Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Makes You Wonder Just What Nonfiction Really Is, Doesn't It?

Oz and Ends had a nice little discussion going on The Idea That the Story Is True versus, say, it's really being true. It's kind of a mind-boggling concept.

The article J.L. Bell links to includes the following quote: "Mezrich's response to these specifics is to say that everything he describes is accurate, only that it didn't necessarily happen to the people, in the places, or at the times it occurs in the book."

Ah...define "accurate."

Come on, if a writer is going to do this kind of thing, why not just use the material in a piece of really good fiction?


Sunday, November 01, 2009

How Much Do We Want To Know?

Janet Maslin spills all kinds of juicy gossip in The New York Times about J.M. Barrie in For Starters, A Satanic Svengali, a review of J. M. Barrie, the Du Mauriers and the Dark Side of "Peter Pan" by Piers Dudgeon. But the line "But his real evil, in Mr. Dudgeon’s view, was more satanic than sexual, and “Neverland” goes into overdrive when it unveils Barrie’s cloven-hoofed side" left me going, "Which was? What? What was it?"

The monster of Neverland: How JM Barrie did a 'Peter Pan' and stole another couple's children by Tony Renell in The Daily Mail gets into a lot more dirty detail. And guess what--There's a Peter Pan/Rebecca connection.

Two of my favorite obsessions are linked. How marvelous is that?

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Friday, October 09, 2009

Is The INK Think Tank Beautiful Or What?

The INK Think Tank, a website with a database of nonfiction books, is one beautiful looking spot on the Web. It appears to be quite functional, too. According to the INK Think Tank press release announcing the website launch, "Twenty-two leading children’s book authors have launched a free online database of nonfiction books,, designed to help teachers, librarians, and homeschoolers find the books they need to meet curriculum requirements in grades K-12. The database will enable users to build an outstanding classroom or home library that includes material required by school districts nationwide."

I registered in order to check out the database itself. You can, indeed, search by grade, subject, and standard.

Among the nonfiction writers involved in the INK Think Tank are three with whom I'm familiar: I've heard Karen Romano Young speak, I took part in Susanna Reich's blog tour for Painting the Wild Frontier, and I've met Melissa Stewart a few times through the New England Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators.

I'm going to leave now to send the INK Think Tank link to a couple of teacher family members.


Thursday, September 17, 2009

One For The Grown-ups?

I enjoy reading about the nineteenth century, and I'm definitely interested in the science/religion conflict from that period. My interests as a history geek lean toward how people lived rather than wars, too. So Charles and Emma: The Darwins' Leap of Faith had a lot to offer me. As I read it, though, I wondered if it had a lot to offer younger readers.

The publisher describes it as being marketed to readers thirteen and up. I think most older teens will have moved on to adult biography, and I just don't know if a book about a nineteenth century marriage is going to be that fascinating for younger teens. The Darwins were already thirty when they married (after Charles's voyage on The Beagle, so that is only referred to in the past), and they move right along into a sickly middle age. (Particularly Charles.) Parental grief over the death of children as well as the passing of one elderly relative after another are probably of more interest to adults than kids. There are a few subtle references to sex from Darwin's notebooks and letters that may produce an "Eww" reaction. The material on how Darwin worked out his theory doesn't add a lot of plot or adventure because essentially the guy seems to have sat in his library and thought. For years. There's nothing wrong with that. In fact, it's damn good work, if you can get it. But it doesn't create much in the way of natural narrative drive.

Charles and Emma is very highly regarded, and that's just fine. But I kept wishing that it were either a kids' historical novel from the point of view of one of the Darwin children or an even more sophisticated adult work.

Hey, what was with so many members of this family being sick all the time, anyway? I know there's been some work done about women and sickness in the nineteenth century, and some of the children were picking up serious contagious diseases. But what about Charles?

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Monday, August 17, 2009

This Ought To Encourage The Young To Read Nonfiction

Underwear: What We Wear Under There by Ruth Freeman Swain, is a little heavy on text and probably a little too technical for the younger kids in its age range (6 to 10 according to the author's website). But it is very high interest. And while the illustrations are kind of on the traditional picture book side, they are good traditional picture book illustrations. I'd describe the writing style as clear, straight nonfiction. Overall, I think Underwear would be a nice book for helping kids make the transition from reading stories to reading fact.

A Gauthier family story about this book: I like to put books out next to the bed for houseguests. I put Underwear out for an elementary school teacher staying with us, who made the mistake of telling me afterwards that she enjoys picture books, meaning I'll have some waiting for her whenever she arrives. She shared the book with another houseguest, who took particular note of the following passage:

"The bottom half of a union suit got the name "long johns" from John L. Sullivan, an American bare-knuckles boxing champion of the 1880s and 1890s. Besides being a prizewinning boxer, he was known for fighting in his long underwear."

Well, it turns out that the second houseguest works in a financial-type office that shall remain nameless with a guy who will also remain nameless except for the fact that his middle initial is "L" and his last name is "Sullivan." And my houseguest had heard that his Something L. Sullivan was descended from the John L. Sullivan.

Text messages were sent. The passage in question was copied. And when the dust settled, it turned out that, yes, indeed, we have a family member who knows one of John L. Sullivan's descendants. I love it when this kind of thing happens.

Training Report: We're just not going to talk about this anymore.

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Monday, July 20, 2009

Could We Use Some More Books On This Guy?

Vermont and New York are celebrating the 400th anniversary of Samuel de Champlain's arrival on the lake they share. When I heard about this I, of course, immediately thought, Historical' books...

I didn't find a lot. Champlain by Christopher Moore looked the most appealing, though the leveled reader Samuel de Champlain by Elizabeth MacLeod might be interesting because it's for such young readers.

It's not a picture book, though. I was hoping for a picture book.

And Champlain married a twelve-year-old girl who was nearly thirty years younger than he was. Doesn't that situation just scream for a really mature, disturbing YA novel?


Friday, July 10, 2009

Modeling Writing

In my former life as a professional mom, I was often perplexed by how little nonfiction of the essay and memoir variety my kids read in elementary school. This was a big problem in my mind because they were frequently asked to write essays and sometimes even about themselves. Yet as far as I could tell, they had nothing to model their writing upon. Connecticut had standardized testing before anyone had ever heard of No Child Left Behind, and the writing portion of those tests didn't involve novels, it involved multiple paragraph essays. The Gauthier kids' teachers scrambled to provide instruction, but how much easier it would have been for them "to get it" if they ever read examples of what it was they were supposed "to get."

I used to spend my time hunting for essays for my kids to read. By the time they were in sixth grade, I was passing them some of Joel Stein's Time Magazine essays. You know, his "self-focused humor column". Come on. He used thesis statements and topic sentences.

What I really wanted was Jon Scieszka's Knucklehead. But it wasn't available then. Scieszka's memoir of "Growing Up Scieszka" is filled with short, readable chapters about his life as a child. (I'm not going to make much of the fact that he was a boy child, because I think girls will enjoy this book, too.) And while I didn't notice much in the way of thesis statements and topic sentences, I did see a lot of material that could make child readers think, "Hey! I could do this! I could write about the strange books I have to read at school. I could write about my grandparents. I could write about Halloween, my siblings' injuries, things I've bought, games I've played" and about thirty-one other subjects since Scieszka includes thirty-eight chapters.

Coming up with material is hard for a lot of kids. Knucklehead could provide inspiration for some of them. After all, learning to write will come a whole lot easier if you have something to write about.

Training Report: You haven't seen one of these in a long time, have you? At the beginning of the week I found a journal to which I could submit the essay I spent so much time on this summer. And I submitted it.

Essays, which we were discussing in this post, anyway, are kind of problematic. You feel this overwhelming need to express yourself about something that has happened to you that you think has some connection to the greater world, to humankind, and then what do you do with it? It's not easy to find potential markets for some of these personal essays. For instance, earlier this week I did a rough draft of what might be called a flash essay about washing windows. What am I going to do with that?

A writer could, of course, write essays that publications are actually looking for. I just read today that Drunken Boat is looking for 1000 word or less "nonfiction perspectives from around the world on the effect of the global economic crisis." The writing prompt becomes more specific, and I'm sure someone could do a personal essay with it. But the phrase "global economic crisis" is freaking me out.

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Thursday, June 25, 2009

A Lost Week

Because I'm incredibly insensitive, I spent a little time working at home on Monday while a family member was going under the knife. (Come on. It wasn't brain surgery, and one of our nicer relatives was at the hospital with her.) Otherwise, I've been sharing post-surgical elder care this past week, including an overnight last night. I didn't get any other work done, but during those moments when I wasn't becoming incredibly friendly with a large number of residents of a senior housing complex, I did manage to do a little reading.

Among the books I completed was this year's Siebert Medal winner, We Are The Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball, which was written and illustrated by Kadir Nelson. The images are eye-poppingly beautiful, and the unnamed first-person narrator who sounds like a player from the era makes this historical work very readable. And the book uses endnotes! I can never say enough about how much I love nonfiction that includes citations.

I am not a fan of baseball. Reading about it is one hundred percent better, as far as I'm concerned, when there is a historical element.

This book is deserving of every good thing that's been written about it. I do wonder, though, as I always wonder when I read these beautiful nonfiction books published in a picture-book format, who will read them? The text is way too sophisticated and lengthy for traditional picture book readers. We Are The Ship's publisher is marketing it to ages 8 and up, but will, say, intermediate and middle school teachers accept their students reading and reporting on it? Will the adults who might be very taken with it find it in the kids' section of libraries and bookstores?

Do books like this find their readers?

A exhibit of the original art work for We Are The Ship will arrive at the Eric Carle Museum in 2012. I hope I remember.

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Tuesday, June 16, 2009

I Am Loving This Book

That's not something you hear me say very often, is it?

I am loving Minders of Make-Believe: Idealists, Entrepreneurs, and the Shaping of American Children's Literature by Leonard S. Marcus. (I heard him speak last fall. That was good, too.)

I'm not whipping through the book because I'm reading two other nonfiction books right now and shifting among them. But Minders of Make-Believe is my favorite. So many facts! So well organized! I loved the nineteenth century chapters because the first one covered the Puritans (and, coincidentally, I also love the P. People) and the second contained some of the same material I read about in The Last Dickens. Marcus even talks about the Boston publishers who appeared in The Last Dickens. The number of women writers who held editorial positions with children's magazines post Civil War was interesting, too.

Last night I read about how the Newbery got started. Soooo interesting.

It's been a while since I've read a straight history book this good.

Training Report: Sigh. Another day spent doing good works, if you can believe it. Well, mostly. As I was driving from place to place this morning, I realized that the older brother in the 365 Story Project has acne. And a couple of details for the very first day came to me. And I wondered if the 365 Story Project could turn into a traditional novel. Should it? Should it be like a traditonal novel but different?


Tuesday, February 24, 2009

An Indication Of YA's Significance Now?

Condoleeza Rice has signed a contract with Crown Publishers to write three books. Two of them will be memoirs about her family--one written for adults and the other "a young adult edition."

I think this is impressive news--a former secretary of state writing (or having revised for her, who knows?) a YA version of her memoir. Crown must think it can sell it, meaning it thinks teenagers will read it. Or maybe just that libraries will buy it for their YA nonfiction collection, which is not quite the same thing.

The book isn't coming out until 2012. If it is well done and successful (or at least successful), could it end up being followed by other books by former government officials, politicians, financial leaders (if there are any anymore), etc.? I know there have always been kiddy bios of famous people, especially dead white guys and sports figures, but this seems different to me.


Thursday, December 18, 2008

I'm Still Interested In One Of These Subjects

This fall I mentioned here that I can still recall a book I read when I was young about a woman who disguised herself as a man so she could fight in the Civil War. Well, I'll Pass for Your Comrade by Anita Silvey is a nonfiction book on the subject. With pictures! Check out an interview with the author at cynsations.

By the way, The Washington Post recently carried an article about Silvey's article in School Library Journal about the Newbery medal has lost its luster. I hope no one does an article on the Washington Post article about the School Library Journal article because, really, I think this topic has been wrung pretty dry.


Thursday, November 06, 2008

Graphic Novels Are For Kids! Like Dead Dogs!

Oz and Ends has another post on graphic novels, this time on Laika, another Cybils nominee from last year. In it, J.L. Bell says, " our culture the comics format lowers the perceived age of a book's readership."

Discuss among yourselves.

Be sure to read the comments about YA and graphic novels.

Yeah, and I agree with all those who would like to be spared another story about a dead dog.

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Wednesday, November 05, 2008

The Informed Outsider And Painting The Wild Frontier

Be sure to check out Mitali Perkin's interview with Susanna Reich, Art and the Informed Outsider. They discuss biographers as "informed outsiders." I was particularly interested in Susanna's answer to the question that begins "When considering heroic artists and writers in the past, how do you study their lives without using twenty-first century eyes to judge their choices...?"

Tomorrow I'll be talking history with Susanna Reich here at Original Content.

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Thursday, October 30, 2008

Art And History In One Lovely Package

My impression of the nineteenth century is that it was a time when people had a big interest in things outside themselves—natural history, art, and philosophy, for instance. At the same time, you saw some remarkable bigotry. Susanna Reich's biography of George Catlin, Painting the Wild Frontier: The Art and Adventures of George Catlin, confirms my feelings about that incredibly interesting century.

You may not be familiar with George Catlin's name, but you've probably seen his work, particularly The Cutting Scene. Catlin was a nineteenth century artist who made painting American Indians (the term Reich uses) his life's work, both in terms of art and business. Early in Painting the Wild Frontier, Reich says of him, "Would people pay to look at paintings of Indians, he wondered, the way they paid to look at the Greek statues and the paintings of Revolutionary War heroes in Peale's museums?"

He gambled that they would.

The first part of Painting the Wild Frontier deals with Catlin the artist and adventurer. He believed the Plains Indians were still relatively untouched by contact with Europeans and seemed sincerely interested in documenting them and their lives with his art. Except for a few unattractive incidents that indicate that he was, indeed, a nineteenth century man, (the buffalo he shot but didn't kill and allowed to struggle in pain so he could sketch it from better angles, for instance, and his insistence on visiting a quarry considered a sacred site, even going so far as to take a sample of the rock away with him) Catlin comes off well during his productive years.

Making a living from art is almost always a problem, and in Catlin's case, he appears to have been a better painter than businessman. Though he ran successful exhibits in the United States and London, he wasn't able to hold on to money. An argument could be made that he also exploited Indians who appeared in his exhibitions. In his later years, he could have been a model for the artist tragically fallen on hard times.

When literary agent Nathan Bransford described his fantasy MFA Program he said, "Good nonfiction has an underlying arc and a satisfying conclusion." Reich definitely finds an underlying arch in George Catlin's life story, and while its conclusion may not be satisfying in terms of happily ever after, it's satisfying in terms of being a conclusion that fits in with what came before. While I kept hoping he would redeem himself as I read the latter part of the book, I can't say I was surprised when he didn't.

The art of our past is important because before cameras it was the only way to preserve how people and things looked. Archaeologists sometimes use art to help them date items--if a cup is similar to one in a painting from the late eighteenth century, then it, too, may very well come from that period. Thus Catlin's art is important no matter what we may think of him. Painting the Wild Frontier includes enough of it to almost be considered an art book. Some of the illustrations are in black and white, some are in color, and all are beautiful. Captions not only discuss the work, but identify the individuals in the paintings, making them real people who lived on after they were painted, who had families and perhaps descendants walking among us today.

Pay particular attention to the timeline at the back of the book, in which Reich shows us what was going on in the U.S. at various points in Catlin's life. While reading Painting the Wild Frontier, you'll definitely get a feeling for the nineteenth century world, but it's here in the timeline that you really get hit with some of the inconsistencies of the period. In 1838, for instance, while Catlin's Indian Gallery exhibit is a big hit with the citizens of four eastern cities, 4,000 Cherokee Indians die on the Trail of Tears while being forcibly relocated by the federal government.

This is a piece of work that could really get young readers interested not only in the subject covered but in reading history, period.

Painting the Wild Frontier has been nominated for a Cybil.

You can read a lot more about Painting the Wild Frontier next week, when Susanna Reich will be doing a blog tour. She'll be getting started on Monday at Becky's Book Reviews and stopping here on Thursday when we'll be talking history.

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Sunday, October 05, 2008

Ethan Allen On My Mind

Next month I'll be taking part in a blog tour for Susanna Reich's nonfiction book, Painting the Wild Frontier: The Art and Adventures of George Catlin. I started reading the book and was soon reminded of my favorite nineteenth century guy,Ethan Allen.

Reich reports that George Catlin's father, Putnam, was born in Litchfield, Connecticut as was Ethan Allen. (Allen would have been around twenty-five when Putnam was born.) Putnam (a significant name in Connecticut) Catlin is described as having been descended from Puritans, and there's an implication that the strict way in which he ran his family may may have been the result of Puritan influence. That he could have been influenced by Puritan thinking makes sense to me because Puritans dominated Connecticut in the sixteenth century and experienced a resurgence (the Great Awakening) in the mid-seventeenth.

The seventeenth century Puritan mindset and world figures in Ethan Allen's life story, too, though he could be described as the anti-Puritan. He rejected all things Puritan.

So, that's why I had Ethan on my mind last week. Then I found that J. L. Bell at Oz and Ends wrote a post about my book relating to Ethan Allen, The Hero of Ticonderoga. And then he wrote another.

But that's not all!

Yesterday I was visitng a family member who had recently returned from Ireland where he had been in some coastal city where...the prison ship on which Ethan Allen was held after being captured by the British during the Revolution made port!

What are the chances that Ethan Allen would come up (okay, only sort of come up as far as the George Catlin book is concerned) three times in a week? Come on! The guy's been dead nearly 220 years.

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Monday, July 07, 2008

I'm A Little Confused

If I ever write a picture book, I want it to be illustrated the way Matt Faulkner illustrates Laurie Halse Anderson's Thank You, Sarah.His artwork is realistic but witty. It pops and carries some of the story.

The text of the book is a little confusing for this reader, though. Thank You, Sarah is the story of how Sarah Josepha Hale managed to get Thanksgiving recognized as a national holiday. That is an interesting take on a Thanksgiving book. Seriously, just how many stories about Piligrims can a kid (or anyone else)take? But Hale comes across in this tale like one of those small town cranks, the sterotypical busybodies who nag and nag until they get what they want. I didn't see exactly how she was "bold, brave, stubborn, and smart," at least, in the context of this story.

In all fairness, kids may not know the nagging small-town gadfly stereotype and may not see it in Hale as she's portrayed here. The youngest readers (the publisher is marketing the book to grades K through 5) may very well appreciate the fact that someone created a holiday for us.

At the end of the book are four pages of an odd assortment of information. The information about Thanksgiving and Hale is appropriate and intereting, but then there's the equivalent of a page on the Civil War that seems out of place, even though Thanksgiving was finally made a holiday by Lincoln in 1863. I felt this section of the book could have been more focused.

Hale is a fascinating figure, having served as an editor of women's magazines back in their very early days. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, women's magazines definitely had an impact on American culture. They are supposed to have been influential in getting controls on patent medicines, for instance. Maybe Thank You, Sarah is a good introduction to Hale for very young children who can't be expected to have much interest in her more significant work, but I'm not sure.

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Monday, March 10, 2008

A Dinosaur Book For Nonfiction Monday

I can take dinosaurs or leave them, myself. What I really like reading about are the dinosaur hunters of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins wasn't a paleontologist, but a sculptor. In the 1850s, he created sculptures of dinosaurs using information from paleontologist Richard Owen. The dinner party given inside one of his sculptures is the stuff of legend. Seriously, I heard about it years ago back in the day when I used to read dinosaur books aloud to a young relative.

The whole Hawkins' story is told in TheDinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins by Barbara Kerley. The book covers the famous dinner party and the Waterhouse dinosaur exhibition at the Crystal Palace in 1854. In addition, Kerley tells me some things I didn't know. It turns out Hawkins tried to do for dinosaurs in the U.S. what he did for them in England.

The lengthy Author's and Illustrator's Notes at the end of the book make good reading, too.

And who illustrated this lovely book that Blogger won't let me show you this evening? Why Brian Selznick, of Hugo Cabret fame.

In her Author's Note, Barbara Kerley says that what drew her to Waterhouse Hawkins was the dinner party given in one of his dinosaurs. What draws me to his story is that he and Owen were wrong in their depiction of dinosaurs. This is not to belittle the two men. On the contrary, what fascinates me about this whole situation is that knowledge changes as we discover more of it. It can happen to anybody, even the greatest talents of any particular age.

Talk about something that's hard to accept.

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Monday, February 25, 2008

Adding With Monet And Picasso

I think many people think of art only as something that is stored in museums, and they steer clear of those places. I loved Math-terpieces by Greg Tang (illustrated by Greg Paprocki) because it connects Art, which may have elitist connotations for some, with something most of us probably believe is far more practical--math. Talk about a multi-tasking opportunity! Parents can get in reading time with their kids, expose them to art, and teach math concepts all at once. Or a parent can hand the book to young readers so that they can get some reading time in with their art and math.

Each two-page spread includes a reproduction of a well-known work of art, a poem related to it that includes the artist's name and a math problem related to groups of items on the opposite page that were "lifted" from the original art work. For instance, if you're looking at Claude Monet's White Water Lilies, the math problem will involve adding together the different groupings of water lilies on the opposite page.

It's lovely to look at and functional, too.

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Friday, January 18, 2008

Not The Kind Of List I Usually See

Though I can't make any claims to being a science-oriented person, in a past-life (or while living in an alternative timeline, either way you want to think of it), I was a PTO Science Fair chairperson for two years. What I lacked in technical knowledge I tried to make up for with administrative enthusiasm.

Thus, I was attracted to Open Wide, Look Inside's Outstanding Science Books Published in 2007. As an administrative-type, I was interested to see that the list is broken down into categories.


Wednesday, April 25, 2007

More Flotsam

Loree Griffin Burns author of Tracking Trash: Flotsam, Jetsam, and the Science of Ocean Motion was interviewed Monday on WBUR in Massachusetts. Great interview. Seriously. Griffin Burns has some fascinating stuff to talk about.

And I'm not even all that fond of the ocean.

Griffin Burns has a page at her website on the trips she took while researching Tracking Trash that's worth checking out, too.

Thanks to the New England Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators listserv for the info on the interview.