Monthly Archives: October 2010

Telling the Reality Behind Fiction

How much (or any) of their research should writers of fiction for children provide?  That interesting question, posed by blogger Betsy Bird yesterday, provoked a fascinating conversation.  The prevailing sentiment seemed to be that the text should speak for itself and that author notes are not necessary — ever.  Yet I have to wonder, is all fiction the same in this regard?  Or nonfiction for that matter?   In fact, as a reader, critic, teacher of children, and author of a forthcoming work of fiction I find that line between fiction and nonfiction to be very porous, one that writers move between all the time.  It happened to me.  Feeling it was important that child readers know that it really happened, I tried to tell the true story of a child on the Amistad as straight nonfiction, but it turned out there wasn’t enough material to do that. And so I fictionalized the story using all the carefully researched facts from my nonfiction version.  So now, although it is a fictionalized true story, I still plan on the same sort of author note I’d had in mind when it was nonfiction.

As I wrote to someone who commented on my post of yesterday on this topic, I’ve learned through many years in the classroom that kids want to know what is real and what isn’t.  Heck, I want to know that too in fiction about real people and events.  So to ease my frustration here’s a chart that roughly shows the continuum between nonfiction and fiction.  It by no means is a comprehensive list of all the types of fiction or nonfiction, just a handful to show what seems to me the somewhat arbitrariness of insisting all fiction doesn’t need back matter while all nonfiction does.

Also at the Huffington Post.



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Whadya (Need to) Know?

Perhaps nothing.

Betsy Bird asks, “How Much is an Author Obligated to Say?” after wondering in a review of a book involving Aspergers why the writer, in her author’s note, hadn’t mentioned her personal connection to the condition.  Kate Messener and quite a few others feel the answer is, “nothing” as everything we readers need to know should be in the story itself.

This then makes me wonder about my response to fictionalized books about real people and unfamiliar cultures.  Generally I do want to know more.  For example, I’ve just read Linda Sue Park’s forthcoming  A Long Walk To Water. This fine book is a fictionalized telling of Sudanese Salva Dut‘s true story and I did very much wanted to know what was real, what made-up, how she researched it, and so forth. And so as excellent as the text was I definitely appreciated the author’s note and probably would have been frustrated if it hadn’t been there.  In a couple of years I will have a book out that is both about a culture that is not my own  — Sierra Leone — and a real person in history — Sarah Margru Kinson who was a child on the Amistad.  Like Linda Sue Park I’ve fictionalized a true story. And so I plan on an author note because I do want readers to know what personal experiences cause me to write the book and what sort of research I did. I want them to know more.


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Did a Time Traveler Crash Charlie Chaplin’s 1928 Movie Premiere? — Vulture

Did a Time Traveler Crash Charlie Chaplin’s 1928 Movie Premiere? — Vulture.


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My Response to Neil Gaiman’s Modest Proposal

The master-of-the-macabre suggests that:

… on Hallowe’en or during the week of Hallowe’en, we give each other scary books. Give children scary books they’ll like and can handle. Give adults scary books they’ll enjoy.

Great idea, I say.  And since there are plenty of well-known books for kids-who-love-to-be-scared out there, I figured I’d suggest a few recently published books that may be less familiar.  By all means add your own suggestions, old and new, in the comments.

  • Jim, Who Ran Away From His Nurse, and Was Eaten By a Lion by Hilaire Belloc is a delightfully deadpan parody of a cautionary tale, amusingly illustrated (with flaps and such) by the clever Mini Gray.
  • Calef Brown’s Hallowilloween, also a picture book for older kids, is filled with silly poems that are as likely to produce giggles as shivers.
  • A Tale Dark and Grimm by Adam Gidwitz, on the other hand, has some truly spine-chilling moments leavened by wit and compassion. An utterly original take on the Grimm fairy tales, I’m reading it aloud right now to my 4th grade class  and they are loving it.  More from me about it here.
  • In The Ghost of Crutchfield Hall Mary Downing Hahn mixes together a Victorian waif, a forbidding manor, an accidental (or was it?) death of a child, and a graveyard with a deliciously spooky story as the result.
  • A haunted house is also central to the first of Jacqueline West’s Books of Elsewhere series,  The Shadows, along with magical objects, talking animals, a variety of ghosts, and an alternate world entered through paintings, making it a compelling read.
  • The Boneshaker by Kate Milford is an atmospheric and eerie story featuring a machine-loving girl, Dr. Jake Limberleg’s Nostrum Fair and Technological Medicine Show, and the Devil.
  • And finally, for teens, there is Adele Griffin and Lisa Brown’s Picture the Dead.  Set during the Civil War when spiritualism, spirit photography in particular, was in vogue, Jennie Lovell tells her chilling story through text and the pages of her scrapbook.

Also at the Huffington Post.


Filed under Huffington Post, Neil Gaiman

Children’s Book Illustrators Honor their Own

Psst —wanna see some actual illustrations from this year’s crop of picture books?  If so, get on over to New York City’s Society of Illustrators for “The Original Art: Celebrating the Fine Art of Children’s Book Illustration.” An annual event started by Dilys Evans thirty years ago, this year’s show features the original art from 129 books selected by a jury of illustrators, art directors, and editors out of a pool of 554 entries. Additionally, a gold medal was awarded to Renata Liwska for her illustrations in The Quiet Book while silver medals were given to Carson Ellis for Dillweed’s Revenge: A Deadly Dose of Magic and Dan Santat for Oh No! (Or How My Science Project Destroyed the World)Eric Carle and Alice and Martin Provensen were honored with Lifetime Achievement Awards and Hyewon Yum received the Founders Award for There Are No Scary Wolves.  A remarkable exhibit, it is well worth a visit by anyone who loves picture books and art.

Also at the Huffington Post with a slide show of some of the honored art.

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Peace Corps Back in Sierra Leone

I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Sierra Leone, 1974-76, and an important part of my life is to advocate for Sierra Leone and for the continent of Africa.  When I returned to the US no one had a clue where Sierra Leone was and even in the early 90s when the conflict started there was still minimal interest.  I worked with an advocacy group, The Friends of Sierra Leone, to get attention, but it seemed sadly hopeless — until the war came to Freetown where media had easier access. It then landed on the front page of US newspapers pretty much all about brutality.  I won’t go into the many experiences of racism, heartache, and more that happened around me when Sierra Leone came up other than to say we’ve still got a ways to go to even begin to help and understand Africa. Ten years ago one of my fourth grade classes tried to make a difference. They were wonderful.

That is long ago now.  And one of the happiest pieces of news I got this year was that the Peace Corps was returning to Sierra Leone (after leaving in 1994 during the worst of the conflict).  They returned a few months ago and I’ve been following several of the volunteers’ blogs (say this one and this one)  with great interest.  (Some things seem just the same — say the wonderful food —  and others — say having cell phones  and blogging — enormously different.)  Just now I  saw that NBC did a terrific feature on them earlier this month.  Please do check it out here.


Filed under Africa, Sierra Leone

Travels with Tintin

Thousands of tourists visit Petra every week, but this summer I was part of the first small group of adventurers to arrive at the rose-red city in the footsteps of Tintin, led by one of the world’s leading Tintinologists, Michael Farr

Having been to Petra myself (one of the most amazing places I’ve ever been to and I’ve traveled a lot), I was very intrigued to read The Guardian’s Georgia Brown piece on her Tintin tour to Petra: Blistering barnacles, Tintin, it’s the rose-red city.

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The Problem of Overwriting

The trouble with overwritten prose is that it takes away from the reader the opportunity to imagine a scene. We do not want to be told everything; we want a few brushstrokes, a few carefully chosen adjectives, and then we can do the rest ourselves. It’s Roget’s fault, of course. I blame him and his wretched thesaurus. Put it away.

Alexander McCall Smith on Writing Concisely –

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Everything You Wanted to Know About Barbie But Were Afraid to Ask

Dolls.  These real-life avatars can charm, creep, and fascinated.  Perhaps no more so than Barbie. Born in the 60s, reviled by many in the 70s, this toy with the permanent tiptoe feet seems to bounce back appealing to one generation after another.  While plenty of ink has been spilled about this doll for adults perhaps not so much for those who are just done playing with her — young people, that is.  And so how terrific that Tanya Lee Stone has filled this gap with The Good, the Bad, and the Barbie, giving readers a clear-headed view of the life of her creator, Ruth Handler (and thus also her company Mattel); her unique appeal to young people; how she fits into social and cultural history of her time; the art (yes, there is quite a bit of Barbie-inspired art it seems); and more. Filled with color and black and white images, plenty of them of Barbie and her pals, and loads of firsthand comments from those who both loved and hated her as children and later, the book is a fascinating look at a unique piece of recent American history.

Wanting to know more about how she went about researching and writing about this icon, I went to Tanya Lee Stone herself and posed a few questions.

As you note in the author’s note, “I don’t recall having strong feelings about her one way or the other…”  So what then got you so interested in writing a book about Barbie?  Was there a triggering event or situation?

I started thinking about icons one day–what they mean to us and why, and how they come to be icons in the first place. In terms of pop culture, Barbie is at the top of that list and I found that fascinating. I knew there had to be more to the story than the often-quipped remarks of Barbie being some evil corporate plot to make girls feel bad about themselves. I wanted to find out the origin of the idea to create Barbie in the first place. I wanted to know the back story of the person who invented her. What I found was remarkably different than the pre-conceived notions I had heard in the past.

I loved the way you showed how Barbie and everything around the doll reflected the cultural and social history of our times.  Was that in your mind from the start?

Yes, absolutely. I’m a big fan of context. I think it’s imperative to understand what is going on at any given time in our social history in order to fully discuss one aspect of that culture. You have to know what the societal ideas and norms of the day are to understand how a product of that culture’s time fits.

You certainly have a lot of balls in the air — Ruth Handler’s biography, the development of Mattel, the doll’s evolution, history, play, and so much more — how did you manage to balance them all?  Did you start out featuring one more than the other?  Or had you in mind to do it all from the start?  It is a feat that you managed to get it all in effectively in a relatively short book!

I definitely had two main goals–one was to provide the history of the inventor and the invention to put Barbie in context for the reader. And the other was to really examine some of the themes I wanted to get into–body image, racial diversity, role-playing and development. I also had a strong desire to “let the people speak,” as you only need to mention the word Barbie to get fast and furious opinions on both sides of the table! Of course, there are things that wouldn’t fit and tangents I found fascinating that I had to make decisions about–but that’s par for the course. Eventually, the task is to assimilate all of that information for myself and choose a focus that stays true to the story I’m telling. I hope I did that.

As I read the book I was struck by an interesting conundrum — on the one hand Barbie from the start was an idealized doll and the early concern was that girls not see her as something to emulate.  Handler created her as a fashion doll — one for girls who were playing with paper dolls with a focus on clothes.  And so with the rise of feminism there was concern that girls not see her body and looks as something to wish to be.  At the same time you write about efforts to diversify Barbie — ethnic Barbies, African-American Barbies, etc — and quote those who felt they were not represented in these dolls.  And so I’m fascinated by this doll being something you both want to see yourself in and never see yourself in. Do you have any thoughts about this dichotomy?

I would modify that conundrum just a bit to say that Ruth Handler absolutely wanted little girls to see her as something to emulate–but what she wanted them to emulate had little to do with body type. She wanted girls to believe they could put themselves in any shoes at all–be anything they wanted. It was about clothes, yes, but what those clothes represented, also. Independence, in many cases. Ruth was a fiercely independent woman. So I think really, at least for me, the form she happened to embody–which was in part a product of Ruth’s time and place; Hollywood in the 50s– Let’s not forget to also factor in that Barbie taking off like it did had something to do with the body type not changing. Who’s going to mess with that kind of success? But one of the most interesting comments I came across was from Ruth’s granddaughter Stacey Handler, who suggested that if Ruth had stayed in a role of power longer, she may indeed have made some changes to the body type as time changed and societal norms shifted.

In regards to the diversity issue, I think it is nearly impossible to please everyone. I see all sides to the arguments and think, in the end, it’s a toy and a toy company we’re talking about. It’s not a self-esteem organization or a nonprofit organization. Ultimately, a toy company has its own mission to fulfill. Their attempts to address issues are appreciated, and can never fully satisfy. That is its own conundrum.

You describe a range of Barbie play in the book.  As a teacher I’ve done a lot of observing of kids’ play over the years and am very intrigued by the changes.  For example,  I bought my own Barbie (as my parents like many refused to buy me one) when I was around nine in the 60s yet she now seems to be more appealing to much younger children.  And while my friends and I had one Barbie and were eager to acquire clothes and objects for her, for some time now it seems more common for children to have many Barbies. In your research for the book did you notice any of these sorts of changes or others related to changing play patterns?

Anecdotally, I would venture a guess that the change has less to do with play patterns and more to do with societal changes regarding things like consumerism and materialism. I think earlier generations simply had less and that was the norm. Expectations can be quite different these days.

I’m curious about how you attracted the many young people you quoted in the book. How did you find them? How broad a demographic is it? Particularly the boys!

As I said, mention Barbie and people start talking! The response to my invitation to participate in the research for the book was overwhelming. Social media and email played a huge part in the success of the effort to reach out to people. I sent emails to teachers, librarians, writers, parents–and it went viral very quickly. I pored over hundreds of emails and started sorting responses into the natural categories that developed. The boys, almost entirely, were the result of teachers asking students if they wanted to respond. It was extremely interesting stuff!

Is there anything you found in your research that you were dying to include and then had to sadly leave out?

No, not really. I mean, I found many aspects of the family’s history fascinating, but as you know there are choices to be made and a focus to be kept for juvenile nonfiction, so I’m happy with where I ended.

Also at the Huffington Post.

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Book Blogging Kids

Anyone who spends time with avid kid readers knows how much they like to talk about books.  Wanting to give those in our middle school an audience beyond their immediate world, my Dalton School colleagues Roxanne Feldman, Ellen Nickles, and I started an after-school book blogging club. Every week these enthusiasts come to my room; sift through my books and advance reader copies; choose to read whatever catches their fancy;  and, after reading them, write blog reviews about them. Here are a few recent ones:

Also at the Huffington Post.


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