Tuesday, April 5, 2016

The whole story of THE HOLE STORY...: One book's timeline

Ever wonder how long it takes to get a book published?

Author Pat Miller shares the timeline of her soon-to-be-released nonfiction picture book, The Hole Story of the Doughnut, on the Rate Your Story blog. Note how many times Pat sought out critiques and revised her work.

If you want more of Pat's insights and enthusiasm consider signing up for her nonfiction conference. This year, NF 4 NF (Nonfiction for New Folks) will be held on September 22-25 in Rosenberg, Texas.

Hope to see you there!

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Smiling Slaves and Writing about Difficult Subjects

Recently, Scholastic pulled the picture book A Birthday Cake for George Washington because of the way slaves were portrayed.  I have not seen the book, nor do I know if it was fiction or nonfiction. But I hope this incident opens up a discussion.  Should difficult subjects be dealt with in picture books, and if so, how?

When my book Farmer George Plants a Nation came out it received good, even starred reviews. But one reviewer criticized an illustration because a slave was smiling. I know that I did not intend to portray slavery in a "happy" way, and I know that the illustrator, Layne Johnson, didn't either.  Our goal was accuracy. The book wasn't even about slavery. The fact that I was writing about Washington's farm meant that I had to address slavery, and illustrations would include enslaved workers.  I chose to address slavery in the back matter because including it in the narrative would have shifted the story away from my intended focus. And we all know that a picture book has to have a tight focus. I didn't mean to slight the issue, and I hope it isn't perceived that way. Was I right to do that? I don't know. It was a judgement call on my part.

Now that I look at the book, I see that there are actually three smiles. Two black women are talking to each other and one is smiling. That seems okay. On another page, a man is behind a plow and smiling at the back end of the mules in front of him. I think that is okay, too. The only questionable smile appears on the man pulling a handcart. He is looking in George's direction, and  George appears to be smiling back (although now that I look at it, he looks rather smug... or wistful... yeah, we'll go with wistful).  Is it wrong to have a slave smile in the direction of the master? Would it ever have happened? I think one questionable smile out of the 28 other black figures that I counted in the book isn't bad.

A smile is one thing, but what about invisibility? Is that any better?  The other black figures in the book have their heads lowered, or shaded by a hat brim, or have a neutral face, or are so far in the distance that they are indistinct. Blurred. They are the cultural back drop. That's accurate, but is it really better than a prominent slave (yes there were slaves with higher standing) participating in the forefront?

My book about Thomas Jefferson doesn't have a single image of a slave, nor are they mentioned in the text, but because of TJ's baggage I felt obliged to address the issue in the back matter there, too (More to appease critics than educate young readers, if I'm being honest). 

I have always admired the monumental work that a nonfiction illustrator does. I just have to write, "He guided a plow." The illustrator has to figure out what that plow looked like, what the men or women would look like, what they would wear, what the landscape would be, the types of plants.... The list of all the things that could go wrong is endless. So I am grateful to Layne Johnson for his sensitivity and attention to detail.

All I know is that slavery is a difficult subject to write about when it's the main topic. It is also difficult to address when it is the cultural backdrop of a smaller story. Should we not tell those stories? Or should we come to some understanding of how we as authors and illustrators can walk that fine line of educate and entertain?

My heart goes out to the author, illustrator, editor and art director on the project. They walked the fine line, and unfortunately for this project,... they fell off.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

New Year - New Experiences -- Down on the Farm

The best part about being a writer is that it gives me an excuse to do whatever the heck I want to do. That includes taking off shortly after the holidays to spend four days "Down on the Farm."

When Julia Recko from the American Farm Bureau Foundation for Agriculture (AFBFA) asked if I wanted to spend a long weekend getting to know a bunch of farmers, I said. "Of course I do!" I didn't have any immediate plans to write about farmers, but sometimes research opportunities come to you, and when it does, grab it.

I was a little suspicious that I was flying down to Orlando, land of Disney, rather than Iowa or Kansas, but it turns out that a short drive away from Cinderella's castle are some of the most beautiful cattle ranches in the country. (And a large percentage of farmers were there for the AFBFA convention.)

I wasn't the only one to jump at this opportunity. Eleven other children's authors and illustrators were there: Albert Monreal Quihuis  Loreen Leedy, Sandra Neil Wallace,  Susan Grigsby, Eric Ode, Lela Nargi, Lisl Detlefsen, Lizzy Rockwell, Michael Spradlin, Shennen Bersani, and 2009 Miss America Katie Irk.  The first day we toured a meat processing plant (not a slaughterhouse!). Other than the freezing temperatures and hairnet it was like touring any other processing plant. Highly efficient and organized, beef was trimmed to chef's orders at a rapid rate. I was struck by how many people worked there even though it was partially mechanized. No machine can take the place of a real person making sure each filet is measured properly.

That afternoon we toured a family-owned cattle ranch. The black Angus trotted after our hay wagon eager to get a snack.  Several week-old calves shyly peeked around their moms to see what the fuss was about. Although I could have stood in the pasture for hours watching the animals, the real stars of the show were Riley and Reagan Rowe, the farmer's granddaughters, who were proud to show off their 4H projects. At 14 and 9, these two girls were more poised and well spoken than most adults. And they knew there stuff. I had no idea 4H kids had to keep such careful records of expenses, depreciation of equipment, and send letters to potential buyers. Sounds similar to what we have to do as writers!

The next day we were set up on a "blind date" of sorts with a farmer.  I was very nervous when I met Carlton, a farmer from Iowa. He lives on a Heritage Farm that has been in his family more than 100 years. He and his wife grow corn, soybeans, and finish cattle, which means they buy calves and fatten them up for market. We talked about new technology and why people are so suspicious of innovation in farming. Did you know that by the year 2050 that the world population will be 9 billion people? Yet, the world's farmland is decreasing. That concerns Carlton and other farmers. When I asked him if he thought about the weighty fact that he was responsible for feeding the world, he said yes, he does think about it. I was humbled. I just write children's books.

Me and Carlton Kjos
I didn't have any plans to write about farmers before, but now? Who knows. I have a notebook full of ideas. And I'm curious to know more. That's what happens when you put yourself out there. It makes you think. So take a leap. Take a trip. Talk to people. You'll be a better writer, and a better person, for it.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Passing on Great Advice

Passing on a great post from Kathleen Merz managing editor for Eerdmans Books for Young Readers.

From the Editor’s Desk: Four Tips for Writing Nonfiction Plots

Great explanation of how to use character in nonfiction, and wonderful examples to look at.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Happy Thanksgiving!!

I'll keep it short. I'm thankful for every blessing in my life - family, friends, health and home.

But also -- for finally finding the the information I needed for my upcoming story. One question haunted me. What color was Henry Ford's plastic car. In the world of black and white photos it looks like the car is white. But it could be a light blue, yellow, green... Who knows? None of the press releases mention it.  None of the designers in their oral reminiscences mention it.

Then I finally found an article and -- Eureka -- "cream-colored body.." Thank you to the journalist whose name I can't remember for giving me the detail I needed ('cause the illustrator will definitely ask).

Happy Thanksgiving!!

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Digging for Primary Sources (Research Part 3)

After familiarizing myself with my main character -- Henry Ford -- by reading several biographies, I have amassed a lengthy list of other sources that I need to get. Many of them are primary sources, which means they were created at the time Henry Ford was alive.  These documents are important because they give me a window into a person's life so I can see for myself what Ford was like, hear his voice, and come up with my own conclusions about his character and about the people around him.  Primary sources include letters, diaries, photographs, speeches, newspaper clippings, menus, recipes and receipts, as well as business reports, government census, birth certificates, etc. The list is endless.

Most of the information I'm looking for is housed at the Benson Ford Research Center in Dearborn, Michigan, so I give them a call and make an appointment. Most research libraries or archives want advanced notice. That way they can pull the files ahead of time. You don't want to waste valuable research minutes waiting empty-handed while they find the material.   Most facilities have an online catalog or finding aids so you can tell them exactly what you need. Tell them who you are and what your project is about. In my follow-up email I listed the kinds of information I needed: How Ford came up with the idea of a soybean car; how soybean plastic was created; what it looked like; smelled like; an anecdote from childhood that might explain his diet; etc.  I wanted the librarian to know that I wasn't just looking for statistics or PR material.

When I arrive at the Research Center it's a warm morning in August. Tourists line up for the Greenfield Village gates to open.  I want to go in too. I've never seen Edison's lab or Ford's childhood home,  But I hang a left and enter the Research Facility.   I place my bag and lunch in a locker in the hall, and carry my laptop, cell phone, pencil and notepad through the security system. These are typical restrictions for most archives. Some make you wear gloves when handling documents, too.
All Soybean Dinner 1934
The librarian has a cart loaded with all the soybean files. If I stop to read everything, it will take me weeks, so I use my phone to photograph pages, cite the source on my laptop, and note the documents that I would want photocopied by the librarian.  From 9-5 with a break for lunch, I work my way through most of the soybean files.  Before I leave, I consult with the librarian on a list of materials I want for the next day. I feel as exhausted as the folks who spent the day walking through Greenfield Village.

Back at the motel, I upload the images to my computer and check to see if they are readable or if I need to get a photocopy made.  I also look through more finding aids for anything I might have missed.

The second day, I am eager to see the scientist's notebooks from the soybean lab, but discover that they are just steno-pads filled with logged in information like weight, oil content and percentage of protein.  However, I do notice some telling doodles.  On the cover of the booklet from November, 1941 to Jan. 1942 is a sketch of two Nazi swastikas as if the doodler was trying to figure out which way it goes.  On the 1944 notebook is a bomber plane firing across the paper.  All the notebooks are heavily stained with soybean oil.

Going through the photographs takes longer. I linger over images of the 1934 World's Fair: of nattily clad mechanics working on pristine Ford engines; mermaid dancers on a stage; sections of road from the Apian Way, China's Silk Road, cobblestones from Europe, and log road from Boston.

I take a break for lunch and buy a ticket to Greenfield Village. Documents only tell you part of the story. I need to walk through Ford's world for a while.
Handwritten note from Ford.
Doesn't have anything to do with soybeans, but it's cool.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

How to Research Nonfiction: Step 2

Last week I wrote about the kind of research I do when I get an idea. I have to answer two key questions: Is it kid-friendly, and is it a new idea or new slant on an old subject?  Henry Ford's plastic soybean car fits the bill, so I move to question number three: Will there be enough information about the subject to make the project viable?

I have run into dead ends before. Getting my hopes up about some arcane topic only to discover that the little tidbit that tantalized me initially was all there was. No historical records existed.  I suppose I could have made it my life's work to scrape together the few remnants that remained and built on it so that I became the expert, but my heart, and my attention span, was just not that into it. I'll leave that to some grad student looking for a dissertation topic.

But my gut feeling is that there is more to my plastic car story than what I have uncovered so far. After all, Henry Ford is one of the most famous innovators of the 20th century. So, my first task is to read as many biographies as I can about the man. Doing research for a nonfiction book is like creating backstories for fictional characters. You need to find out what makes them tick. Where did they come from? What and who influenced them?  There are a lot of biographies about Ford, so I select the ones written by reputable researchers; ones with lots of end notes and a big bibliographies that will direct me to other sources.  I start to build my own working bibliography.

Your real characters need to be grounded in a time and place. You need to know about the world they lived in. For this project that means reading about the Roarin' Twenties, the Great Depression, and about life in Michigan.

I also read up on ancillary topics, too, like soybeans (Did you know there are more than 300 kinds?), and about the Ford company (FYI: The ill-fated Edsel was named after Ford's son, who was named after Ford's best friend, who was a food chemist at the plant.)

My working bibliography grows exponentially, and I know that there is more than enough information out there to make my Henry Ford story a go. And that's a good thing, because my editor already approved it. :)

Next Week: Step 3 -  Looking for those Primary Documents