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Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

Tag Archives | Nonfiction

A World of Cities

A World of CitiesA World of Cities
text by Lily Mur­ray
illus­trat­ed by James Brown
Can­dlewick Stu­dio, 2018
ISBN 978−0−7636−9879−9

Those kids in your life, your school­room, your library who are Fact Hunters? They col­lect facts to savor, share with oth­ers, and build their knowl­edge of the world around them. This is a book for them.

Not every child can trav­el to the major cities of the world, but this book will leave an impres­sion, a yearn­ing for explo­ration.

It’s a Very Big Book, a folio, 10.9″ wide by 14.5″ high. We don’t often include a book’s mea­sure­ments in a rec­om­men­da­tion, but the size of this book makes it fun to open and read, invit­ing read­ers to become wrapped up in the book. Open this to any page and more than one child can enjoy dis­cov­er­ing the facts about each city.

A World of Cities, Rio de Janeiro

illus­tra­tion copy­right James Brown, Can­dlewick Press

The illus­tra­tions are strik­ing, mem­o­rable, invit­ing deep exam­i­na­tion. Aren’t the col­ors gor­geous?

Facts are wound through the illus­tra­tions in a way that will have the read­er turn­ing the page this way and that, seek­ing out each detail. In Rio de Janeiro, we learn that the pic­tured stat­ue of Christ the Redeemer was com­plet­ed in 1931. “The stat­ue is made of con­crete and cov­ered in thou­sands of small stone tiles. All the mate­ri­als had to be car­ried up Cor­co­v­a­do Moun­tain by rail­way.” Cor­co­v­a­do Moun­tain is 2300 feet above sea lev­el. That sparks imag­i­na­tion! 

There are pop­u­la­tion fig­ures, flag facts, hol­i­days, quotes from famous cit­i­zens, and his­to­ry, every­thing that will whet the desire to learn even more. 

Between 1808 and 1821, Rio housed the Por­tuguese roy­al fam­i­ly. In 1815, the city was declared the cap­i­tal of the Por­tuguese Empire.” I didn’t know that. Did you?

A World of Cities, Paris, Candlewick Press

illus­tra­tion copy­right James Brown, Can­dlewick Press

Vis­it­ing Paris, we learn that “more than 800 years old, the win­dows of Notre Dame Cathe­dral con­tain 50,000 glass pieces” and “Paris’s old­est café, Café Pro­cope, opened in 1686.” Vic­tor Hugo is quot­ed as say­ing “There is no lim­it to Paris.” Find a pho­to of Notre Dame Cathe­dral online. Who is Vic­tor Hugo? This book will launch a scav­enger hunt for more infor­ma­tion.

Geog­ra­phy buffs? Fact Hunters? Bud­ding artists? There are many rea­sons to add this book to your shelves. High­ly rec­om­mend­ed.

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Taking Time for a Close Look

Jack­ie: Searching for Minnesota's Native WildflowersPhyl­lis is on the road with her beau­ti­ful and infor­ma­tive new book Search­ing for Minnesota’s Native Wild­flow­ers. [While Phyl­lis is out of the room, I will say that I love this book. It makes me want to get out and find flow­ers. Iowa has many plants in com­mon with Min­neso­ta and I look for­ward to tromp­ing with Phyl­lis and Kel­ly.)

Search­ing for Minnesota’s Native Wild­flow­ers puts me in mind of April Pul­ley Sayre’s won­der­ful nature books. She’s writ­ten many, but today I want to focus on a few of her bird books, plus one.

My first encounter with Sayre’s writ­ing was Vul­ture View (illus­trat­ed by Steve Jenk­ins, 2007). Sayre cap­tures the lives of vul­tures in few words.

Vulture ViewWings stretch wide
To catch a ride
On warm­ing air.
Going where?
Up, up!
Turkey vul­tures tilt, soar, scan
To find the food that vul­tures can…
…eat.

Vul­tures like a mess.
They land and dine.
Rot­ten is fine.   

We see them eat­ing, clean­ing, preen­ing, and sleep­ing. Then the sto­ry cir­cles back to the begin­ning as the sun comes up and “Wings stretch wide/to catch a ride.”

We learn all we need to know to appre­ci­ate vul­tures in these terse rhymes. And if we want to know more, the book has two dense pages of back mat­ter. Turkey vul­tures are easy to spot, range—in the summer—all over the east­ern U.S. They would be a great bird for begin­ning bird­ers to study.

Woodpecker Wham!In 2015 Sayre took a look at wood­peck­ers—Wood­peck­er Wham! (illus­trat­ed by Steve Jenk­ins). Once again, the birds’ sto­ry is told with quick, live­ly rhymes:

Swoop and land.
Hitch and hop.
Shred a tree stump.
CHOP, CHIP, CHOP!

In the case of this book, dessert comes first. Steve Jenkins’s gor­geous cut and torn paper col­lages com­bine with April Pul­ley Sayre’s rhyth­mic telling of wood­peck­ers’ lives to keep us turn­ing pages until we get to the back matter—six pages packed with addi­tion­al infor­ma­tion about wood­peck­ers. “How do wood­peck­ers know where to dig? First the wood­peck­er taps the tree. This caus­es insects inside to move. The wood­peck­er hears the move­ment or feels the vibra­tions through its bill.” Sayre also tells read­ers how they can help wood­peck­ers. “Plant bush­es, trees, and cac­ti that sup­ply fruits and nuts.

And she pro­vides tips on how to find wood­peck­ers. 

This books is a sim­ple and thor­ough intro­duc­tion to wood­peck­ers. Per­fect pre­lude to a walk in the woods.

Warbler WaveAnd just this year Beach Lane books has pub­lished War­bler Wave, an amaz­ing book about war­blers with pho­tographs tak­en by Sayre and her hus­band. I have trou­ble iden­ti­fy­ing war­blers with binoc­u­lars. I am amazed that April and Jeff Sayre were not only able to spot these busy birds but spot them long enough to pho­to­graph them.

I want to quote the entire book but will leave you to find that plea­sure. We learn that they fly at night, cross oceans, “Then bedrag­gled, they drop. /A refu­el­ing stop. /They must find food/ or die.” Then fol­lows a few pages of stun­ning pho­tographs. “They flit, like fly­ing flow­ers.”  They snag insects and are on their way north again.

For those who want to learn more about war­blers, there are again six fact-packed pages con­cern­ing war­bler life his­to­ry, how to help war­blers, and the impor­tance of war­blers. “War­blers and oth­er migrat­ing birds cross moun­tains, oceans, and human polit­i­cal bound­aries. …Their beau­ti­ful songs, col­or­ful pat­terns, and sea­son­al arrival bring joy to peo­ple from Alas­ka to Peru. Whether you live in North Amer­i­ca, South Amer­i­ca, or the Caribbean, you can help wel­come the war­blers and share in this nat­ur­al con­nec­tion between diverse habi­tats, wild birds, and peo­ple.”

The book was a labor of love. April Sayre writes in the Acknowl­edg­ments sec­tion “For twen­ty-eight years, my hus­band, Jeff, and I have set aside the first cou­ple weeks of May to cel­e­brate war­bler migra­tion. So, it’s extra spe­cial to me that he’s joined me by tak­ing some of the pho­tos and review­ing text for this book about our shared love: war­blers.”

Raindrops RollFinal­ly, anoth­er book with April Sayre’s stun­ning pho­tographs Rain­drops Roll (2015). The book opens with a tree frog look­ing quite philo­soph­i­cal about rain. (A pho­to­graph Sayre notes that was tak­en by her hus­band). We see a drenched blue jay, rain drops on leaves, petals, pump­kins, even a moth.

These books make me want to get out­side, to look, to see again what I have been miss­ing.

I hope—and I know Phyl­lis joins me in this—that you have that kind of sum­mer, that you are stunned by the beau­ty in your neigh­bor­hood, see again and see anew.

We’ll be back with more books in the fall.

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Swimming in a Sea of Ideas

Aimee Bissonette

Where do suc­cess­ful non­fic­tion writ­ers get their ideas? So many places! The top­ics a non­fic­tion writer can write about are lim­it­less. Sure, some ideas have been writ­ten about before, but non­fic­tion writ­ers take that as a chal­lenge. They ask what unusu­al angle they might take or if there is a dif­fer­ent (or bet­ter) for­mat in which to deliv­er the infor­ma­tion. Is there a way to add mys­tery or intrigue? Is there a lit­tle known fact beyond that’s not com­mon­ly known?

Yes, non­fic­tion top­ics are lim­it­less. Truth be told, though, it can be hard for non­fic­tion writ­ers to set­tle on a par­tic­u­lar idea even when they’re swim­ming in a sea of them. This is par­tic­u­lar­ly true for young writ­ers who are try­ing their hand at writ­ing non­fic­tion for the first time. Young writ­ers not only have to come up with engag­ing ideas, but they have to mas­ter a bevy of oth­er skills in their ear­ly writ­ing assign­ments: how to write a rough draft, choose rich words and phras­es, order events, use prop­er punc­tu­a­tion, and more.  Choos­ing a top­ic some­times only adds to the anguish.

So how can we help young writ­ers see that good non­fic­tion ideas are all around them? How can we help them dis­cov­er a top­ic that excites them and makes their writ­ing more enjoy­able? We need to teach them to do what oth­er non­fic­tion writ­ers do: dive deep!

Here are some suggestions—tried and true—from some­one who swims in that sea and is on the hunt for new ideas every day:

Expand your social net­work. Befriend peo­ple of dif­fer­ent ages, back­grounds, regions of the coun­try or pro­fes­sions. Talk to them about what inter­ests them and what is hap­pen­ing where they live. Friends and fam­i­ly mem­bers often have great sug­ges­tions for non­fic­tion top­ics based on things they’ve expe­ri­enced that you have not.

Miss Colfax's LightRead broad­ly. Read region­al news­pa­pers with sto­ries that have not bro­ken nation­al­ly or spe­cial­ized pub­li­ca­tions for peo­ple with spe­cif­ic inter­ests (e.g. dog mag­a­zines, trav­el mag­a­zines). Read about cur­rent and his­tor­i­cal events, oth­er coun­tries, music, books, food, cul­ture, and tra­di­tions.  I got the idea for Miss Colfax’s Light from a small excerpt I read in anoth­er book about women of the Great Lakes.  I wrote Aim for the Skies after read­ing Jer­rie Mock’s obit­u­ary in an Ohio news­pa­per.

North Woods GirlSpend time in nature. Do you know there are sci­en­tif­ic stud­ies that prove that our cre­ativ­i­ty is boost­ed when we spend time out­doors? It’s true. And when we get out­doors, we also see that nature pro­vides an end­less sup­ply of things to write about—like the ani­mals, plants, and chang­ing sea­sons depict­ed in my book North Woods Girl.  I have sev­er­al works in progress that focus on the nat­ur­al world—all of which are the result of hik­ing, canoe­ing, and tak­ing pho­tographs in the great out­doors. When I am stumped for ideas, I put on my walk­ing shoes and head out.

Talk with experts. Experts are chock-full of infor­ma­tion and most of them love to share it. Just ask! And if you are think­ing you don’t know any real experts, keep in mind there are “every­day experts” all around us who know about all sorts of things. Have you ever toured a fire sta­tion with a fire­fight­er? I have. And I learned lots of cool stuff when I did. For instance, did you know that fire­fight­ers have to use spe­cial wash­ers and dry­ers to clean their gear to remove car­cino­gens? Or that they have to hang their fire hoses after fight­ing fires so the hoses can dry out? (Which—fun fact—also means they need more than one set of hoses for their trucks!) Talk­ing to an expert helps you learn uncom­mon and inter­est­ing facts you can share in your non­fic­tion work.

Vis­it web­sites that report on fun facts and odd­i­ties. There are a num­ber of web­sites that spe­cial­ize in inves­ti­gat­ing and report­ing all sorts of fun facts—facts that make great non­fic­tion top­ics. Here are a few of my favorites:

Now I Know

Now I Know email newslet­ter (and web­site with archives) by Dan Lewis 

Curios­i­ty web­site    

Eurekalert! The Glob­al Source for Sci­ence News 

When read­ing mate­r­i­al on these sites, I try to keep an eye out for “tip of the ice­berg” frag­ments or “unturned stones.” There are always bits of unmined mate­r­i­al there—ideas that lie buried or hid­den under oth­er infor­ma­tion. That infor­ma­tion is per­fect for a non­fic­tion piece.

an idea you love

illus­tra­tion: bbtreesub­mis­sion | 123rf.com

Be sure to choose an idea you love.  Once you set­tle on an idea, the research and writ­ing begins. That takes time and energy—so don’t choose a top­ic you’re only mild­ly inter­est­ed in or your work might start to feel like just anoth­er assign­ment. You want the excite­ment you feel for your top­ic to show in your work. You want your read­ers to feel that excite­ment, too. The best way to do this is to choose a top­ic you tru­ly enjoy—perhaps one you always wished some­one else had writ­ten about so you could read it.

In her les­son plan “Call­ing all Non­fic­tion Writ­ers,” Mag­gie Knut­son sug­gests a num­ber of ques­tions teach­ers can ask stu­dents when select­ing non­fic­tion top­ics for their writ­ing. I’ve includ­ed a few of her pro­posed ques­tions below. You can find her whole les­son plan here.  Ques­tions like these help guide writ­ers, young and old, in their search for good non­fic­tion ideas. They help writ­ers choose ideas they care about—and that con­tributes to writ­ing suc­cess.

Calling All Nonfiction Writers

So tell your young writ­ers to put on their flip­pers, snorkels, and masks and dive in! Tell them to swim around in a big sea of ideas—one they’ve gen­er­at­ed them­selves using some of the sug­ges­tions above. They are sure to find one that is a good fit. Then, let the writ­ing begin.

Ques­tions for Stu­dents

Brain­storm a list of all the pos­si­ble top­ics about which you might write. Don’t judge them or exclude any­thing that pops into your mind.

  1. Think about each top­ic with your eyes closed. Notice how you feel. Does the top­ic excite you? Does your body get warm, cold, or feel some­thing else, such as ener­gized, heavy, sad, hap­py, or excit­ed? Do ideas begin to come to mind?
  2. Do a two-minute quick write on your topics—use notes, key­words, or bul­let points, not full sen­tences.
  3. Based on your quick write, choose the top­ic that most appeals to you.
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Summer Reading

When I say “sum­mer read­ing,” you think about … a good nov­el, right? I have a cou­ple of sug­ges­tions.

Every kid should have these two books tucked in their beach bags, ready for a car trip, or packed for sum­mer camp. Seri­ous­ly.

In between the read­ing out loud of those nov­els you’ve been sav­ing up all year, or the lis­ten­ing to an audio book on the car radio, or the flash­light read­ing in the pitched tent in your back­yard, I hope you will share these books. They’re stuffed with facts pre­sent­ed in the most deli­cious ways.

Some­times a sto­ry is over­whelm­ing dur­ing a busy day but your read­ers and non-read­ers can dip into these books, read one para­graph … and they’ll be hooked. If they only read two pages at a time, so be it, but the dis­cus­sions that will fol­low can be price­less. 

I have not failed 10,000 times; I’ve suc­cess­ful­ly found 10,000 ways that will not work.” (Thomas Alva Edi­son)

Life will be up, life will be down … You can laugh at it or you can cry at it, and laugh­ing feels bet­ter.” (Rachael Ray)

I love that there are inten­tion­al mis­takes on these pages, dar­ing the read­er to find them … and I appre­ci­ate that there’s an answer key.

There are out­ra­geous inven­tions memo­ri­al­ized. Red­di-Bacon? Coca Cola, that headache reliev­er? McDonald’s Hula Burg­er?

Many peo­ple stand firm­ly on these pages. Michael Jor­dan. Tina Fey. Albert Ein­stein.

You can read about one top­ic, laugh, learn, ques­tion, dis­cuss … and find it irre­sistible to turn the page for more.

Every­thing is pre­sent­ed in a high­ly visu­al way with graph­ic design and lay­out that makes read­ing eas­i­er.

High­ly rec­om­mend­ed.

Happy Accidents from Famous Fails

Hap­py Acci­dents” from Famous Fails, Crispin Boy­er, Nation­al Geo­graph­ic Kids

For your sec­ond mag­ic act, you can add Mas­ter­Mind, anoth­er Nation­al Geo­graph­ic Kids book. In case any­one won­ders why you’re hand­ing them a book on fail­ures, this book finds your inner genius.

Once again high­ly visu­al, this book relies on read­ing, math, sci­ence, and com­mon sense to address the games and puz­zles. Many of the pages include a lit­tle-know fact. Do you know about super­tasters? Do you sus­pect you are one? Enjoy that next anchovy piz­za.

While you’re play­ing the games and tack­ling the exper­i­ments, you’ll learn about how the brain works … and we all need to fig­ure that out.

It’s anoth­er ide­al book­ing for dip­ping into when time allows, but espe­cial­ly per­fect for lazy days at the cab­in and long car trips. 

Don’t miss out on pro­vid­ing a well-round­ed read­ing expe­ri­ence for your young ones.

Secret Sens­es” from Mas­ter­mind, Stephanie War­ren Drim­mer, Nation­al Geo­graph­ic Kids

Both books will work well for that mid­dle grade, ages 8 to 12 group, but I sus­pect the adults in your fam­i­ly won’t be able to keep their hands off of them either.

Famous Fails!
Crispin Boy­er
Nation­al Geo­graph­ic, 2016
ISBN 978−1−4263−2548−9

Mas­ter­mind: Over 100 Games, Tests, and Puz­zles to Unleash Your Inner Genius
Stephanie War­ren Drim­mer
Nation­al Geo­graph­ic Kids, 2016
ISBN 978−1−4263−2110−8

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You Write Books with … Messages?

Eliz­a­beth Verdick

Yes. Yes I do.

Sure, I know there’s a whole school of thought that says “shar­ing a mes­sage” in a children’s book is some­thing to avoid. That chil­dren will learn more, feel more, by read­ing books—sto­ries—that evoke an emo­tion­al response and increase empa­thy through strong char­ac­ter­i­za­tion and vivid lan­guage. Yes. Yes that’s true. But.…

Some­times chil­dren, and the adults rais­ing and teach­ing them, need straight­for­ward tools that address social and emo­tion­al chal­lenges and mile­stones. Non­fic­tion books can fit that pur­pose. Espe­cial­ly if they’re cre­at­ed with cer­tain age groups in mind.

Let’s talk tod­dlers. This is one of my favorite groups of people—and read­ers (even though they can’t yet read). Tod­dlers are ener­getic, curi­ous, effer­ves­cent. They soak up the sights, sounds, and tex­tures of the world—everything’s new. Tod­dlers have big emo­tions, ones they often can’t ful­ly under­stand or explain because they don’t yet have the words. My tod­dler books aim to give them these words—simple, straight­for­ward phras­es that help their days go more smooth­ly. I have a series of board books called “Best Behav­ior,” in which the titles are the basis for recur­rent phras­es in the text: Teeth Are Not for Bit­ing, Words Are Not for Hurt­ing, Germs Are Not for Shar­ing, Paci­fiers Are Not For­ev­er. You can see the mes­sage loud and clear—no guess­ing here!

The sim­plic­i­ty has its purpose—the phras­es are a cue. You see a child start to bite a friend, and the phrase “Teeth Are Not for Bit­ing” is a sim­ple reminder. And it’s a more pos­i­tive use of lan­guage than “No bit­ing” or “Don’t bite” or “Stop!” I’m hap­py that the books steer clear of “Nos” and “Don’ts.” Par­ents and edu­ca­tors using the series have found that the words in their own homes and class­rooms shift in a more pos­i­tive direc­tion, just as the behav­ior even­tu­al­ly does. Edu­ca­tors keep send­ing me top­ic sug­ges­tions, includ­ing the recent Voic­es Are Not for Yelling and Noses Are Not for Pick­ing. (Thank you, teach­ers, you’re amaz­ing brain-storm­ers!)

I also write “mes­sage” books for old­er kids, includ­ing a series called “Laugh and Learn,” for chil­dren ages 8–13. In the books, advice and humor go hand in hand. It’s lots of fun titling these books: Dude, That’s Rude, Get Some Man­ners! or Stress Can Real­ly Get on Your Nerves! Any­time I talk to teach­ers about this series, I sug­gest they write a book for it. Who knows kids bet­ter than teach­ers? Edu­ca­tors care so much and see what kids need. When writ­ing non­fic­tion that has a mes­sage, the “way in” can be humor. No one wants a mes­sage-heavy or preachy book. But one that’s infor­ma­tive and entertaining—while help­ing a stu­dent grow social/emotional skills—serves an impor­tant need. Chil­dren may not always want to open up about per­son­al chal­lenges they face. But open­ing a book that cov­ers the top­ic? That’s eas­i­er.

I’m no spe­cial expert. I’m a mom who loves kids, books, and writ­ing. When I write non­fic­tion that aims to help chil­dren under­stand their emo­tions or the social world, I think about a voice that can reach and teach with­out mak­ing a child slam the book shut in bore­dom. I want kids to feel heard. I want them to feel strong. I want them to know they’re not alone. Just like you do. When you stand in front of a class­room or do a pre­sen­ta­tion in the library, you find cre­ative ways to get kids’ atten­tion and sus­tain it. You sense their needs and ques­tions. You invite them in.

Want to try your hand at non­fic­tion that address­es children’s social and emo­tion­al needs?

  1. Know your age group: There are board books for babies and tod­dlers, illus­trat­ed books for PreK and ear­ly ele­men­tary, books for upper ele­men­tary and mid­dle school, and more com­pre­hen­sive ones for teens. The length and use of lan­guage reflects the age of read­ers.
  1. Explore edu­ca­tion­al pub­lish­ing: Many pub­lish­ers specif­i­cal­ly serve the edu­ca­tion mar­ket, with books designed main­ly for class­room or school library use. Find books you like, and look for the pub­lish­er infor­ma­tion locat­ed on the Library of Con­gress (LOC) page, which usu­al­ly appears before the Ded­i­ca­tion and Table of Con­tents. Edu­ca­tion­al pub­lish­ers may also list the age/grade, inter­est, and read­ing lev­els there. Once you know the pub­lish­er, seek out its guide­lines for writ­ing and sub­mis­sion (usu­al­ly avail­able online).
  1. Don’t wor­ry about the illus­tra­tions: Writ­ers don’t have to become artists—and don’t have to bring in an illus­tra­tor. A poten­tial pub­lish­er is main­ly inter­est­ed in your words.
  1. Go to the source: If you’ve got kids of your own or you work in a school, you’re able to observe how chil­dren grow, change, and inter­act. What books might serve their needs? What types of books are their par­ents look­ing for? 
  1. Find your voice: Are you fun­ny? Warm and wise? A researcher/fact find­er? Do you like to cre­ate fun side­bars? Do you enjoy inter­view­ing peo­ple? Do you want to use quotes from kids? Do you have an idea for a whole series? There are many “ways in.” Exper­i­ment to find what works for you.

Becom­ing a children’s writer is often a long process of self-dis­cov­ery, and patience is key (just as in teach­ing). Your love of kids is a great start. I’m root­ing for you!

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Summery

Peter Lourie

Peter Lourie

A well-known jour­nal­ist in a local bagel joint, after not see­ing me for a few weeks, would always greet me with, “Wel­come back, Pete.” It wasn’t because he knew where I’d been, but he knew I trav­eled a lot to write my children’s adven­ture books. Since I’d seen him last, I’d prob­a­bly been out climb­ing Aztec or Mayan tem­ples, pad­dling a riv­er, accom­pa­ny­ing biol­o­gists study­ing polar bears, whales, or man­a­tees. What I love about my job as a children’s adven­ture writer is research. I tell stu­dents, “to research is to explore.”

Recent­ly I trav­eled to the very top of Nor­way, near Rus­sia, to learn what a 19th-cen­tu­ry polar explor­er felt when he returned from a har­row­ing three-year Arc­tic sojourn. I’ve been writ­ing a new adven­ture biog­ra­phy for Hen­ry Holt, my sec­ond in a series, after Jack Lon­don and the Klondike Gold Rush.  It’s a Shack­le­ton-sort of sto­ry before Shack­le­ton, a sto­ry few in this coun­try know any­thing about.

The Fram

Fridtjof Nansen’s ship The Fram with which he explored in the Arc­tic and Antarc­tic
(pho­to cred­it: Wiki­me­dia Com­mons)

In 1893 the Nor­we­gian zool­o­gist and polar explor­er Fridtjof Nansen sailed for the North Pole with a crew of 12 in a spe­cial ship he had built called the Fram (mean­ing “for­ward” in Nor­we­gian). His object was to col­lect valu­able sci­en­tif­ic data on the unknown Arc­tic and maybe to reach the North Pole, a feat unac­com­plished in 400 years of try­ing. Nansen had the crazy idea that if he could build a ship strong enough, with the right pro­por­tions to with­stand the forces of crush­ing ice, he could lock his ship into the Arc­tic ice pack above Siberia and just drift toward the pole. The ice would pick his boat up just like a cork. Trav­el­ing on an Arc­tic cur­rent at one or two miles a day (Arc­tic ice is in con­stant motion), he’d “float” for a num­ber of years (he had pro­vi­sions for five years) right up to the top of the world and over to the oth­er side near Green­land. 

Vet­er­an Arc­tic trav­el­ers thought he was crazy, that he would jeop­ar­dize his and his crew’s lives. It was obvi­ous­ly a fool’s mis­sion. Yet Nansen had already become famous for his dar­ing. In 1888 he was the first to cross Green­land on skis. Unlike Admi­ral Peary and oth­ers who attempt­ed the trek, Nansen trav­eled from the unin­hab­it­ed east­ern side of the ice cap to a town in the west, lat­er say­ing, “I demol­ish my bridges behind me, then there is no choice but to move for­ward.” After his Green­land suc­cess he set his com­pass for the region of the North Pole, where ships on pre­vi­ous expe­di­tions were inevitably crushed, all hands div­ing for lifeboats or trudg­ing on foot over ice back to Siberia, many dying along the way.

Vardø, the north­ern­most fish­ing port in Nor­way (pho­to cred­it: Peter Lourie)

Nev­er­the­less, Nansen and the Fram set out from Oslo in 1893, sailed the 1600 miles around the top of the coun­try to Vardø, the last lit­tle fish­ing port in Nor­way, and then hunt­ed for the pack ice above the Siber­ian coast to try out the Fram’s ice-wor­thi­ness.  When the ship was locked in for the first time, the whine and roar of ice scrap­ing against the hull sent shiv­ers of hor­ror into the men’s hearts.  But the Fram did what its ship­wright designed it to do.  With a super wide, thick hull, it was lift­ed right up on top of that dead­ly frozen mass, slip­ping “like an eel out of the embraces of the ice” as its builder said, and was car­ried creak­ing and moan­ing toward its goal.

After near­ly a year and a half trapped in ice, Nansen real­ized Fram would miss the pole by 300 miles. So he and fel­low crewmem­ber Hjal­mar Johansen pre­pared to make a dash for it. They took 28 sled dogs, three sleds, two small can­vas-cov­ered kayaks and 1500 lbs of food and sup­plies, and head­ed into the white world know­ing they’d nev­er find their ship again. They couldn’t bring enough food for the dogs, so they planned to feed the weak and fail­ing dogs to stronger dogs to keep them going. For 15 months the men dragged their sleds over pres­sure ridges and jum­bled blocks of ice.  They jumped the lanes of water that opened beneath them. They fell into the water so many times they walked with clothes like armors of ice. When they final­ly found land after five months, they sur­vived the long polar win­ter on wal­rus and polar bear meat in a crude hut hard­ly wide enough to sleep stretched out. 

When all their dogs had died, and they were reduced to their tiny, frag­ile kayaks about to pad­dle hun­dreds of miles of open water to Spits­ber­gen, Nansen heard the bark of a dog some­where on the edge of the ice. He scram­bled to inves­ti­gate. Amaz­ing­ly he saw the fig­ure of a man, who turned out to be anoth­er polar explor­er, a Brit named Fred­er­ick Jack­son, whom Nansen had actu­al­ly met in Lon­don years ago. 

Jack­son took the two men into this camp. They shaved and washed and ate well until Jackson’s sup­ply ship returned the Nor­we­gians to Vardø almost three years after leav­ing the small fish­ing vil­lage. A year lat­er Nansen penned a best­seller called Far­thest North, an account of one of the great­est polar adven­ture tales ever told. 

I need­ed to go to Vardø to under­stand Nansen’s feel­ings when he left Nor­way, and when he returned to Nor­way. So I rent­ed a car in Trom­sø, a beau­ti­ful city above the Arc­tic Cir­cle and drove across the top of the coun­try, a region called Finn­mark, prac­ti­cal­ly to Siberia. I drove through bound­ing rein­deer, around mas­sive fjords and past moun­tains aflame with yel­low birch trees to reach that town where the famous Nor­we­gian explor­er had bought his last sup­plies in July 1893, won­der­ing if he’d ever return.

When I pulled into Vardø, I found a gem of a fish­ing vil­lage, with Russ­ian sig­nage in the har­bor. Fish­er­man in small boats sort­ed through their night’s catch. The autumn Arc­tic Sea wind on my face helped me imag­ine Nansen and his small crew head­ing out to sea in 1893. I pic­tured the famous Nor­we­gian on the Fram gaz­ing back at the sleepy town, feel­ing this silent exit was just the right way to leave his beloved coun­try, no crowds and shouts of good luck and farewell. (He and his crew had been fet­ed for weeks in towns up and down the coast of Nor­way.) Now every­thing was silent.

The masts in the har­bor, the house-roofs, and chim­neys stood out against the cool morn­ing sky. Just then the sun broke through the mist and smiled over the shore—rugged, bare, and weath­er-worn in the hazy morn­ing, but still lovely—dotted here and there with tiny hous­es and boats, and all Nor­way lay behind it….”

Boats in the peace­ful har­bor at Vardø (pho­to cred­it: Peter Lourie)

I strolled around the vil­lage for a few hours to imag­ine the scene of Nansen’s and Johansen’s return after three ice-bound years. On that ear­ly June morn­ing in 1896, no one spot­ted Jackson’s sloop glid­ing into the peace­ful har­bor at Vardø. The two sur­vivors jumped ashore and raced to the tele­graph sta­tion. They stamped their feet on the ground to feel their native soil. They were laugh­ing and smil­ing. A fish­er­man walked by them star­ing at Johansen’s odd jack­et he’d made from a blan­ket back in their tiny stone hut, where for nine win­ter months they had lived like cave­men.

A cow in the Vardø street gazed at them. Just a few hours before the whole world would dis­cov­er they were still alive, before Nansen would become the most famous man in Europe, Nansen reached out to pet the cow because, as he said, it looked so “sum­mery.”

Truth is, I had to go to all the way to Vardø to under­stand what Nansen meant by the word “sum­mery.”

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The Coolest Fact

Reports about ani­mals are bor­ing, and they usu­al­ly go like this: Hon­ey­bees are insects. Hon­ey­bees eat nec­tar. Hon­ey­bees live in a hive. See? BORING!

What if we do a lit­tle research, find the most inter­est­ing facts about hon­ey­bees and use them in a sto­ry about one hon­ey­bee? Here is some­thing I learned while research­ing hon­ey­bees. They dance. Like real­ly dance.

Bee Dance illustration by Rick Chrustowski

Bee Dance, illus­tra­tion © Rick Chrus­tows­ki

Okay now we have some­thing to work with. Why do bees dance? Where do they dance? Which bees dance? We can answer all those ques­tions in the sto­ry.

When I work with kids on writ­ing their own nar­ra­tive non­fic­tion sto­ries about ani­mals, I send them a list of ques­tions to research and answer before I get to school. My favorite ques­tion on the list? What is the coolest most inter­est­ing fact you learned about your ani­mal?

Daddy Longlegs

Pho­to: Alexan­der Bon­dar | 123rf.com

One boy learned that Dad­dy Lon­glegs are the most poi­so­nous spi­ders on earth, but their mouths are too small to ever bite a human. Awe­some! A sto­ry start­ed form­ing in my mind as I learned that.

One girl learned that a whale can hold its breathe under­wa­ter for 30 min­utes! 30 minutes—wow! I can’t wait to read the sto­ry about that whale at the bot­tom of the ocean, swoosh­ing around in the dark­ness look­ing for food.

The most inter­est­ing fact about an ani­mal is a great ful­crum for a sto­ry.

My book Bee Dance took nine years to write. I know that sounds crazy. And it is. But I just couldn’t get the sto­ry right. First I wrote the text in rhyme. It was fine, but some of my rhymes felt forced.

Then I tried to make the top­ic more visu­al­ly inter­est­ing. The illus­tra­tions start­ed out in black and white, then moved to col­or after the scout bee tast­ed the nec­tar of a flower. It made it seem like the bee was trip­ping on psy­che­del­ic drugs! AND it com­plete­ly stepped on the cool fact of the bee dance itself. Feel­ing defeat­ed, I put the book in a draw­er.

After work­ing on sev­er­al oth­er books, I pulled out my old Bee Dance script and real­ized that it need­ed to be a straight­for­ward read about how the bee dance works. The fact that bees dance spe­cif­ic direc­tions to a food source, so all the oth­er bees know exact­ly where to find it, is such a cool fact on its own. It was enough to hold the whole sto­ry togeth­er.

So now, when writ­ing sto­ries with kids I tell them, focus on the coolest fact you learned. Let that guide your sto­ry.

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Sorry—I Mean Structure—Seems To Be the Hardest Word

There’s an old Elton John song titled, Sor­ry Seems to be the Hard­est Word. Well, I won­der if he’d mind if I changed the title to, Struc­ture Seems to be the Hard­est Word.

Struc­ture is a lot like voice; it needs to be present, yet it must be invis­i­ble and unforced. With­out it, the writ­ing may fall down just like a kindergartner’s block tow­er. My cur­rent non­fic­tion project has great mate­r­i­al with plen­ty of pri­ma­ry and sec­ondary sources for me to search, but that’s not enough. It needs a sol­id struc­ture to sup­port it, or it will tip over.

There are a few basic ques­tions I am ask­ing myself to uncov­er a struc­ture:

  • What is the sto­ry I want to tell?
  • How does this sto­ry move along chrono­log­i­cal­ly?
  • What are the themes in the sto­ry?
  • Why does this sto­ry mat­ter?

Bold Women of MedicineWith Bold Women of Med­i­cine: 21 Sto­ries of Astound­ing Dis­cov­er­ies, Dar­ing Surg­eries, and Heal­ing Break­throughs, Chica­go Review Press, 2017, the struc­ture and theme were inher­ent­ly in place. Themes of per­se­ver­ance and edu­ca­tion as well as hav­ing a good men­tor aid­ed the med­ical women in their suc­cess­ful careers. The nar­ra­tive made sense to me, prob­a­bly because I was writ­ing indi­vid­ual chrono­log­i­cal sto­ries about lives well-lived.

Recent­ly I dove into Draft No. 4: On the Writ­ing Process by John McPhee. He says, “The approach to struc­ture in fac­tu­al writ­ing is like return­ing from a gro­cery store with mate­ri­als you intend to cook for din­ner. You set them out on the kitchen counter, and what’s there is what you deal with, and all you deal with.”[1] One struc­ture he writes about is the ABC/D struc­ture, where he pits the sto­ries of three sim­i­lar peo­ple against some­one dis­sim­i­lar. And that fourth ele­ment the “D” appears through­out the whole sto­ry. By pro­fil­ing peo­ple in this way, he adds a new dimen­sion or con­flict to the piece. And accord­ing to McPhee, theme plays a larg­er role. Hmmm, okay so there’s one way to go.

One of my favorite works of adult non­fic­tion is The Immor­tal Life of Hen­ri­et­ta Lacks by Rebec­ca Skloot. If you’re not famil­iar with it, pick it up and read it soon. In this book Skloot tells the sto­ry of Hen­ri­et­ta Lacks, a poor African Amer­i­can woman strick­en with cer­vi­cal can­cer. As Lacks was being treat­ed in 1951, her cells were tak­en with­out her con­sent. Ulti­mate­ly, HeLa cells, as they have become known, have trans­formed med­i­cine as we know it today.

In struc­tur­ing her book, Skloot uses a braid­ed sto­ry structure—a dif­fer­ent approach from McPhee’s. Dur­ing her research, she dis­cov­ered count­less mov­ing parts to Henrietta’s sto­ry, and the ques­tion was how best to uni­fy them into a sin­gle nar­ra­tive. What she fig­ured out was to take all the impor­tant nar­ra­tives and weave them through like a braid, jump­ing back and forth in time. Sim­i­lar to the struc­ture of the nov­el Fried Green Toma­toes at the Whis­tle Stop Café by Fan­nie Flagg. And because Skloot’s research was embed­ded in the sto­ry, she includ­ed her sto­ry with Deb­o­rah, (Henrietta’s daugh­ter) as one of the strands. That cen­tral nar­ra­tive car­ries through the whole book.

Skloot used three dif­fer­ent col­ored index cards, one for each of the three cen­tral nar­ra­tives. She arranged them on a large table and moved them around in time. She intro­duced all three strands in the begin­ning, so the read­ers knew what to expect. What she fig­ured out was that she was spend­ing too much time on each nar­ra­tive and not jump­ing around in time fast enough, thus bog­ging down the sto­ry. As soon as she moved more quick­ly from nar­ra­tive to nar­ra­tive, the book began to take shape.

My non­fic­tion sto­ry takes place with­in sev­er­al months, so I don’t have the lux­u­ry of jump­ing back and forth between decades as Skloot was able to do. But, there are mul­ti­ple char­ac­ters: steam­boat cap­tains, Native Amer­i­cans, explor­ers, nat­u­ral­ists and botanists, and of course set­tlers and farm­ers all telling their own sto­ries. So per­haps I can braid these nar­ra­tives togeth­er.

Since only a few inter­act­ed dur­ing the his­tor­i­cal event and can­not be pit­ted against each oth­er direct­ly, I need a way to con­nect them. So back I go to John McPhee’s ABC/D struc­ture, and it dawns on me that all of my char­ac­ters con­front the Mis­sis­sip­pi Riv­er. Per­haps I should pit the sto­ry around the riv­er. A cen­tral nar­ra­tive to car­ry the read­er through the book. A eure­ka moment? I hope.

Final­ly, in reread­ing You Can’t Make This Stuff Up: The Com­plete Guide to Writ­ing Cre­ative Non­fic­tion From Mem­oir to Lit­er­ary Jour­nal­ism and Every­thing in Between by Lee Gutkind, I found an addi­tion­al way to look at struc­ture.

Gutkind writes about the Cre­ative Non­fic­tion Dance where you cre­ate a rhythm for the sto­ry:

So here’s the dance that is dia­grammed. The scene gets the read­er inter­est­ed, (okay I have many good scenes) and involved, so you can then pro­vide infor­ma­tion, non­fic­tion, to the read­er. (I have good infor­ma­tion as well.) But soon­er or lat­er, a read­er will get dis­tract­ed or over­loaded with infor­ma­tion, and you will lose him. But before you allow that to hap­pen you go back to the scene—or intro­duce a new scene—and reen­gage.[2]

It’s even bet­ter, he says, if you can embed infor­ma­tion in the scene then you can trav­el from scene to scene with­out stop­ping.

I may need a com­bi­na­tion of these struc­ture ideas, or maybe a dif­fer­ent struc­ture alto­geth­er, we shall see. Am I over­think­ing it? Prob­a­bly, but struc­ture, for sure, seems to be the hard­est word.

I won­der if Elton has any words of wis­dom for me.

________________________________

[1] McPhee, John. Draft No. 4 On the Writ­ing Process. New York: Far­rar, Strauss and Giroux, 2017, p. 20.

[2] Gutkind, Lee. You Can’t Make This Stuff Up: The Com­plete Guide to Writ­ing Cre­ative Non­fic­tion From Mem­oir to Lit­er­ary Jour­nal­ism and Every­thing in Between. Boston: DiCapo Press, 2013, p. 139.

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Re-claiming Women’s History—Still

At a meet­ing at the Dal­las Pub­lic Library one day, a retired chief exec­u­tive explained to me his vision for a per­ma­nent dis­play on a soon-to-be-ren­o­vat­ed floor hon­or­ing the men who built up the city’s down­town after World War II.

I looked at him skep­ti­cal­ly. “What about the women?”

There aren’t any,” he snapped back.

Of course there were! But because a group of white men con­trolled pol­i­tics in the city for decades, few peo­ple know them.

How iron­ic it was to have this con­ver­sa­tion in the Dal­las Pub­lic Library, which was cre­at­ed only after May Dick­son Exall and her women friends raised mon­ey for it and con­vinced Andrew Carnegie to sup­port it. That library, which opened in 1901, housed books on the first floor and a pub­lic art gallery on the sec­ond, which would lat­er morph into the Dal­las Muse­um of Art.

With every research project, I dis­cov­er again and again lit­tle-known or mis­rep­re­sent­ed women who made impor­tant things hap­pen. This is an old sto­ry that’s even more famil­iar to Native Amer­i­cans and peo­ple of col­or. But decades after the sec­ond women’s move­ment began, I am still stunned when I encounter it in recent books.

This mat­ters because deny­ing women cred­it for past accom­plish­ments makes it eas­i­er to deny them cred­it today. And since many read­ers assume non­fic­tion books are fact, stereo­types get repeat­ed again and again.

Con­sid­er Car­ry Nation, the woman best know for smash­ing up saloons in the turn-of-the-cen­tu­ry run-up to pro­hi­bi­tion. News­men at the time ridiculed her, ques­tioned her san­i­ty, and por­trayed her as some kind of over­sized freak.

Carry Nation, reading the Bible circa 1900, appears to be of medium height.

Car­ry Nation, read­ing the Bible cir­ca 1900, appears to be of medi­um height. (cour­tesy of Kansas State His­tor­i­cal Soci­ety)

So did more recent authors. She “was six feet tall, with the biceps of a steve­dore, the face of a prison war­den, and the per­sis­tence of a toothache,” wrote author Daniel Okrent in Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Pro­hi­bi­tion (2010), the book that was the basis of Ken Burns’ pro­hi­bi­tion doc­u­men­tary.

Edward Behr, author of Pro­hi­bi­tion: Thir­teen Years that Changed Amer­i­ca (1996), wrote that she was “so unbal­anced and out of con­trol” that she “might well have been con­fined to a men­tal insti­tu­tion.”

Bootleg by Karen BlumenthalIn real­i­ty, pho­tos (and oth­er writ­ers) show Nation couldn’t pos­si­bly have been six-feet tall, although Britannica.com and the State His­tor­i­cal Soci­ety of Mis­souri also say so. Though her actions were rad­i­cal, I con­clud­ed in my book Boot­leg: Mur­der, Moon­shine, and the Law­less Years of Pro­hi­bi­tion that they grew out of per­son­al expe­ri­ence with an alco­holic first hus­band, min­is­ter­ing to peo­ple in jail with drink­ing prob­lems, and a deep reli­gious con­vic­tion. She was angry, no doubt.  But a thought­ful biog­ra­phy by Fran Grace, Car­ry A. Nation: Retelling the Life (2004), por­trays her as com­mit­ted, not crazy.

As Nation famous­ly said, “You wouldn’t give me the vote, so I had to use a rock!”

More recent­ly, I’ve been steeped in Bon­nie and Clyde lore for a non­fic­tion book out in August. Bon­nie Park­er is a com­pli­cat­ed char­ac­ter and every writer strug­gles to define her: Was she the leader, a fol­low­er or a co-con­spir­a­tor?

But there’s anoth­er temp­ta­tion for male writ­ers, famil­iar to every female who ever went to high school. That’s to call her a slut or even a pros­ti­tute.

The impli­ca­tion that she may have engaged in pros­ti­tu­tion like­ly start­ed with detec­tive mag­a­zines of the 1930s, which embell­ished sto­ries much like super­mar­ket tabloids today. Some con­tem­po­rary authors allude to it, but in Texas Ranger: The Epic Life of Frank Hamer, The Man Who Killed Bon­nie and Clyde (2016), author John Boesse­neck­er sim­ply states she worked as a part-time pros­ti­tute before she met Clyde, and that Dal­las police “knew Bon­nie as a street-walk­er but nev­er arrest­ed her.”

His source? A 1991 local his­to­ry col­umn in the Seguin, Texas, news­pa­per writ­ten by a bar­ber, who attrib­uted the infor­ma­tion to unnamed “old Dal­las police­men.” Since Bon­nie and Clyde had been dead 57 years by then, those police­men must have been very old.

Bonnie Parker during her waitressing days. (courtesy of Buddy Barrow)

Bon­nie Park­er dur­ing her wait­ress­ing days. (cour­tesy of Bud­dy Bar­row)

To be sure, Bon­nie was a mar­ried woman liv­ing on the road with a man who was not her hus­band. But there is no evi­dence that Bon­nie ever worked as a pros­ti­tute.

A lot, of course, has changed. More and more children’s books are high­light­ing ground-break­ing women. Just a few days ago, the New York Times print­ed a spe­cial sec­tion of women whose obit­u­ar­ies were pre­vi­ous­ly over­looked, with a promise to keep adding names. I know for a fact that the Dal­las Library direc­tor will nev­er have an all-male dis­play in her build­ing.

But stereo­types per­sist. Here are a few things that writ­ers, edu­ca­tors, and librar­i­ans might do to give women their due:

Con­sid­er the source. I love pri­ma­ry sources, includ­ing doc­u­ments and con­tem­po­rary news­pa­pers and mag­a­zines. But they have to be put in the con­text of their times. Women were legal­ly con­sid­ered their hus­bands’ prop­er­ty for hun­dreds of years. They couldn’t bor­row mon­ey or own land. They were denied entrance to law schools, med­ical schools, and grad­u­ate schools because of their gen­der. Many of these laws didn’t change until the 1970s. Don’t assume today’s stan­dards when read­ing or writ­ing about women from a dif­fer­ent era.

Ques­tion, Ques­tion, Ques­tion! Were girls real­ly weak? Did women real­ly faint? Would her tem­per or impa­tience have mat­tered if she were a man? Is her hair, attrac­tive­ness, or body shape rel­e­vant? Do female writ­ers tell a dif­fer­ent sto­ry?

Include women in every unit of study. In almost every top­ic area these days—the Civ­il War, both World Wars, sci­ence, the envi­ron­ment, math, tech­nol­o­gy, pol­i­tics, art, music and so on—there are good kids’ books about what women con­tributed. Share them.

Do your own research. Con­sid­er a class project to iden­ti­fy and research a less­er-known woman or per­son of col­or who made a dif­fer­ence in your com­mu­ni­ty. While high­ways and big build­ings are usu­al­ly named after men, there’s prob­a­bly a name on a local park, school, or near­by street to get you start­ed. Your local library or his­tor­i­cal or genealog­i­cal soci­ety would prob­a­bly be thrilled to help.

[Ed: As this arti­cle cir­cu­lat­ed, Karen Blu­men­thal tweet­ed the Bri­tan­ni­ca ency­clo­pe­dia folks about the dis­crep­an­cy in fact con­cern­ing Car­rie Nation’s height. Here’s what hap­pened. You and your stu­dents can have a pos­i­tive effect on fac­tu­al infor­ma­tion.]

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Capers and Cons

When you (or your stu­dents) want a book that keeps you turn­ing the pages for your week­night and week­end read­ing, here are some sug­ges­tions for books with that nim­ble pac­ing and what-are-they-up-to plots. Many of them are just right for mid­dle grade or avid younger-than-that read­ers, with a cou­ple of teen titles added. (And, of course, all are suit­able for read­ing by adults.)

Adam Canfield of the Slash  

Adam Can­field of the Slash
writ­ten by Michael Winer­ip
Can­dlewick Press, 2005

This book is by turns fun­ny and seri­ous, but Adam Can­field is always inter­est­ed in dis­cov­er­ing the truth. Writ­ten by a New York Times colum­nist (on edu­ca­tion) who won a Pulitzer Prize, Winer­ip knows what his read­ers will find inter­est­ing. Adam reluc­tant­ly accepts the posi­tion of co-edi­tor of their school paper. He’s skep­ti­cal when a third-grad­er uncov­ers a pos­si­ble scan­dal. Adam and his co-edi­tor, Jen­nifer, take the sto­ry to the prin­ci­pal, who for­bids them to inves­ti­gate. Adam and Jen­nifer can’t help them­selves and they’re soon uncov­er­ing secrets.  Even though school papers are most­ly dig­i­tal now, this book will moti­vate read­ers to be truth seek­ers.

Con Academy  

Con Acad­e­my
writ­ten by Joe Schreiber
HMH Books for Young Read­ers, 2015

For teen read­ers: Senior Michael Shea has conned his way into one of the country’s élite prep schools. He’s an old hand at cons, but he’s unpre­pared to meet Andrea, his com­pe­ti­tion. When the two of them set up a com­pe­ti­tion to con the school’s Big Man on Cam­pus out of $50,000, the stakes are high. One twist after anoth­er, a full crew of grifters brought in to effect the con … this book reads cin­e­mat­i­cal­ly and moves along quick­ly.

Eddie Red Undercover: Doom at Grant's Tomb  

Eddie Red Under­cov­er: Doom at Grant’s Tomb
writ­ten by Mar­cia Wells, illus­trat­ed by Mar­cos Calo
HMH Books for Young Read­ers, 2016

Hav­ing just fin­ished the third book in the series, I’m a fan of the youngest inves­ti­ga­tor work­ing for the NYPD. There’s a back sto­ry for that, of course, but Eddie has an eidet­ic mem­o­ry and a quick­sil­ver mind … he’s good at solv­ing crimes. The police are always reluc­tant to involve Eddie because he’s only 12 years old, but the kid’s good at what he does. In this install­ment, it appears that Eddie is being tar­get­ed for seri­ous con­se­quences by inter­na­tion­al art thieves whom he’s foiled before. The thieves are steal­ing valu­able items from well-known land­marks. Can Eddie psych them out before they catch up with him?

 

Framed!

 

Framed!
writ­ten by James Pon­ti
Aladdin, 2016

Jess Aarons has been prac­tic­ing all sum­mer so he can be the fastest run­ner in the fifth grade. And he almost is, until the new girl in school, Leslie Burke, out­paces him. The two become fast friends and spend most days in the woods behind Leslie’s house, where they invent an enchant­ed land called Ter­abithia. One morn­ing, Leslie goes to Ter­abithia with­out Jess and a tragedy occurs. It will take the love of his fam­i­ly and the strength that Leslie has giv­en him for Jess to be able to deal with his grief.

Illyrian Adventure  

Illyr­i­an Adven­tures
writ­ten by Lloyd Alexan­der
Dut­ton Books, 1987

This is the first of six books about 16-year-old Ves­per Hol­ly who, in 1872, in the com­pa­ny of her guardian, Bin­nie, trav­els to Illyr­ia on the Adri­at­ic Sea to prove one of her late father’s the­o­ries. She’s a girl with mod­ern sen­si­bil­i­ties set against Binnie’s con­ser­v­a­tive con­cerns. Ves­per gets caught up in fast-paced intrigue with a rebel­lion against the king, all the while man­ag­ing to search for the leg­endary trea­sure. With Mr. Alexander’s char­ac­ter­is­tic humor, and a touch of romance, this series is fun to read and def­i­nite­ly qual­i­fies as a turn-the-page adven­ture.

Jack London and the Klondike Gold Rush  

Jack Lon­don and the Klondike Gold Rush
writ­ten by Peter Lourie, illus­trat­ed by Wen­dell Minor
Hen­ry Holt, 2017

Teens will enjoy this one. When Jack Lon­don turns 21, the Gold Rush of 1897 com­pels trea­sure seek­ers from around the world to trek through life-threat­en­ing con­di­tions to get to the gold fields in the Yukon Ter­ri­to­ry of Cana­da. Jack is swept up in the excite­ment, assem­bling a team of adven­tur­ers and sup­plies to with­stand the cru­el jour­ney. That some­one this young could com­mand respect and cama­raderie speaks loud­ly about his char­ac­ter. This true sto­ry serves as an excel­lent com­pan­ion books for Call of the Wild and White Fang, Jack London’s Klondike sto­ries. A real page-turn­er.

Magic Misfits  

Mag­ic Mis­fits
writ­ten by Neill Patrick Har­ris, illus by Lis­sy Mar­lin
Lit­tle, Brown Books, 2017

This thor­ough­ly enjoy­able book fol­lows Carter when he runs away from his crooked, thiev­ing uncle to the New Eng­land town of Min­er­al Wells, a sur­pris­ing­ly wel­com­ing place. Con­vinced that mag­ic isn’t real, and yet a tal­ent­ed street magi­cian, Carter is soon befriend­ed by a group of Mag­ic Mis­fits who set out to expose a cir­cus that’s a front for a well-orches­trat­ed, and dan­ger­ous, team of grifters. Adven­tur­ous, fun­ny, heart­warm­ing, this will cap­ture read­ers’ imag­i­na­tions. 

Mighty Jack  

Mighty Jack
writ­ten and illus­trat­ed by Ben Hatke
First Sec­ond, 2016

Mighty Jack and the Gob­lin King
writ­ten and illus­trat­ed by Ben Hatke
First Sec­ond, 2017

In the first book, Jack’s sis­ter Mad­dy per­suades him to trade their Mom’s car for a box of mys­te­ri­ous seeds … and the adven­ture begins. These are not, of course, ordi­nary seeds. They grow strange, oth­er­world­ly crea­tures and the kids, includ­ing next-door-neigh­bor Lil­ly, are chal­lenged to deal with crea­tures run amok.

In the sec­ond book, an ogre snatch­es Mad­dy into anoth­er world with Jack and Lil­ly deter­mined to res­cue her. Along the way, we meet gob­lins (good) and ogres (bad) and Lil­ly ful­fills a prophe­cy. It’s all very excit­ing and well-told with vibrant, engross­ing illus­tra­tions.

Parker Inheritance  

Park­er Inher­i­tance
writ­ten by Var­i­an John­son
Arthur A. Levine Books / Scholas­tic, 2018

In mod­ern-day Lam­bert, Can­dice dis­cov­ers a mys­tery in her grandmother’s let­ters. In the 1950s, her grand­moth­er left Lam­bert in shame, but it’s soon appar­ent to Can­dice and her friend Bran­don that racism was behind those events … and they reflect that things haven’t changed that much. Read­ing this book will bring your cre­ative prob­lem-solv­ing skills into play. There’s intrigue, humor, and a lot to think about in this sto­ry. 

Player King  

Play­er King
writ­ten by Avi
Atheneum, 2017

In 1846, young Lam­bert Sim­nel slaves away in a Lon­don tav­ern, com­plete­ly unaware of the pol­i­tics of the land.  When he’s pur­chased in the mid­dle of the night by a fri­ar, he’s astound­ed when the man reveals, “You, Lam­bert, are actu­al­ly Prince Edward, the true King of Eng­land!” King Hen­ry VII has just claimed the throne of Eng­land, but only after Prince Edward, who has a truer claim, dis­ap­pears. Could Lam­bert be the real prince? How could he not remem­ber this? Based on a blip in his­to­ry, this is a fas­ci­nat­ing look at a con­fi­dence job planned by politi­cians whose lives are at stake.

Riddle in Ruby  

Rid­dle in Ruby
writ­ten by Kent Davis
Green­wil­low Books, 2015

In an alter­nate his­to­ry colo­nial Philadel­phia, Ruby Teach is train­ing to be a thief and a guardian of secrets. It isn’t until she meets young Lord Athen that she begins to under­stand that her entire life has been kept secret from the pow­ers that be. In this world, those pow­ers use alche­my to fuel the Indus­tri­al Rev­o­lu­tion. It’s a fast-paced, fun­ny, and com­pelling book, the first of a tril­o­gy, with The Changer’s Key and The Great Unrav­el pro­vid­ing the rest of the sto­ry.

Supernatural Sleuthing Service  

Super­nor­mal Sleuthing Ser­vice
writ­ten by Gwen­da Bond and Christo­pher Rowe,
illus­trat­ed by Glenn Thomas
Green­wil­low Books, 2017

Stephen and his dad are mov­ing cross-coun­try so Dad can be the new exec­u­tive chef at the New Har­mo­nia, a New York City hotel for super­nor­mals (read: mon­sters!) It isn’t long before Stephen dis­cov­ers he’s part super­nor­mal him­self! When Stephen is framed for steal­ing a valu­able heir­loom, he teams up with two new friends to prove his inno­cence. It’s a spooky sto­ry, filled with humor and hijinks, and there’s a sec­ond book, The Sphinx’s Secret. You know the right read­er for these books!

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The Good Thing about Bad Words

It’s mid-Jan­u­ary, I have this Non­fic­tionary dead­line, and all I can think about is Pres­i­dent Trump’s lat­est vul­gar­i­ty.

His recent word choice about cer­tain coun­tries jumped from my phone like an elec­tri­cal charge, lit­er­al­ly and phys­i­cal­ly jolt­ing me back­wards. For the rest of the day and beyond, my soul hurt and my spir­it sagged.

But it was just a word. 

Let’s be hon­est.  I have a pret­ty good vocab­u­lary of inap­pro­pri­ate words and I’m not all that care­ful about using them in adult com­pa­ny. My moth­er was so fond of “damn” that I didn’t know it was con­sid­ered a curse word until I got to school. (Some­how, I’m still sur­prised that it’s ver­boten!)

I worked in sev­er­al news­rooms where blue lan­guage was just the way we described events and chat­ted with each oth­er. And my dog is def­i­nite­ly famil­iar with a few four-let­ter excla­ma­tions.

Oh please, they’re just words. 

Still, there’s a line. Despite the col­or­ful ban­ter of the work­place, news­pa­pers have a clear stan­dard about what goes into print: Pro­fan­i­ty is allowed only spar­ing­ly, even today. If the offend­ing lan­guage is in a quote, per­haps you para­phrase it into some­thing more print­able or just work around it. Any excep­tions must be impor­tant and usu­al­ly require spe­cial per­mis­sion from the high­er-ups.

In the old days, The Wall Street Jour­nal reg­u­lar­ly used what was called a Bar­ney dash, after the paper’s arrow-straight keep­er of stan­dards, Bar­ney Calame. That was a first let­ter, fol­lowed by a long dash. It still reserves the Bar­ney dash for espe­cial­ly egre­gious words.

No s—, you knew what it was. But you didn’t have to actu­al­ly ingest it along with your Wheaties.

If the pres­i­dent of the Unit­ed States said some­thing coarse, or the VP let some­thing obscene slip out on a hot micro­phone, well, that was a dif­fer­ent sit­u­a­tion. Then, the words might actu­al­ly appear in all their ugli­ness.

You’ve got to have some stan­dards.

As a writer of non­fic­tion for young peo­ple, I’ve run into these kinds of lan­guage issues more than I expect­ed. After all, real peo­ple do use real words. And some­times they have real impact on a sub­ject.

Bootleg by Karen BlumenthalHell,” for instance, was a big con­cept dur­ing the debate over liquor before, dur­ing, and after Pro­hi­bi­tion. It was impos­si­ble to ignore it in my book Boot­leg: Mur­der, Moon­shine, and the Law­less Years of Pro­hi­bi­tion, though some peo­ple think that word doesn’t belong in a children’s book. (Appar­ent­ly, the Bible is exempt.)

One review­er called me out for using “damned” in a quo­ta­tion in Mr. Sam, my biog­ra­phy of Sam Wal­ton, and then ques­tioned the appro­pri­ate­ness of the book because of that sin­gle word. (Thanks, Mom!)

Steve Jobs, how­ev­er, posed the biggest chal­lenge. As a col­or­ful entre­pre­neur, he had quite the wide-rang­ing adult vocab­u­lary. Wal­ter Isaacson’s long biog­ra­phy for grown-ups is pep­pered with four-let­ter salti­ness. But writ­ing for young adults required a choice.

Steve Jobs by Karen BlumenthalIt wasn’t too dif­fi­cult to decide what to do in Steve Jobs: The Man Who Thought Dif­fer­ent. I real­ize that teens (and younger kids) know those words and that they use them, too. But I’m in Texas, and I also know there are school libraries that will shy away from a book just because of a pro­fan­i­ty. If I wrote fic­tion, I might choose dif­fer­ent­ly, since avoid­ing those words might make a teen char­ac­ter less authen­tic. But as a teller of true sto­ries, I had access to plen­ty of words that effec­tive­ly made clear what Jobs want­ed to say when he was, for exam­ple, demol­ish­ing someone’s hard work.

There was one quote, how­ev­er, where one of those das­tard­ly bombs explod­ed. Some com­menter some­where won­dered aloud why I didn’t use the obvi­ous real word.

True sto­ry: the orig­i­nal source had used a long dash—and so did I.

Words mat­ter.

Hillary Rodham Clinton by Karen BlumenthalHillary Rod­ham Clin­ton: A Woman Liv­ing His­to­ry intro­duced me to a new kind of lan­guage. There are cer­tain words I absolute­ly won’t use in any con­text, pri­mar­i­ly those that I con­sid­er racist or hate­ful, includ­ing a cou­ple of espe­cial­ly crude ones aimed at women. A few peo­ple found it nec­es­sary to share those words in describ­ing how they felt about the pres­i­den­tial can­di­date I pro­filed. (Thanks, Twit­ter!)

In tap­ping on my social media, I had the same response I had to Pres­i­dent Trump’s Jan­u­ary word choice, a brac­ing, slap-in-the-face reac­tion.

It was painful and upsetting—and I think that’s okay. We should nev­er lose the abil­i­ty to vis­cer­al­ly feel the impact of lan­guage, good or bad. We should nev­er grow so com­pla­cent that words don’t move us. They should spark hor­ror, spur tears, con­vey out­rage, hurt, heal, or pro­pel us to be some­thing bet­ter.

Words are pow­er­ful. Choose care­ful­ly.

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A Science Rookie: Learning to Craft a Science Narrative When
You Know Next to Nothing about Science

Enter the fresh­man chem­istry tutor dressed in torn jeans and a flan­nel shirt. His job? To get me through entry lev­el chem­istry at Iowa State Uni­ver­si­ty. My first col­lege plan was to major in Hotel and Restau­rant Man­age­ment because my father owned a com­pa­ny that did busi­ness with these types of insti­tu­tions. So, what the heck, I didn’t know what else to study so I declared that my major way back in the fall of 1977.

ScienceNo one told me that since these kinds of insti­tu­tions serve food, I had to take cours­es in food and nutri­tion. And since food and nutri­tion were sci­ence based, I must take chem­istry. Three quar­ters of chem­istry! Ugh. Back to the tutor’s and my results; C+, and that was after a lot of hard work. My new major; jour­nal­ism and mass com­mu­ni­ca­tions, and forty years lat­er the stars have aligned. Sci­ence is draw­ing me in now.

Bold Women of MedicineWhen I wrote the pro­pos­al for Bold Women of Med­i­cine, it did not occur to me that I would have to write about sci­ence. Well … what did you think, Susan? Write about these coura­geous doc­tors, nurs­es, mid­wives, and phys­i­cal ther­a­pists, and there wouldn’t be any sci­ence? Oh, dear. I flashed back to fresh­man chem­istry and biol­o­gy, and sus­pect­ed I was in big trou­ble.

Along the way I dis­cov­ered that not hav­ing this knowl­edge was a good thing, and in my case, it almost helped me. I could write from a posi­tion of inno­cence and explain the women’s med­ical careers with­out a con­de­scend­ing tone to my read­ers: I was one of those read­ers.

Take for exam­ple one of the women in my book, Helen Taus­sig and her part in treat­ing the blue baby syn­drome. I bare­ly knew how the human heart worked when it was healthy, and now I’d have to explain how bril­liant med­ical researcher Mr. Vivien Thomas, and Drs. Taus­sig and Blalock, dis­cov­ered how to fix the defect. (Hint: Vivien Thomas prac­ticed on hun­dreds of dogs, the most famous of which is Anna, whose por­trait hangs at Johns Hop­kins Hos­pi­tal.)

heart doctorOff to the library I went to check out books on the human heart—first adult books, then books for chil­dren. I stud­ied the healthy heart and heart defect jar­gon and tried to explain it to myself first, and then write it down. For­tu­nate­ly, I have med­ical pro­fes­sion­als in my life so, after a few drafts, I had them read it to see if I had explained it cor­rect­ly and with­out intense med­ical lan­guage. Did you know the nor­mal child’s heart is about the size of their fist? I didn’t know that.

The tiny babies were not get­ting enough oxy­gen and in Dr. Taussig’s mind the fix seemed to be a sim­ple case of improved plumb­ing. The nar­ra­tive ten­sion was built right into the sto­ry. Specifics always work bet­ter so I wrote about the first oper­a­tion on one of the babies, lit­tle Eileen Sax­on, and lat­er anoth­er oper­a­tion on a six-year-old boy.

Dr. Catherine Hamlin

Dr. Cather­ine Ham­lin

In the pro­files of Dr. Cather­ine Ham­lin and Edna Adan Ismail, the sci­ence writ­ing was more chal­leng­ing know­ing my audi­ence was young adult (12 and up). Writ­ing about med­i­cine auto­mat­i­cal­ly lends itself to top­ics we don’t want to hear about—in this case, FGM (Female Gen­i­tal Muti­la­tion) and Obstet­ric Fis­tu­la. One young woman came to Dr. Ham­lin for help by walk­ing almost 280 miles. Ten years ear­li­er, because of a pro­longed labor, she had suf­fered two holes in her blad­der (an obstet­ric fis­tu­la) and lost all con­trol. At first Dr. Ham­lin did not know how to help her, but she talked to oth­er physi­cians and stud­ied up on pro­ce­dures. After the suc­cess­ful surgery, Dr. Ham­lin pre­sent­ed the young woman with a new dress in which to go home. The woman waved good-bye with hope and said “God will reward you for all you have done for me.” Pre­sent­ing the image of an opti­mistic woman with a new dress helps read­ers under­stand Dr. Hamlin’s impor­tant work.

Edna Adan Ismail

Edna Adan Ismail with a class of nurs­ing school grad­u­ates at Edna Adan Ismail hos­pi­tal.

As I wrote about sci­ence for the first time, I learned a few things along the way:

  • Every famous surgery or dis­cov­ery or treat­ment has a sto­ry. Find that sto­ry, find the human part of that sto­ry.
  • Char­ac­ter, set­ting, and the five sens­es can help sci­ence drib­ble into the sto­ry.
  • Keep your won­der and gross-out mind­set alive. Kids pos­sess this mind­set nat­u­ral­ly and many appre­ci­ate the guts (no pun intend­ed) of the details.
  • There are no stu­pid ques­tions when inter­view­ing experts. Be curi­ous, and if you can, expe­ri­ence the sci­ence first-hand.
  • Know that your audi­ence is smart, just inex­pe­ri­enced in the sub­ject.
  • Dou­ble (and triple) check your sci­ence writ­ing with the experts. The last thing you want to do is send out incor­rect infor­ma­tion.
Future bold women of medicine?

Future bold women of med­i­cine?

Because the women of med­i­cine were accom­plished, it was easy to assume they knew all the answers. They did not … but they were curi­ous and that curios­i­ty led them to answers. Sci­ence often comes up with neg­a­tive results, peo­ple just try­ing to under­stand how some­thing works. This doesn’t always make the news. Build­ing on these neg­a­tive results leads sci­en­tists to the flashy news and the suc­cess­es.

I built on my (lim­it­ed) knowl­edge, and learned right along with my audi­ence. I had a lot of false starts, not real­ly know­ing what I was writ­ing about. For­tu­nate­ly, for the patients, I nev­er had to actu­al­ly per­form the dif­fi­cult pro­ce­dures and surg­eries.

And to that chem­istry tutor in the flan­nel shirt, wher­ev­er you are: thanks for the help. I prob­a­bly did learn some­thing. Next up: seis­mol­o­gy. Know any good tutors?

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Biography: How to Decide
What Goes into the Soup Pot (and What Doesn’t)

It is cold up here in the north coun­try, so late­ly my thoughts have turned to cre­at­ing a steam­ing pot of soup. For soup, you have to hit the high­lights; the chick­en, onions, a car­rot or two. If you toss in too many ingre­di­ents, noth­ing will stand out and the result will be a mud­dled mess. You must also have a spe­cial ingre­di­ent. The quick taste that says, mmm, what is that? A dash of nut­meg? A spoon­ful of car­away seed?

Bold Women of MedicineWhen I wrote the short pro­files in Bold Women of Med­i­cine: 21 Sto­ries of Astound­ing Dis­cov­er­ies, Dar­ing Surg­eries, and Heal­ing Break­throughs, I real­ized they required a sim­i­lar focus. I need­ed the high­lights; birth, fam­i­ly, edu­ca­tion. The pro­files also need­ed that spe­cial some­thing to stand out.

Oth­er than bio­graph­i­cal assign­ments in school, I hadn’t writ­ten many biogra­phies. But often it is in the doing that we learn. When I researched and wrote my (look­ing for a home) pic­ture book biog­ra­phy Step by Step: The Sto­ry of Eliz­a­beth Kenny’s Fight to Treat Polio, I learned a few lessons.

I had been fas­ci­nat­ed by Sis­ter Ken­ny ever since my father’s stay at the Sis­ter Ken­ny Insti­tute after his stroke. Who was this brash woman who had found­ed the insti­tute famous in Min­neapo­lis? Not just Min­neapo­lis, for in fact, she was once vot­ed the most influ­en­tial woman in Amer­i­ca, beat­ing out Eleanor Roo­sevelt.

Research­ing and writ­ing the life of some­one famous can be daunt­ing. I didn’t have the space to write about every­thing in her life, and I didn’t want to bore young read­ers with unin­ter­est­ing facts.

The Min­neso­ta His­tor­i­cal Center’s Gale Fam­i­ly Library held her secrets in the form of let­ters, cards, and pho­tographs packed into box­es. See­ing Sis­ter Kenny’s hand­writ­ing helped me to imag­ine her sit­ting at a desk com­pos­ing a let­ter. The pho­tographs let me look into her simul­ta­ne­ous­ly kind and deter­mined eyes. It was an odd sense of the past, her past, com­ing to life. And yet, since she died in 1952, I knew more about her fate (and lega­cy) than she did.

Sis­ter Ken­ny even­tu­al­ly became the sam­ple chap­ter I includ­ed in my pro­pos­al for Bold Women of Med­i­cine. The Chica­go Review Press Women of Action Series intro­duces young adults to women and girls of courage and con­vic­tion.

As I sift­ed through these lives I won­dered, what spurred these women on to a life in med­i­cine?

With­in the frame­work of the women’s lives (birth, edu­ca­tion, career, and fam­i­ly), I began to see pat­terns lead­ing them to med­i­cine. My goal was to keep the sto­ry mov­ing for­ward.

Sis­ter Ken­ny (pho­to: State Library of Queens­land)

For exam­ple, Sis­ter Ken­ny real­ized suc­cess with one patient inflict­ed with cere­bral pal­sy, caus­ing paral­y­sis. She said, “Although my spe­cial life’s work had not yet real­ly begun, I always think of this peri­od as my start­ing point.” Dis­cov­er­ing each woman’s moti­va­tion helped me to cre­ate a tighter focus. In oth­er words, I lim­it­ed the ingre­di­ents I placed into my soup pot and at the same time found that spe­cial some­thing.

What fac­tors influ­enced Sis­ter Ken­ny to prac­tice med­i­cine? Was it an event, a per­son, or a need to be help­ful? I am a lin­ear thinker (some­times a hin­drance) but in this case, point A of a woman in medicine’s life often led to point B. Some­times I had to back­track much like you do when fol­low­ing a hik­ing trail, and often when I back­tracked I dis­cov­ered anoth­er, more intrigu­ing part of her sto­ry.

Research is a tricky beast no mat­ter what the sub­ject is, and the most dif­fi­cult part of research is know­ing when to quit. Not every­thing from your fridge must be a part of your din­ner.

I searched for anec­dotes that would inter­est a young read­er. What hap­pened in Sis­ter Kenny’s child­hood that shaped her inter­est in sci­ence? What char­ac­ter traits did she pos­sess that led to suc­cess or fail­ure? What impact did she have on his­to­ry? Pulitzer Prize win­ning writer David McCul­lough says, “I believe very strong­ly that the essence of writ­ing is to know your subject…to get beneath the sur­face. You have to know enough to know what to leave out.”

I read as much as I could on each woman, until I found the sto­ry and pat­tern with which to begin. Each of these women lived full lives, and in the cut­ting of some of their life events I strength­ened the fla­vors, high­light­ing their pow­ers of hope, edu­ca­tion, and per­se­ver­ance. And as I write this on a cold day, it’s time to pull out the pot and fig­ure out the best ingre­di­ents for my soup!

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A Picture and a Thousand Words

As a reporter and edi­tor for decades, I often heard peo­ple accuse my col­leagues and me of “bias,” of hav­ing a par­tic­u­lar slant on a story—usually a point of view that the accuser dis­put­ed. It was a com­mon charge, espe­cial­ly if the issue was con­tro­ver­sial.

But in truth, reporters are no dif­fer­ent than any­one else. Every­one comes to a sub­ject with some kind of bias.  If you know what a cer­tain beach is like, then you are like­ly to asso­ciate oth­er beach­es with that expe­ri­ence; if you’ve nev­er been to the beach, then you can only imag­ine what the smells, the sand, or the sea is like.

If you are pro-can­dy, you will read about can­dy dif­fer­ent­ly than some­one who doesn’t like it.

When you write non­fic­tion, these dif­fer­ent read­er per­spec­tives mat­ter. If we want to be thought­ful about a sub­ject or apply those all-impor­tant crit­i­cal think­ing skills, it helps to acknowl­edge our nat­ur­al biases—not to judge, but sim­ply to under­stand that our expe­ri­ences affect how we see things.

Tommy: the Gun that Changed America (hardcover on the left, paperback on the right)When I speak to junior high stu­dents, I often hold up a copy of my book Tom­my: The Gun that Changed Amer­i­ca and ask them what they think it is about.

Why would I write this,” I go on, “and why, espe­cial­ly, for young peo­ple?” Then I might show them the paper­back ver­sion, which has the same title, of course, but no gun on the cov­er.  “What do you make of that?”

From there, we can actu­al­ly start talk­ing about guns—what role they play in our soci­ety, what makes them inter­est­ing to read­ers and how they gen­er­ate strong feelings—without hav­ing to debate the Sec­ond Amend­ment.

Because we live in such a visu­al world, I spend hours track­ing down the right pho­tos, car­toons, and doc­u­ments to help tell a sto­ry. And even if these images don’t make it into the book, they influ­ence my writ­ing by remind­ing me what the world looked like and how peo­ple felt in that time peri­od.

The images that do make it into my books can change the reader’s expe­ri­ence, chal­leng­ing the bias­es they bring to the sto­ry.

Bonnie Parker

Bon­nie Park­er (pho­to: Mis­souri State High­way Patrol)

Con­sid­er this pho­to of Bon­nie Park­er, a key image in my next book, Bon­nie and Clyde: The Mak­ing of a Leg­end, due out in August 2018. It’s a cru­cial pic­ture, the first time she became known to the pub­lic. What do you think about her when you see this? What do you think she’s like?

Now com­pare it to the glam­our shot below, tak­en just a few years before. Does it change your per­spec­tive at all?

Maybe one way to make stu­dent research and non­fic­tion more engag­ing is to con­sid­er our assump­tions and bias­es by bring­ing images into the process. Some ideas:

Bon­nie Park­er (from the col­lec­tions
of the Dal­las His­to­ry and Archives Divi­sion
of the Dal­las Pub­lic Library)

  • Ask stu­dents to make assump­tions about a book from the cov­er. Then com­pare to what the sto­ry is inside. Did their per­spec­tive change?
  • Pull out a sin­gle image and try to guess what it means to the sto­ry. Then, read that chap­ter (or pic­ture book) and test it.
  • Ask stu­dents to search for a pho­to sep­a­rate­ly from their research on a sub­ject. Did the pho­to enforce or change their point of view?

What oth­er ways can you address how a reader’s expe­ri­ences can impact under­stand­ing?

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Why Young Writers Need an Authentic Audience

bored writerFor me, writ­ing non­fic­tion is a fun adven­ture. A game to play. A puz­zle to solve. A chal­lenge to over­come.

But many stu­dents don’t feel the same way. Accord­ing to them, research is bor­ing. Mak­ing a writ­ing plan is a waste of time. And revi­sion is more than frus­trat­ing. It’s down­right painful.

Why do young writ­ers have a point of view that’s so com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent from mine? While there’s prob­a­bly no sin­gle answer to this ques­tion, one thing that’s miss­ing for young writ­ers is an authen­tic audi­ence.

When I begin writ­ing, I know exact­ly who my audi­ence is—kids, of course, but also the adults who put the books in the hands of chil­dren. I’m excit­ed to share infor­ma­tion with my audi­ence, and I hope they’ll find it as fas­ci­nat­ing as I do.

I know peo­ple are read­ing my books because I see reviews online and in jour­nals. Even­tu­al­ly, I see sales fig­ures. Kids respond by send­ing me let­ters, by ask­ing prob­ing ques­tions at school vis­its and, some­times, by drag­ging their par­ents to book sign­ings. Teach­ers and librar­i­ans respond via social media and by invit­ing me to their schools and con­fer­ences.

These respons­es are dif­fer­ent from the ones I get from my cri­tique group and edi­tors. Sure, they read my work too, but it’s their job to find fault with it. While I appre­ci­ate and depend on their feed­back, it’s far less reward­ing than the reac­tions I get from my true audi­ence, my authen­tic audi­ence.

Stu­dents often don’t have an authen­tic audi­ence. Their teacher is like my edi­tor. And if peer cri­tiquing or bud­dy edit­ing is part of their writ­ing process, those class­mates are like my cri­tique group.

How can we give young writ­ers the kind of expe­ri­ences pro­fes­sion­al writ­ers have when they write for and get respons­es from an authen­tic audi­ence? Here are a cou­ple of ideas:

  1. Share writ­ing with younger stu­dents. Encour­age the younger stu­dents to respond with writ­ing of their own or by draw­ing pic­tures or mak­ing an audio or video record­ing.
  1. Cre­ate a class blog and encour­age stu­dents in oth­er class­es and/or par­ents to read the posts and leave meaty com­ments.

If you have oth­er sug­ges­tions, please share them in the com­ments below or via social media. I know there are lots of ways we can cre­ate an authen­tic audi­ence for our stu­dents.

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Why Students Copy Their Research Sources,
and How to Break the Habit

ResearchBy third grade, near­ly all stu­dents know what pla­gia­rism is and under­stand that it’s both immoral and ille­gal, and yet, again and again, we catch them copy­ing their sources.

Why don’t stu­dents express ideas and infor­ma­tion in their own words? Because they haven’t tak­en the time or don’t have the skills to ana­lyze and syn­the­size the mate­r­i­al they’ve col­lect­ed so that they can make their own mean­ing. In oth­er words, they haven’t found a per­son­al con­nec­tion to the con­tent, and that’s a crit­i­cal step in the non­fic­tion pre-writ­ing process.

Here are some ideas to help stu­dents break the habit:

Nix the All-About Books

The best non­fic­tion writ­ing hap­pens when stu­dents have to dig deep and think crit­i­cal­ly, so ask­ing them to write All-About books, which present a broad overview of a top­ic, is just set­ting them up for fail­ure. When stu­dents choose a nar­row top­ic that they find fas­ci­nat­ing, they’ll have to mine their sources, col­lect­ing tiny nuggets of gold here and there. This fun quest will fuel their pas­sion for the top­ic and result in engag­ing writ­ing that presents ideas and infor­ma­tion in fresh ways.

QuestionsStart with a Ques­tion

Sug­gest that stu­dents devel­op won­der ques­tions and use them to guide their research. Not only does this guar­an­tee that stu­dents will have some “skin in the game,” a spe­cif­ic query will lead to more tar­get­ed note tak­ing and require stu­dents to make con­nec­tions between infor­ma­tion they find in a vari­ety of sources.

Dual Note­tak­ing

Julie Har­matz, a fifth grade teacher in San Pedro, Cal­i­for­nia, has had great suc­cess with col­lab­o­ra­tive note­tak­ing in a Google doc. Not only do stu­dents enjoy the tech­no­log­i­cal nov­el­ty of this activ­i­ty, they gain access to the thought process­es of their partner(s). Pair­ing an adept note­tak­er with a stu­dent who’s strug­gling with this skill can be a pow­er­ful expe­ri­ence. After all, stu­dents often learn bet­ter from peer mod­el­ing than adult instruc­tion.

Jour­nal­ing

Encour­age stu­dents to review the infor­ma­tion they’ve gath­ered and jour­nal about it. This will help many chil­dren take own­er­ship of the mate­r­i­al and iden­ti­fy what fas­ci­nates them most about what they’ve dis­cov­ered. When stu­dents approach writ­ing with a clear mis­sion in mind, they’re more like­ly to present ideas through their own per­son­al lens.

Thought PromptsUse Thought Prompts

Ryan Scala, a fifth grade teacher in East Hamp­ton, New York, rec­om­mends invit­ing stu­dents to syn­the­size their research and make per­son­al con­nec­tions by using one of the fol­low­ing thought prompts:

  • The idea this gives me …
  • I was sur­prised to learn …
  • This makes me think …
  • This is impor­tant because … 

Can’t Copy

Encour­age stu­dents to use source mate­ri­als that they can’t copy, such as a doc­u­men­tary film or per­son­al obser­va­tions out­doors or via a web­cam.

WowFocus on the “Oh, wow!”

Award-win­ning children’s book author Deb­o­rah Heilig­man advis­es young writ­ers to only write down infor­ma­tion that makes them say, “Oh wow!” Then she sug­gests that they write their first draft with­out look­ing at their notes, using just what they remem­ber. Of course, they can always go back and add details, dates, etc., lat­er, but when kids are forced to write from their mem­o­ries, they write in their own voic­es, and they focus on the ideas and infor­ma­tion that inter­est them most.

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Third Grader Reading at a Sixth Grade Level

Respond­ing to a par­ent request for books that would inter­est her third-grad­er-read­ing-at-a-sixth-grade-lev­el, we crowd-sourced a list. Big thanks to Sara Alcott, Lin­da Baie, Les­ley Man­dros Bell, Karen Cramer, Caren Creech, Melin­da Fant, Ellen Klar­re­ich, Vick­ie LoP­ic­co­lo, Ellen McEvoy, Lau­ra Moe, Tunie Mun­son-Ben­son, Vic­ki Palmquist, Car­rie Shay, Faythe Dyrud Thureen, Cindy Walk­er, and Sharon J. Wil­son.

Unlike our usu­al anno­tat­ed book­lists, we are pre­sent­ing this one in alpha­bet­i­cal order by book title due to the length of the list. We hope you find books here that lead you to read more books by these authors. Of course, there are many more just-right books to sug­gest for this type of reader–we’ve includ­ed only books sug­gest­ed by our “crowd.”

bk_alcaponeshirtsAdam Can­field of the Slash, Michael Winer­ip

Adven­tures of Sir Lancelot the Great (Knights Tales series), Ger­ald Mor­ris

Al Capone Does My Shirts (series of 3 books), Gen­nifer Chold­enko

Anne of Green Gables, L.M. Mont­gomery

Bet­sy-Tacy Trea­sury (series, Bet­sy and friends get old­er in the books), Maud Hart Lovelace

BFG, Roald Dahl

Birch­bark House, Louis Erdrich

Black Stal­lion (series), Wal­ter Far­ley

Bog­gart, Susan Coop­er

Catherine, Called BirdyBook of Three (Pry­dain series of 5 books), Lloyd Alexan­der

Bor­row­ers, Mary Nor­ton

Bud, Not Bud­dy, Christo­pher Paul Cur­tis

Catch You Lat­er, Trai­tor, Avi

Cather­ine, Called Birdy, Karen Cush­man

Chas­ing Ver­meer, Blue Bal­li­et

Chil­dren of Green Knowe (series), Lucy M. Boston

D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths, Ingri d’Aulaire and Edgar Parin d’Aulaire

Dark is Ris­ing (series of 5 books), Susan Coop­er

Drag­ons in the Waters, Madeleine L’Engle

Emmy and the Incredible Shrinking RatEmmy and the Incred­i­ble Shrink­ing Rat, Lynne Jonell

Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library, Chris Graben­stein

Fabled Fourth Graders of Aesop Ele­men­tary School, Can­dace Flem­ing

False Prince (series of 3 books), Jen­nifer A. Nielsen

Flo­ra & Ulysses, Kate DiCamil­lo

Frindle, Andrew Clements

From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweil­er, E.L. Konigs­berg

Girls Think of Every­thing, Cather­ine Thimmesh

Green­glass House, Kate Mil­ford

Half Mag­ic, Edward Eager

HatchetHar­ri­et the Spy, Louise Fitzhugh

Har­ry Pot­ter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (series of 7 books), J.K. Rowl­ing

Hatch­et, Gary Paulsen

Holes, Louis Sachar

Home of the Brave, Kather­ine Apple­gate

How to Steal a Dog, Bar­bara O’Connor

How to Train Your Drag­on (series), Cres­si­da Crow­ell, “It’s fun­ny, sophis­ti­cat­ed, appeal­ing, and has 12 vol­umes.”

Indi­an Shoes, Cyn­thia Leitich Smith

I Sur­vived the Sink­ing of the Titan­ic, 1912 (series), Lau­ren Tarshis

Invention of Hugo CabretInven­tion of Hugo Cabret, Bri­an Selznick

Jen­nifer, Hecate, Mac­beth, William McKin­ley and Me, Eliz­a­beth, E.L. Konigs­berg

Julie of the Wolves, Jean Craig­head George

King of the Wind, Mar­guerite Hen­ry

Light­ning Thief (many books in this series and oth­er series), Rick Rior­dan

Lin­coln and His Boys, Rose­mary Wells

Long Walk to Water, Lin­da Sue Park

Mak­ing Friends with Bil­ly Wong, Augus­ta Scat­ter­good

Mani­ac Magee, Jer­ry Spinel­li

Old WolfMoth­er-Daugh­ter Book Club (series of 7 books), Heather Vogel Fred­er­ick

Mozart Sea­son, Vir­ginia Euw­er Wolff

Mrs. Fris­by and the Rats of NIMH, Robert C. O’Brien

Nation, Ter­ry Pratch­ett. “A bit mature for the aver­age third grad­er, but this doesn’t sound like an aver­age kid. Make it a point of dis­cus­sion.”

Old Wolf, Avi

On My Hon­or, Mar­i­on Dane Bauer

One and Only Ivan, Kather­ine Apple­gate

One Crazy Sum­mer, Rita Williams-Gar­cia

Owls in the Fam­i­ly, Far­ley Mowat

People Could FlyPeo­ple Could Fly, Vir­ginia Hamil­ton

Peter Nim­ble and the Fan­tas­tic Eyes, Jonathan Aux­i­er

Push­cart War, Jean Mer­rill

Ran­doms, David Liss

Savvy, Ingrid Law

Scary Sto­ries to Tell in the Dark (espe­cial­ly around Hal­loween), Alvin Schwartz (these are scary, so please know your child’s abil­i­ty to han­dle this book)

Scoot­er, Vera B. Williams’

Stella by StarlightSin­gle Shard, Lin­da Sue Park

Some Writer! The Sto­ry of E.B. White, Melis­sa Sweet

Stel­la by Starlight, Sharon M. Drap­er

Swal­lows and Ama­zons, Arthur Ran­some

Tales from the Odyssey, Mary Pope Osborne

Tales of a Fourth Grade Noth­ing (Fudge series), Judy Blume

Tom’s Mid­night Gar­den, Philip­pa Pearce

True Con­fes­sions of Char­lotte Doyle, Avi

Tuck Ever­last­ing, Natal­ie Bab­bitt

Uncer­tain Glo­ry, Lea Wait

Untamed: the Wild Life of Jane GoodallUntamed: the Wild Life of Jane Goodall, Ani­ta Sil­vey

Walk Two Moons, Sharon Creech

West­ing Game, Ellen Raskin

Whales on Stilts! M.T. Ander­son

When You Reach Me, Rebec­ca Stead

Where the Moun­tain Meets the Moon, Grace Lin

Witch of Black­bird Pond, Eliz­a­beth Speare

Won­der, R.J. Pala­cio

Wrin­kle in Time, Madeleine L’Engle

Read more...

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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Everything You Need to Ace Five Subjects

bk_everything_series_300pxI’ve had this TBR pile of five very attrac­tive, come-hith­er-look­ing books beg­ging to be rec­om­mend­ed for weeks now. The spines are bright pri­ma­ry col­ors so I know that even when I shelve them they will be call­ing to me. And I think they’ll be call­ing to your stu­dents as well.

I open what are for me the two scari­est vol­umes (eat your veg­eta­bles first—oops, as an adult, I find I LOVE veg­eta­bles), Every­thing You Need to Know to Ace Sci­ence in One Fat Note­book: Notes Bor­rowed from the Smartest Kid in Class (Dou­ble-Checked by Award-Win­ning Teacher) and Every­thing You Need to Ace Math in One Big Fat Note­book: Notes Bor­rowed from the Smartest Kid in Class (Dou­ble-Checked by Award-Win­ning Teacher). Did you catch that? Bor­rowed from the “Smartest Kid” in the class.

When I was a kid I had ency­clo­pe­dias from the gro­cery store of the high­ly visu­al, dip­ping-in-and-out vari­ety. I could sit for hours, flip­ping pages, look­ing at some­thing that caught my eye, devour­ing infor­ma­tion.

These books remind me of those ency­clo­pe­dias although they’re more focused on a sub­ject area.

If you have kids who suck up facts and infor­ma­tion like a vac­u­um clean­er, these are the books for them. They’re also self-chal­leng­ing. Each chap­ter ends with a list of ques­tions which you can respond to before you turn the page to find the sup­plied answers.

bk_everything_science_200pxSo, in the Sci­ence book, my eyes light imme­di­ate­ly on Chap­ter 5: Out­er Space, the Uni­verse, and the Solar Sys­tem, with sub­sec­tions of The Solar Sys­tem and Space Explo­ration (which every self-respect­ing Star Wars nerd needs to study), The Sun-Earth-Moon Sys­tem, and The Ori­gin of the Uni­verse and Our Solar Sys­tem.

In all of the books, impor­tant names and places are bold­ed in blue, vocab­u­lary words are high­light­ed in yel­low, def­i­n­i­tions are high­light­ed in yel­low, and stick fig­ures pro­vide the enter­tain­ment.

Look­ing fur­ther, I dis­cov­er the first chap­ters in the Sci­ence book are about think­ing like a sci­en­tist and design­ing an exper­i­ment. I need a LOT of help with those activ­i­ties, so I’m glad to be put at ease.

It’s a bright and col­or­ful book, with great eye-appeal. Even for the most reluc­tant­ly curi­ous mind, these books hold a great deal of promise.

Everything I Need to Ace Math

In the Math book, we explore ratios, pro­por­tions, equa­tions, prob­a­bil­i­ty, and more. Although my brain bawks at look­ing at this stuff, I find my eye rest­ing longer and longer on some of the high­ly visu­al infor­ma­tion, want­i­ng to under­stand it bet­ter. The book is work­ing its mag­ic.

Everything You Need to Know American History

Vol­umes on Amer­i­can His­to­ry, Eng­lish Lan­guage Arts, and World His­to­ry sim­i­lar­ly offer an overview of many top­ics with­in their dis­ci­plines. The Amer­i­can His­to­ry note­book begins with “The First Peo­ple in Amer­i­ca EVER” and ends with the George W. Bush admin­is­tra­tion, with many stops along the way for famous and not-so-famous parts of America’s his­to­ry.

Eng­lish Lan­guage Arts explores every­thing from lan­guage and syn­tax to how to read fic­tion and non­fic­tion, includ­ing poet­ry, explic­it evi­dence, and using mul­ti­ple sources to strength­en your writ­ing.

World His­to­ry cov­ers 3500 BC to present times in 502 pages, light­ing on ancient African civ­i­liza­tions, the Song Dynasty in Chi­na, 1830s rev­o­lu­tions in Europe, and so much more.

Everything You Need to Ace English Language ArtsNone of the infor­ma­tion is exhaus­tive. In fact, it’s quite light. Toe-dip­ping is an apt descrip­tion. But the infor­ma­tion is enough to intrigue the read­er and lead them on to oth­er resources.

There are no bib­li­ogra­phies or sources or sug­ges­tions for fur­ther read­ing in the books. I can see where that would have been a mon­u­men­tal task. I sup­pose I’m going to have to look it up myself. Oh, maybe that’s part of the expe­ri­ence? I’m guess­ing it is.

High­ly rec­om­mend­ed for grades 6 through 9 (the cov­ers say “The Com­plete Mid­dle School Study Guide”) and espe­cial­ly for your home library. I think this would be a per­fect start­ing place for choos­ing a research top­ic or enter­tain­ing your­self with read­ing an expos­i­to­ry text. I envi­sion whiling away many hours look­ing through these books. Good job, Work­man and pro­duc­tion team.

 

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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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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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Reading Memories

bk_threelittlekittensMem­o­ries of my child­hood are imper­fect. Yours, too?

I don’t remem­ber hav­ing a lot of books as a child. I remem­ber The Poky Lit­tle Pup­py and anoth­er dog book (title unknown) and Three Lit­tle Kit­tens (per­haps a reminder to me to keep track of my mit­tens).

I remem­ber using the school library vora­cious­ly to read books. I had no access to the pub­lic library (too far away) so that school library was my life­line. And our librar­i­an under­stood what I was look­ing for before I did.

But back to the ques­tion of hav­ing books on our shelves. My moth­er had a Dou­ble­day Book Club sub­scrip­tion so a new book arrived each month for the adult read­er in our fam­i­ly. I saw To Kill a Mock­ing­bird, Catch­er in the Rye, The Light in the Piaz­za, and The Sun Also Ris­es added to the shelves, but oth­er than curios­i­ty, I felt no inter­est in those books.

My moth­er also sub­scribed to Reader’s Digest. We had a lot of music in our house in the form of LPs. Some of my favorites were those Read­ers Digest col­lec­tions, clas­sics, folk songs, Broad­way musi­cals. There was always music on the turntable. More impor­tant­ly, Reader’s Digest pub­lished sto­ry col­lec­tions and books for chil­dren.  

Yes­ter­day, I was sort­ing through the three box­es that remain of my child­hood toys and books. We’re down­siz­ing, so the tough deci­sions have to be made. Do I keep my hand pup­pets of Lamb Chop, Char­lie Horse, and Hush Pup­py or let them go?

Reader's Digest Treasury for Young ReadersI know I’ve gone through these box­es since I was a kid but every ten years or so I’m sur­prised all over again by what I played with as a child and cared enough to pack in a box for remem­brance.

I found two Reader’s Digest Trea­suries for Young Read­ers and the three-vol­ume Dou­ble­day Fam­i­ly Trea­sury of Children’s Sto­ries.  My moth­er also sub­scribed to the Reader’s Digest Best Loved Books for Young Read­ers. This is how I read Lor­na Doone and Ivan­hoe and Where the Red Fern Grows.

I was star­tled to real­ize that my famil­iar­i­ty with many of the clas­sic poems, sto­ries, and non­fic­tion arti­cles came from these books. I was intro­duced to Dorothy Can­field Fish­er and Eliz­a­beth Janet Gray and Dr. George Wash­ing­ton Carv­er and Jules Verne and The Odyssey and NASA’s work and more than a hun­dred more sto­ries and arti­cles. I’d like to believe that I’m an omniv­o­rous read­er today because of the wide vari­ety I encoun­tered in these books.

The Family Treasury of Children's BooksThere’s a pen­chant for every­thing new right now. Grand­par­ents pick up the lat­est Dora the Explor­er or Where’s Wal­do? book because they’ve heard of them and have a vague sense that kids like them. Or the book­store clerk sug­gests a Calde­cott or New­bery win­ner of recent vin­tage.

This is a plea to remem­ber those clas­sic books: the sto­ries, the folk tales, the fables, the poet­ry. Chil­dren will read a lot that you wouldn’t expect them to read, espe­cial­ly if you give it to them. Those clas­sics pro­vide a com­mon lan­guage for edu­cat­ed peo­ple.

Can’t find some­thing suit­able? Write to your favorite pub­lish­er and sug­gest that they print col­lec­tions of clas­sics, old and new. There are a few books pub­lished in the last 20 years that sort of approach these col­lec­tions pub­lished in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Here are a few:

Story Collections

Per­haps 50 years from now your chil­dren and grand­chil­dren will open their own box of child­hood mem­o­ries, being thank­ful that you gave them such a great gift.

Thanks, Mom. You gave me a gift that has sus­tained me all my life.

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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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Look at how we’re teaching nonfiction!

Melissa Stewart working with a studentAs anoth­er school year winds to a close, I’m feel­ing encour­aged about the state of non­fic­tion read­ing and writ­ing in ele­men­tary class­rooms across the coun­try.

In 2010, when the Com­mon Core State Stan­dards were intro­duced, edu­ca­tors began ask­ing me for ideas and strate­gies for imple­ment­ing the Read­ing Infor­ma­tion­al Text stan­dards. And they were hun­gry for tips and tools that they could use to teach infor­ma­tion­al writ­ing.

Melissa Stewart's websiteSo I began to think deeply about the craft of non­fic­tion writ­ing. I described my evolv­ing insights and obser­va­tions on my blog and pro­vid­ed resources on my web­site and pin­ter­est pages.

Teach­ers, school librar­i­ans, read­ing spe­cial­ists, and lit­er­a­cy coör­di­na­tors appre­ci­at­ed what I was doing. They used my resources. They emailed me with ques­tions. They asked me to par­tic­i­pate in Twit­ter chats. And they invit­ed me to their schools. We shared ideas, and togeth­er, our under­stand­ing of non­fic­tion, espe­cial­ly expos­i­to­ry non­fic­tion, grew.

Melissa Stewart in the classroom

This year I saw tan­gi­ble evi­dence that edu­ca­tors’ efforts are pay­ing off. When I vis­it­ed schools, teach­ers no longer ner­vous­ly asked me, “How can we teach non­fic­tion?” Instead, they proud­ly exclaimed, “Look at how we’re teach­ing non­fic­tion!” Then they showed me the amaz­ing projects their stu­dents had com­plet­ed.

Here are some the great ideas edu­ca­tors have shared with me.

Non­fic­tion Smack­down!
Mrs. Par­adis, teacher-librar­i­an
Plymp­ton Ele­men­tary School, Waltham, MA

Stu­dents in grades 3–5 read two non­fic­tion books on the same top­ic. Then they eval­u­ate and com­pare the two titles, record­ing their think­ing on a work­sheet like this one. When stu­dents are done, they can share their respons­es with class­mates. Or the work­sheets can be post­ed, so that oth­er stu­dents can use the infor­ma­tion to help them make book choic­es.

March Madness

March Mad­ness Non­fic­tion
Mrs. Moody, instruc­tion­al coach
Williams Ele­men­tary School, Oak­land, ME

Dur­ing the month of March, stu­dents in every grade lev­el par­tic­i­pat­ed in class­room read-alouds of six­teen non­fic­tion pic­ture books. Then the chil­dren vot­ed on their favorites. Here’s more info about this fun, whole-school activ­i­ty.

Text Fea­ture Posters
Mrs. Teany, kinder­garten teacher
Memo­r­i­al Ele­men­tary School, Med­field, MA

After read­ing a vari­ety of age-appro­pri­ate books writ­ten by me, K-2 stu­dents cre­at­ed fab­u­lous text fea­ture posters, using the ones in my books as men­tor texts. Take a look at these ter­rif­ic exam­ples.

A caption and labels highlighting a butterfly’s body parts.

A cap­tion and labels high­light­ing a butterfly’s body parts.

Hurricane Watch

Labels on a grip­ping draw­ing of a hur­ri­cane.

Dragonfly Zoom bubble

A “zoom bub­ble” show­ing a close-up view of a dragonfly’s head next to a com­plete body image with very col­or­ful wings.

Poisonous

Com­par­ing a frog and toad, high­light­ing that frogs have teeth but toads don’t. (top) Fact box­es with infor­ma­tion about two frogs, one is poi­so­nous and one isn’t. (bot­tom)

You can see more sam­ples in this fun video cre­at­ed by Mrs. Gro­den, the teacher-librar­i­an at Memo­r­i­al Ele­men­tary School.

Text Struc­ture Swap
Fourth grade teach­ing team
Kennedy Ele­men­tary School, Bil­ler­i­ca, MA

After read­ing No Mon­keys, No Choco­late, the stu­dents made book maps to get a stronger sense of the archi­tec­ture of the main text, which has what I call a cumu­la­tive sequence struc­ture (my men­tor texts were tra­di­tion­al cumu­la­tive tales, such as The House that Jack Built and I Know an Old Lady Who Swal­lowed a Fly.)

Then each child chose one exam­ple from the text and rewrote it with a cause and effect text struc­ture.  What a great idea!

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Exper­i­ment­ing with Text Struc­tures
Sec­ond grade teach­ing team
Wealthy Ele­men­tary School, East Grand Rapid, MI

Image-L_260pxWhile grow­ing bean plants, stu­dents read a wide vari­ety of age-appro­pri­ate non­fic­tion books about plants and plant growth. Then each child wrote about the beans using the text struc­ture of his or her choice. The range of sam­ples includ­ed using:

  • sequence struc­ture to describe their plant’s growth sequence.
  • com­pare and con­trast struc­ture to explain the dif­fer­ences they observed between their seed and seeds placed in low-light con­di­tions or deprived of water. 
  • cause and effect struc­ture to describe how low light or lack of water affect­ed seeds.
  • how-to struc­ture to explain how stu­dents cared for their seed.
  • descrip­tion struc­ture to doc­u­ment the appear­ance of their plant with metic­u­lous atten­tion to detail.

Wow! I was blown away.

Rad­i­cal Revi­sion!
Kennedy Ele­men­tary School
Bil­ler­i­ca, MA

As teach­ers lis­tened to me describe the 10-year process of revis­ing No Mon­keys, No Choco­late, they hatched a plan for a project I love. They’re asked first graders to write a piece of non­fic­tion. Next year, when the stu­dents are in sec­ond grade, teach­ers will share the No Mon­keys, No Choco­late Revi­sion Time­line on my web­site and ask the chil­dren to revise the piece they wrote in first grade. Good idea, right? But it gets even bet­ter. Both drafts will be placed in a fold­er, and the stu­dents will revise the piece again in third, fourth, and fifth grade.

Imag­ine how dif­fer­ent the final piece will be from the orig­i­nal! It will allow chil­dren to see tan­gi­ble evi­dence of their growth as writ­ers and give them a true sense of how long it can take to write a book.

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Authen­tic Illus­tra­tion
K-2 teach­ers, Mid­dle Gate Ele­men­tary School
New­town, CT

As teach­ers lis­tened me describe the process of mak­ing When Rain Falls, they came up with a great idea. After stu­dents have writ­ten non­fic­tion about a top­ic of their choice, chil­dren in anoth­er class at the same grade lev­el will illus­trate the text. Then the orig­i­nal writ­ers will cri­tique the artists’ work. Did they make any fac­tu­al errors in their draw­ings? This activ­i­ty mim­ics the process non­fic­tion authors go through when they review sketch­es cre­at­ed by an illus­tra­tor.

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Sci­ence and Sto­ries Lab­o­ra­to­ry
Ms. Beech­er, Lit­er­a­cy Coör­di­na­tor
Pasade­na (CA) Uni­fied School Dis­trict

Using Per­fect Pairs: Using Fic­tion & Non­fic­tion Pic­ture Books to Teach Life Sci­ence as a guide, Ms. Beech­er worked with the staff at Jack­son STEM Dual Lan­guage Mag­net Ele­men­tary School to design an inno­v­a­tive Sci­ence and Sto­ries Lab­o­ra­to­ry that immersed stu­dents in a fab­u­lous mul­ti-week adven­ture of read­ing, writ­ing, and explor­ing. Take a look at this fun video to see some of the high­lights.

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Like teach­ers all across Amer­i­ca, I’m more than ready for sum­mer break. But I’m also look­ing for­ward to see­ing even more ter­rif­ic ideas for teach­ing infor­ma­tion­al read­ing and writ­ing next year. It’s a great time for non­fic­tion!

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Books about Chocolate

Feb­ru­ary is Nation­al Choco­late Month, so how could we let it pass by with­out an homage to choco­late … in books? Far less cost­ly on the den­tal bill! “In 2009, more than 58 mil­lion pounds of choco­late were pur­chased and (like­ly) con­sumed in the days sur­round­ing Feb­ru­ary 14th — that’s about $345 mil­lion worth. (Kiri Tan­nen­baum, “8 Facts About Choco­late,” Del­ish) Were you a part of the nation­al sta­tis­tic? Here are a list of 12 books about choco­late to feed your crav­ing.

Betty Bunny Loves Chocolate Cake  

Bet­ty Bun­ny Loves Choco­late Cake 
writ­ten by Michael Kaplan
illus­trat­ed by Stephane Jorisch 
Dial Books, 2011

Bet­ty Bun­ny wants choco­late cake. Her moth­er wants her to learn patience. Bet­ty Bun­ny would rather have choco­late cake. This is a fun­ny, droll book about a spunky girl for whom wait­ing is a chal­lenge. The illus­tra­tions are filled with humor, too.

Candy Bomber

 

Can­dy Bomber: The Sto­ry of the Berlin Airlift’s “Choco­late Pilot”
writ­ten by Michael O. Tun­nell
Charles­bridge, 2010

When the Rus­sians main­tained a block­ade around West Berlin after World War II, US Air Force Lieu­tenant Gail S. Halvors­en arranged to have choco­late and gum dropped over the city by hand­ker­chief para­chutes.  Rus­sia want­ed to starve the peo­ple of West Berlin into accept­ing Com­mu­nist rule, but the Air Force con­tin­ued its sanc­tioned deliv­ery of food and goods for two years. Halvors­en would drop the can­dy for the kids of West Berlin with a wig­gle of his plane’s wings so they’d know it was him. A true sto­ry with a lot of pri­ma­ry doc­u­men­ta­tion.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory  

Char­lie and the Choco­late Fac­to­ry
writ­ten by Roald Dahl
illus­trat­ed by Quentin Blake
Knopf, 1964

Inspired by his school­boy expe­ri­ences of choco­late mak­ers send­ing test pack­ages to the kids in exchange for their opin­ions along­side tours of the choco­late fac­to­ries with their elab­o­rate machin­ery, Roald Dahl cre­at­ed what might be the most famous book about can­dy, and choco­late in par­tic­u­lar, in the world. As chil­dren vie for a gold­en tick­et to enter the choco­late fac­to­ry, Char­lie Buck­et finds the fifth tick­et. Liv­ing in pover­ty, it’s quite a sight for him, espe­cial­ly when the oth­er four win­ners are eject­ed igno­min­ious­ly from the fac­to­ry, leav­ing Char­lie to inher­it from Willy Won­ka. This book cel­e­brat­ed its 50th Anniver­sary in 2015.

Chock Full of Chocolate  

Chock Full of Choco­late
writ­ten by Eliz­a­beth MacLeod
illus­trat­ed by Jane Brad­ford
Kids Can Press, 2005

A great way to talk about math and process and writ­ing instruc­tions, cook­books are appeal­ing to those kids who can’t get enough of the Food Net­work. This book has 45 recipes fea­tur­ing choco­late with easy-to-under­stand instruc­tions for dish­es such as S’more Gorp, Dirt Dessert, and Can­dy-Cov­ered Piz­za.

Chocolate Fever  

Choco­late Fever
writ­ten by Robert Kim­mel Smith
illus­trat­ed by Gioia Fiammenghi
Cow­ard McCann, 1972

Hen­ry Green loves choco­late. He eats choco­late all the time in every form and shape. He’s so enam­ored of choco­late that he con­tracts Choco­late Fever. Hen­ry runs away from the doc­tor and straight into a zany adven­ture filled with humor and action. A good read-aloud.

Chocolate  

Choco­late: Sweet Sci­ence & Dark Secrets
of the World’s Favorite Treat
 

writ­ten by Kay Fry­den­borg
HMH Books for Young Read­ers, 2015

This book on choco­late for mid­dle grade read­ers cov­ers choco­late from its light to dark aspects, from the way it was dis­cov­ered to the slaves that were used to grow and har­vest it. This book address­es the his­to­ry, sci­ence, botany, envi­ron­ment, and human rights swirling around the world’s obses­sion with choco­late.

Chocolate Touch  

Choco­late Touch
writ­ten by Patrick Skene Catling
illus­trat­ed by Mar­got Apple
Harper­Collins, reis­sued in 2006

John Midas loves choco­late. He loves it so much that he′ll eat it any hour of any day. He doesn′t care if he ruins his appetite. After wan­der­ing into a can­dy store and buy­ing a piece of their best choco­late, John finds out that there might just be such a thing as too much choco­late. This take on the leg­end of King Midas is writ­ten with humor and action. First pub­lished in 1952, this is a charm­ing sto­ry.

Chocolate War  

Choco­late War
writ­ten by Robert Cormi­er
Pan­theon Books, 1974

In this clas­sic young adult nov­el, Jer­ry Renault is a fresh­man at Trin­i­ty who refus­es to engage in the school’s annu­al fundrais­er: sell­ing choco­late. Broth­er Leon, Archie Costel­lo, the Vig­ils (the school gang) all play a part in this psy­cho­log­i­cal thriller. Cormier’s writ­ing is game-chang­ing.

Milton Hershey  

Mil­ton Her­shey: Young Choco­lati­er
(Child­hood of Famous Amer­i­cans series)
writ­ten by M.M. Eboch
illus­trat­ed by Meryl Hen­der­son
Aladdin, 2008

As a young boy, Her­shey had to drop out of school to help sup­port his fam­i­ly. He was a go-get­ter. Work­ing in an ice cream par­lor gave him ideas about sweets and sell­ing choco­late to the pub­lic. He start­ed his own busi­ness, work long and hard to per­fect the choco­late his com­pa­ny sells to this day, and learned a good deal about eco­nom­ics, mar­ket­ing, and run­ning a com­pa­ny. An inter­est­ing biog­ra­phy for young read­ers.

No Monkeys, No Chocolate  

No Mon­keys, No Choco­late
writ­ten by Melis­sa Stew­art and Allen Young
illus­trat­ed by Nicole Wong
Charles­bridge, 2013

A good look at the ecosys­tem and inter­de­pen­dence of a choco­late tree and the live­ly mon­keys that chew on its pods as they swing through the jun­gle, dis­trib­ut­ing seeds. Read­ers look at the one tree’s life cycle, exam­in­ing the flo­ra, fau­na, ani­mals, and insects that con­tribute to the mak­ing of cacao. Two book­worms on each page com­ment on the infor­ma­tion, mak­ing this infor­ma­tion even more acces­si­ble.

Smart About Chocolate  

Smart About Choco­late: a Sweet His­to­ry
writ­ten by San­dra Markle
illus­trat­ed by Charise Mer­i­cle Harp­er
Gros­set & Dun­lap, 2004

A book shar­ing many facts about the his­to­ry and mak­ing of choco­late, it’s short and engag­ing. Illus­trat­ed with car­toons and dia­logue bub­bles, pho­tos and charts, this is a good sur­vey of choco­late. Includes a recipe and sug­ges­tions for fur­ther read­ing.

This Books is Not Good For You  

This Book Is Not Good for You
writ­ten by pseu­do­ny­mous bosch
Lit­tle, Brown, 2010

In this third book in the series, Cass, Max-Ernest, and Yo-Yoji work to dis­cov­er the where­abouts of the leg­endary tun­ing fork so they can get Cass’s Mom back after she’s kid­napped by the evil dessert chef and choco­lati­er Señor Hugo. High adven­ture with a fun atti­tude.

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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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Bookstorm: The Shadow Hero

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In this Bookstorm™:

Shadow HeroShadow Hero

writ­ten by Gene Luen Yang
illus­trat­ed by Son­ny Liew
First Sec­ond, 2014

As we become a cul­ture adapt­ed to screens, visu­als, and mov­ing pic­tures, we grow more accus­tomed to the sto­ry­telling form of the graph­ic nov­el. For some, their com­fort with this com­bi­na­tion of visu­als and text telling a sto­ry sat­is­fies a crav­ing to “see” the sto­ry while they’re read­ing. For oth­ers, the lack of descrip­tive detail and mea­sured, lin­ear momen­tum through the sto­ry feels like a bar­ri­er to under­stand­ing. With the vari­ety of graph­ic nov­els avail­able and the inven­tive ways in which they’re assem­bled, we encour­age you to keep try­ing. Find a sto­ry that intrigues you and per­se­vere … we believe you’ll grow accus­tomed to this form. In time, you’ll add graph­ic nov­els to the depth of offer­ings you eager­ly rec­om­mend to stu­dents, patrons, and friends.

We select­ed Shad­ow Hero for our fea­tured book this month because the super­hero has been present in comics since the ear­ly 1900s and cur­rent films and tele­vi­sion have reawak­ened an inter­est among chil­dren that we believe can eas­i­ly trans­port them into read­ing. Yang and Liew have giv­en a back sto­ry to a super­hero, The Green Tur­tle, orig­i­nal­ly cre­at­ed by tal­ent­ed com­ic book artist (and fine artist) Chu Fook Hing in the 1940s. There’s plen­ty of action, humor, mys­tery, and sus­pense in this new book … all the right ingre­di­ents for the best read­ing.

In each Book­storm™, we offer a bib­li­og­ra­phy of books that have close ties to the the fea­tured book. For Shad­ow Hero, you’ll find books for a vari­ety of tastes, inter­ests, and read­ing abil­i­ties. Shad­ow Hero will be com­fort­ably read by ages 10 through adult. We’ve includ­ed pic­ture books, nov­els, and non­fic­tion for the pletho­ra of pur­pos­es you might have.

Graph­ic Nov­els About Super­heroes. With the pop­u­lar­i­ty of The Avengers and X-Men, Iron Man and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., there are a num­ber of graph­ic nov­els about super­heroes avail­able for dif­fer­ent ages. Some have mature con­tent. Many are acces­si­ble for younger read­ers. Whether or not they’re wear­ing capes, super­heroes are appeal­ing because of the pos­si­bil­i­ties.

Graph­ic Nov­els About Mythol­o­gy. The Green Tur­tle is a part of Chi­nese mythol­o­gy. We hear a lot about Greek and Roman mythol­o­gy, but there are com­pelling myths around the world. Graph­ic nov­els make those tra­di­tions and sto­ries avail­able to read­ers who might have trou­ble with straight text.

Fic­tion about Super­heroes. Longer texts, with­out illus­tra­tions, often hold as much attrac­tion for com­ic book read­ers if the sto­ries are engag­ing. And there are pic­ture books that are just right for the read­ers who are too young for graph­ic nov­els but have the inter­est.

Com­ic Books, Non­fic­tion. Whether it’s learn­ing how two boys came to invent Super­man, the super­hero from Kryp­ton, or exam­in­ing info­graph­ics and sta­tis­tics, or lis­ten­ing to a pod­cast with Gene Luen Yang on pub­lic radio about his inspi­ra­tion, The Green Tur­tle, there’s a lot of research and learn­ing to be done with super­heroes.

Draw­ing. For those kinet­ic and visu­al learn­ers, telling a sto­ry through draw­ing, pop­u­lat­ing a page with char­ac­ter­i­za­tion and set­ting and voice is a way to use com­ic book art for devel­op­ing writ­ing skills.

Chi­nese His­to­ry. There are many, many books, some of them quite schol­ar­ly, about Chi­nese his­to­ry. We’ve select­ed just two, both of which are also visu­al his­to­ries.

Chi­nese Art. Chi­na is such a large coun­try, with a civ­i­liza­tion that is thou­sands of years old, that these books orga­nize the infor­ma­tion in order to present the diver­si­ty of arts in a way that makes sense.

Chi­nese Immi­gra­tion. There are fine books about the immi­gra­tion of Chi­nese and Asian Pacif­ic peo­ple to Amer­i­ca, the Gold­en Moun­tain. We’ve select­ed a few, from pic­ture books to nov­els to mem­oir. 

Chi­nese Food. Read­ers learn a great deal about dif­fer­ent cul­tures from the food they eat, their tra­di­tions for prepar­ing food, and the ways they share it with their com­mu­ni­ty. We’ve found cook­books for both learn­ing and eat­ing, for adults and for chil­dren.

Chi­nese Geog­ra­phy. It always helps to have a good map to rein­force the visu­al knowl­edge of a coun­try. You’ll find sug­ges­tions for maps, down­loads, pho­tos, and facts about this large coun­try in Asia.

Tech­niques for using each book:

Downloadables

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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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Reading Ahead: Levitate Your Brother!

Big Magic for Little Hands

by Vic­ki Palmquist

We recent­ly host­ed a Har­ry Pot­ter par­ty for adults for which every­one was asked to per­form a mag­ic trick. Some peo­ple fierce­ly addressed the chal­lenge. Some peo­ple pan­icked. Some peo­ple bought a trick off the inter­net. I turned to Joshua Jay’s Big Mag­ic for Lit­tle Hands (Work­man Pub­lish­ing Co).

Cit­ing all the ben­e­fits of learn­ing to per­form mag­ic, the author reveals that he wasn’t a read­er until he need­ed to know about mag­ic. Learn­ing mag­ic tricks and per­form­ing them gives a child con­fi­dence and helps with pub­lic speak­ing skills. “Oth­ers have inte­grat­ed mag­ic into their jobs, using effects to break the ice or com­plete a sale or relax a jury.”

There are dia­grams and ter­mi­nol­o­gy and sug­gest­ed stage setups. There are help­ful hints (over­com­ing stage fright). There are lists of mate­ri­als need­ed for each feat of pres­tidig­i­ta­tion.

With com­pelling black, white, and red illus­tra­tions, the dia­grams are easy to fol­low, con­vinc­ing even the most skep­ti­cal that they could make these tricks work.

The writ­ing is not just step-by-step instructional–Jay writes with humor and an appre­ci­a­tion of what’s prac­ti­cal.

The mate­ri­als are items you prob­a­bly have on hand in your house­hold. When one list includes a top hat, Jay writes “A top hat works great, but you could also dec­o­rate an emp­ty tis­sue box and use that, or use your dad’s cow­boy hat. (Note: This only works if your dad is a cow­boy.)”

Per­haps most of all, I enjoyed the real-life sto­ries of mag­ic such as “Houdini’s Great Plane Escape.” When Hou­di­ni was film­ing the movie The Grim Game, a stunt required climb­ing by rope from one plane to the oth­er. Dur­ing the stunt, the two planes col­lid­ed and crashed to the ground. What hap­pened? Well, that would be telling. Accord­ing to Jay, a good magi­cian nev­er shares a secret or tells how it is done. Big Mag­ic for Lit­tle Hands will tell you but I won’t.

High­ly rec­om­mend­ed for kids aged 8 and old­er (and the adults in their lives who will be just as fas­ci­nat­ed). It’s a large for­mat book with a big heart and plen­ty of fas­ci­na­tion between its cov­ers. A great gift. A good, read­able, and hours-of-fun addi­tion to your library.

 

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Keystones of the Stone Arch Bridge

Keystones of the Stone Arch Bridge

In down­town Min­neapo­lis, Min­neso­ta, span­ning the Mis­sis­sip­pi Riv­er, there is a “Stone Arch Bridge” that resem­bles a roman viaduct with its 23 arch­es. Built at a time when Min­neapo­lis was a pri­ma­ry grain-milling and wood-pro­­duc­ing cen­ter for the Unit­ed States, Empire Builder James J. Hill want­ed the bridge built to help his rail­road reach the […]

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Gravity

Gravity

What is grav­i­ty? I have a notion (after many years of school) that it keeps my feet touch­ing the ground. When I jump into the air, I am defy­ing grav­i­ty. What is Grav­i­ty? A book. Writ­ten and illus­trat­ed by Jason Chin, who pre­vi­ous­ly gift­ed us with Red­woods and Coral Island and Gala­pa­gos. He has a […]

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Books Plus: The Goods by McSweeney’s

The Goods by McSweeney’s: Games and Activ­i­ties for Big Kids, Lit­tle Kids, and Medi­um-Size Kids edit­ed by Mac Bar­nett and Bri­an McMullen fea­tur­ing Adam Rex, Jon Sci­esz­ka, and more Big Pic­ture Press, an imprint of Can­dlewick Press, 2013 For your hol­i­day gift-giv­ing con­sid­er­a­tion … An over­sized book filled with every imag­in­able dis­trac­tion, this should be […]

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Behind the Books We’ve Loved: A Wilder Rose

Grow­ing up, I loved to read mys­ter­ies, biogra­phies, but espe­cial­ly series books. I didn’t read Nan­cy Drew or Anne of Green Gables (not until I was an adult), but I fol­lowed most every oth­er series char­ac­ter. I read Cher­ry Ames, Sue Bar­ton, Trix­ie Belden, Beany Mal­one, Janet Lennon, but espe­cial­ly Louisa May Alcott’s books, the […]

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Packing up the tent?

Sum­mer Read­ing No. 2 Many of you are mak­ing plans to get out of Dodge when your kids are out of school for the sum­mer. I imag­ine thou­sands of peo­ple mak­ing a list: tent, sleep­ing bags, mini-grill, rain pon­chos, clothes­line (from our camp­ing expe­ri­ence, some­place to hang things up to dry is essen­tial), cool­er, GPS, […]

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Cooking up a bookstorm

One of my favorite gen­res of read­ing is cook­books. It all began when I was ten, the Christ­mas of 1963. My moth­er gave me Bet­ty Crocker’s Cook Book for Boys and Girls, orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished in 1957 by Gold­en Books, illus­trat­ed by Glo­ria Kamen, and writ­ten by, well, Bet­ty Crock­er, of course! A lot of cook­ing […]

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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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A stellar book of fiction or nonfiction?

Non­fic­tion is get­ting a rock­et lift-off into the con­scious­ness of edu­ca­tors … and pub­lish­ers … through­out the Unit­ed States. Why? The Com­mon Core State Stan­dards require that non­fic­tion text is includ­ed in the class­room. I, of course, am cheer­ing over this. I haven’t put the list of books I’ve read on a scale, non­fic­tion on […]

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A reading path from Japan to America

My explo­ration began when a young man, aged 7, rec­om­mend­ed that I read Ship­wrecked! the True Adven­tures of a Japan­ese Boy (Rho­da Blum­berg, Harper­Collins, 2001). The title sprang imme­di­ate­ly to his mind when I asked him what he’d read late­ly that was good. Find­ing a copy, I opened it and began read­ing, real­iz­ing that this […]

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