and sister, earned their living as musicians until they had sold enough of their handmade telescopes (they used horse dung for the molds!) and their catalog of newly discovered heavenly bodies attracted the attention of England’s King George III, who paid them both a salary.

The gossipy part? Apparently William was a bossy guy who didn’t have his sister’s well-being at the top of his priority list. During a long night of astronomic observation, Caroline’s leg was impaled on a hook but he couldn’t hear her cries of pain. He was concentrating hard!

After each profile, there are “extra credit” points that didn’t fit into the narrative but they’re awfully interesting.

Don’t you love this tidbit about Grace Murray Hopper, computer scientist? “When Grace Murray Hopper was seven, she took her alarm clock apart to see how it worked. Her parents were impressed—until she took apart seven more. They limited her to dismantling one clock at a time, but they fully supported her education.”

Rachel Carson, Lives of the Scientists, illustration copyright Kathryn Hewitt

Rachel Carson, Lives of the Scientists, illustration copyright Kathryn Hewitt

Do you know the work of Chien-Shiung Wu, Zhang Heng, and Edwin Hubble? There are more familiar scientists as well, people like Jane Goodall, Albert Einstein, Rachel Carson, and George Washington Carver.

This book supports curiosity, investigation, and the pursuing of dreams … your kids will enjoy these three- to four-page biographies even if they’re more inclined to magic than science.

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End Cap: Miss Colfax’s Light

Miss Colfax's LightWe hope you’ve enjoyed learning more about lighthouses and their heroic keepers through the books recommended in June’s Bookstorm, and most particularly Miss Colfax’s Light. If you love puzzles and games, we hope you have a good time solving this Word Search. 

Simply use your mouse or touch pad to draw a line over your found words and the program will mark them off for you. Words can be found forwards, backwards, horizontally, vertically, and diagonally. As you find a word, it will be highlighted on the board and it will disappear from the word list.

Have fun!

Hidden Words

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Eileen Ryan Ewen

Miss Colfax's LightWe are pleased to share with you our interview with Eileen Ryan Ewen, the illustrator of Miss Colfax’s Light, our Bookstorm™ this month. This book is a perfect example of the text and illustrations enhancing each other to make a picture book biography that is more than the sum of its parts. Have the book open near you when you read Eileen’s responses. With our interview, we hope to help you look more deeply at the illustrations.

In the first few pages of the book, when Harriet is walking through the door, why did you decide to draw her with one foot poised on the threshold? And was this picture always like this?

Yes, as I look back through my early sketches, Harriet’s foot is always on the threshold. Little is known about Harriet’s personality (though a bit comes through in her logs), and I was trying to imagine what it must have been like for her on that, her first day at the lighthouse. I tried to think about what it must have been like to be a woman in the 1860’s. How many women would have stepped away from a job as demanding as a lighthouse keeper? How many women (and men, for that matter) would have voluntarily stayed on for as long as Harriet did, as well as completed the job so thoroughly each day? I have to imagine that most women of that era never would have entertained such a livelihood. Yet Harriet, a former music teacher and typesetter, didn’t step away. She stepped up.

Miss Colfax's Light

You have many period details in your artwork, from a five-panel door to a log holder to changes in clothing styles. How do you do your research?

I love history! My father was a historian, and I’ve always had a soft spot for the subject. As far as research, I had the good fortune to visit the actual Michigan City Lighthouse, where wonderful docents gave me a tour, and provided great information about what the lighthouse looked like back in Harriet’s day (it wasn’t as large!), clothing from her era, and the tools she used. Combined with that information, I used the good old internet to make sure the fashions I was using were appropriate. For instance, if you search women’s clothing from the mid-nineteenth century, very formal ball gowns will be the most likely results. Harriet would have worn no such thing. So then a more refined search is needed, often with trips to the library to scour books that might fit the time period I’m trying to capture. I know some illustrators who look to period movies, and will study the costumes and sets for inspiration. In the end, I usually have loads of information about the time period, and only end up using a small fraction of it in my illustrations—just enough to hopefully give the piece an authentic feel, and accurately capture the era. The research side can be tedious and time consuming, but because I find it so interesting, it’s a lot of fun as well!

Are you in charge of deciding where you have two facing pages with different scenes and where you’ll have a two-page spread? What determines this for you?

It’s probably different for each Art Director and publisher. I have great appreciation for the trust that my Art Director at Sleeping Bear Press showed me. She gave me the manuscript with the text somewhat arranged on each page, and let me loose. I was allowed to move text if I wanted to, in order to fit my illustration ideas, and I had free rein to chose vignettes, full-page illustrations, or two-page spread illustrations. Now, all that said, I had to run all of my ideas and sketches by the Art Director, Editor, and Publisher, as well as a few other people, before I could start the final art. Sometimes they approved my decisions, and sometimes I had to tweak something small, and other times I had to do an entire illustration over. The cover of Miss Colfax’s Light was done twice.

Miss Colfax's LightIn the scene where Harriet is filling the lantern with whale oil, the light is shining up from her lantern on the floor. How do you determine where the light will originate, and where it falls, in your illustrations?

If I have to be honest, this is something I’m still working on—lights and darks. For the illustration mentioned above, I guessed. I reverted back to my figure drawing days in college, remembering studies of the planes of the face and folds of fabric, how subtle angles can be thrust into complete darkness, while a slight curve can create a sharp, bright contrast. Looking at illustrators and artists who’ve mastered lights and darks also helps (and intimidates!). I know of several illustrators who actually make models of their characters, and then place lights to mimic the lighting of their piece, and draw from that. This is something I hope to try in the future.

Miss Colfax's Light

In the double-page spread filled with small vignettes of Harriet working, how did you think how to lay out that page?

This was a challenging one for me! A lot of important information is being revealed, and all deserving of a visual component. One illustration per page just wouldn’t cut it. Add the fact that Aimée is describing the typical work Harriet would do in any one day, made me want to capture the feeling of what it was like for Harriet from sun up to sun down. For this reason, I chose to arch the vignettes around the words, starting with Harriet tending the light at the first crack of dawn, to Harriet lighting it again at dusk. But until I came up with that solution, I struggled with this spread quite a bit. I’m not sure why the solution came to me when it did, but it sort of popped up as I was walking my daughters home from preschool. I immediately had the image of clock hands, the passing of time, how the hands (and sun) arch and rotate from Point A, to Point B. It dawned on me to try to use this movement in the piece. Just goes to show that sometimes ideas pop up at the strangest moments. I wasn’t thinking about the problem that fall morning, or so I thought, but apparently some little part of my art brain was still churning, unbeknownst to me.

I love how woeful the postmaster looks when Harriet is reading the letter telling her she’s being replaced. When you begin an illustration, do you have in mind what the expressions will be on various characters’ faces?

Yes and no. Sometimes, I feel like I know the character right away, and other times I really have to sit back and let the scene marinate in my mind, create a few really awful sketches before I start to feel the true spirit of a character, even a minor one, like the postmaster. I remember reading Harriet’s obituary, which described the people of Michigan City as absolutely loving her, and holding her in high regard. So while there were some naysayers at the beginning of Harriet’s career, it seems as if almost everyone felt she was a beloved, stalwart fixture by the end of her career. The latter feeling is what I was trying to capture in the postmaster’s face.

You begin and end the book with that doorway. When did this idea for framing the story come to you in your process?

I think it came fairly naturally, and the framing is largely in Aimée’s writing, which made my job easy! And of course, doors make such nice analogies, don’t they? Comings and goings, beginnings and endings. I almost feel like this aspect of the storyline was a gift. It just made sense to me to start and finish the book with that door.

What did you want readers to know from the pages of illustrations you created for this book?

History can be such a dry subject. Until we realize that it’s all just a series of stories, made up of real people doing extraordinary things. So I hope that when people read Miss Colfax’s Light, they see a person who was courageous, and tired, and determined, with calloused hands and a smile for a friend or a cat who’s chasing the chickens again. I hope that I helped to make Harriet’s world a real, tangible place for readers, especially children. I hope to inspire someone to try something that might be out of their comfort zone, or to not back away from something they want to try just because someone says it’s not meant for them. There is so much to be learned from Harriet and her life. In some ways, her story is a small one, historically speaking. In other ways, it’s huge, and absolutely deserves to be told. It has been such an honor to be entrusted in helping bring her story to life!

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Aimée Bissonette

Aimée BissonetteIn this interview with Aimée Bissonette, author of Miss Colfax’s Light, our Bookstorm™ this monthwe asked about writing and researching this nonfiction picture book biography. 

Aimée, thank you for sharing your experiences and discoveries with our readers. We’re excited about this book that showcases an Everyday Hero, one of America’s female lighthouse keepers.

Miss Colfax's LightWhen you were writing this book, do you remember editing to include fewer details so the illustrator could do her work?

Yes, indeed! In fact, that’s half the joy of writing picture books — knowing the illustrator will fill in so many details. Eileen Ryan Ewen’s  illustrations in this book provide wonderful factual material. Harriet’s clothing and household items in the book are just like the things Harriet would have worn and owned in the late 1800’s. I did not need to include descriptions in the text. Eileen included so much historical detail in her illustrations.

How did you learn that some people in the city felt Harriet “got her job only because her cousin was a U.S. Congressman”?

In writing the book, I did a lot of research. There were several written accounts of Harriet’s life and the docents at the Lighthouse Museum had a treasure trove of information about Harriet. My favorite source of information was Harriet herself. She kept a daily journal, called a log, starting in the 1870’s. The idea that Harriet’s cousin, Schuyler Colfax, a U.S. Congressman who later became Vice President of the United States, helped Harriet get her job was mentioned frequently in my sources. Specifically, it is mentioned in a 1904 Chicago Tribune newspaper article by a reporter who interviewed Harriet right before she retired.

Miss Colfax's Light log book

The author and illustrator chose to include depictions of Miss Colfax’s log book throughout the book.

There are short segments of entries from Harriet’s journal included throughout the book. Did you have to get permission to use those? How did you know who to ask?

Those short segments are entries from the “log” I mentioned above. Harriet maintained that log as part of her official lighthouse keeper duties so the log technically is “owned” by the U.S. Government. Her log is kept in the National Archives. I did not need to get permission to use it because it is not protected by copyright. Keep in mind, though, much of the material a writer uncovers while doing research for a nonfiction book is protected by copyright. Writers need to be aware of this and ask permission when they use other people’s copyrighted work in the books they write.

Did you have to research the Lighthouse Board and the Lighthouse Inspector before you could write this book?

The references in the book to the Lighthouse Board and Lighthouse Inspector are based on Harriet’s log entries. There are many more log entries than are included in the book — 30 years’ worth, in fact! Reading them was tremendously eye-opening. Harriet referred often to the Board and the Inspector in her entries. I did additional reading about the Lighthouse Board and how lighthouses were managed in the 1800’s, but mostly relied on Harriet’s own words when writing about the Board and Inspector.

Other than “I can do this,” there is no dialogue in the book. Why did you choose to leave out dialogue?

That’s a good question! I think the main reason is that, although I had Harriet’s log entries and her letters and I had a sense of what she might say and how she might say it, I didn’t know exactly what she would have said in a conversation. I felt if I made up dialogue, it would take away from the factual accuracy of the book. We can’t even be 100% certain that Harriet would have thought or said “I can do this.” But given all I learned about Harriet — her drive, her intelligence, the hardships she faced — I felt it fit and I allowed that one exception.

Miss Colfax's Light

What do you want readers to know that they didn’t know before from the text you wrote?

I want readers to think about Harriet and others like her — the everyday heroes whose work makes life better for all of us. We don’t often think of lighthouse keepers as “heroes,” but the work Harriet did was critical to sea captains and sailors and the people of Indiana who depended on the goods brought in by ship. I also want readers to think about how Harriet and many other women of that time defied the restrictions placed on women and did incredible things — all without the cool technology we have today.

Would you have chosen to do Harriet’s job if you were alive then?

I like to think that I would have, yes. I think there is a little bit of me in Harriet. Like Harriet, I love a good challenge!

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A matter of character

I enjoy so many types of books, marveling that a writer or comic artist or architect or journalist or cook or explorer thought long and studied hard and wrote and revised and gave countless hours to the creation of their book. After all, how do you count the hours a book’s author spends dreaming, observing, […]

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