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Putting Emotion into Nonfiction Books

Many peo­ple think writ­ing non­fic­tion is just string­ing togeth­er a bunch of ran­dom facts. Noth­ing could be fur­ther from the truth. While writ­ing non­fic­tion, I use every sin­gle fic­tion tech­nique a nov­el­ist uses.

I feel strong­ly that I need to write my text in a way that will lead my read­ers to invest emo­tion­al­ly with my non­fic­tion text. Real. Raw. Emo­tion. But I don’t tell read­ers what to feel. I trust they will sup­ply their own emo­tions as they read my book.

Let me give you some exam­ples.

Buried LivesMy newest book Buried Lives: The Enslaved Peo­ple of George Washington’s Mount Ver­non is about six, spe­cif­ic enslaved indi­vid­u­als. This book was chal­leng­ing to write because no writ­ten record exists from these indi­vid­u­als. There­fore as the author I had to be very care­ful not to put words, thoughts or feel­ings into their mouths, so to speak. I had to fig­ure out how to write the text that is full of emo­tion while main­tain­ing his­tor­i­cal accu­ra­cy.

To begin Buried Lives, I want­ed to pull in my read­ers emo­tion­al­ly from the start. So, the first sen­tence of the first chap­ter is:

William Lee, a six­teen-year-old African Amer­i­can boy, was for sale.”

It is straight­for­ward and his­tor­i­cal­ly accu­rate. But at the same time, I hope my words car­ry a lot of emo­tion­al weight.

Lat­er in the book, I give read­ers a peek into the dai­ly life of Car­o­line, the house­maid at Mount Ver­non. I wrote a sec­tion about the work she did each day. I explained how she swept, turned the feath­er beds, and dust­ed. While our mod­ern day sen­si­bil­i­ties under­stand basic house clean­ing, I inten­tion­al­ly left one detail of her clean­ing rou­tine to the end of the sen­tence. To mod­ern read­ers, this should pack an emo­tion­al punch:

She emp­tied and cleaned the cham­ber pots that had been used dur­ing the night. Then Car­o­line poured a lit­tle bit of water into the pots to cut down on the smell and mess for the next time she emp­tied them.”

Something Out of NothingIn my book Some­thing Out of Noth­ing: Marie Curie and Radi­um, I wrote about the death of Marie’s hus­band, Pierre, and his funer­al. Then I want­ed to pull the read­ers emo­tion­al­ly into the way Marie han­dled the loss of her beloved hus­band:

 “Marie could not bear to talk about Pierre, not even to men­tion his name. In the years fol­low­ing his death, she would nev­er talk to her daugh­ters about their father.

Around this time, Marie began rub­bing togeth­er her fin­ger­tips and thumbs (which had become hard from work­ing with vials of radi­um) in a ner­vous habit. Uncon­scious­ly, she would rub and rub and rub. The habit stayed with her for the rest of her life.”

In Defiance of HitlerAnoth­er of my books, In Defi­ance of Hitler: The Secret Mis­sion of Var­i­an Fry, relates how an Amer­i­can jour­nal­ist saved thou­sands of refugees from falling into the hands of the Nazis by secret­ly help­ing them escape. Fry stayed in Mar­seilles for thir­teen months, and then was forced to leave France. In this pas­sage, I want read­ers to feel the emo­tions of Fry’s sad­ness and uncer­tain­ty on the day he said good­bye to the peo­ple who were part of the team who worked with him to save lives:

Rain poured from the sky on Sep­tem­ber 6, 1941, the day Var­i­an left France. The gray, drea­ry weath­er matched their mood as Var­i­an and his staff ate their last lunch togeth­er. Around the table, long moments of silence took the place of heir usu­al meal­time chat­ter. None of them knew what hard­ships lay ahead. None knew what the out­come of World War 11 would be. Would Hitler ulti­mate­ly be vic­to­ri­ous and take over all of Europe and the rest of the world? Would they ever see each oth­er again? Would the Vichy police or the Gestapo come for them in the mid­dle of the night? Would they have enough food to sur­vive the win­ter?”

In each of these exam­ples, I don’t tell the read­er how they should feel, yet I hope each read­er makes these emo­tion­al jumps with me.

I’ve always said, “I don’t cre­ate the facts, but I use the facts cre­ative­ly.” It is pos­si­ble to fill the pages of a non­fic­tion book with pow­er­ful emo­tions. I believe this is what read­ers will remem­ber long after they close the cov­er.

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Not One But Four!

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The Birthday Surprise

I had pret­ty much giv­en up on find­ing an appro­pri­ate gift for my dad’s 82nd birth­day; the last thing he need­ed was more stuff. So I head­ed off to the fam­i­ly lake cab­in for the 4th of July hol­i­day (also his birth­day week­end) with the thought that I’d fig­ure out a clever cel­e­bra­to­ry idea at the last minute. Maybe some kind of game that every­one would enjoy?

The prob­lem with that was the “every­one” involved. My brother’s four kids each brought a friend along, so 13 to 20-year-olds made up the clear major­i­ty. All of them trav­el at a speed that far out­dis­tances their grand­pa, and their lives revolve around com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent cul­tur­al touch­stones. Not to men­tion that two of them seemed to have self-iden­ti­fied as space aliens sent to cat­a­log the pecu­liar behav­ior of earth­lings, sit­ting apart and observ­ing the rest of us with a dis­sect­ing air. What kind of game could I pos­si­bly come up with that would work for this mul­ti-gen­er­a­tional (not to men­tion mul­ti-plan­e­tary) crew?

Out of des­per­a­tion, I decid­ed to just go for it, and I scratched out a series of 10 ques­tions about Grand­pa. What major world event rad­i­cal­ly changed his life when he was a kid? What dan­ger­ous ani­mal did he cap­ture when he was a teenag­er? How many col­leges kicked him out? How did he meet his wife (the Grand­ma we were all still mourn­ing)? In oth­er words, ques­tions that trans­lat­ed Grandpa’s life into the con­cerns of a 13 to 20-year-old. Then I told the kids that they were going to work as pairs (grand­child plus friend) to answer the ques­tions, and who­ev­er got the most cor­rect would win a small prize. Part­way through the game, each team would have a chance to pri­vate­ly ask Grand­pa to share sto­ries to pro­vide two of the answers they didn’t know.

ph_lb_dad_erinThey’re good kids. I fig­ured they would hide their eye-rolls and play along for courtesy’s sake. Mean­while, Grand­pa would be the cen­ter of atten­tion for a few min­utes, get­ting to share a few of the details from his first 81 years, and it would make him feel like we’d at least tak­en notice of his birth­day.

In all my wor­ry about find­ing an appro­pri­ate way to cel­e­brate my dad’s life, I had inex­plic­a­bly for­got­ten the pow­er of his sto­ries. I’d momen­tar­i­ly over­looked sto­ries’ facil­i­ty for bridge-build­ing — their capac­i­ty to cre­ate a con­nec­tion between some­one whose child­hood was altered by the bomb­ing of Pearl Har­bor, and the grand­son whose child­hood was shaped by 911. My lit­tle quiz turned into a fierce bat­tle for sto­ry suprema­cy; even the space aliens couldn’t get enough. Every­one was a win­ner.

And this children’s book writer went home from the week­end with a reminder about the impor­tance of the work I do on an every­day basis. Just wait, world: have I got a sto­ry for you!

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Don’t get took! Read a book!”

by Vic­ki Palmquist

bk_bookitchI go crazy when I hear that Vaun­da Michaux Nel­son has anoth­er book com­ing out. I’m a fan. For my own read­ing life, No Crys­tal Stair: a doc­u­men­tary nov­el of the life and work of Lewis Michaux, Harlem book­seller, is one of my top ten books in the last ten years. I found every aspect of that book sat­is­fy­ing. I learned a great deal. Ms. Nel­son’s writ­ing style is well suit­ed to nar­ra­tive non­fic­tion: she makes it excit­ing. 

So, when I heard that a pic­ture book form of No Crys­tal Stair was on the hori­zon, my expec­ta­tions were high. It would be illus­trat­ed by R. Gre­go­ry Christie, whose work I have loved ever since his Stars in the Dark­ness (writ­ten by Bar­bara M. Joosse) found me sob­bing. But how would they com­press all of the great true sto­ries in No Crys­tal Stair into a pic­ture book?

They’ve done it. Even the title appeals to younger read­ers: The Book Itch: Free­dom, Truth & Harlem’s Great­est Book­store (Car­ol­rho­da, 2015).

The book is nar­rat­ed by Michaux’s son, Lewis H. Michaux, Jr., who is just­ly proud of his father. It opens with Muham­mad Ali’s vis­it to the store. Jump right in!

With the longer text in No Crys­tal Stair, Nel­son builds a depth of under­stand­ing for Michaux’s com­mit­ment to books. In The Book Itch, she knows this is not need­ed for young read­ers. We learn the parts that will inter­est this crowd. Michaux start­ed with five books, sell­ing his read­ing mate­ri­als out of a push­cart. He could­n’t get financ­ing from a bank because the banker said “Black peo­ple don’t read.” Michaux believed oth­er­wise. His store became a place to find, and read, books by and about black peo­ple.

Lewis Michaux was a good friend to Mal­colm X. They were both polit­i­cal and believed “Nobody can give you free­dom. Nobody can give you equal­i­ty or jus­tice or any­thing. If you’re a man, you take it.” Nel­son includes the heart­break­ing scene that recounts Michaux’s reac­tion to the assas­si­na­tion of Mal­colm X. His son had nev­er seen his father cry before that day.

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This book keeps his­to­ry alive and vital by con­nect­ing us to The Nation­al Memo­r­i­al African Book­store, a place which was, in Michaux’s words, “The House of Com­mon Sense and Prop­er Pro­pa­gan­da.” Christie’s illus­tra­tions are at once a record and a rib­bon reach­ing from the past, show­ing us how peo­ple felt. We often for­get about this in our look back … and it’s essen­tial to remem­ber that impor­tant his­tor­i­cal fig­ures were just like us, think­ing, act­ing, laugh­ing, hurt­ing.

Ms. Nel­son’s place in my list of Best Non­fic­tion Authors is firm. This is a book that belongs in every library, class­room, and on fam­i­ly book­shelves. Books bring us free­dom.

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Fashion Forward and Backward

by Vic­ki Palmquist

Where Did My Clothes Come From?(A) If your kids are plugged in to Project Run­way or
(B) if you come from a tra­di­tion of sewing clothes in your fam­i­ly or
© if you’ve ever been asked about where jeans come from … 

this is the right book for your 5- to 8‑year-old. Where Did My Clothes Come From? by Chris But­ter­worth, with illus­tra­tions by Lucia Gag­giot­ti (Can­dlewick Press, 2015) is a nifty book with words and draw­ings that com­bine to give sat­is­fy­ing answers.

From jeans to fleece jack­ets to par­ty dress­es, from cot­ton to silk to poly­ester, each fab­ric is cre­at­ed from nat­ur­al fibers grown as plants or sheared from ani­mals or else it’s cre­at­ed from a “sticky syrup” made up of chem­i­cals. The author and illus­tra­tor walk us through the process from the cloth’s ori­gin to the clean­ing to the fac­to­ry to the fab­ric.

Where Did My Clothes Come From?

Ms. Butterworth’s lan­guage is clear in a straight­for­ward sto­ry that will answer ques­tions and stim­u­late inter­est. Ms. Gagliotti’s illus­tra­tions pro­vide vital infor­ma­tion. When the author, writ­ing about jeans, says that “the cloth is cut into shapes,” she gives us a draw­ing of some­one who is doing that cut­ting on a well-detailed table, fol­lowed by the cut pieces laid out in a before-you-sew-the-jeans dia­gram with labeled parts. For this read­er, every­thing makes sense.

I’ve nev­er want­ed to know too exact­ly where poly­ester and fleece come from but, thanks to this book, now I know. A sec­tion on recy­cling encour­ages us to recy­cle plas­tic bev­er­age bot­tles to be made into fleece jack­ets and cut down jeans for a skirt when the knees are worn.

From Rags to RichesAnoth­er book on this sub­ject is From Rags to Rich­es: a His­to­ry of Girls’ Cloth­ing in Amer­i­ca by Leslie Sills (Hol­i­day House, 2005). The book is out of print but you may find it in your library or as a used book. It’s worth track­ing down. Excel­lent pho­to choic­es and live­ly descrip­tions and facts will inform kids about the fash­ions that have come and gone and still inspire us. Even bet­ter, the author looks at his­to­ry through fash­ion, a par­tic­u­lar view­point that will find kids think­ing more deeply about their cur­rent expe­ri­ences.

History of Women's FashionThis just in: His­to­ry of Wom­en’s Fash­ion by San­na Man­der (Big Pic­ture Press, 2015). What an astound­ing book! It has just one page which folds out to 6−1÷2 feet! That one page is print­ed on both sides. On the front, there is a time­line of cloth­ing and acces­sories women have worn from 1900 to the present, with approx­i­mate­ly 15 draw­ings on each sec­tion of that page. It all folds down to fit with­in the pages of a folio-sized book.

We see women wear­ing the clothes so we get the idea of how bod­ies were affect­ed by the dress­es and pants and corsets! The first item on the time­line is a corset. We are shown a bathing suit from 1917 (mod­est­ly cov­er­ing the entire body), a Coco Chanel pleat­ed skirt and jack­et from 1924, a Land Girl Uni­form from 1939, a Chris­t­ian Dior Black Dress from 1955, a punk dress from 1980, and an Alexan­der McQueen ensem­ble, with plen­ty of styles in between. On the back side of that one page are sil­hou­ettes of the draw­ings on the front with text explain­ing what we’re see­ing and the sig­nif­i­cance of the style.

I love this book now but I would have espe­cial­ly loved it as a teen because I was end­less­ly design­ing clothes and draw­ing them on mod­els. Think how much fun your bud­ding design­er would have! This gets top marks from me for inven­tive­ness and a fun way to absorb infor­ma­tion. 

Anna KareninaAnd then, because I can’t resist board books for adults, you might look at Anna Karen­i­na: a Fash­ion Primer the next time you’re in your favorite book­store. Writ­ten by Jen­nifer Adams, with evoca­tive art by Ali­son Oliv­er (Gibbs Smith, 2014), this book is part of the pub­lish­ers’ BabyLit series. I’m still puz­zling over this one. With quotes from Leo Tol­stoy and focus­ing on fash­ion words and images, per­haps instill­ing love of great adult lit­er­a­ture is start­ing (too) ear­ly? But it would be a great con­ver­sa­tion starter at your next lit­er­ary din­ner par­ty or book club.

Anna Karenina

 

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Hands-on History for Spatial Learners

Making HistoryWhen I was in ele­men­tary school, I was nev­er more excit­ed than when the teacher told us we could make a dio­ra­ma or a minia­ture scene of a pio­neer set­tle­ment. The con­cept, plan­ning, and build­ing were thrilling for me. Even though my fin­ished work sel­dom approached the daz­zling dis­play I could see in my head, I learned a great deal about his­to­ry, engi­neer­ing, sci­ence, and card­board from my for­ays into build­ing a small world in three dimen­sions.

We know that some kids learn best this way. They are not only hands-on, but they are spa­tial and visu­al learn­ers, peo­ple who learn best by see­ing and doing.

If you know chil­dren like this, they’ll be delight­ed with Mak­ing His­to­ry: Have a Blast with 15 Crafts (writ­ten by Wendy Fresh­man and Kristin Jans­son), pub­lished by the Min­neso­ta His­tor­i­cal Soci­ety Press.

With a short his­tor­i­cal les­son, thor­ough sup­plies list, excel­lent pho­tographs, and step-by-step instruc­tions that include a call-out for adult involve­ment (using scis­sors or a hot glue gun) your favorite kids can make a Makak Gen­er­a­tion Bas­ket or an Ice House (mod­el) or a Día de Los Muer­tos Nichos (a small shad­ow­box with skele­tons depict­ed on them for the Day hon­or­ing the Dead).

metal repousse pendant

Intro­duc­ing a Met­al Foil Repoussé Pen­dant, the authors share that Alice and Flo­rence LeDuc formed Hast­ings Needle­work in 1888 to cre­ate and sell embroi­dered house­hold items that were trea­sured by many as art­work. Bought by influ­en­tial fam­i­lies and fea­tured on mag­a­zine cov­ers, their needle­work was known world­wide. The Min­neso­ta His­tor­i­cal Soci­ety has more than 800 of their pat­terns in its archives.

With met­al foil, a foam sheet, and house­hold sup­plies such as a pen­cil, pen, and scis­sors, your stu­dents can make a neck­lace or box orna­ment from a Hast­ings Needle­work pat­tern, includ­ed in the book and thought­ful­ly sup­plied online.

Paul Bunyan Action FigureFor your visu­al and spa­tial learn­ers, build­ing a Twister Tor­na­do (did you know that the Mayo Clin­ic was found­ed as the result of a tor­na­do?) or a Paul Bun­yan Action Fig­ure is a sneaky but effec­tive way to make learn­ing mem­o­rable and engag­ing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Gifted: The Matchbox Diary

When a young girl vis­its her great-grand­fa­ther for the first time, her imag­i­na­tion swirls with every­thing she sees in his antique shop. He asks her to pick out her favorite item and he will tell her a sto­ry about it. She choos­es a cig­ar box filled with match box­es. As it turns out, this is her great-grandfather’s diary, assem­bled from items, each stored in a match box, that remind him of a cer­tain part of his life … cre­at­ed when he could nei­ther read nor write.… more
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