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Growing a Nonfiction Reader
and Even a Nonfiction Writer

It is more impor­tant to pave the way for the child to want to know
than to put him on a diet of facts he is not ready to assim­i­late

—Rachel Car­son

One would nev­er guess from the fol­low­ing excerpts that a cer­tain nine-year-old would grow up to write more than 50 non­fic­tion children’s books.  This is from my fourth-grade book­let on Flori­da:

The Cypress swamp is a part of the Ever­glades.

The Cypress swamp is small­er than the Ever­glades even though it is a part of the Ever­glades.

It has Span­ish moss cling­ing from the trees. It has wild ani­mals and love­ly birds.  Maybe even alli­gaters [sic] and croc­o­diles.

I pulled the usu­al report-writ­ing trick, padding para­graphs with rep­e­ti­tious sen­tences. Only when I depart­ed from facts and reimag­ined my moth­er and father’s trip to Clear­wa­ter did my prose loosen up.

Clear­wa­ter is one place where peo­ple go in Tam­pa, Flori­da.

Tourists take a hotel near-by and with time off of pack­ing they take a glass­bot­tom boat to Clear­wa­ter.

Amaz­ing­ly, I got an A- (for mis­spelling “depths,” teacher didn’t catch “alli­gaters” because her eyes were prob­a­bly glazed), most like­ly for the maps and draw­ings I includ­ed. While I enjoyed writ­ing sto­ries, writ­ing non­fic­tion was a chore.

Virginia history

Strange Beasts of the PastYet I loved read­ing non­fic­tion. Kids today would revolt if they had to read what we did back then, long blocks of text leav­ened with occa­sion­al two-col­or spot illus­tra­tions. Since that was all we had, we didn’t know the dif­fer­ence. But the non­fic­tion books I checked out of our school library sparkled like stars next to our class­room units.

Our text­books were packed with dates, bat­tles, gen­er­als, and pho­to­syn­the­sis. I earned Ds in Vir­ginia his­to­ry and Cs in sci­ence. Edu­ca­tion­al TV, new in the ear­ly 60s, fea­tured seg­ments even duller. I would sit in the back of the class­room squint­ing at a library book while onscreen a hand dis­sect­ed a lima bean. My fam­i­ly grew lima beans; I would rather learn how to get to Mars.

Strange Beasts of the Past

After ele­men­tary school, I stopped read­ing non­fic­tion. Report writ­ing became even hard­er. Infor­ma­tion seeped in through recre­ation­al read­ing — his­tor­i­cal nov­els and sci­ence fic­tion. Fic­tion tapped into emo­tions pre­vi­ous­ly blunt­ed by facts. Char­ac­ters made me care. Soon I want­ed to know more about the Civ­il War, archae­o­log­i­cal dis­cov­er­ies, Sylvia Plath, and picked up non­fic­tion again. I could have just as eas­i­ly stayed off the non­fic­tion path, but my child­hood curios­i­ty came roar­ing back. In my late teens, I began writ­ing arti­cles for children’s mag­a­zines and, lat­er, non­fic­tion books.

Chil­dren are still tasked with writ­ing reports. But they have a wider vari­ety of sources: the inter­net, vis­it­ing speak­ers, field trips. Best of all, kids today have fab­u­lous non­fic­tion books. A very young child can flip through a board book on the solar sys­tem, pick up a pic­ture book on the sun, segue into a tran­si­tion­al read­er about the plan­ets, then delve into a mid­dle-grade biog­ra­phy on Galileo, assim­i­lat­ing facts at each stage.

Candice Ransome Nonfiction Recommendations

My fourth-grade self would have been deliri­ous to find the inspir­ing non­fic­tion pub­lished in recent years, such as Bal­loons Over Broad­way: The True Sto­ry of the Pup­peteer of Macy’s Parade by Melis­sa Sweet, Moon­shot: The Flight of Apol­lo 11 by Bri­an Flo­ca, And Then What Hap­pened, Paul Revere? by Jean Fritz (best open­ing para­graphs ever!), Barnum’s Bones: How Bar­num Brown Dis­cov­ered the Most Famous Dinosaur in the World by Tracey Fern, A Riv­er of Words: The Sto­ry of William Car­los Williams by Jen Bryant, Stub­by the War Dog: The True Sto­ry of  World War I’s Bravest Dog by Ann Bausum, and Stars Beneath Your Bed: The Sur­pris­ing Sto­ry of Dust by April Pul­ley Sayre.

Bones in the White HouseThe expe­di­tion from my tepid Flori­da report to my lat­est book, Bones in the White House: Thomas Jefferson’s Mam­moth (which com­bines his­to­ry and sci­ence) has been reward­ing because I’ve sam­pled and stud­ied non­fic­tion children’s books that often rival adult non­fic­tion.

I’ll con­tin­ue to research and write non­fic­tion, help pave the way for new non­fic­tion read­ers, who might also grow up to be non­fic­tion writ­ers.     


Jen Bryant

Jen Bryant

Jen Bryant

Author and poet Jen Bryant is known for her pic­ture book biogra­phies of artists, poets, word­mon­gers, com­posers, and play­wrights. Her verse and prose nov­els are well-researched, often focused on an his­toric event like the Scopes tri­al or the Lind­bergh kid­nap­ping tri­al or Cap­tain Kid­d’s buried trea­sure in New Jer­sey. Always focused on her next book, we’re thank­ful Jen took time from her sched­ule to answer our Skin­ny Dip ques­tions. 

One green thing I wish every­one would do: Stop using plas­tic bags!

One thing no one can do bet­ter than I can: Mess up an easy recipe.

I used to dream that: I’d own a horse farm.

I nev­er thought I would: Be able to make a liv­ing by writ­ing.

The movie I watch when I want to laugh: Moon­struck.

I’m cur­rent­ly read­ing: The Dutch House, by Ann Patch­ett

What’s on my night­stand: Pic­nic, Light­ning — Poems by Bil­ly Collins.

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett and Picnic, Lightning by Billy Collins

My favorite hol­i­day tra­di­tion: Giv­ing flow­ers at East­er.

Guilti­est plea­sure: Soft pret­zels with lots of salt.

If I could give you a piece of advice, it would be this: Read. Prac­tice.

The piece of cloth­ing in my clos­et I can’t let go: My pair of rid­ing boots.

What I do when I want to feel joy: Look at pho­tos of my grand­son.


Some Illustrator!

In my next life, I’m com­ing back either as a cat liv­ing in our house (think Canyon Ranch for cats), or Melis­sa Sweet. I’ve fol­lowed her career since she illus­trat­ed James Howe’s Pinky and Rex (1990). I love this book for its atyp­i­cal char­ac­ters (Pinky is a boy who loves pink and stuffed ani­mals, and Rex, his girl friend, is into dinosaurs), but also for Melissa’s fresh-faced char­ac­ters and bright water­col­ors.

Then I heard her speak at a con­fer­ence in 2005 about illus­trat­ing The Boy Who Drew Birds by Jacque­line Davis. I was enchant­ed by the col­laged snip­pets — maps, music notes, hand­writ­ing — among her water­col­or illus­tra­tions. One dou­ble-spread show­cas­es a dried frog, a nest with eggshells, a dried lizard, lichen, a tiny skull. An insa­tiable col­lec­tor, she used what was in her stu­dio.

I too am a col­lec­tor. I have at least 20 vin­tage suit­cas­es filled with old mag­a­zines, pho­tos, office sup­plies, scrap­books, bought because peo­ple dump greet­ing cards, pho­to­graph albums, report cards and I have this pathet­ic need to res­cue unwant­ed fam­i­ly mem­o­ra­bil­ia.

Candice Ransom Mixed Media Collage

Can­dice Ran­som’s mixed media col­lage

I was mov­ing away from scrap­book­ing to mak­ing — well, weird stuff. See­ing Melissa’s work, I real­ized I was cre­at­ing mixed-media col­lages with her­itage pho­tographs (I nev­er scrapped reg­u­lar pho­tos, like trips to Dis­ney World, because I nev­er went any­where). Melis­sa uses col­lage to “say what I need to say.”

Each book got bet­ter: A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pip­pin, A Riv­er of Words: The Sto­ry of William Car­los Williams (both writ­ten by Jen Bryant), Fire­fly July: A Year of Very Short Poems (writ­ten by Paul B. Janeczko). Then Melis­sa wrote and illus­trat­ed Bal­loons Over Broad­way, about Tony Sarg, pup­peteer and cre­ator of the Macy’s parade bal­loons. She made toys and pup­pets to under­stand what it “felt like to be in Sarg’s world.” I pored over the art, real­iz­ing how com­mit­ted Melis­sa was to the research and her illus­tra­tions. She takes no short­cuts.

In The Right Word, she stepped up her game. The assem­blages in the final dou­ble-spread caused my head to explode. And then … Some Writer! The Sto­ry of E.B. White, a mash-up of old­er kids’ non­fic­tion, pic­ture book, and scrap­book. After I came to from swoon­ing, I car­ried it around and made peo­ple look at it. Much of the art is con­tained in shad­ow box­es, like those of Joseph Cor­nell. If I had to choose a favorite, it would be the scene of Wilbur at the fair.

Being a Melis­sa Sweet fan, I’ve learned it’s pos­si­ble to com­bine research, art, words, and found things into a project. A few years ago, I began mak­ing scrap­books for my nov­els, a sort of illus­trat­ed out­line. From mag­a­zine clip files, I choose images that rep­re­sent a char­ac­ter or scene. By not try­ing to match an image to what’s in my head, I keep the sto­ry mine. I add bits of dia­log and descrip­tion. If the sto­ry changes, that’s okay. I just keep mov­ing for­ward in both the scrap­book and the writ­ing.

The book I’m work­ing on now is com­plex in set­ting, char­ac­ters, and plot. I’ve start­ed a new scrap­book, but the vin­tage and mod­ern mag­a­zine images don’t seem to be enough. It needs real art. I’m not an artist, but I decid­ed to include a drawn ani­mal char­ac­ter, sort of the way Melis­sa Sweet com­bines water­col­or paint­ings and col­lage. Draw like she does! But her art is decep­tive. I gnawed my fin­ger­nails study­ing the expres­sive slant of the dog’s ears in Tupe­lo Rides the Rails. It looks easy — it’s not.

Illus­tra­tor Tri­na Schart Hyman once wrote about try­ing to copy the style of Tomie dePao­la. In ten min­utes, she fig­ured, she’d whip up a “Tomie” draw­ing. “Six hours lat­er sweaty, frus­trat­ed, and thor­ough­ly puz­zled, I tore up the thir­ty-eighth ruined piece of paper in despair,” she admit­ted. His folksy style and child­like col­or was more sophis­ti­cat­ed than she real­ized. If an accom­plished artist like Tri­na Hyman couldn’t imi­tate Tomie dePao­la, there was no hope for me to draw a Melis­sa Sweet-type cat. One pen line on my fin­ished scrap­book page, and it would be ruined.

Pag­ing through The Sleepy Lit­tle Alpha­bet by Judy Sier­ra, I noticed Melis­sa Sweet’s clouds. They appear to be pen­ciled on graph and loose-leaf paper, cut out, and past­ed on water­col­or skies. I could draw cats on note­book paper, snip out one that isn’t too awful, and paste it in my scrap­book! Using unim­por­tant paper makes the draw­ing seem less pre­cious and should lessen my anx­i­ety.

In her author’s note for Bal­loons Over Broad­way, Melis­sa stress­es she tried to con­vey the sense that her sub­ject was hav­ing fun. “[Sarg’s] lega­cy reminds me that ‘play’ may be the most impor­tant ele­ment in mak­ing art!” A sense of play is a hall­mark of Melis­sa Sweet’s work. A les­son for all of us who make children’s books!


Working with an Editor

What’s it like to work with an editor?”is a ques­tion I often get from teach­ers, stu­dents, and aspir­ing authors and it’s one that takes some time to ful­ly answer. In the best sit­u­a­tions, an editor’s rela­tion­ship to her author is like a coach’s rela­tion­ship to an ath­lete: know­ing her author’s per­son­al­i­ty, tal­ent, and poten­tial, she encour­ages her strengths, while tact­ful­ly push­ing her toward improv­ing on her weak­ness­es. When the rela­tion­ship is work­ing well, the writer feels sup­port­ed, yet inde­pen­dent, and the edi­tor trusts that the writer is car­ry­ing out her sug­ges­tions, mov­ing the book toward their com­mon goal of mak­ing it the very best it can pos­si­bly be.  

When I began my writ­ing career in 1989, things were a lot dif­fer­ent in our indus­try. Sub­mis­sions were made through the reg­u­lar mail. I wrote my drafts long-hand on legal pads and then typed them into a huge, mono­chrome-screened com­put­er using MS-DOS. I spoke with edi­tors in per­son and by phone about cur­rent and future projects. Pub­lish­ers did all of the pro­mo­tion for my books (self-pro­mo­tion? author mar­ket­ing? What was that?) and I reviewed and approved every book con­tract myself.

Those times are long gone … and with them, some of the pre-dig­i­tal age advan­tages of real­ly know­ing your edi­tor as an indi­vid­ual (and vice ver­sa) and being able to con­cen­trate almost exclu­sive­ly on writ­ing. But some things about the author-edi­tor expe­ri­ence have not changed at all: edi­tors are still, at least the ones that I have worked with, very ded­i­cat­ed to mak­ing good lit­er­a­ture, extreme­ly hard-work­ing, and serve as an author’s #1 col­lab­o­ra­tor through the pro­duc­tion process.

But they are also indi­vid­u­als. Although their roles at the var­i­ous pub­lish­ing hous­es (acquir­ing man­u­scripts, offer­ing guid­ance to the author as he/she shapes the sto­ry, work­ing with the art direc­tor to choose an illus­tra­tor or cov­er artist, shep­herd­ing the book through the pro­duc­tion process, help­ing to plan mar­ket­ing strate­gies) may be sim­i­lar, their exe­cu­tion of that role can be very dif­fer­ent. Even so, the most impor­tant aspect of a suc­cess­ful author-edi­tor rela­tion­ship is com­mu­ni­ca­tion. Let’s say an edi­tor (we’ll call her Susan) has acquired a pic­ture book biog­ra­phy man­u­script I’ve writ­ten. It’s 75% done — which is to say, it’s a full sto­ry that shows good poten­tial, but it needs some rework­ing and some addi­tion­al back mat­ter mate­r­i­al. Susan will go over the draft sev­er­al times, mark­ing it up and mak­ing sug­ges­tions that she feels will improve the final text. She will send it back to me (email these days) and I will read her com­ments and do my best to address the issues she has high­light­ed. Some of these issues might be large ones (“Can we make the lit­tle broth­er more of an active char­ac­ter in the nar­ra­tive?”) and some are small ones (“I think we can delete this whole line — the art will show this.”)

The man­u­script bounces back and forth between us a few, sev­er­al, many times — depend­ing on how much work it needs. The clar­i­ty of com­mu­ni­ca­tion between edi­tor and author is para­mount: I can­not make the nec­es­sary changes to the sto­ry if I have no idea what the edi­tor is sug­gest­ing. Most edi­tors are very, very good at this; it’s the focus of their train­ing and they take this part seri­ous­ly. Once the man­u­script has been “accept­ed and deliv­ered” (i.e., it’s a final draft that’s ready to go into pro­duc­tion, where it will increas­ing­ly look like a book …), there is usu­al­ly a peri­od where­in there is less com­mu­ni­ca­tion as the text is being illus­trat­ed. Nor­mal­ly, there is lit­tle, if any, com­mu­ni­ca­tion between the author and the illus­tra­tor (a fact that nev­er fails to astound at school vis­its) unless the illus­tra­tor needs help find­ing an orig­i­nal source, pho­to­graph, or has an accu­ra­cy-relat­ed ques­tion.

At this point, a good edi­tor will keep in touch peri­od­i­cal­ly to update an author about his/her book’s progress and to rein­force the rhythm of their rela­tion­ship. Even if it’s just a quick email every few weeks to check in, share any ques­tions from the illus­tra­tor, or just to say “everything’s on track for our pub­li­ca­tion date.” Remem­ber: a good author and a good edi­tor usu­al­ly make an excel­lent book — and like all rela­tion­ships, per­son­al and pro­fes­sion­al — both part­ners need to invest time and atten­tion to it. If they don’t, then you can bet that author will be more than hap­py to look else­where with her next man­u­script. This is not rock­et sci­ence, obvi­ous­ly, but in my own expe­ri­ence — and espe­cial­ly now that dig­i­tal com­mu­ni­ca­tion has large­ly dis­placed in-per­son and phone com­mu­ni­ca­tion — it’s the edi­tor who lets his/her author know that “I have your back”; “I am tak­ing good care of your man­u­script here as we search for just the right artist”; “I’m spend­ing time think­ing about how we can best posi­tion this book for some extra sales”; “I’m in touch with illus­tra­tor John Smith, and all is going real­ly well”; “I saw this new book XYZ and I think we may want to do some­thing sim­i­lar in yours regard­ing side­bars and author’s note”…it’s that kind of edi­tor with whom the author will want to keep work­ing.

Being an edi­tor is a tough job — always has been and always will be. They work long hours, wear many hats, jug­gle more dead­lines and projects than we can imag­ine. Yet all the good ones know that it’s clear and con­sis­tent com­mu­ni­ca­tion that keeps the good authors com­ing back.

Editor reflecting


Melissa Sweet

In this inter­view with Melis­sa Sweet, illus­tra­tor of A Riv­er of Words: The Sto­ry of William Car­los Williams, our Book­storm™ this monthwe asked six ques­tions and Melis­sa kind­ly took time from her busy days of vis­it­ing schools and cre­at­ing art.

A River of WordsDo you recall the first time you encoun­tered a William Car­los Williams poem?

My first intro­duc­tion to William Car­los Williams was when I was sev­en years old and went to the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Muse­um of Art. I saw a  paint­ing by Williams’s  friend Charles Demuth, based on Williams’s poem “The Great Fig­ure.” I loved both the paint­ing and the poem.

The Great Figure

Do you have a list of Most Favorite Poets? Was William Car­los Williams on that list before you began the research for this book? Is he on that list now?

My short list is Mary Oliv­er, Bil­ly Collins, and, yes, William Car­los Williams is now on that list.

When you begin to illus­trate a book like this, what is your very first step? And what do you do next?

William Carlos Williams prescription padFirst I decide how and where to research. I’m look­ing for clues as to what to draw to inspire the illus­tra­tions. For this book I read biogra­phies about Williams, his poet­ry, and news­pa­per arti­cles about him. It was impor­tant to trav­el to Ruther­ford and Pat­ter­son, NJ, to see where he lived and worked. At the Ruther­ford Pub­lic Library, I saw his bowler hat, his man­u­al type­writer,  and the pre­scrip­tion pads he used as a doc­tor. All those things became inspi­ra­tion for the art. Then, back in the stu­dio, I make a dum­my plac­ing the words on the page and begin to sketch to out the paint­ings or col­lages. Last­ly, I make the final art.

A River of WordsIn the book, we see hand­writ­ten bits of poet­ry in sev­er­al dif­fer­ent styles of hand­writ­ing and we also see type­set scraps of paper as well as intrigu­ing bits of type. Do you cre­ate these by hand? By com­put­er? With friend­ly help?

All my art is cre­at­ed by hand — I don’t use the com­put­er to make the illus­tra­tions. I cut up old books and use let­ter­ing from wher­ev­er I can find it. Incor­po­rat­ing cal­lig­ra­phy and hand – let­ter­ing into the art makes the piece more fun and live­ly. A type­set font would look very dif­fer­ent, maybe some­what sta­t­ic. In A Riv­er of Words I recre­at­ed Williams’s hand­writ­ing in places, and hand – let­tered his poems with­in the art. The con­tent of the poems became the inspi­ra­tion for what to draw.

A River of WordsAre there entire spreads you pre­pare that don’t make the final cut of the book? When you send the illus­tra­tion in for review by the edi­tor or art direc­tor, do you leave things unglued so they can be moved if request­ed? And what do you use to affix the parts of your col­lage? 

Some­times spreads need to be redone, but rarely. The edi­tor and art direc­tor see the dum­my, but typ­i­cal­ly they don’t see the art in progress, just the final art. It’s dif­fi­cult to plan or sketch a col­lage – it hap­pens as you go along adding and sub­tract­ing ele­ments to make it work visu­al­ly. (Even I don’t know exact­ly how the art will look in the end!) I use stick glue, white glue, and depend­ing on the mate­ri­als, I might need some­thing strong like epoxy. Kids often ask how my arts gets “in” the book. My work is gen­er­al­ly pho­tographed since there is too much dimen­sion in the pieces to scan them. Those pho­tos are down­loaded to the design­er and the text is added dig­i­tal­ly.

If you had met William Car­los Williams, what ques­tion would you have asked him?

I have two ques­tions: Where was the red wheel­bar­row? What did you think when you first saw it?

illus­tra­tions in this arti­cle are copy­right © Melis­sa Sweet


Jen Bryant

In this inter­view with Jen Bryant, author of A Riv­er of Words: The Sto­ry of William Car­los Williams, our Book­storm™ this month.

A River of WordsDo you recall the first time you encoun­tered a William Car­los Williams poem?

I was in high school — and it was part of an anthol­o­gy read­ing that we did for Eng­lish class. I had disliked/not understood/ been unmoved by all of the oth­er poems in this assigned read­ing (I recall that the lan­guage in those poems was archa­ic and flow­ery, and the forms very, VERY tra­di­tion­al) — and then — whooosh — like a breath of fresh air, here were a few select­ed W. C. Williams poems, which used lit­tle punc­tu­a­tion, were freeform in struc­ture, and focused on every­day scenes and real life. They were the first poems I enjoyed and felt “wel­comed” into.

Do you have a list of Most Favorite Poets? Was William Car­los Williams on that list before you began the research for this book? Is he on that list now?

He’s def­i­nite­ly on the list — and there are too many oth­ers to name here, so I’ll just start by list­ing a few of them: Emi­ly Dick­in­son, Mary Oliv­er, Yusef Komun­yakaa, Wen­dell Berry, William Stafford, Rita Dove, Marge Pier­cy, Robert Frost, Lucille Clifton, Phillip Levine, Mar­i­lyn Nel­son, Gary Soto, Gal­way Kinell, Eamon Gren­nan, Jane Keny­on … (see? way too many!)

When you turned your man­u­script in to your edi­tor, did you envi­sion how the book might be illus­trat­ed? What do you think when you first saw Melis­sa Sweet’s ideas for illus­trat­ing Williams’ life?

Melis­sa and I did not know each oth­er before Eerd­mans paired us for this book. Gayle Brown, the art direc­tor at EBYR, chose Melis­sa as the illus­tra­tor — and I believe that this sin­gle act has influ­enced my writ­ing life ever since! I’d already writ­ten three pic­ture book biogra­phies on cre­ative peo­ple (O’Keeffe, Mes­si­aen, and Moore) and I had nev­er met ANY of those illus­tra­tors. All of their styles were very dis­tinct, very dif­fer­ent from one another’s — so, no, I had no clue what an illus­tra­tor would do with this text. You can just imag­ine my reac­tion when I saw Melissa’s art for this book … I wept with hap­pi­ness. She’s tru­ly amaz­ing.

A River of Words

How did you find infor­ma­tion about this poet’s younger years?

I had to piece scenes togeth­er from many dif­fer­ent sources: fore­words and pref­aces to poet­ry col­lec­tions, a few audio record­ings, an old film, some archival records, etc. The key, though, was to keep the riv­er as the cen­tral image around which the rest of the sto­ry could spin. Once I had made that deci­sion, the rest became a bit eas­i­er.

A River of WordsDid you have to cut much mate­r­i­al from your orig­i­nal con­cept of the book? Did you go through a few revi­sions with the edi­tor or many revi­sions with the edi­tor?

I always pre­fer to give the edi­tors more than they need — then let them give me feed­back on which scenes/stanzas are more com­pelling and which are redun­dant or less com­pelling (and thus can be cut.) Yes, there were on-going revi­sions with this man­u­script — but if I recall cor­rect­ly, the orig­i­nal­ly-sub­mit­ted ver­sion was the one that was sent to Melis­sa and she got start­ed from that text. We didn’t make HUGE changes to this sto­ry, but we tweaked word­ing here and there — and then the back mat­ter was added lat­er on.

If you had met William Car­los Williams, what ques­tion would you have asked him?

If you had been able to quit your day-job (as a physi­cian) and could sup­port your fam­i­ly full-time by writ­ing, would you have done that? OR, did your dai­ly rounds — with all kinds of patients and in many dif­fer­ent set­tings — feed your art so much that you need­ed to do both in order to write well?”


Jen, thank you for shar­ing your answers with our read­ers. Your style of writ­ing biogra­phies is so unique, and so well researched, that it’s valu­able for us to know more about the process of this book’s cre­ation.

For use with your stu­dents, Jen’s web­site includes a dis­cus­sion guide that you’ll find use­ful as you incor­po­rate this book into your plan­ning.

illus­tra­tions in this arti­cle are copy­right © Melis­sa Sweet


Bookstorm™: A River of Words


Bookmap for A River of Words

A River of WordsAuthor Jen Bryant and illus­tra­tor Melis­sa Sweet have teamed up on a num­ber of pic­ture book biogra­phies about cre­ative artists. We’ve cho­sen to fea­ture their very first col­lab­o­ra­tion dur­ing this month in which poet­ry takes the spot­light. By telling us the true sto­ry about poet William Car­los Williams’ child­hood and grow­ing up, with his clear poet­ry sur­round­ing the pages, they awak­en inter­est in young peo­ple who may think this no-longer-liv­ing, ancient (he was born in 1883 and died in 1963) poet is not with­in reach. They’ll be sur­prised by how his poet­ry will touch them. And he made a career for him­self as a poet while he was being a coun­try doc­tor! What an inter­est­ing fel­low.

We trust you will find this mon­th’s Book­storm use­ful for teach­ing poet­ry, teach­ing writ­ing, units on nature, talk­ing about non­fic­tion and biog­ra­phy … and enjoy­ing the qui­eter moments when read­ing poet­ry is one of life’s plea­sures.

For more infor­ma­tion and dis­cus­sion guides, vis­it Jen Bryant’ web­site.

You can learn more about Melis­sa Sweet, the illus­tra­tor





Pic­ture Book Biogra­phies of Poets. From Shake­speare to Woody Guthrie, from Dave the Pot­ter to Pablo Neru­da, you’ll find top-notch biogra­phies of poets with whom kids find con­nec­tion. Sev­er­al of these are excel­lent men­tor texts as well.

Biogra­phies of Poets for Old­er Read­ers. If you’d like to use A Riv­er of Words with old­er grades, we’ve includ­ed a few biogra­phies that pair well. For instance, you’ll find Pablo Neru­da: Poet of the Peo­ple (Mon­i­ca Brown and Julie Paschkis) on the pic­ture book side and Pam Muñoz Ryan’s Dream­er, also about the Chilean poet Pablo Neru­da, for the more com­fort­able read­ers.

Revolv­ing Around William Car­los Williams. We’ve rec­om­mend­ed a biog­ra­phy writ­ten for adults, a col­lec­tion of Mr. Williams’ poems for chil­dren, and a book that was inspired by his poem, “This is Just to Say.”

Kids and Nature. Nature-deficit dis­or­der is on many edu­ca­tors’ minds. William Car­los Williams had a sig­nif­i­cant con­nec­tion to nature. He wrote about it often. We’ve includ­ed books with ter­rif­ic ideas for enthus­ing chil­dren about going out­doors, both unplugged and plugged-in.

Col­lage and Mixed-Media Illus­tra­tions. Do the types of illus­tra­tion con­fuse you? We’ll have an inter­view with Melis­sa Sweet this month that we hope will make you feel more com­fort­able dis­cussing the art in A Riv­er of Words. We’ve sug­gest­ed a few books that also use a mixed media style.

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


Jen Bryant: The Writing Apprenticeship

by Jen Bryant

TRW book cover w sealsSev­er­al months ago, I was asked to be on a pan­el for a new-writ­ers work­shop. Dur­ing the ques­tion and answer peri­od, one woman com­ment­ed: “I keep hear­ing that writ­ing is a craft that requires time and prac­tice to mas­ter. I get that … but as some­one who’s eager to be an appren­tice but has nei­ther the time nor mon­ey to enroll in an MFA pro­gram, how — exact­ly — do I go about find­ing some­one who’s qual­i­fied, will­ing, and avail­able to men­tor me?”

It was a great ques­tion — one which we took turns answer­ing, based on our unique per­son­al expe­ri­ences. That pan­el made me recall the details of my own (very long, cir­cuitous road) to becom­ing a pub­lished children’s author, and how I found my own “Mas­ter writ­ers” from whom I learned a great deal about the art and craft of writ­ing. This is what I told her .… .

After spend­ing the first sev­en years after col­lege as a French teacher and H.S. X‑C coach, I began my writ­ing life almost by acci­dent: We relo­cat­ed in the mid­dle of the school year and I sud­den­ly had no full-time job. I con­tin­ued to teach part-time, but I also began some free­lance writ­ing. I wrote mag­a­zine arti­cles and book reviews and com­piled quotes for a gift-book com­pa­ny.

At first, I got by using the “tri­al and error” method (accent on the error!) and work­ing on my own when my baby daugh­ter napped. In col­lege, I’d majored in for­eign lan­guages, not Eng­lish or Cre­ative Writ­ing, so while I had no for­mal train­ing, I also had very low expec­ta­tions. In ret­ro­spect, this was an advan­tage: I had no pre­con­ceived notions about what was “accept­able” and so moved freely between gen­res and for­mats — exper­i­ment­ing, fail­ing, and try­ing again. That got me through the first cou­ple of years … but I got to a point where I want­ed to write bet­ter.

georgias-bonesI’d pub­lished sev­er­al essays and reviews in lit­er­ary mag­a­zines and I was read­ing a lot of poet­ry (and try­ing to write my own), when I stum­bled upon my first pro­fes­sion­al men­tor. While attend­ing a read­ing at a Philadel­phia book­store, I saw a fly­er for a work­shop run by a local poet-pro­fes­sor. Dis­ap­point­ed that I couldn’t make the sched­uled class­es, I asked her if, instead, she’d be will­ing to meet me for twice-a-month tutor­ing ses­sions. She agreed, and thus began my first true writ­ing appren­tice­ship, held in a bak­ery on South Street (I can still smell those cran­ber­ry scones!)

It would take me pages to explain what I learned from her, but suf­fice to say that despite my being a “pub­lished author” I knew in my heart that I was just start­ing to learn how to write. She assigned month­ly read­ings, cri­tiqued my poet­ry drafts, shared her own drafts and fin­ished poems, and answered hun­dreds of ques­tions.

When she moved away for her job, I con­tin­ued my writ­ing appren­tice­ship with anoth­er Philadel­phia poet. His style was very dif­fer­ent, but that stretched me in new direc­tions and made me exper­i­ment even more. I learned so much from him, that when he, too, moved on to a new job in Col­orado, we con­tin­ued to exchange work by mail. [** I should note that nei­ther of these poets wrote for chil­dren, and that near­ly ALL of what I read and wrote while work­ing under their guid­ance was aimed at adults, not kids. Nonethe­less, every­thing they taught me has influ­enced and improved my writ­ing for young peo­ple.]

11_10Bryant_Jen, Eileen, Jerry

l‑r: Jen, Eileen Spinel­li, Jer­ry Spinel­li

About this time, I got to know Jer­ry and Eileen Spinel­li, who lived near­by and whose books I’d admired for years. As our friend­ship grew, they became men­tors of a dif­fer­ent sort, answer­ing ques­tions about pic­ture books (Eileen con­vinced me to turn one of my “art poems” into my first pic­ture book, Georgia’s Bones), edi­tors (Jer­ry con­nect­ed me with his edi­tor, Joan Slat­tery at Knopf, who became my edi­tor for the next decade), and bol­ster­ing my spir­its through the inevitable ups and downs of book pub­lish­ing. Where my pre­vi­ous men­tors had been about skill devel­op­ment, the “nuts & bolts” of craft, the Spinel­lis were more like gear-greasers, facil­i­tat­ing my for­ay into children’s lit­er­a­ture and cheer­ing each small suc­cess.

I was lucky to find these peo­ple, I know — but I believe I also made my own luck: I cre­at­ed a work­shop tuto­r­i­al where there was none; I per­se­vered in my appren­tice­ship through changes in logis­tics, geo­graph­i­cal dis­tance, and personal/ fam­i­ly demands — and I made my writ­ing life a pri­or­i­ty.

I tru­ly believe that, with a lit­tle per­sis­tence, any­one can find a writ­ing men­tor, some­one (or a series of some­ones) who can be both Teacher and Guide on their oth­er­wise soli­tary jour­ney.


Skinny Dip with Jen Bryant

What ani­mal are you most like?

Prob­a­bly a cat. I’m very inde­pen­dent, I love to sit in a pud­dle of warm sun, I spend a lot of my free time watch­ing birds, and I’m very attached to my home. (I would have said a dog, but I’m not that obe­di­ent!) 

Which book of yours was the most dif­fi­cult to write or illus­trate?

book coverThere were sev­er­al rea­sons why my verse nov­el Ring­side 1925: Views from the Scopes Tri­al was the most dif­fi­cult to write. I want­ed to tell the sto­ry in many voic­es, so I had to exper­i­ment with how to keep the real/ his­tor­i­cal events mov­ing for­ward, while at the same time keep­ing track of the fic­tion­al char­ac­ters and how they were grow­ing and chang­ing and inter­act­ing with one anoth­er. I used a LOT of those bright­ly col­ored sticky notes! I also used my husband’s pool table to peri­od­i­cal­ly lay out the pages for each sec­tion so that I could phys­i­cal­ly see where and how each char­ac­ter was con­tribut­ing to the sto­ry. I also faced the chal­lenge of mak­ing a tri­al that was (quite unlike the Lind­bergh baby kid­nap­ping tri­al, which cen­tered on a bru­tal crime) very philo­soph­i­cal and full of “legalese” into an enter­tain­ing and more eas­i­ly under­stand­able nar­ra­tive. 

Which of your books would make a good movie and who would be the star?

book coverI think sev­er­al of my nov­els would be good screen­play mate­r­i­al, but I think if Pieces of Geor­gia is ever made into a fea­ture film, I would want Robert Duvall to play Andrew Wyeth, Sab­ri­na Car­pen­ter (a south­east­ern PA native) to play Geor­gia, and Matthew McConaugh­ey to play Georgia’s father.

What’s your favorite line from a book?

There’s no place like home.” –from L. Frank Baum’s The Won­der­ful Wiz­ard of OZ.

What book do you tell every­one to read?

The Sto­ry of Edgar Sawtelle, by David Wrob­lews­ki. It’s bril­liant. I was so relieved to read in the back mat­ter that it took him more than 10 years to write. It’s scaf­fold­ed on the Ham­let tale, but set in rur­al Wis­con­sin in the 1970’s. (It’s also a book that I only rec­om­mend to peo­ple who love dogs and who are empa­thet­ic.)  

Are you a night owl or an ear­ly bird?

Actu­al­ly, I’m nei­ther one. I’m very bor­ing in that regard — my best, most pro­duc­tive hours are gen­er­al­ly 9am to 5pm.

Were you most like­ly to vis­it the school office to deliv­er attendance/get sup­plies, vis­it the nurse, or meet with the prin­ci­pal?

Hmmm…. That was a long time ago! I’d say prob­a­bly to deliv­er attendance/ get sup­plies. I was a reli­able kid, although I’ll bet I made sev­er­al unsched­uled stops on the way there and back. I’ve always been pret­ty dis­tractible!



Jen Bryant: It’s Not Pretty!

by Jen Bryant

I’ve always had an ambiva­lent rela­tion­ship with the word “inspi­ra­tion.” On the one hand, I acknowl­edge the illu­sive, inex­plic­a­ble aspect of the writ­ing process that I can’t con­trol, when the lines, para­graphs, pages seem to flow from some­where out­side of myself, knit­ting togeth­er almost seam­less­ly. On the oth­er hand (and this is the much, much heav­ier hand) I believe that good writ­ing — like all good art — comes from con­scious effort, com­mit­ment, and lots of tri­al and error. In this way, writ­ing a poem or a nov­el is much like any­thing else we do: mak­ing a home-cooked meal, build­ing a go-cart, or shap­ing a back­yard gar­den. You begin with a vision, but then you must roll up your sleeves, kneel down and set to work.

But how do you know where to start?!” I hear this ques­tion at near­ly every writ­ing work­shop I con­duct, regard­less of the age or expe­ri­ence of the stu­dents. My stan­dard answer is always the same: “Well, I don’t KNOW where to start … but I start any­way. I start at the place where my heart is thump­ing the loud­est, the part that is almost pure emo­tion.” Usu­al­ly, it’s not pret­ty. I might scrib­ble down some phras­es, a ques­tion, or even a few lines of rough poet­ry that focus on one or two images. It nev­er looks like much. I set that aside and go do some­thing else (work on my gar­den or my gro­cery list.)

ph_river_of_words_medalLat­er, I come back to that first scrib­ble and read it over a few times. If it’s the begin­ning of a biog­ra­phy for which I’ve done con­sid­er­able research, I shuf­fle through my notes and choose a few facts about the sub­ject that I find par­tic­u­lar­ly inter­est­ing or unusu­al. For exam­ple, when I began writ­ing A Riv­er of Words: The Sto­ry of William Car­los Williams, I honed in on young Willie’s love of wan­der­ing through the fields around his home­town, his sense of phys­i­cal con­nec­tion to his sur­round­ings, and his easy rela­tion­ship to soli­tude. Lat­er, as an adult, these would be instru­men­tal in his suc­cess as a poet. As I worked through the many drafts of the nar­ra­tive, the image of the riv­er became the thread that con­nect­ed his child­hood to his adult­hood, his child’s play to his man’s work.

Ladder and nursery window, Lindbergh home in Hopewell, New Jersey.

Lad­der and nurs­ery win­dow, Lind­bergh home in Hopewell, New Jer­sey. Pho­to cour­tesy NJ State Archives.

If it’s a nov­el with some real/historical under­pin­nings, I focus on an image that I can flesh out into a rough poem. In The Tri­al, for exam­ple, I began with the image of the lad­der — the object that became the most impor­tant piece of evi­dence against immi­grant car­pen­ter Bruno Richard Haupt­mann, the man accused of kid­nap­ping the Lind­bergh baby. So how, you ask, did that lad­der make MY heart thump, when I wasn’t even alive in 1935, the year the tri­al took place? Well … I grew up just a few blocks from the famous Flem­ing­ton cour­t­house, and our house was next to that of my pater­nal grand­moth­er, who remem­bered that tri­al from her own child­hood. She used to tell me sto­ries about that time, and those sto­ries some­times haunt­ed me at night, when I would imag­ine a stranger plac­ing a wood­en lad­der against OUR house, climb­ing up to my bed­room win­dow, and snatch­ing me from my room. (See?– thump, thump, thump!)

The part of “inspi­ra­tion” that you CAN con­trol is your com­mit­ment to try. Sit down, pick a phrase or an image that has some emo­tion­al res­o­nance for you, and start with that. If the first one doesn’t lead you for­ward — try anoth­er one. And anoth­er. And anoth­er, if nec­es­sary. Do this often enough, and you will have the first bricks laid on a path that will lead you through the rest of your book.




Peace is elu­sive. It is a goal of some peo­ple at some time in some parts of the world. As John Lennon wrote: “Imag­ine no pos­ses­sions / I won­der if you can / No need for greed or hunger / A broth­er­hood of man / Imag­ine all the peo­ple shar­ing all the world …” Is peace pos­si­ble?… more

Baseball Crazy

Yup. I admit it. I am base­ball crazy. I have been since my mom took me to games at Met­ro­pol­i­tan Sta­di­um in Bloom­ing­ton, Min­neso­ta, to see the new­ly arrived Min­neso­ta Twins. And this year the Twins have out­door base­ball for the first time since 1982. It’s no won­der “base­ball aware­ness” is height­ened at this time of year.… more
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