Friday, June 28, 2019

A Shining Legacy

My favorite genre is non-fiction. One of the best books I've read in the last year is The

Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America's Shining Women by Kate Moore (Sourcebooks, 2017). Beginning just prior to WWI up until just before WWII, these girls worked as dial painters for clock-and-watch factories in Orange, New Jersey, Ottawa, Illinois and Waterbury, Connecticut.

The painters, Orange, New Jersey factory
The luminescent qualities of radium infused paint made it invaluable in painting clock and watch dials, as well as airplane instrument panels.  Working at "the watch studio" (as these companies styled their workshops) was a glamorous job for a working class girl. The painters were all female, mostly teenagers, some as young as thirteen. Watch painting was not only a "prestige" position, it paid three times more than ordinary factory work. Many of these young women made more than their fathers, helping their large families to stay afloat.
Radium infused lipstick-1930's France

It wasn't the generosity of their employers that paid the dial painters for their work.  The "bosses," the chemists who developed their paint and the factory directors knew that radium paint was a health hazard. This was a secret they kept to themselves because at the same time, radium was being touted as a "health" product. Everything that could possibly be infused with radium, was: toothpaste, "health tonics," make-up, milk.

Or so they were advertised.

Katherine Schaub (l) and Grace Fryer(r) the first plaintiffs 

 The chemists who handled the beakers of paint worked in labs, away from the painters.  The chemists wore protective gloves and lead aprons.

The painters? Not only did they not have protective gear, they were expected to fashion the fine point on their minute brushes by putting them in their mouths...ten to twenty times per dial...then dip them into the paint. There was no water for cleaning the brushes between "paintings." An average worker could turn out two hundred to three hundred dials per day. 2,300 to 3,000 licks of a brush coated with radium paint.

Within a few years, the "girls" (now wives and young mothers) contracted strange and mysterious illnesses, that couldn't be diagnosed. It began with arthritis like aches in their joint, which they attributed to "old age" their late twenties! They lost their teeth, at first pulled because of unbearable pain, then falling out of their own accord, Pieces of jaw bone followed, until the entire jaw crumbled to nothing.  Strange tumors invaded their bones. Spines turned to dust. Death soon followed.

Five of the terminally ill women in the Orange, New Jersey plant, led by Katherine Schaub and Grace Freyer, sued their employer, United States Radium Corporation under the New Jersey Occupational Disease Law. Despite the many doctors, "experts" and government officials the company paid to dismiss their claims that their maladies were caused by radium, the bravery and persistence of "The Orange Five" persuaded the courts and the public. In 1928, the company was forced settle out of court, providing health care and an annuity to the five for life...however long it that was.

The fortitude of "The Orange Five" inspired another five women, this time at the Radium Dial Company in Ottawa, Illinois. Another five friends, who had been lied to by their employer as to the dangers of their workplace. Eight years later, after the death of their leader, Catherine Wolfe, "The Ottawa Girls" successfully won their fight against Radium Dial in court.

I find myself re-reading this book every couple of months. I re-read my favorite books all the time, but I don't recall reading the same book (at least not as an adult) as much as I have this one. Why?

First, I admire the strength and tenacity of the "radium girls." Many of them worked until they ages 20, young. They believed their bosses. Their families needed the money. And they trusted their own youth to protect them.

Secondly, the author portrayed these girls real people and not a faceless collection of names in a class action suit.  The "girls" left a trove of material for future biographers.  Oral histories by the few survivors or their families. An 80's documentary (no longer commercially available) Radium City about the Ottawa "studio." Court documents. Newspaper accounts of the court cases. Some of the girls kept diaries, (Katherine Schuab aspired to being a published author, which she achieved before her death.) It's this fine use of detail that brings these young women to life again.

The Radium Girls had no sense of "making history" or "crusading" for workplace safety for the ages. All they wanted was enough money to pay their medical costs, and to leave money for their families. They wanted the companies to admit that they had duped their workers, treated them as an expendable commodity. They wanted safety standards put in place. They helped form occupational labor law. It was too late for them, but perhaps it was not too late for their younger sisters and cousins who still worked at the factories. Uneducated, yet determined factory workers achieved all this.

I am inspired by these women, who while seemingly at the mercy of big business and Big Men, felt empowered enough to take them on in court. The Constitution gave them the right to vote only a few year before. Why not use that new found power for the good?

Would that I as a writer, could pick and employ the right detail, shape an individual story arc, that could make my 1920's characters come alive for my readers. And that I as a person, would have the strength to persevere in doing what is right, as these young factory workers did.

Friday, June 21, 2019

In Hope and Story

We continue to look at books who inspire us. These past few years have been defined by an anger born of despair, and by a loss of kindness born from want of hope. Hope comes from many places: your family, your friends, your heart, your faith.

Where I find hope is in stories. 

Every writer and poet, every teacher and parent – everyone who has lived a life – knows that life isn’t always easy. Life isn’t without its fears and despairs. In fact, dare I say, it is impossible to experience life without experiencing pain. Complete freedom from pain, says Daniel Taylor (The Healing Power of Stories, 1996), means separating yourself from life.

Stories remind us what it means to be human. Not perfect, by any means. But certainly Human.

As Taylor suggests, we are the product of all the stories we have heard and lived. Our stories are interwoven, and we cannot live our stories separate from each other because we are characters in each other’s story.

Stories fill us with the courage to face life’s possibilities.

Stories show us the way to be more than what we are now. They remind us of what we are capable of doing, if only we work together. While there were many great and inspiring stories published, I am reminded of some favorite stories of hope, written by the master storyteller Monica Kulling. I've talked about Monica's grand books before. Her stories demonstrate what can happen when the best of humanity comes together. She is the master of biography. Her poetic narrative – a hallmark of all her books – breathes life to her characters as she explores the thematic values of determination and persistence.

Grant and Tillie Go Walking, by Monica Kulling (July 2015), is a gently wise picturebook on the power of friendship. Grant Wood struggles to find his artistic voice and runs off to Paris to find himself. However, he soon discovers there is no place like home. He learns to be true to himself by painting what makes his heart sing. And in this case, it's beautiful and peaceful Tillie.

Monica excels at taking a moment in history, oftentimes a forgotten moment, and fashioning a story that is both compelling and informative. Her Great Idea Series, published by Tundra Books, is one of my favorite nonfiction series for young readers. The books showcase inventors 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. 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. These books include Going Up: Elisha Otis’s Trip to the Top (2012), illustrated by David Parkins, the story of 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.

That a-ha moment is hopeful, full of promise. Such moments show us the way to be more than what we are now. 

Wishing you many a-ha moments.

--Bobbi Miller

Friday, June 14, 2019

Five VITABOOKS to Keep Us Keepin’ On!

I’ve always considered tomorrow, June 15 – the middle day of the year’s sixth month, the date that marks the middle of my year.  
Though technically it doesn’t, I celebrate anyway.
It happens to be my Half Birthday. 😊
It’s also the day I realize I’ve kept on keepin’ on for the first 166 days of the year!
Phew and whew, I usually sigh, before declaring, loudly, “YAY me!”

To honor the occasion and to keep on keepin’ on, this year I’ve gifted myself with 5 picture books I’ve lovingly labeled VITABOOKS.
They might not strengthen my hair, nails, skin and bones or vitalize key organs to maximize their function but they sure do fortify my Spirit to ensure I carry on.
I share them today so they can do the same for you.
All are a part of my Summer TeachingAuthor Re-gifting Plan.

This past Wednesday evening, I read aloud Cheryl B. Klein’s WINGS (Atheneum, 2019), illustrated by Tomie dePaola, to inspire and encourage my Newberry Library Advanced Picture Book Workshop students to return to their stories, again and again, until those stories fly.  Cheryl’s text of but 12 rhyming words not only capture a baby bird’s journey to first flight. They shorthand the Hero’s Journey – including the requisite stings and dings we writers experience and the inevitable yet surprising triumphant and soaring resolution we in time come to know.

In four weeks I’ll be sharing Mo Willems’ BECAUSE (Hyperion, 2019), illustrated by Amber Ren, with my Manuscript Workshop writers in Landgrove, Vermont.  “This is how it happened:……..”  the title page declares.  The text and art that follow bring to the page a young musician’s story of how her quest to make music and magic began.  Each of us has a "because," that one person who…, or that one event or thing or circumstance that…, caused us to follow our dream to create.  Remembering and reflecting on that long-ago inspiration can be the perfect Rx to combat any thoughts of not moving forward.

Sudipta Bardhan-Qualien’s CHICKS RULE (Abrams, 2019), illustrated by Renee Kurilla, will be the first picture book I read aloud July 28 in my Picture Book Workshop to my Judson University Doctor of Education in Literacy candidates who happen to be all women.  The story’s Rocket Club’s “No Chicks Allowed” rule leads to chicks banding together, lifting each other up and finally soaring out of this world. How lucky we are to have a community of like-hearted children’s book creators, female and male, ready, willing and able to push us forward.

Midway through each of the above workshops, when my writers might be considering their options to continue (or not), I plan to read aloud Danielle Dufayet’s YOU ARE YOUR STRONG (Magination Press, 2019), illustrated by Jennifer Zivoin.  Conquering fear, anger, worry, rejection is possible when we utilize the treasure our strengths offer.

Finally, I’ve chosen Deborah Underwood’s Bearnard, the star of BEARNARD’S BOOK (Godwin Books/Henry Holt, 2019), illustrated by Misa Saburi, to send off any and all on their Writer’s Journeys.  As the flap copy states, “Bearnard discovers that to shine in his story, he just needs to be himself.  That’s just another way to share Dennis Palumbo’s brilliant insightful comforting advice from WRITING FROM THE INSIDE OUT (Wiley): we are enough!

Thanks to Laura Shoven for hosting today’s Poetry Friday.

Five and a half months down.  Six and half months to go.
Here’s hoping the above VITABOOKS keep you keepin’ on!

Esther Hershenhorn

Wednesday, June 12, 2019


Meet my long-ago writer and debut middle grade novelist Naomi Milliner of Olney, Maryland, the creator of today’s WEDNESDAY WRITING WORKOUT!

Naomi’s talent was a given.  Her stories were her stories, but they were stories that would resound in young readers’ hearts, stories that could make a difference.  Running Press and her agent Liza Fleissig obviously agreed!  On May 7, Running Press released SUPER JAKE & THE KING OF CHAOS, and to stellar reviews.

I first met this novel’s magician-Hero Ethan in an earlier incarnation in a very early draft. Much of course has changed in the plot since we first worked together. Fortunately for readers, however, the story’s heart remains the same, thanks to Naomi’s real-life experiences with her young son who had Cerebellar hypoplasia, a rare condition that causes a baby’s cerebellum to be smaller than usual or missing, and her willingness to lovingly share those experiences.  Fact vs. fiction? Naomi knows that writer dilemma first-hand.

Running Press' catalogue copy says it all: “A debut contemporary novel about 11-year-old aspiring magician Ethan, who discovers that heroes come in all sizes, and real magic can be found in the most unexpected places.” Love and hope, it turns out, may be the best magic of all.

In a starred review, Booklist described SUPER JAKE & THE KING OF CHAOS as “…charming, heartwarming….funny…moving.”
SLJ agreed.  “A strong family story for realistic middle grade fiction shelves.”
The Kirkus reviewer lauded the book. “The Millers' love for one another radiates throughout Ethan's witty, introspective narration. Jake is never a burden; his family members include him in fun activities and everyday life as best they can.... A warm, hopeful debut.”

Oh, to be teaching fifth grade again, so I could gift my students with Ethan’s authentically-told story.

IMHO: SUPER JAKE is also ripe for consideration by ALA’s Schneider Family Award Committee.

Just as Ethan’s hard work and patience pay off in this novel, Naomi’s hard work and patience have done the same.
Read Alex Villasante’s interview with Naomi at the Love Your Shelf Class2k19Books blog to learn just how many years Naomi stayed on task so Ethan could be in the world today.
Her debut novel’s success proves the truth of the cross-stitched motto that hangs in her living room: “Dreams have no expiration date.”
I’m sure Naomi’s character Daisy McKay, hopefully the star of her next novel, agrees. 😊


Thank you, Naomi, for gifting the world with SUPER JAKE & THE KING OF CHAOS – and – for gifting our TeachingAuthors readers with today’s Wednesday Writing Workout.

Happy Wednesday Writing!

Esther Hershenhorn

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .


     My debut middle grade novel, SUPER JAKE & THE KING OF CHAOS, is about an 11-year-old magician named Ethan and his family, including his youngest brother Jake, who has special needs. Because Super Jake is inspired by my own family, a lot of the characters and events are real. However, it is a work of fiction, not a memoir.
I worked on this book for many years, and with every new draft, two things happened: there were more and more made-up characters and events – and - the book became stronger as a result. Fictionalizing the facts made for a much stronger story!
Try it yourself!

Think of a real event you experienced – something recent, not necessarily anything remarkable.

Write about it, describe it, in a few paragraphs, just as it happened, exactly as it unfolded.
Be sure to include REAL people, AUTHENTIC dialogue and a SETTING you know well. Include lots of concrete details.

Next, REWRITE the paragraphs changing any of the key elements – the people, the dialogue, the setting.


What impact did the changes make? Did they add humor? Suspense? Fantasy?
Which version do you prefer and why?

Now try this exercise with another person or group of persons who shared an experience with you.
Describe the REAL story as it unfolded.
Then take turns changing the key elements – the people, the dialogue, the setting.

Friday, June 7, 2019


Howdy, Campers, and Happy Poetry Friday! (Be sure to visit this week's Poetry Friday host, Michelle at MoreArt4All)

Today's post is about Sadness and Celebration.


Many of you know Paul B. Janeczko died on February 19th. Paul was an original, he was a force of nature, and he was funny. He was also the author of more than fifty books, including poetry anthologies, novels for young readers, books of his own poetry, nonfiction, and guides for teachers. The loss is a big one in our poetry community.

Here's Publishers Weekly obituaryCynthia Leitich Smith's post in memory of Paul, and a wonderful spine poem by Heidi Mordhorst.

Oh, Paul...
Paul's wife captioned this one, "Keep smiling"

I met Paul in 1996 through a mutual friend, super librarian and library activist Richard K. Moore. Paul showed up on the porch of the TeachingAuthors treehouse twice: when I interviewed him in 2015, and the following week, when he shared an exercise he used in school writing workshops. My poems are in six of his anthologies.

Though I only saw Paul a few times in person, we corresponded about politics, poetry, the weather and our families. I learned a lot from his sunny emails (signed pbj), especially stop being so uptight and enjoy the frickin' ride. (Paul would have phrased that more poetically or funnier.) I will miss those emails.


THE PROPER WAY TO MEET A HEDGEHOG and Other How-To Poems (February 2019, Candlewick Press) is beautifully illustrated by Richard Jones--please look at a few of his luscious illustrations here.

Something to celebrate? I should say so! It's gotten three starred reviews (from Publishers Weekly, Booklist and Kirkus)!  Kirkus says: "The engaging artwork nudges the poems into the foreground, giving them ample room to breathe. The collection closes with "How to Pay Attention," just two lines that are almost a sacred offering. "Close this book. / Look." Young people lucky enough to find this miraculous collection in their hands will indeed look."  

That four word poem is mine :-)

I wrote my other poem in this collection after my husband and son gave me a shiny white bike for Hanukkah. I named her Bird. I didn't understand her brakes. Oh, what a wonderful, hairy-breezy first ride...until I had to brake fast to avoid a car. Bird was aptly named: I flew over her handlebars--oy! That's how "How to Ride a New Bike" was born.

by April Halprin Wayland

Head protector?

            Let’s ride!

Quick quiz, Cycling Whiz:
when car turns in a flash,
how won’t you crash?

            Brake hard!
            Brake fast!

You won’t last.
You’ll fly
past handlebars
seeing stars.

Next guess?
(Less mess, please)

Feather brakes slow
bike doesn’t throw me
so I touch ground
safe and sound?

Yup. You’ve got guts—

A plus!

poem (c)2019 April Halprin Wayland. All rights reserved.

There are 46 poems in this collection (many by several likely posting links on today's Poetry Friday blog). Here they are, listed in order of appearance: Charles Ghigna, J. Patrick Lewis, Elaine Magliaro, Allan Wolf, Marilyn Singer, Christina Rossetti, Calef Brown, Monica Shannon, Rebecca Kai Dotlich, Karla Kuskin, Douglas Florian, Irene Latham, Marjorie Maddox, Kwame Alexander, April Halprin Wayland, Anne E. Jordan, Robert (Bob) Louis Stevenson, Margarita Engle, Ralph Fletcher, Charles Waters, Martin Garden, Nikki Grimes, Steven Withrow, Helen Frost, Pat Mora.

In Irene Latham's wonderful post on this collection, the dialogue between Irene and poet Allan Wolf is filled with affection, both for poetry and pbj.

What a loss to our community; what a lovely, final book you leave us to savor, Paul.

Posted with love by April Halprin Wayland