Friday, March 30, 2012

So Real It Must Be Fake

Sometimes the truth seems too good to be true. I’ve been thinking about this lately in my role as a former editor and current writer and reader of children’s nonfiction.

During my ten years at Carolrhoda Books, I edited many biographies of famous people. All of us editors were careful to make sure that facts—and quotations in particular—were thoroughly documented. We were well aware that readers look at nonfiction as being “true.” When it’s true, you can’t include made-up stuff.

One reviewer was sure I'd made up the dialogue from William Penn's famous courtroom trial--but I got it from contemporary sources who were present at the court!
In my years as a writer of children’s nonfiction, I’ve worked hard to maintain that same standard. If you see words in quotations in one of my biographies, they’re from a published source—and that source is listed in the bibliography.

Sometimes, it’s hard to write lively prose and maintain that standard of “true.” But there are rare moments when your research uncovers great, great sources of lively, immediate, and wonderful words.

Yup. It says it's a true story, right on the cover of Mary Losure's new book. And it really is!

My friend and fellow St. Paulite, Mary Losure, lucked into a treasure trove of great primary source materials for her first book for children. The Fairy Ring: Or Elsie and Frances Fool the World has the words “a true story” printed on the cover, just below the title. It’s got a good bibliography of sources. It’s written by a journalist (folks known for getting down to the facts). And yet, at least one reviewer points to “imagined dialogue,” and the book is being classified in some places as “historical fiction” and “realistic fiction.” 

It’s none of the above. The Fairy Ring is a compelling read with a  strong storyline. In other words, it’s good, plain, well-researched nonfiction.

A story so real, you might think it’s fake…until you read the bibliography, of course.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Cold fear clutched my stomach...

Ah, springtime… Allergies (oh, my head!) and Young Author Conferences (hurrah!).

This spring, I’ve already taught writing to the wonderful fourth through eighth graders who gathered at Bethel University in Arden Hills on the nineteenth. More sessions will follow in May.

With just this one day of teaching behind me, I am definitely looking forward to all the Young Authors that spring will bring. These students (usually hand-picked by schools and always extremely eager and talented) show amazing ability and desire to improve and learn.

In my sessions this year, we wrote first-person stories inspired by photographs. To get the ball rolling, we worked as a group on one story, and here’s the photo we used.

Don’t you already want to start writing down her story? Here’s the gripping, nail-biter (complete with soda) that one group of kids wrote:

Cold fear clutched my stomach as the robber drew nearer and nearer.

“I’m scared!” I cried out.

Suddenly the robber stopped coming toward me, went to the fridge, and grabbed a soda. He slowly drew a gun from his pocket.

“BANG!” The robber shot the gun at the soda to open it, but he missed and hit a gallon of milk.

“I don’t like milk,” he mumbled. “I prefer Dr. Pepper. Would you like one?”

He went to get a rag, and I drank some milk. It was the first I had eaten in two days. But soon I found out it wasn’t milk, it was poison! I blacked out…

To be continued (by you, if you choose).

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Spine Poetry: The Localire Edition

If you follow this blog, you may already be familiar with the term LOCALIRE. It's the book-reader's version of locavore--someone who reads books created by writers in his or her local area.

I've taken this idea in a new direction, getting ready for April and Poetry Month. My inspiration is elementary school librarian and blogger Travis Jonker who recently put up a post about spine poetry.

Specifically, he's put out a call for spine centos. What's that? A cento, Wikipedia tells me, is "a poetical work wholly composed of verses or passages taken from other authors; only disposed in a new form or order." In this case, the "verses or passages" are the titles displayed on the spine.

This try at a Localire Spine Cento was created at my middle school library, with help from a sixth grader:

Suggestions? Other localire (Minnesota/Wisconsin) titles I might add? 

I'm open to all suggestions--and apologize for cutting off some of the titles. The authors, by the way, are in order: Anne Ursu, Marsha Qualey, Pete Hautman and Mary Logue, Loretta Ellsworth, and Marion Dane Bauer. Many thanks to all of these authors for having such memorable and poetical titles.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Happy Birthday, Wanda Gág

She was born on March 11, 1893, in the town of New Ulm, Minnesota. As a child, she learned German first, then devoured English when she went to school. 

Her other love was art. She was the apple of her father’s eye and learned from him to understand paint and color and line.

In 1908 just before her father died, he told her, “What Papa couldn’t do, Wanda must finish.” He meant that she needed to be the artist he’d dreamed of becoming, a dream cut short by tuberculosis.

He was thinking, Wanda said later, “of the pictures he had not finished—had not even begun.”

Wanda Gág “finished” her father’s pictures and then created wonderful images and stories of her own. As we celebrate what would have been her 119th birthday—and the recent World Read-Aloud Day—it’s time to take a moment to appreciate Wanda and her unique contribution to the picture book form.

Hundreds of cats,
Thousands of cats,
Millions and billions and trillions of cats.

The refrain from her picture book classic, Millions of Cats, is just as much fun to read aloud today as it was back in 1928. And since the book is still in print, you can still find brand-new copies to give to your children, friends, grandchildren, or your local children’s librarian. 

If you haven’t read this book aloud in a while, you owe it to yourself and the children around you to crack open a copy again. You’ll meet the very old man and the very old woman who dream of owning just one “sweet little fluffy cat” and get millions and billions and trillions instead. Trust me on this one: you're in for a rare treat.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Just Launched!!!

I'm taking a break today from my ongoing series of posts on Why the World Still Needs Editors. Instead, I'm celebrating the launch of my newest book, Hope and Tears: Ellis Island Voices. 

My touristy shot of the Registry Room at Ellis Island.
It's one of several photos I took that are featured in the book.

There have already been some very nice reviews for Hope and Tears in PW (Hooray, it's a star!) and Kirkus. But the icing on the cake is today's feature at the Children's Literature Network, part of a brand-new feature in CLN's online magazine called "Just Launched."

It's another example of the great work that the folks at CLN do to get the word out about books for young readers. 

Thanks again to Vicki and Steve and the rest of the CLN crew.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Editors Matter Because “Little Things” Matter

Part 6 in the continuing series: Why the World Still Needs Editors

Contrary to widely held belief (among my kids at least), “little things” like distinguishing it’s from its and you’re from your are NOT esoteric or out-dated. I’d also venture to say that “little things” like using the English language correctly and precisely are pretty important too.

Two quick examples:

#1. Although fortune cookie fortunes and stories are meant to be thought-provoking, they probably should also make sense. Think of it as a sort of Hippocratic Oath for editors and writers: “I will prescribe stories for the good of my readers according to my ability and my judgment and never do harm to anyone by writing perfectly meaningless and befuddling text.”

Above is the fortune cookie I got last weekend, while visiting family in Southern Indiana. Yes, you heard it here first: 

Failure is the path of lease persistence.

I’m still trying to decide if it’s incomprehensible or just too deep for me.

#2. Had a certain U.S. Army recruiter been clear on when to use, and not use, contractions, my entire life might have taken a different course. Here’s what he wrote in a letter I received shortly after my high school graduation:

Dear Gwenyth,
I think we have what your looking for.

Think of it as the road not taken. Or the road in need of a good editor.