Thursday, December 22, 2011

Theoretical Thursday!!

More musings on Albert Einstein's Relativity, the Special and the General Theory, A Clear Explanation That Anyone Can Understand
Chapter VI – The Theorem of the Addition of Velocities Employed in Classical Mechanics.
This chapter I get! But it isn’t worth repeating because at the very end Albert says, “the law that we have just written down does not hold in reality. For the time being , however, we shall assume its correctness.” I don’t want to ASSUME correctness if it isn’t correct. I’d rather just be told what is right..
Chapter VII - The Apparent Incompatibility of the Law of Propagation of Light with the Principle of Relativity. OR – why you should never assume!
I won’t bore you with more of the train and the man or the raven, so basically – light does not follow the above law so therefore the law is not correct.

I may be dim, but it is slowly dawning on me that my biggest mistake is trying to learn the theory of relativity as if I were a person born before it was invented. So, I back tracked a bit and sought out more help – The Einstein Theory of Relativity: A Trip to the Fourth Dimension. by Lillian R. Lieber. This book, published in 1936! (much more recent) was reprinted a dozen times ( and probably more since my copy is the 12th edition) It is dedicated to Franklin Delano Roosevelt “who saved the world from those forces of evil which sought to destroy Art and Science and the very Dignity of Man.”

Oh - and by the way -- you may be asking yourself why I am using such old texts.  Well, as a nonfiction writer, I am trying to use primary sources, or get as close as I can.  So there!!! No googling, youtubing for me!

Lililian's preface promises to use just enough math to HELP and NOT HINDER the lay reader (Lillian used the caps, not me). It is also written in what seems to be free verse!?!? So bear with me, or is it bare with me, ‘cause I feel so naked revealing how stupid I am? Anyway – Lil says that I have to understand what was going on in Physics that brought about Albert’s theory. What was the “ maladjustment producing a tension which ultimately causes a break, followed by a greater stability – at least for the time being.”

Physicists were trying to prove and measure the ether, what they assumed occupied all of space. They assumed that the earth traveled through the ether and therefore there should be an ether wind. No one could find it. They all thought the experiments  were flawed.

Enter Einstein. Albert, being the cocky guy that he was, chose to assume that the experiments were right and the problem was trying to find the law that supported what was observed. He thought out of the box. He re-examined the foundation of physics and proposed a few changes, which seemed to make everything work. Then Lil reviews one of the experiments that wasn’t working and what burns my butt is when she says, “any boy who has studied elementary algebra” can figure this out. Never mind the chauvinist comment, I can’t figure this out! This time it’s a kid trying to swim across a river. Get a boat and don’t bug me! And this is just one of the problems that didn’t work.

Oh, and did I mention the helpful illustrations by Hugh Gray Lieber?


Physicists are on crack! At least Lil and Hugh are.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Theoretical Thursday -- My notes on Chapter V

 The Principle of Relativity (in the restricted sense)
Word of the day – Anisotropic – having different values when measured from different directions.
Albert is trying to be as clear as possible, but I don’t get it. Perhaps it is the language of the early 1900s that is perplexing me or I am just plain dumb as a box of rocks. But I am not daunted.

Something that moves in a straight line at a constant speed is said to move in a uniform translation – imagine the old train car jugging along --------

Now if a raven is flying overhead while we are on the train it will have a different uniform translation than if we saw it flying overhead while standing on the ground. I get that, but then Albert has to start in with this math crap —“If a mass m is moving uniformly in a straight line with respect to a co-ordinate system K, then it will also be moving uniformly and in a straight line relative to a second co-ordinate system K1, provided that the latter is executing a uniform translatory motion with respect to K”. What happened to the raven??

SO –If the Train is moving in a straight line in relation to the guy on the ground, and the raven (m) is moving in a straight line with respect to the train, then the raven will also be moving uniformly in relation to the guy standing on the ground.

So Albert’s brilliant principle of relativity (in the restricted sense) is –If the raven maintains a uniform translation it will follow the same general laws as the train in relation to the guy on the ground.  I thought we already kind of knew that. 

Oh crap – there is a BUT. But in view of the recent development in electodynamics and optics things might be more difficult - of course.
If a man (w) is walking inside a train car (v) (in the same direction as the train car) his distance (W) traveled is the combination of his walking (w) and the train’s movement(v)
W = v + w

Then we have the speed of light – 300,000km per second in a vacuum – and this, Albert says threw physicists into a tizzy. Because if light (c) is moving through a train car (v) instead of a man it is now W = c- v. It is subtracted. It is not the same equation and that screwed things up. But I’m not sure why? Is it because the light is so fast that the train in essence traps it and slows it down? Like catching a flying hummingbird in a net. Okay. I’m good with that. However – since these two equations don’t fit, one of the founding theories was thought to be flawed - It couldn’t be relativity, no, not Albert’s brilliant idea. Perhaps it is the idea of the constant speed of light.. No. That can’t be it either. Some other guys proved that. So – we need another theory to explain the inconsistency.
At this point my book exploded – literally.

I guess I’ve been too rough on Albert.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Happy Theoretical Thursday!

Week 3 - of me reading Einstein's RELATIVITY the special and the general theory a clear explanation that anyone can understand. 

Is anyone still out there?  In chapter 4 we discuss the law of inertia -- a body (removed from other bodies ie gravity) moves in a uniform straight line.  Got it.
But stars move in a giant circle.  So, we can't use Euclidian co-ordinates to measure them because the law of inertia does not apply.  So, if we must follow the law of inertia then we must use a different system -- we use a Galileian system of Co-ordinates.  There is no picture.  But I googled one and it seems pretty clear that I am coming to the end of my understanding.  But I've also come to the end of this very short chapter which is less than a page long.  I think Albert knew this next page turn would be rough.  So I'm out of here!

Monday, December 5, 2011

Conflict in Nonfiction

Good morning!  Nonfiction Monday is being hosted by Gathering Books.

Last month I spoke in Ithaca, NY at the regional SCBWI shoptalk meeting. My topic, of course, was writing nonfiction and in particular story and voice in nonfiction.  One question has stuck with me since that night.  One woman who was working on a biography asked, "Does there have to be conflict in nonfiction?" 

I told her that, yes, especially in a biography.  She wasn't sure that her chosen subject had encountered any conflict. My response was, nobody's life is smooth sailing, and if it is nobody wants to hear about it.  So,  after a little discussion, she admitted that the woman's life had not been all sunshine and roses.  Now the writer has to decide whether the conflict, which seemed to be more in the subject's personal life, is appropriate fodder for a children's book. But that is a topic for another time.

So, my short answer is yes, there should be conflict in nonfiction.  However, that conflict can take many forms.  In a biography, which most resembles fiction writing because it is character driven, the writer must present the struggle the subject went through.  As in fiction, that struggle could be internal or external.  Most of the picture book biographies that I can recall tend to focus on the external struggles especially when someone steps out of traditional roles to forge new territory. Think of  Marian Anderson (When Marian Sang by Pam Munoz Ryan) against the racial atmosphere of the time; Louise Smith (Fearless by Barb Rosenstock) who made her name in stock car racing;  Annette Kellerman (Mermaid Queen by Shana Corey) who broke rules in woman's roles and fashion.

I would love to hear from you about picture books biographies that deal with internal struggle as well.  Off hand, I am coming up blank,  (although most people who struggle against tradition also face internal doubts).

Older biographies delve deeper into the psyche of characters.  Darwin comes to mind in Deborah Heligman's Charles and Emma. 

But conflict can also be represented in other nonfiction.  When writing about an invention or discovery you should address the setbacks as well as the successes.  When presenting information, you give more than one opinion, which can often be conflicting.  In a how-to you provide warnings where caution is required.

Conflict can come in the form of tension in the writing or presentation of the material  - surprises in the language, or in the turn of a page.  An ABC format, for example, could have unexpected entries that keep the litany exciting.

If you think of other examples of conflict in nonfiction, I'd love to hear about them.


Thursday, December 1, 2011

Theoretical Thursday - week 2

NOTE: anyone not interested in how my brain works does not have to read this. It is a bit drier than I would have liked, but hey, it’s physics.

Week 2– of me reading RELATIVITY the Special and General Theory, A Clear Explanation that Anyone Can Understand, by Albert Einsten, (1916)

Part 1 The Special Theory of Relativity,
Chapter one – Physical Meaning of Geometrical Propositions.

I was a little worried when I began chapter 1 when the first sentence talked about being “chased about for uncounted hours by conscientious teachers” on the “lofty staircase” in the “noble building of Euclid’s geometry. I don’t remember my geometry teacher, Mr. Fritz, becoming animated enough to chase any student anywhere. But I pressed on. Here is what I learned –

Geometry is filled with lots of ‘truths’ about a straight line, a plane, a point, etc. We think that these things are all true, but truth is limited. Geometry is not concerned with how axioms relate to real experiences. Geometry makes connections between one geometric idea and another. I thought this was interesting because when I took geometry I remember lots of word problems with real stuff like balls and tables and trains. But apparently, real geometry-ettes, - ites, -ists (?) don’t care about real stuff.

However, Physics is concerned with real stuff - how geometry relates to the real world. The catch is – the ‘truth’ of a geometrical proposition is founded on incomplete experience. (Isn’t all truth based on incomplete experience??) There for – “truth is limited.”

Ta Da! I got through the first chapter!! Do I dare move on to chapter 2? You bet.

The System of Co-ordinates.

In this chapter Albert gets pretty basic. Distance between two points is measured by a standard of measurement (ROD S). You can locate any point (or event as he calls it, which is confusing, but I’m getting used to it) in relation to other points on a rigid body (like Earth) by means of measuring these distances. And to explain things on a third plane, he uses the analogy of a cloud flying over Potsdamer Platz, Berlin. We can calculate that clouds position by knowing the location of Potsdamer Platz on Earth and the distance the cloud is from the ground. We have located an object in space.

Rather than using names, mathematicians prefer numbers and the Cartesian system of co-coordinates of x, y, and z three planes perpendicular to each other. I think of it as the corner of a see-through box. In pottery, to measure the size of a pot before firing, we would place it in the corner of a gridded box to measure the pots, height, width, how much space it would take up in the kiln.

But like Albert says, “in practice, the rigid surfaces which constitute the system of co-ordinates are generally not available,” meaning that we don’t live in a big gridded box. We have to imagine it. He concludes: “Every description of events in space involves the use of a rigid body to which such events have to be referred. The resulting relationship takes for granted that the laws of Euclidean geometry hold for “distances,” the “distance” being represented physically by means of the convention of two marks on a rigid body.”

Chapter 3 – I’m on a roll and I can’t stop now – Space and Time in Classical Mechanics.

I’m still on board the physics train, but not sure why Albert says, “In the first place we entirely shun the vague word “space,” …. and we replace it by “motion relative to a practically rigid body of reference.” When I look at the space in my living room, I'm not thinking it relative to the coach, but I will from now on. Here he uses the classic illustration of the stone dropped off a train. From the droppee the stone appears to fall in a straight line. To a person on the ground the stone appears to fall in a curve. The fall is ‘relative’ to whom ever sees it. Got it. However, to me, the stone does not occupy two different locations. So, to me, the stone is not relative – the measurement is relative. I’m sure somebody would have a problem with that, but that’s how it works for me.

But then he says – “for every point on the trajectory it must be stated at what time the body is situated there.” WHY MUST WE? Don’t give me a must and not explain why.

And THEN he says – “In this connection we have not taken account of the inaccuracy involved by the finiteness of the velocity of propagation of light." ???? But he assures me we will later.

Okay. Better go before my head explodes.

Monday, November 28, 2011

I Bare All at Cynsations!

Today's post is being hosted at CynsationsPeggy Thomas on Baring All - Anatomy of Nonfiction and Book Giveaway. 

Now that I see the title, I have some major regrets (the low-cut blouse is one), but I'm also afraid I will be blocked from every school computer and banned from setting foot in a school again. But if you read the article you'll understand what I mean -- it's about turning the lens on yourself, analyzing what you do, and having the guts to share the good and the bad with others. 

Post a comment on the guest blog at Cynsations for a chance to win a copy of Anatomy of Nonfiction and a free critique by me of a nonfiction picture book manuscript or 3 chapters of a larger nonfiction work. 

Thursday, November 24, 2011


From everyone here at Theoretical Thursday we wish you a HAPPY THANKSGIVING! 
And theoretically, everything you eat today contains zero calories!

Monday, November 21, 2011

Marc Tyler Nobleman on Heroes -- Super and Otherwise. A Review and Interview

Boys of Steel (Alfred A Knopf, 2008)

For this Nonfiction Monday I recommend Boys of Steel, The Creators of Superman by Marc Tyler Nobleman and illustrated by Ross MacDonald.

It seems as though the creators of the first and most popular superhero should be common knowledge, but for a long time that information was kept quiet. But now, even kids will know that Superman was the alter ego of two boys who desperately needed one.

Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster were short, shy and lousy at sports – as tough a role to play in high school in the 30s as it is now. From the first sentence  we get a feel for who Jerry Siegel was – a boy who was happier at home with his fictional friends than amid the bustling bravado of high school. Joe Shuster felt the same way and they both escaped into their comics, Jerry writing stories and Joe drawing pictures.

Nobleman sprinkles this picture book biography with familiar phrases like faster than a speeding bullet; a bird, a plane; and fighting for truth and justice, and you can easily see how elements of the Superman story came from the boys’ lives. The stylized art work of Ross MacDonald is reminiscent of the classic comic book and captures the period when boys wore ties and vests to school and belted their pants at the waist! But Jerry and Joe’s feelings are universal, and today’s kids will relate. Who hasn’t at one time or another felt like they didn’t fit in. Readers will also be inspired by this team’s persistence as they pursued a dream they worked toward and believed in for years.

The picture book story ends when Superman is at his peak, but the heartbreaking denouement of the story takes place in the end pages titled The Greatest Superhero of All Time. Naive and eager to get the first Superman story published, Jerry and Joe sold it and all rights to the character to DC Comics for $130! They struggled for years to get back a fraction of the profits that Superman products amassed. Poor health and poverty forced them to battle one last time when in 1975 the first movie was announced. They took their case to the public and finally achieved what they had always wanted – acknowledgement that they were the creators of Superman. Today, their names appear on every product.


PT: How did you come upon Jerry and Joe's story and what aspect of it resonated with you and said, "This would be a great kid's book?"

Marc: I've been a Superman fan since I learned to read. When I was in high school, Superman turned 50, and I read a book of essays about him; one told Jerry and Joe's story and I was hooked. After college, I set out to write a screenplay about them, and this was when Jerry was still alive. However, my first attempt to contact him was rebuffed so I shelved it for ten years, by which point Jerry had died and I'd started publishing children's books. Because there was no standalone book in ANY format on Jerry and Joe, and because the story is at once inspirational and heartbreaking, I saw it as a great candidate for a picture book for all ages.

PT: Why did you decide to add the heartbreaking details of Jerry and Joe's legal struggles in the back matter? Other writers may have ignored it altogether, but you tackle it head on.

Marc: Yet at least one critic said it should have been in the story proper rather than the afterword, which some kids won't read! As far as I'm concerned, as long as they're in the book, they're in the story. I included the hardship they encountered because the story can't end without going through that, and it's a cautionary tale for anyone who wants to create. I didn't write the book to impart a lesson, but I'm thrilled when kids (or anyone) takes away from it that you must must must protect your ideas. Some kids as young as 1st or 2nd grade are mature enough to understand that sometimes people make decisions that hurt them.

PT: I noticed that your newest book is going to be about the creator of Batman. That begs the question - who is better? Do you prefer Superman or Batman and why?

Marc: I started with Superman and I stand by him; though many feel he's not as textured as Batman or other human characters, he's got his flaws and weaknesses like any hero. However, when it comes to their backstories - the ones I'm writing about - it's a tie.

PT: And I must ask about your newest experiment. If anyone is not familiar with Marc’s latest endeavor, he has been blogging about a story he wrote called 30 Minutes Over Oregon: The Only World War Two Bombing of an American State, that received glowing comments from editors but no offers to publish. Some editors commented on the fact that the hero ( a Japanese bomber pilot who comes back years later to apologize!) is not familiar to children. Perplexed, Marc wondered what makes a good hero, what makes a good story, and what does it take to convince an editor that you have both? He also asked illustrators to create cover designs for this book-without-a-publisher that he posted on his blog.

So I asked: With all the buzz about the story and posts from writers, readers, librarians, teachers, etc, has there been any new interest from editors?

Marc: The TMOO experiment has generated an overwhelming and positive response from editors, librarians, teachers, booksellers, agents, parents, and kids themselves; multiple editors have requested (or re-requested) the manuscript in its wake, and I wait eagerly and maybe not patiently enough to hear from them! I feel this book has the potential to stimulate the kind of questions no other nonfiction picture books I know of could, such as "Can someone start as an enemy and become a friend?" and "Can you be hero simply by apologizing?" Stay tuned to my blog Noblemania for updates.

PT: We can't wait!

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Theoretical Thursday

Welcome to Theoretical Thursday!

Today I start a new journey of expoloration and learning.  I will endeavor to learn Theoretical Physics. For as long as I can remember I have loved science – the idea that things are discoverable and understandable largely just by being observant. The life cycle of an insect, the growth of mold on bread, the magic of a healing cut, etc. And in physics class - A ball in a wagon is set in motion when the wagon is pulled. When the wagon stops, the ball keeps moving… etc. I get that. After all, I was the girl who scored the highest in all things mechanical on some Junior High assessment test (you had to follow the cogs and wheels of a machine and draw the direction of movement for each.)

But then I hit a road block – theoretical explorations where things like quirks, quarks and the Higgs-Boson particle are spoken about as if they too were sitting in a wagon. As I type this sentence, I realize that my ignorance may be showing and these things are real and observable and I just haven’t understood the conversation. And that is the impetus for this experiment – I want to understand the conversation. I want to understand how very smart men and women can earn a living by making stuff up. At least that is what it seems to me, right now, in my theoretically-challenged brain.

So, who better to teach me Theoretical Physics than the great man himself – Albert Einstein. And I just happen to have his book – RELATIVITY: The Special and the General Theory, A Clear Explanation That Anyone Can Understand. (Wanna bet?) Even Einstein appears to have misgivings as he peers at me with raised eyebrows from the photo on the cover. He holds his hands in pre-wringing motion as if to say, “This job may be harder than I thought.” And I think he may be right.

This book, written in MCMLXI, includes a preface. “The present book is intended, as far as possible, to give an exact insight into the theory of Relativity to those readers who, from a general scientific and philosophical point of view, are interested in the theory, but who are not conversant with the mathematical apparatus of theoretical physics.” I fit that bill – I am interested. And I am not conversant. So far so good.

His next sentence (Don’t worry, I’m not going to go through the whole book sentence by sentence. I think.) presumes I have an education of a standard “corresponding to that of a university matriculation examination.” I have a Masters in Anthropology, but that probably isn’t what he meant. I suspect that exams in MCMLXI might have been more rigorous than they were when I graduated, but I can’t be sure, so I press on.

The book also presumes, “…a fair amount of patience and force of will on the part of the reader.” Hmmm. Might have a problem there. I didn’t have much force of will last night when I ate 4 bowls of popcorn and a couple glasses of wine. (Note: it was “Smart Popcorn”) However, Albert promises that he has written the book in a ‘step-motherly-fashion” (and I’m hoping that doesn’t mean evil Cinderella’s step mother) and he hopes the book may bring someone “a few hours of suggestive thought!” (Albert, you dog! I don’t know about a few hours worth, but I like a suggestive thought now and then.)

That preface was written in December 1916. The edition I have is the 15th edition and on June 9th, 1952 (8 years before I was born) he wrote a short note about the addition of a 5th appendix about the “problem of space in general and on the gradual modifications of our ideas on space resulting from the influence of the relativistic view-point.” You might be cluing in that I am quoting liberally because I don’t understand what he is talking about. That does not worry me; after all, I haven’t read the book yet. When I go back and read these notes after I am well educated on all things relative, I’ll know exactly what he means. Right? He goes on to say that, “Physical objects are not in space, but these objects are spatially extended.” I like that. I am not fat, I am just spatially extended.

Okay, gang. The preface was enough for today. Hit the showers. For tomorrow – read Part 1, The Special Theory of Relativity, chapter 1, Physical Meaning of Geometrical Propositions.

Monday, November 14, 2011

40 Years of Mother Daughter Collaboration

Forty years ago this month, my first article was published in Jack and Jill magazine. Well, sort of. My mother, Margery Facklam, actually wrote it with my help. At least I think I helped. I’m in the pictures anyway. The article was called “My Mother Works in a Science Museum” and tells all about my family and my mom’s job as Assistant Director of Education at the Buffalo Museum of Science.

I found an old, and probably the only, surviving copy of the November issue (50 cents) while cleaning out files in my office. While lots of it makes me smile and remember things I had long forgotten, I don’t remember working with my mother to write it. Did she interview me, or ask me how I’d describe her work or what we did as a family? The information is accurate. I was a member of safety patrol, and I did think it was fun. Our dog Barney did go to the supermarket and let himself in and out with the electric-eye door, and I do remember taking a class called the Wisdom of the Senecas, and going on Museum fieldtrips, and almost running into the backside of a cow. Lots of it sounds like a kid, but lots of it doesn’t. I don’t think I would have thought to write about how my mom earned her way through college or how she was trying to create a Children’s Science Activity Center at the museum and get a bus for a mobile exhibit. I hate to say it, but I was just there for the fun of it.

In 6th grade I would have focused more on how cool it was to have the whole museum to myself after hours. I loved the Hall of Dinosaurs the most. I would stand in the middle of the vast room and hold my breath waiting for the bones to creak to life. One time, someone brought a young fox to the museum. I got the job of walking it on a leash out in the nearby rose garden. Another time, my mother brought me along on a trip to visit naturalists and film makers Ken and Bertie Button. I don’t remember why, but they had a baby two-toed sloth at their home. I can still feel its sharp two-inch long claws dig in as it hung from my arm.

How I’d like to brag about being an accomplished writer at age 11. But I can’t. In fact when the free copies arrived in the mail at our house and mom told me to take them to school, I was mortified. The teacher stood up in front of the class and gushed over me – a real published author. Surely the teacher could see that I didn’t really write this, right? I felt like such a fraud. I stood there and read the article like a good kid, and kept my mouth shut about not really being a part of the writing process. I didn’t want my mom to look bad, either. But it always bothered me.

Maybe I became a writer, in part, to redeem myself. I wanted to make good on that first fraudulent piece. Along the way, my mother and I have had a wonderful time collaborating. Our first joint effort was The Kids’ World Almanac About Money, Math and Numbers in 1992, then New York: The Empire State in 2007, and most recently, Anatomy of Nonfiction. These projects I definitely do remember.

We have an easy working relationship because we both have similar working styles. After all I did learn from her. We usually divide up the project, each taking a chapter or subject to work on, and then get together once a week or so to share notes and revise. For the first two books, my mom was senior author. She had the job of going over the entire manuscript making sure we were of one voice. But for our last project, we sort of traded places. In her 80s, she was happy for me to take on the extra work corresponding with our editors, answering queries, verifying facts, and smoothing out voice. And we have come full circle. Sometimes, she is the one who doesn’t remember our collaboration.

Thanks Mom!!

Monday, November 7, 2011

Fuel for the Writer's Fire

 Another great day at the Rochester Children’s Book Festival. If you have never been, it is worth the trip. A chance to meet more than 40 authors and illustrators, to peruse hundreds of children’s books, make crafts with your kids, listen to stories, learn how some of your favorite authors work, and generally steep yourself in all things wonderful.

From 10 to 4 I was busy talking with kids and parents, teachers and librarians, and future authors. I was thrilled that my newest book, For The Birds: The Life of Roger Tory Peterson was so well received. More than once a child zoomed up, grabbed the book and said, “Oh Wow!” or “This is the one.” When I asked if they liked birds, they would nod vigorously. “Yeah!” Those are the kids I write for. The ones who have a passion to learn. They already have a fire inside of them that is just waiting to be stoked with just the right fuel – true stories. I imagine those are the kids that someday might grow up to be scientists, journalists, teachers, librarians, or nonfiction writers.

I also met several writers struggling to break into publishing. One woman has written a biography about a relative of hers who was the “father of American apiculture.” He was the person to figure out the “bee space” the specific distance that bees maintain between honeycombs. This allowed bee keepers to create bee boxes with walls that slide in and out without harming the bees. Another woman mentioned wanting to write about the women of the Jazz era who were not allowed to play in clubs.

It is such a treat to meet people who are so fired up about a subject that they want to share it with others. I hope my book Anatomy of Nonfiction: how to write true stories for children will help them hone their craft, so that someday I will walk into a bookstore and see a new bee book or biography of a Jazz legend. That is what I find so amazing in this children’s book business. We are all eager to share what we know, if for no other reason than to someday get to read the other person’s book. There is no competition because we all have our own projects and passions. And it behooves all of us to lend a hand. The more amazing nonfiction that is out there, the better it is for the reader, the publishers and for the writer. More fuel for the fire in all of us.

Some photos of the day --

The best seat in the house.

My table mate busy signing books - Julie Berry (in prison garb) and Kate Messner (in blue).

Other Nonfiction Writers and Illustrators who were there --

See you next year!


Monday, October 31, 2011

Happy Halloween!

Last week I visited Country Parkway Elementary School in Williamsville, NY. Mrs. Gayle Kerman made me feel very welcome by sharing my books with her students a head of time. We started the morning dancing the Snow Dance with the Kindergarteners and First Graders. Then we talked about how many people it takes to create a book. Third and Fourth Grade classes were in to nonfiction, so we discussed research, and brainstormed more than a dozen different ways we could write about a boring subject like sneakers. But since this is Halloween, I thought I would share with you the Halloween story the Second Graders wrote with me after we read Joshua the Giant Frog.

One of my favorite activities is to help the children create a new tall tale using their ideas while I write on a large pad of paper. We use their school and hometown as the setting and Joshua as the main character. We have to have a great descriptive lead (not “Once upon a time” or “It was Halloween night…”), a conflict, characters, and dialogue. Because it is a tall tale we also have to stretch the truth – use analogies that are larger than life. In less than 20 minutes, this is what we came up with --

Joshua’s Trick or Treat

The Queen of Hearts ran up to the giant Ipod and said, "That's a great costume." The jack-o-lanterns glowed on the porch as the kids rang the doorbell. "Trick or treat."

From behind them they heard, "AAHHHHHH! Help me!" Sofia, dressed as a giant butterfly, raced down the street.

Then the earth shook. "Thump... THUMP.... THUMP!" Joshua the Giant Frog hopped into view. His tongue flicked as fast as a bullet at Sofia's wings.

"Oh no. Joshua thinks Sofia is a real butterfly."

Jacob, dressed as Darth Vader brandished his light saber, and a Bumblebee waved her stinger. But Joshua kept chasing Sofia.

"Quick, get all of your candy in a pile," said Ipod.

All the kids dumped their candy in the middle of the street. The pile grew taller than a sky scraper. "Joshua!" they called.

Joshua turned to see the mountain of chocolate and sugar, and his tongue lapped it up.

Poor Sofia dragged her broken wings back to town.

Joshua handed her a Hershey candy bar to say he was sorry.

"Thank you," she said. "Happy Halloween everybody!"

The End

With this 'sloppy copy', the children and their teachers can smooth out problems, like who said, “Oh, no. Joshua thinks Sofia is a real butterfly,” and add more detail. But the basics are there, and hopefully the seed -- that writing is fun and doesn’t have to be perfect the first time around -- has been planted.

Happy Halloween!

Monday, October 24, 2011

This Blog is For The Birds

The second best moment of being a writer (first is making the sale) is opening the box to reveal for the first time the book that you have labored over for years. That moment happened last week when I came home to find an unexpected box sitting on the kitchen table. Before I even took off my coat or put the groceries away, I grabbed a scissors and sliced the box open. My book, For the Birds: The Life of Roger Tory Peterson, was finally here!

I am proud to say that it is absolutely beautiful! Award-winning illustrator Laura Jacques captured young Roger's enthusiasm, sharp blue eyes, and thatch of blonde hair as beautifully as she paints the feathers of a flying flicker. And after immersing myself in Roger's story, it still inspires me. Roger grew up in Jamestown, New York where he spent every spare minute out in the fields with binoculars or camera and taught himself how to identify birds on the wing at a time when even trained ornithologists had to shoot the birds before identification. Roger was also a natural artist, sketching birds in the margins of his text books, and later going to art school in New York City. At the naive age of 23 years old, Roger created a little bird identification field guide that, in the middle of the Depression, sold out in weeks and turned a nation on to bird-watching. He became a world reknowned naturalist and leader in the conservation movement. 

Holding this book, I hope it will follow in the footsteps of other amazing bird books like Kathryn Lasky's picture book, She's Wearing a Dead Bird on Her Head! (Hyperion, 1995) about Minna Hall and Harriet Hemenway who created the Massachusetts Audubon Society to protect birds from the millinery industry. I love David Catrow's quirky illustrations of Minna's steely scowl and Harriet's pinched indignation as they pushed for legislation and education about endangered bird species.
Rebecca Bond wrote and illustrated the story of Richard and Cherry Kearton in her picture book, In the Belly of an Ox: The Unexpected Photographic Adventures of Richard and Cherry Kearton. The brothers were nature photographers who created the first photographic bird book, and the way they did it is mind boggling. When you look at Bond’s illustrations, you may not believe it, but her illustrations reflect accurately how they teetered on top of a ladder placed on a high tree branch to photograph a nest, and of course, how they used the hide of an ox as a ‘living blind’ so they could get as close as possible to shy species.

The history of the conservation movement and natural history studies is filled with fascinating characters, and now that For The Birds has landed, I can turn my attention to poking around for yet another great story that might inspire a new generation of readers and conservationists in the future.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Everyone Needs a Slap on the Hand

I love my critique group.  I have come to need it, like some people need a vacation after visiting their in-laws (well, I'm in that category, too).  We only meet once a month and I can tell when that third week rolls around without looking at the calendar. I get buggy. I need my fix to be with other writers, to share, to bitch, and on some occasions, to get my hand slapped (you know who you are) for being too negative. 

I suffer from an affliction that plagues many writers - lack of confidence.  I love what I'm writing when I write it, but I start to second guess myself the moment I think it might be ready for public viewing. I don't want to bother anyone or make them endure ten minutes of me reading something awful. But, as my posse reminds me, that's what the critique group is for, right?  To help you avoid making the worst mistake a writer can make, which is sending a story to an editor before it is ready.

Combating the doubt for space in my brain is a sense of urgency.  I need to get this story out.  An agent is waiting.  If I don't get something out soon, I'll have another year without a new release. If I don't get a new book out, librarians and teachers will forget who I am.  I will be surpassed by all those debut authors who are younger than my laptop.

That's usually when I get a slap. 

And I have to remind myself of the advice I give to others. "The publishing business is not a race of the swift.  It is a pursuit for the persistent."  I am my only competition.  No one else is writing the book I am writing.  An editor or agent would rather wait for a polished piece than get a hastily revised manuscript they would have to reject.  My writing doesn't stink. And I'm only 51.  I'm not dead yet.

Thanks guys! See you in a few weeks.

Monday, October 3, 2011

158 Years Ago Today

One hundred and fifty-eight years ago today, Abraham Lincoln declared the 4th Thursday of November to be a National Holiday of Thanksgiving. It wasn't his big idea, but that of Sarah Joshepha Hale's and you can read about it in Thank You, Sarah: The Woman Who Saved Thanksgiving (Simon & Schuster, 2002) written by Laurie Halse Anderson and illustrated by Matt Faulkner.  This 40 page picture book celebrates Hale's 38 year letter writing campaign for a national holiday of Thanksgiving with humor and historic accuracy.  Faulkner's caricatures show Sarah and other ladies storming the State House doors with a quill pen battering ram, and Presidents Taylor and Fillmore passing the buck to Pierce before Lincoln got a hold of it. It is a perfect book to show kids that perseverance pays off.

Sarah Joshepha Hale
1788 - 1879

I appreciate Sarah's story, too, because she was not just a Thanksgiving fanatic, but a writer who became the editor of the first American woman's magazine.  In 1822, when her husband died, she found herself having to support her family of five children.  She wrote and sold a book of poetry, then wrote stories for popular periodicals.  In 1828 she was asked to edit Ladies Magazine which turned into Godey's Lady's Book, the leading woman's mag for 40 years.

Although she claimed not to be political and was against women suffrage, she promoted property rights for women, education and woman's health.  But more importantly, she led by example and reminded everyone that a woman with a pen can do anything!  

Monday, September 26, 2011

One Nonfiction Writer's Bookshelves

I have lots of stuff in my house.  I tend to save fabric, bentwood chairs that need refinishing, the kids' school work, stones from past vacations, mason jars for cranberry chutney in the fall and wildflowers in the summer, and cats.  Occasionally I do clean out and pair down what has accumulated, except for the cats. But the hardest things to part with are books.

When shelves overflow I know it is time to weed. Fiction fast-reads are donated to the library book sale.  I don't feel bad about those - There are more than enough Patricia Cornwell and Robert Parker titles out in the world.  There are tons of John McPhee and E.O. Wilson out there too, but I hesitate more on those decisions. I use adult nonfiction for research. I like to be able to grab a book off my shelf, rather than log onto the Internet,  to double check a date, verify a name, find out when a tree is in flower, or the eating habits of an insect. I have a separate shelf with a full range of identification guides that I'll never part with. They are a staple for any science and nature writer.  

Some nonfiction books I may not be able to toss, but I might be able to put in a box in the attic -- although for me out of sight out of mind is a daily dilemma.  So, what books are box-worthy?  I started with my college anthropology books - Margaret Mead, Colin Renfrew, etc.  Not thrilled to no longer have them at my fingertips, but if the dust on the tops of them are any indication, I haven't fingered them in a while. Those seem safe to put away. 

But the research books I used to write my own books, have to stay on the shelf.  At least the most important ones -- my forensic stuff like Ubelaker,  Joyce and Stover, Manheim -- I spent a lot of time with these titles and they remind me of the interviews I conducted with some of the scientists who wrote them.   Plus, on rare occasions I am asked to speak on forensics, and I have to review a few facts beforehand.

My biggest problem is parting with older nonfiction- especially if they are children's books and well illustrated.  Libraries might weed their nonfiction every 5- 7 years to keep the information current, but I can't.  In fact, I am the collector of those discards. These books are as sad as a kitten clinging to my window screen (that is another story). They have helped hundreds of kids with science projects and book reports.  They are tired, faded and repaired, but still beautiful to me, even if their information is dated, and one day my books will be subject to the same fate.So, it's Peggy to the rescue.

I love space books written in the 50s when astronauts were a new species and the now defunct space shuttle was not even a glimmer in NASA's eye.  I love the art in the margins of Holling Clancy Holling books. In Minn of the Mississippi (1951) the snapping turtle starts out in his egg, shown with a ruler, 1 inch long, and diagrams show the albumen, yolk and stages of growth.  Boys who wouldn't read the big blocks of text could follow the maps in the margins and read about the tools of the Indians. 

M. Sasek's This Is series showcased New York City, Ireland, England, and Cape Kennedy in quirky 1960 Pink Panther-esque style. 

The Story of Florida (1947) has original lithographs by C. H. Dewitt with colors that glow on the linen pages.

And I dreamed of building one of David R. Stiles Fun Projects for Dad and the Kids (1963) -- maybe the Water House or the Spook House with a hidden trap door and cellar.  You could make a balloon raft made from a parachute from the Army surplus store, a row boat, sail boat, cross bow and even a cannon!  Although I never built these things, it was nice to know there was an adult out there somewhere who thought it would be okay if I did.  I often wondered what Stiles's backyard looked like.

The funny thing is, some of these titles are still in print.  When I searched for pictures to include in this blog, I found that M. Sasek books have been re-released, and Minn and the Fun Projects are available in paperback.  So do I really need to rescue my tattered library bound discards?  Yes. As an old nonfiction writer, I have a solft spot in my heart for these old editions.   And as I tell my husband -- books make good insulation.  And winter is coming on fast.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Nonfiction that Inspired Me

Most people think that exciting nonfiction is a recent invention, but there were authors making compelling reads when I was a kid. Gladys Conklin (1903 – 1983), author of dozens of nonfiction books inspired young naturalists like me for decades. When Gladys started her writing career she was a librarian at the Hayward Public Library in California. Every spring and summer children would come in carrying cocoons and chrysalides and wanted to know what they were, how the insect created them, and what was going to happen next. To answer them, Gladys initiated the Bug Club. She helped children learn about insects by providing them with the tools of an entomologist – jars, cotton balls soaked in alcohol, pins and mounting boards. In her quest to educate her bug collectors, she realized that there was a lack of books that explained basic concepts to children in a clear and direct way -- So she wrote them.

Writing natural history did not come out of the blue. When she was about ten years old, Gladys wrote short nature essays for the Washington Farmer magazine. Years later, learning side by side with her Bug Club members she wrote her first book, I Like Caterpillars (1958). Rather than recite boring natural history facts, Gladys wrote from the point of view of a girl (not a boy) who loves all caterpillars, fat ones and skinny ones. Lucky Ladybugs (1968) was structured around the Mother Goose nursery rhyme that every child at that time knew.

Like today’s authors of nonfiction, Gladys researched her subjects first hand, first with her Bug Club and later traveling to Europe, Mexico, and Africa. Unlike most authors today, she was lucky enough to work with one dedicated publisher. Gladys thought she might only be able to write 3 or 4 nature titles, but she eventually wrote 25 books for Holiday House.

I was not part of her Bug Club, although I would have loved that, but I did learn about insects because her passion shined through. Bugs were not icky. They were interesting. Insects were not something to run screaming from. They were guests to invite into your home for a day, to be observed and appreciated, and then released.

Today, as a nonfiction writer, I am still being inspired by Gladys’s body of work. She followed the advice to “write what you know,” and created a career that lasted well past her retirement as librarian. But what makes her books timeless is her voice. Gladys wrote as if she were talking to her bug club; a casual voice that rings clear and true even for children today.

-- Gladys Conklin is remembered today. For more information and a bit of reminiscing on a great librarian and author, listen to Bruce Roberts on YouTube at

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Welcome to Anatomy of Nonfiction

We have a new title, but the same focus.  Our goal is to shine a light on quality nonfiction for children and to explore what a nonfiction writer does.  Changing the blog name coincides with the release of my new book, Anatomy of Nonfiction : Writing True Stories for Children. My co-author Margery Facklam and I spent years creating this book, which is filled with our own experiences as well as the advice of dozens of other writers and editors.  It is the culmination of more than 70 years of combined experience in publishing.  We didn't hold back.  Hopefully, you will learn from our mistakes, our lucky breaks, and what we have learned about the business, about writing, and what it takes to succeed in today's market place.  Those tips and stories will also appear in this blog from time to time, too.   

I think writing true stories is one of the most rewarding and fascinating ways to earn a pay check -- even if it is a meager one.  I can't think of many other jobs where you are constantly learning new things that you can share with others.  My favorite quote about writing nonfiction is from  author John M. Wilson who said:

"Nonfiction writing is a state of mind, a way of life...a key that can open many doors, an introduction to fascinating people, a guide to wonderful adventures...a way to reach out to readers and to the world." 

So, join us on this adventure.  I hope to introduce you to some talented writers, point you in the direction of some fascinating adventures and provide tips from me and others about writing for children. 

Anatomy of Nonfiction is available at and Amazon.  

Monday, June 13, 2011

Interview with Barb Rosenstock

Barb Rosenstock is the author of the picture book biography, Fearless, The Story of Racing Legend Louise Smith (Illustrated by Scott Dawson, Dutton, 2010). Louise Smith was the first woman elected to the International Motorsports Hall of Fame, 43 years after her last race. Long before NASCAR and the Daytona 500 she was flying around dusty tracks and living her dream. When other women played by the rules, Louise was breaking them.

Barb Rosenstock’s biography is told with the same
energy and fearlessness that Louise must have had. The reader never doubts that her perseverance will pay off. this book isn’t just for racing fans. Everyone can appreciate Louise’s chutzpah and her husband’s as well. At a time when men were men and women were housewives, he agreed to help his wife be a stock car racer.

The illustrations by Scott Dawson are bold, rich and reflect the heady racing life of the 40s and 50s.
As a writer who is long-winded, I especially appreciate Barb’s ability to hone this biography to its essence, and I’m sure you will too. Learn how Barb discovered Louise and how Fearless came to be.

PT: There are so many great stories out there about strong women. What was it about Louise’s story that inspired you the most?

Barb:  As women we’re often taught to consider others’ opinions and feelings over our own. Even as a young girl, Louise had the guts to follow her own heart first.

PT:  You succeeded in finding that all important single thread that runs through Louise’s story – her desire to go fast, faster, flying, free. Did that come quickly to you? Describe your process?

Barb: I kept feeling that the narrative needed a phrase to move it along while reading aloud. The word 'fast' was the most obvious choice and the rest took about ten minutes. It was harder to find the right places in the story to use the phrase than it was to write it!

PT: You mentioned in the back matter that “sometimes legends can be hard to prove.” What did you mean by that and how did you decide what to put in the book and what to leave out?

Barb: Louise Smith is not well known and I didn’t have the luxury of shelves full of material to use as resources. Most of the stories are from interviews with racing fans or other drivers from that time, and occasionally there were conflicting versions of the same story. When people agreed, some stories tended to take on some of the overblown characteristics of tall tales--I could not always absolutely prove that a story happened using news accounts or historical photos, the “feedbags flapping on the windshield” for example. I left out any material that wasn’t appropriate for children and anything that didn’t serve the theme of speed or characterize Louise’s spirit. I do love picture book biographies because of the challenge of putting forth that complete sense of a life in such an intimate space.

PT:  Are you a neat-n-tidy researcher or a file-by-the-pile person? How did you keep yourself organized throughout the writing of the book?

Barb: I grew up in a house where my mother labeled everything, then spent 8 years in Catholic school where neatness counted most! When I worked in advertising, my colleagues in the creative department teased that my desk was so clean it looked like I quit at the end of every day. I file, I sort, I keep notes. There are about 15 files of research for the 32 pages in FEARLESS. Sometimes I have to fight to stop organizing and start creating.

PT: When did you first learn about Louise Smith? What was the timeline from idea to publication?

Barb: I learned about Louise in one of the more boring places on earth--while waiting in a dentist’s office. Her obituary was in a spring issue of TIME in 2006. I was fascinated to learn that women raced stock cars before the 1970s, plus I think I fell in love with the photo of this little old woman waving a checkered flag. I researched through that year and into the next. The contract was signed in 2008, the book came out October, 2010.

PT: What was the greatest challenge during that time?

Barb: I knew (and still know) next to nothing about auto racing compared to experts and hard-core fans. Writing this story meant attending events where EVERYONE in the room, from 10 year olds to 90 year olds, knew more about the subject of auto racing than I did. It meant not being afraid to sound stupid, and I thank the racing legends community for its patience. I remember being nervous before attending a racing awards ceremony alone to interview some of Louise’s friends and colleagues…I told myself that if this woman was brave enough to drive 100 miles an hour in a beat up car with men trying to bash her off the track, I could be brave enough to chase her story at a cocktail party!

PT: Did you learn something about the process that you hadn’t known before? Is there something that you would do differently?

Barb: If anything I would have interviewed more folks, tracked down more of Louise’s family and read more racing news, though there was only so much about Louise out there. The problem with research is that it can be never ending. At some point you have enough to make a picture book, so you stop and write. I would write parts of any book differently. I’m a wildly obsessive reviser…there are always words, sentences, scenes that I would alter. The only thing that makes me stop changing a story is publishing it.

PT: What can your readers look forward to next?

Barb: My second picture book, a fable called The Littlest Mountain, came out this year from KarBen. Up next is a picture book from Dial titled The Camping Trip that Changed America, illustrated by Caldecott winner Mordicai Gerstein (what luck!) This tells the based-in-truth story of President Theodore Roosevelt and environmentalist John Muir who take a camping trip and save America’s trees. There are a few more upcoming books in various stages of the publishing process and if my dreams come true, many more to come. Visit my website at for more information on new titles.

Thanks Barb!

Monday, May 23, 2011

NE SCBWI Conference Report from Mid-list Maggie

I feel remiss not having blogged about the New England SCBWI conference last weekend.  I came home to a flurry of work and never got around to it.  That seems to be my usual style.  I like to mull things over before I write.  Blogging is probably not my ideal format since it was designed for an instant audience.  Spewing words without much thought is not my style -- no matter what my family says.  So, I'll let my colleague Mid-list Maggie take over.

Hey! What a weekend.  Nonstop talking, nonstop listening. Exhausting!  I got to put faces to names, particularly Lin Oliver and Stephen Mooser.  They've always been West Coast phantoms - heard but never seen.  Now I seen 'em.
Jane Yolen - terrific - stood in solidarity of all of us mid-listers - junkyard dog types who shed their fluffy puppy personas years ago.  I loved her Big Sagging But -- Notice the spelling!!! -- the but that comes in every rejection letter. She reminded us to "mine the but,' learn from it. Something I often forget to do.

Tomie dePaola - loved him. Favorite line - "Wanted to be a monk, but the silence got to me."  His story of having to copy a pilgrim, Indian and turkey in school probably rang true for every illustrator.  He had a gift early on -- not his talent for drawing - but a gift of hardwired individuality that he would not, could not give up. Most kids start out individuals, but school crams them into matching shapes and it is only the strongest willed, perhaps most annoying kids, that come out still free formed.  Tomi was one of those kids.  What I learned -- In picture books, even for illustrators, "The word comes first."

I sat in on different workshops  - like fantasy world building -- and now have a better appreciation of the different kinds of writing people do.  Creating a bible with all the laws, mores, and customs etc. of your story world seems overwhelming to me.  I can barely handle the rules in this one. 

My one regret was missing the midget wrestling that was going on next door.  Lesson learned - seize every opportunity no matter how tired I am.  I mean, when am I going to be that close to midget wrestling again?? Plus, it might have made a good story. 

That's it for me, Mid-list Maggie. See you at the next conference.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Bertie and the Headless Chicken

This week has been kind of crazy.  I'm not whining. It was all  my fault.  He took me by surprise just outside the mall entrance.  I had just run in to grab a gift and had no plans other than to head home.  That's when I saw him.  His dark eyes were sleepy and sweet. He wore a satiny tuxedo coat of black and white that gleamed in the sun, but it was the wrinkles that endeared me to him.  His coat was too big for him.  So were his feet. He barely made a sound, just a whimper, and I knew my life would not be the same. I brought home a 2 month-old puppy. 

It was bad timing to say the least, but my husband said he was on board.  That was until the first sleepless night.  Bertie, a lab-pitbull mix did not want to sleep in a crate.  He missed his litter mates and needed a warm body to snuggle up against. Lily our Golden Retriever did not volunteer. The surest way to a night's sleep was Bertie in bed tucked up in my armpit, his head resting on my shoulder.  The surest way for him to sleep, anyway. 

I forgot how all consuming a puppy is.  An endless cycle of eat, pee, play, sleep, eat, poop, play sleep. Thank heavens for the sleep part.  If anyone out there has advice on how to get a 2 month-old puppy to sleep by himself, please let me know, 'cause I have work to do before I leave tomorrow for the
SCBWI New England conference!

I have been the proverbial chicken with its head cut off, running around making sure all my work is done or accounted for.  The article I am writing on regional publishers is not going well, so I asked for an extension, which is not like me normally, but what do you do when of the 15 editors you queried only 4 respond?  I sent out reminders, offered to do the interview over the phone, queried a few other editors just in case.  So, extension time - I hope when I get back there will be lots of responses waiting for me. 

But I have to say that the editors I have interviewed have been wonderful.  It makes me wish that I had a project about the Tex-Mex border lands, the Pacific Northwest, Hawai'i, or the Catskill Mountains, that I could send to them. The editors at Cinco Puntos Press, Sasquatch, Bess Press, and Black Dome (respectively) are devoted to their books, their geographical regions, and their authors. You can read more about them in the 2012 Writer's Guide.

Then yesterday I get a barrage of questions about a book I thought was finished and ready to come out in the Fall.  I don't mind the work, but the timing. I dragged out my box of research and answered all the questions like a good kid. I wasn't snarky at all. Still haven't googled the agents and editors who will be at the conference, or really checked out the books written by some of the presenters.  And of course I haven't packed yet either.  I know one pair of pants that won't be going with me - the brown chinos that Bertie ripped. Did I mention Bertie's diarrhea? Anyway, if I time this sleep break correctly, I can finish this blog, toss in some wash, and... Uh no. He's awake!

Bertie - 6 lbs of crazy

Bertie with Lily's skinned soccer ball

A sleeping angel!