Friday, February 27, 2015

Facts + Poetry = Creative Nonfiction

In this series of Teaching Author posts, we’re discussing the areas of overlap between fiction and nonfiction. Today, I’m thinking about creative nonfiction.

What is Creative Nonfiction? According to Lee Gutkind (known as the “Father of Creative Nonfiction”), “The words ‘creative’ and ‘nonfiction’ describe the form. The word ‘creative’ refers to the use of literary craft, the techniques fiction writers, playwrights, and poets employ to present nonfiction—factually accurate prose about real people and events—in a compelling, vivid, dramatic manner. The goal is to make nonfiction stories read like fiction so that your readers are as enthralled by fact as they are by fantasy.”

One critical point about writing creative nonfiction is that creativity does not apply to the facts. Authors cannot invent dialog, combine characters, fiddle with time lines, or in any other way divert from the truth and still call it nonfiction. The creative part applies only to the way factual information is presented.

One way to present nonfiction in a compelling, vivid manner is to take advantage of the techniques of poetry. When I wrote the nonfiction picture book Flip, Float, Fly: Seeds on the Move (gorgeously illustrated by Pam Paparone), I made a conscious effort to use imagery, alliteration, repetition, and onomatopoeia while explaining how seeds get around. When she called with the good news, the editor called it a perfect blend of nonfiction and poetry. Yippee, right?

Fiona Bayrock’s “Eleven Tips for Writing Successful Nonfiction for Kids” lists more helpful and age-appropriate methods for grabbing kids’ attention, starting with “Tap into your Ew!, Phew!, and Cool!”

Marcie Flinchum Atkins has compiled a helpful list of ten Nonfiction Poetic Picture Books. She points out that these excellent books (including some by Teaching Authors friends April Pulley Sayre, Laura Purdie Salas, and Lola Schaefer) can be used in classrooms to teach good writing skills. We can all learn from such wonderful examples!

Heidi Mordhorst has this week’s Poetry Friday Roundup at My Juicy Little Universe. Enjoy!

JoAnn Early Macken

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The A-Ha Moment! Wednesday Writing Workout with Monica Kulling


In my previous post I offered that isn't it a wonder that using fictional techniques to relay the telling of facts and biography seems a natural fit?
 
 Monica Kulling is the master of biography.
 Monica’s poetic narrative – a hallmark of all her books – breathes life to her characters as she explores the thematic values of determination and persistence. Her Great Idea Series, published by Tundra Books, is one of my favorite nonfiction series for young readers.

 
Monica excels at taking a moment in history, oftentimes a forgotten moment, and fashioning a story that is both compelling and informative. The books showcase inventors, some more known than others, and how they were inspired to create their inventions that, in many ways, changed the course of history. Monica’s fascination with the late 19th and early 20th centuries confined her research to that particular period. When choosing who to write about, says Monica, “I need enough material to make an interesting narrative.” Monica researches extensively, using online and in print sources.


Inventors are clever, says Monica, and they are ingenious in finding ways to realize their dreams. She focuses on that ‘a-ha’ moment, when a great idea clicks in your brain and has you racing off in pursuit.

The picture book format allows Monica to bring depth and breadth to each inventor’s story.


Her book, It’s a Snap: George Eastman’s First Photograph (2009), illustrated by Bill Slavin, tells the story how Eastman invented the photograph, and thus ushered in the new age of documenting history as well as the advent of ‘selfies. 

Another book in the series, Going Up: Elisha Otis’s Trip to the Top (2012), illustrated by David Parkins, depicts the founding of the elevator, allowing skyscrapers to literally touch the sky. And one of my favorites, the award-winning In the Bag: Margaret Knight Wraps It Up (2011), also illustrated by David Parkins, tells the story about the young inventor of the folded paper bag who eventually owned over twenty patents.


Says Monica, “I’ve always been more interested in the struggle than in the achievement. It’s the nail-biting will-they or won’t they, can-they or can’t-they, that engages a young reader most.”


Tundra Books chooses wonderful illustrators. Each of the four illustrators who have worked on the series has been able to depict the time period in all its glorious detail. 
Illustration by Richard Rudnicki. Used with permission.
 
  One of my favorites, Richard Rudnicki’s illustrations for Making Contact: Marconi Goes Wireless (2013) are full of the same energy as Monica’s characters. His sweeping landscapes, done in acrylics on watercolor paper, are particularly striking, depicting the Newfoundland coastline, with its cold grey colors, whirling storm clouds, and the bright dot of a kite flying in the wind make me shiver with awe.


Monica’s newest edition to the series is Spic-And-Span: Lillian Gilbreth’s Wonder Kitchen (2014).
This book follows the amazing story of Lillian Gilbreth, the inspiration for the matriarch in the movie and book, Cheaper By The Dozen. Her life is so much more amazing than a movie or a book, however. When her husband dies unexpectedly, Lillian forges ahead to raise her children alone. An efficiency expert, industrial engineer and psychologist, Lillian’s designs and inventions are still considered fundamental to contemporary kitchens eighty years later.

Thank you, Monica, for this neat activity from the Learning Activities for Spic-and-Span! Lillian Gilbreth’s Wonder Kitchen:



Talking about Clockwork:
“The kitchen is the heart of the home. It should run like clockwork.” What does it mean to say that the kitchen should “run like clockwork”? Why was Lillian’s kitchen not running like clockwork? What was her solution?


Can you think about anything in your classroom or your home that needs to “run like clockwork”? What steps must be taken in order for this to happen?


As a class, walk around the classroom and make a list of any “inefficiencies.” Is there anything about the classroom’s design that could be improved on in order to save time and space?

Bobbi Miller

Monday, February 23, 2015

The Greatest of Illusions


Morguefile.com
We are story animals, suggests Kendall Haven (Story Proof: The Science Behind the Startling Power of Story, 2007). We have told our stories for over 100,000 years. Not every culture has developed codified laws or written language, but every culture in the history of the world has created myths, legends, fables, and folk tales.


Stories are so old, so intimately connected with language, some researchers suggest that language was created to express stories. In fact, evolutionary biologists now believe we are hardwired to think in story forms. Cognitive scientists know that stories help us understand and remember information for longer periods. Researchers have found that telling stories at an early age helps develop math abilities and language literacy. And teachers know that understanding the story process helps young readers understand the organization of language.


Isn’t it a wonder that using fictional techniques to relay the telling of facts and biography seems a natural fit? After all, life is messy and fragmented. But stories provide a form for that experience. Stories shape random events into a coherent sequence. Stories help readers focus on the essentials, sifting through the distractions. As writer May Sarton once said,  “Art is order, but it is made out of the chaos of life.”

One criticism of narrative nonfiction is the use of psychological action and dialogue. Stories freely engage in psychological action to help readers empathize with the protagonist. But, in narrative nonfiction, how would the author know just how George Washington – or any historical character – really feels and thinks about an event?


Easy. Writers report on their protagonist’s thoughts and feelings by using inferences, in which a character’s state of mind is revealed by reportable observations. As Jon Franklin, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, stated, “People don’t think in words. They think in the experience of the moment.”

 One of my favorite authors, and one of my favorite books, that achieve this psychological action so magnificently is Russell Freedman’s Washington at Valley Forge (Holiday House, 2008). With his first sentence, Freedman establishes the desperate conditions faced by Washington and his men: “Private Joseph Plumb Martin leaned into the icy wind, pushed one sore and aching foot ahead of the other, and kept on marching.”


  Washington’s troops were beaten down and bedraggled. Martin was not only hungry; he was “perishing with thirst.” Freedman weaves primary sources into the narrative to demonstrate the psychological action.


Another favorite is Phillip Hoose, in his wondrous epic tale of The Race to Save the Lord God Bird (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2004). The book begins with Alexander Wilson and his quest for the ivory-billed woodpecker: “Alexander Wilson clucked his horse slowly along the margin of a swamp in North Carolina. Bending forward in the saddle…Wilson’s heart must have been racing as he dismounted and crept toward the bird…”

Likewise, readers hold their breath as the scene unfolds. The story sweeps across two centuries, never loosing hold of the reader’s attention as it explores the tragedy of extinction, and the triumph of the human spirit.  



As the great Virginia Hamilton once offered, every fiction has its own basic reality…


“…through which the life of the characters and their illusions are revealed, and from which past meaning often creeps into the setting. The task for any writer is to discover the ‘reality tone’ of each work – the basis of truth upon which all variations on the whole language system is set. For reality may be the greatest of all illusions.” (Virginia Hamilton, Illusions and Reality, 1980).

Bobbi Miller

 

Friday, February 20, 2015

"Just the Facts, M'am"--fiction vs non-fiction on Poetry Friday

.
Howdy, Campers, and Happy Poetry Friday! (the link to this week's PF host is below.)

First: welcome, welcome to our newest TeachingAuthor, Carla!  I am in awe of your writer's journey, Carla, because when I learned that we would be discussing non-fiction, my legs trembled and my palms grew cold and damp.  Unlike you and Mary Ann, in her wonderful first salvo on this topic, I am not, by nature, a researcher.  I am NOT a "Just the facts, M'am."

Jack Webb as Joe Friday in Dragnet, from Wikipedia

But... is this really true?

Well...I DO tell my students that real details bring fiction to life, and have them listen to the following short audioclip from StoryCorps.  Talk about bringing a subject to life! The details Laura Greenberg shares with her daughter are priceless--not to mention hilarious.

Still, I struggled to write poems for The Poetry Friday Anthology for Science (Pomelo Books).  By "struggled" I mean I read science articles and wrote tons of stinky poems about rocks, astronauts, materials science, the expiration dates on seed packages,electricity, science experiments...and on and on and on.

But...I dread gettting facts wrong--my worst nightmare. (Confession: writing these blog posts scares the bejeebers out of me.)

In fiction, I can fly my fairy-self to Planet Bodiddley and make up all the materials science by myself.  But if I have to convey facts?  And then somehow bake them into a tasty poetry pie?  I get tied up in knots.  My writing becomes stiff as a board.  I'm afraid of...

But finally I stumbled on this fascinating fact, in a review of The Big Thirst by Charles Fishman:"The water coming out of your kitchen tap is four billion years old and might well have been sipped by a Tyrannosaurus rex."

Wow. Think of the water you drink.  Think of the water you take a BATH in!!!! Ten versions of "Space Bathtub" later (with considerable coaching from the ever-patient anthologists, Janet Wong and Sylvia Vardell) this fact became a poem for kindergartners:

OLD WATER
by April Halprin Wayland

I am having a soak in the tub.

Mom is giving my neck a strong scrub.

Water sloshes against the sides.
H2O's seeping into my eyes.

The wet stuff running down my face?
She says it came from outer space!

The water washing between my toes
was born a billion years ago.

from The Poetry Friday Anthology for Science
(c) 2014 April Halprin Wayland, all rights reserved

If you're a K-5th grade teacher, this science/poetry anthology is so immediately useful, you'll cry with relief when you open it. Trust me. For details, and to watch under-two minute videos of poets (Bobbi Katz, Kristy Dempsey, Mary Lee Hahn, Susan Blackaby, Buffy Silverman, Linda Sue Park and me) reciting our science poems from this anthology, go to Renee LaTulippe's No Water River.  Again, trust me. (A little foreshadowing: Pomelo Books' newest anthology, Celebrations! comes just in time for Poetry Month this year--stay tuned!)

Here's a terrific vimeo of "Old Water" produced by Christopher Alello:


And thank you, Linda Baie, fabulous friend of TeachingAuthors, for hosting Poetry Friday today!

posted safely and scientifically by April Halprin Wayland wearing safety goggles

Monday, February 16, 2015

Getting It Right

    First off, a big Teaching Authors welcome to our latest TA, Carla McClafferty. Not only did Carla and I meet and bond some fifteen years ago at an SCBWI retreat in Arkansas, we once shared an editor. Greetings, old friend, and welcome aboard. For the next couple of posts we are going to be talking about your genre, non-fiction, and what it shares with fiction.

    I have always wanted to be a Carla-sort of writer, a non-fiction writer. "Write what you love" is one of those things writing teachers (like me) tell their students. I love non-fiction. My "adult" reading consists almost entirely of biographies and history. If I read two adult novels a year, that's a big deal for me.

   So why don't I write non-fiction for children?  The reasons are endless, so I'll boil it down to one.  I just can't stick to the facts.

    Both of my novels, Yankee Girl and Jimmy's Stars began life as memoirs. YG was about my life, JS about my mother's family. Because they both took place in other times and places...Mississippi 1964 and Pittsburgh 1943...I did a boatload of research to make sure I had the details right. For the World War II world of Jimmy's Stars, I made a timeline of what battles occurred where and when between September 1943 and September 1944, and when news of those battles reached the States.  I compiled a radio schedule for the Pittsburgh stations. I studied streetcar routes. I poured over the various rationing schedules for gasoline, food, clothing.

    You would think that Yankee Girl would not require quite so much research, since after all, this was based on my own elementary school years.  I even had my 5th and 6th grade diaries. Still....do you remember what week the Beatles' "I Feel Fine" reached number one on the charts?  Neither did I.  Since the main character is a huge Beatles fan, there is at least one reference to a Beatles' song in every chapter. In addition, this the height of the Civil Rights Movement (the Selma March to Montgomery occurs about three quarters of the way through YG). I had to know exactly what date  this protest or that bombing occurred.  I remembered that these things had happened but that wasn't enough. I had to know exactly when. I spent a dismal five months in the microfilm room of the Jackson Mississippi library, going through a year's worth of newspapers, reliving a sad and scary time.

    By now you are thinking, "Well, with all this research, why didn't she just go ahead an write those memoirs?"  Good question. All I can say is that my mind refuses to march in a straight line . Yes the facts are there, because they are part of the story.  But once I start writing, my "real" character refuses to stick to their own "real" story.  I start thinking "but wouldn't it be more interesting if this happened instead?  Or if her best friend was this kind of person?"  Before I know it, I am off on a completely different story than I had first intended. The only thing that remains the same is the structure of historical fact and detail that makes the story "real" for me (and hopefully for the reader as well.)

    I am just beginning to write contemporary fiction for young people and guess what?  There is no less research involved.  Next month I will have a story in a YA anthology called Things I'll Never Say. 
I live in Georgia.  My main characters live in Georgia.  I have lived here for fourteen years.  Yet, for a 3,000 word story here are just a few story points I needed to find out to make the story real:  price of admission to the Atlanta Botanical Gardens, driving times between different towns, the academic school year of Emory University, the most popular spring break towns with Georgia teens...well, you get the point.

    My point?  Getting the details right is one of the ingredients for making a story real.  Editors care about details. I spent weeks nattering back and forth with my Yankee Girl editor over the dates of those Beatles songs.  Readers care.  I had an adult write me that if the mother in Yankee Girl used a steam iron, then she didn't also need to sprinkle her clothes before ironing. I was a little miffed that someone could read a 225 page book and this is what she chose to write me. It never occurred to me look up that sprinkling/steam iron detail.  That's the way my mom always ironed. (I still probably need to look that up.)

    I once read a Big Time Award Winning Book that took place in a state where I had lived and knew very well.  This author had placed four major cities within an hours drive of each other. In reality, they were in different corners of the state and hours away from each other.  Whatever affection I had for the book died right then. Good grief, anybody could look at an atlas (this was pre-Internet) and see where those cities were.  I later read an interview by the author and discovered that she had never visited that state (or apparently done any research) but she "knew" somebody who "used" to live there. That was one of those moments when you want to scream and throw the book across the room.

   That was the moment when I decided that for me, getting the details "right." Facts are front and center of a non-fiction, but they are no less important in fiction.

     Now about that steam iron....

  Posted by Mary Ann Rodman

Friday, February 13, 2015

How I Became a Teaching Author

My path to becoming an author is . . . unusual.  Like most writers, I’ve loved books all my life.  Some of my earliest memories are of being bribed by the promise of a Golden Book if I would go to sleep in my own bed rather than my parent’s bed (I took the bribe).  However, as I grew up, a wide variety of books were not readily available to me.  Our small town didn’t have a library and neither did my elementary school.  What passed as our “library” was a small collection of books sitting on the bookshelf below the wide windows that ran the whole length of the classroom. 


Peter Rabbit was my favorite book, and was
also one my Mama bought to bribe me.  

Somewhere around the third grade I got a pink diary.  I’d like to say my diary entries were long narratives about my hopes and dreams that show a budding writer’s flair for the dramatic.  That is not the case.  In reality my diary entries are so sparse that the entire text of my five year diary could fit on a napkin, a cocktail napkin.   But when I look at that diary now, I do see the beginnings of an author—a nonfiction author.  Each diary entry contains the facts and does not include any extraneous information or fluff.  For example on one especially important day in history, July 20, 1969, I simply stated: “Dear Diary, the astronauts landed & are walking on the moon.”  It is simple, to the point, and has the sense of immediacy—not a bad start for a future nonfiction author.

My childhood diary shows an early glimpse into my future as a nonfiction author.  My straightforward recording of the moon landing came just one day after my confession that I dreaded facing my piano teacher (I hadn't been practicing.) 

As an adult, my first career is as a Registered Radiologic Technologist.  Next I became a wife and busy mother of three children.  I read voraciously, but still had no thoughts of becoming a writer.  In fact, I would never have become an author if tragedy had not entered my life.  My youngest son, fourteen-month-old Corey, fell off of the backyard swing and died from a head injury.  Life as I knew it ceased to exist.  I was devastated, to say the least.  Ultimately I wrote an inspirational book about the Spiritual battle I faced after Corey’s death and how God brought me through it and back to Him titled Forgiving God.  It was the first book I’d ever written.


My first book, an adult inspirational book that deals with the death of my son, Corey.

After my first book was published, I began writing nonfiction books for young readers.  No classes.  No journalism degree.  No mentor.  I just started researching and writing.  Along the way I joined SCBWI, went to writer’s conferences, and learned all I could about children’s publishing.   I listened to the old writer’s adage that says “write what you know” when I chose X-rays as the topic for my first book in this genre.  That book, titled The Head Bone’s Connected to the Neck Bone: The Weird, Wacky and Wonderful X-ray, was awarded the SCBWI work-in-progress grant and published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (FSG).  When that book was finished, I wondered if I could do it again.  I could.  The next two books, Something Out of Nothing: Marie Curie and Radium and In Defiance of Hitler: The Secret Mission of Varian Fry were also published by FSG.   Then came The Many Faces of George Washington: Remaking a Presidential Icon published by Carolrhoda, Tech Titans by Scholastic, and my newest book Fourth Down and Inches: Concussion and Football’s Make-or-Break Moment also with Carolrhoda.  



 
 

 
My nonfiction books for young readers. 

Since libraries fill me with awe and appreciation, I’m thrilled to know that my books are in library collections all over the world.  In some ways I’ve come full circle.  I began as a child with no library access and I became a nonfiction author who has done research in some of the finest libraries in America including Columbia University, Harvard University, and the Boston Athenaeum.   



Doing research at the library at Harvard.

I didn’t plan to become a writer or a public speaker.  But the twists and turns of life have turned me into both, and they are a good fit for me.  I love the challenge of researching a topic I know nothing about.  I love to write about ordinary people who have done extraordinary things.   I love to capture the imagination of a live audience and take them on a journey as I share with them the amazing things I’ve learned about the subjects of my books.   And as an added bonus, researching my books has given me incredible life experiences that I will always treasure.  I’ve visited Marie Curie’s office at the Radium Institute in Paris and sat in her chair, behind her desk.  I’ve stayed on the grounds of George Washington’s home at Mount Vernon and watched the sunrise over the Potomac River while standing on the piazza.   I’ve looked into the faces of men and women who were saved from the Nazis by Varian Fry and listened to their personal experiences.  I’ve wept with the parents of teens who lost their lives as a result of concussions.  I’ve presented programs in a wide variety of venues including C Span 2 Book TV, Colonial Williamsburg, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, the U.S. Consulate in Marseilles, France, teacher conferences, workshops, and at many schools.
 
Now I’m honored to join this amazing group of women known as TeachingAuthors.  It will be a whole new adventure and I’m looking forward to it.

Carla Killough McClafferty
www.carlamcclafferty.com
 

Monday, February 9, 2015

YAY! for lucky accidents!


The Celebrate Oops! initiative we TeachingAuthors are currently exploring in our February posts celebrates both Barney Saltzberg’s picture book BEAUTIFUL OOPS! – and – the Teachable Moments accidents fortunately bring us.

I had such a fortunate Teachable Moment while brainstorming my picture book FANCY THAT with my Holiday House Editor Mary Cash.
I knew the setting – Berks County, Pennsylvania; I knew the time – 1841; and I knew my story’s Hero – young Pippin Biddle, orphaned without warning, the son of a limner - an itinerant portrait painter.

Mary agreed with me that such a picture book would be ripe with historical and arts curriculum connections.

My sketchy plotline was just that – i.e. sketchy: accompanied by his dog Biscuit, (whom I pictured to be lap-size), Pip would travel the Pennsylvania/New York area through the first 3 seasons of the year unsuccessfully earning his keep painting people’s portraits, returning at Thanksgiving with an empty purse and heart.

“But why would young readers care about such a boy on such a journey?” I asked my editor. 

“Well,” Mary began, “could he have a few sisters who needed Pip to earn his keep?” she asked.
Orphans, Mary shared, can be lovely in a story.
“And, maybe,” she suggested, “Pip’s dog could be part of the resolution?”
And then she paused, her gaze meeting mine.
“You know, Christmas books do so much better than Thankgiving titles,” she commented.  “What if Pip returned at Christmas?”

Driven to tell this singular story, I back-burnered Mary’s 3 delicious suggestions with an open mind, even though I’m a nice Jewish girl from West Philadelphia and writing a Christmas picture book was not in my wheelhouse, as they say.

But guess what?

Fast forward to the stacks of the Wilmette Public Library, one week later, when I discovered (1) there was no Thanksgiving to celebrate in the U.S. in 1841 and (2) few Americans celebrated Christmas at that time!

OOPS!
And OOPS²… except...the German immigrants, who’d just happened to settle in Berks County in central Pennsylvania, had brought along their Christmas tradition of making evergreen wreaths and decorating their fir trees!

So,
while Pip’s dog Biscuit gathers the greenery of each season, and Pip paints his portrait to send home to his Poor House-ensconced sisters Emma, Lyddie and Martha,

 


before too long,
Pip’s sisters themselves, inspired by Pip’s portraits, create a livelihood that builds them their home


and Pip discovers his hidden talent.

 
Fancy that!

Lucky Pip and his sisters! Lucky me and my readers!

And all quite by accident.

Esther Hershenhorn

P.S.
Jennifer T won the SKIN AND BONES giveaway!

P.P.S.
A writer with whom I corresponded this past week shared the following Dalai Lama quote benath her name.  I thought it relevant.

 "Remember that not getting what you want is sometimes a wonderful stroke of luck." 

Friday, February 6, 2015

Mom’s Good Advice

It’s my turn to continue the discussion of Beautiful Oops. (To learn more, read Beautiful Oops! by Barney Saltzberg. Read about Celebrate Oops!, “an initiative designed to build confidence and turn accidents into teaching moments.” Also check out Aprils and Bobbis posts and Barney Saltzbergs Wednesday Writing Workout.)

When this topic came up, I thought it would be an easy one to write about. I make a lot of mistakes. I tried to think of one I turned into a positive experience. Not so easy.

Brainstorming gave me a couple of ideas. One was Milton the Monster. The other was Mom saying “Oopsie Daisy” when one of us kids fell down.

The mistakes that haunt me now are often errors of omission—things I should have done but didn’t. Given a difficult choice, I can agonize until it’s too late to do anything. What if a better option comes up? Mom used to say, “Sometimes not to decide is to decide.”

Bird feeders outside Mom's window. Can you tell I'm craving spring?

Fear can be paralyzing, so sometimes almost any action is better than none. What if I make the wrong choice? No use crying over spilled milk, Mom says.

I always try to make the best of whatever situation I find myself in. But when I try to think about my mistakes, well, I don’t want to. Mom's advice? Don't dwell on them. Maybe blocking them out is the best way for me to be able to pick myself up, dust myself off, and carry on.

Thanks, Mom!

Don’t forget to enter our drawing for an autographed copy of the young adult novel Skin and Bones by Sherry Shahan. Today’s the last day!

JoAnn Early Macken