Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Everything I Know I Learned from Snow White

This week (December 21st) marks the 74th anniversary of the debut of the Walt Disney classic, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

Ugh, I've said it. I've used the word "classic." That's a barnacle of a term, isn't it? It sticks like cement and once it's there it's nearly impossible to pry off. Worst of all, it keeps you from getting a really clear view of what you've got. Hard to see a "classic" with a fresh eye. Unless you're four, it's hard to watch Snow White as if you were seeing it for the first time. Hard to turn back the clock and see what audiences saw on December 21st, 1937, when Snow White first hit the screens, not as a creaky classic, but as a grand experiment in animated movie-making.

It wasn't a sure thing, you know. No one had ever seen a full-length animated movie before and the idea seemed preposterous to many. Cartoons were for kids. They were short. Heck, they were even called "shorts." They were filler, an appetizer for the real movie, not the main course movie itself. No one would sit through a full-length cartoon, critics said. Dwarfs or no dwarfs.

Besides, cartoons were supposed to be full of gags. Funny, slapstick-style easily digestible humor. They weren't dark and shadowy like the fairy tale on which Walt's movie would be based. What was he thinking?

Walt put himself and his company on the line to make his dream movie. He spent three years, committing his entire staff and a good deal of his own money. It is customary with classics to call their creators visionaries. Walt was that, but he had a vision in more than the metaphorical sense. He saw Snow White--literally saw it, frame by frame, as if it played already in his head. He dictated what he wanted to his animators, acting out scenes for them. He knew how each character should look and act, right down to the expressions on their faces. He even knew which kinds of mushrooms should be growing in the woods in the background.

On December 21, 1937, Walt's determination paid off. People lined up for blocks for a chance to see the movie. Animation now hardly seems worth a second glance. But Snow White was as cutting edge for its time as Star Wars and Avatar were for theirs. The movie broke records for ticket sales and won an Academy Award. And had Walt listened to the nay-sayers, he would have been the only one to see it. So glad he shared.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Everything I Know I Learned from Milton Hershey

This week (September 13) we celebrate the 154th birthday of chocolate king, entrepreneur, and philanthropist Milton Hershey.

I once gave a school visit talk about my then-latest book at which a second grader asked, wide-eyed, "You mean Walt Disney was a real person?" I guess some names just come to mean more than the people who own them: Disney, John Deere, and J. C. Penney, for example.

Milton Hershey is that kind of name. The word "Hershey" evokes, not images of the man, but of a brown-wrappered bar, a rich dark aroma, and the luscious feeling of smooth milk chocolate melting on one's tongue. Have I made your mouth water?

But like Disney, Milton Hershey was a very real person. Few would have predicted when he began his candy business that it would be the fabulous success it became, or that his name would become synonomous with milk chocolate. In fact, in the beginning, he was a rather spectacular failure. His businesses failed, he ran out of money, and he begged family members for a loan so often that they pretty much stopped talking to him. Maybe he was just the kind of person who was determined to succeed. Maybe it was a matter of confidence, faith, and bold perseverance. Or maybe he just didn't know how to do anything else besides make candy. Whatever the reason, he did eventually succeed. Magnificently.

Good story so far, right? Ah, but--to channel Ron Popeil--wait, there's more! The nickel Hershey bar was such a success that it made Milton Hershey a very wealthy man. And for a while he did live a champagne lifestyle: a grand mansion, exotic trips. He was even booked to travel first class on the maiden voyage of the Titanic. (He didn't go.)

But the death of his beloved wife Kitty at a young age sharpened his sense of perspective. He wanted to do something meaningful in her honor. They had already started a school for orphan boys. Now he donated all that chocolate money to the Milton Hershey School--all of it. He transferred his entire fortune, valued at about sixty million dollars, to the Hershey Trust for the use of his school. He did it quietly, with no fanfare, no press conference. It wasn't until some years after that the press got wind of the donation and disclosed it to the world. Eventually Milton even donated his mansion for the use of the town he'd founded.

It is the chocolate that we think of when we hear Milton Hershey's name. But it is the school that became his true legacy. Because he gave it everything he had.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Everything I Know I Learned from Sister St. Stephen

I am old enough to be able to answer the question "Where were you when President Kennedy was killed?" and young enough so that the memories of that day are hazy. I was six, a first grade student at St. Thomas School in Providence, RI. As a class we were preparing for our first confession that day, and just returning from a trip to the church to get our first tour of the inside of the confessional. That is all a matter of record, not memory. The memories, on the other hand, are spotty, grainy, the kind of scenes you see when waking from a deep sleep and first prying your eyes open.

I remember the priest's black car pulling up in front of Sister St. Stephen as she led us in two lines (boys in one, girls in the other)across the parking lot. I remember the blank look on his face as he beckoned her over to whisper something.

Back in the classroom I remember Sister hurriedly choosing Phyllis L. to "be in charge" and then rushing out. I remember the strip of wall covering tacked to the wall above the blackboard, gold with little white flowers. I must have had a long time to study that wall, because as the minutes ticked by, we began to realize that Sister wasn't coming back. She had left us ALONE. Even Phyllis seemed a little nonplussed by this.

I remember all of us discovering that with no Sister in the room, we could taste the forbidden fruit of talking in class. It felt deliciously naughty. (Thankfully, Phyllis was not the kind of girl to take her "in charge" position too seriously, and partook as eagerly as the rest of us.) The sound level in the room grew. I remember noticing that we were hearing the same sound level from other classrooms, too. I remember someone--or maybe all of us together--realizing what this meant: that all the nuns had disappeared from all the classrooms in the school. OK, this was HUGE.

I remember hearing a voice say, "Something really bad must have happened." But we couldn't imagine what. What could the nuns be doing that was so important they had left us all alone? I remember Phyllis bursting into tears.

At some point, Sister must have come back and dismissed us from school for the day, because the next thing I remember was going home to find my mother and aunt in front of the television set in tears, and I was told what the really bad thing was.

I can't imagine that happening today, that any teacher would leave her charges alone the way Sister St. Stephen did that day. And in fact when a really bad thing happened on September 11, 2001, when my own children were in school, the teachers continued with classes as if the world was just fine outside the classroom.

But I can't help thinking that Sister--all the sisters--had it right. That day they were gathered in front of a radio in the principal's office, trying to come to terms with the worst news they could imagine. Nothing worse than a little childish rowdiness happened in our clasroom, after all. The sisters chose a front seat to history over us, and I'm OK with that.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Everything I Know I Learned from Aunt Carrie's

If you're a native Rhode Islander (and that's pronounced "Ruh-DIE-lan-der") Aunt Carrie's should be as familiar a summer name as Del's. Maybe the name evokes an image of a wooden building, bleached by sun and summer breezes. Maybe it conjures up the scent of salt air and the screech of gulls. But it certainly should make your mouth water for the taste of fresh hot clamcakes.

Aunt Carrie's has been a Point Judith tradition since long before I was a little girl. Clamcakes at Aunt Carrie's were a special treat after a day at the beach when I was growing up. My brothers and sisters and I would wait to see which way my Dad headed after a day at Scarborough Beach. If he turned the car right, we were going home. But if we went left, we knew we were getting clamcakes at Aunt Carrie's. No greasy paper bag was ever so appreciated.

I married a native Rhode Islander, so every summer we try to make the trip to Point Judith for chowder and clamcakes. So it is with a great deal of embarrassment that I have to tell you that this time, somehow, we got lost. We were coming from a different direction, we were talking, yadda, yadda, all the usual excuses, but the fact is, we weren't sure which way to head. (All those hazy post-beach memories were trying to push through to my consciousness, but hey, my Dad always drove.)

We don't have a GPS in the car, and we don't yet have an iPhone (next month, maybe) but we did have my husband's Nook Color. All we had to do was find a WiFi signal. Which seems easy enough until you're driving up and down Route 1 arguing. Nothing. We tried the GPS function on the cell phone, which I've never used. Too confusing, and neither of us could read the tiny print anyway. Back to the Nook. We pulled into the parking lot of a Holiday Inn in a desperate attempt to pick up their WiFi signal. No luck. We needed a password. Arrgh!

So much technology in that car, and it wasn't enough. The prospect of those clamcakes was beginning to crumble like a sandcastle at the end of the day. Suddenly I looked up at the Holiday Inn before me. "How about if I go in and just ask for directions?" I suggested. A minute later we were headed in the correct direction toward Point Judith.

Sometimes the old fashioned research methods really are the best. Oh, and the clamcakes were great. As always.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Everything I Know I Learned from Johannes Gutenberg

Today, June 23rd, we celebrate the 613th (or thereabouts)birthday of the inventor of moveable type printing, Johannes Gutenberg.

If you're a follower of this blog, you know that I've written before about the impact of libraries on my early life. On a hot summer day, there was nothing like the cool, dark comfort of a building full of books. I'd load up the rack on my bike and spend the next week by the kiddie pool in the back yard with a book propped on my damp bathing suited lap. Add a couple of peaches and that's still my idea of summer heaven.

Except now it's a Kindle in my lap. I feel a little guilty about that, and a little like I'm cheating on old Johannes. (BTW, according to Wikipedia, his full name is Johannes Gensfleisch zur Laden zum Gutenberg. Try saying that tree times fast!) I have to give JG his due, after all. His invention is routinely ranked number one on the list of hot inventions of the second millenium. He ushered in a new information age and sparked a revolution in culture, science, and religion. It is not hyperbole to say that he and his invention transformed a world, not to mention giving me those wonderful afternoons in dusty libraries.

But I have to say, I am loving my new Kindle, especially for research. In something lighter than a box of crackers I've got dozens of books. Heck, I've got War and Peace in there. My son, usually a Luddite about such things, bought his so he could take his entire lirary along when he deployed to Afghanistan.

And so I can't help wondering along with other bibliophiles, what will happen to Gutenberg's invention in the age of the Kindle. Here's what The Institute for the Future of the Book has to say: The printed page is giving way to the networked screen. For the past five hundred years, humans have used print — the book and its various page-based cousins — to move ideas across time and space. Radio, cinema and television emerged in the last century and now, with the advent of computers, we are combining media to forge new forms of expression. For now, we use the word "book" broadly, even metaphorically, to talk about what has come before — and what might come next.

"What might come next--" it boggles the mind. Libraries have already changed, of course. My local library has offered e-books for several years, as well as the traditional books in stacks I remember so well. It just means those summer afternoons by the pool will look a little different.

Pass me a peach.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Everything I Know I Learned from Jacques Cousteau

This week, on June 11, we celebrate the 101st anniversary of the birth of oceanographer and filmmaker Jacques Cousteau.

I remember well the "Jaccques Cousteau Specials" on TV when I was growing up. (I'm not the only one. I read somewhere that Stephen Hillenburg, creator of SpongeBob SquarePants, created the French narrator of the cartoon, who sounds an awful lot like Cousteau, as an homage.) They were a part of the cultural wallpaper of growing up in that era and I made it a point to watch whenever his shows were on.

But why? I wasn't particularly interested in oceanography, and certainly never dreamed of being a diver. I liked science, but never considered a career in it. And aside from Lenten Friday lunches of tuna salad sandwiches, I wasn't even particularly fond of fish. So in an age before "must see TV," what was it that made his specials so compelling?

No doubt it was his voice. Not just the rich French accent, though there was that. His slow, patient voice with that delicious accent still gives me goosebumps, and is what most people (like Hillenburg) recall of those TV specials. But it was more. Cousteau made oceanography accessible. He took
complex, esoteric scientific concepts and made them simple enough for everyone to grasp--without just dumbing down the science. He was a superb teacher and communicator. And he never failed to convey his enthusiasm for his subject matter. This was a man who clearly had a passion for the sea and all its wonders and he managed to bring us all along with him every time he spoke.

That is all I could ever hope to do for my readers. Without the fish, of course.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Everything I Know I Learned from Edward Hitchcock

Today, May 24th, we celebrate the 218th anniversary of the birth of minister, geologist, and dinosaur hunter Edward Hitchcock.

Hitchcock himself would have frowned at that last description, of course. He would not have recognized the concept of a dinosaur. He lived in an age when the very word had yet to be invented. The footprints he hunted down, collected, and described in such detail were mysteries to him. Yet that is exactly what modern science has shown him to be. Hunting down the fossilized dinosaur footprints of New England became his passion.

It all started quite by accident. Hitchcock was a respected geologist when someone came to him with an unusual rock. It had a strange three-toed track running across it, as if a turkey had run through mud and left its footprints behind. Hitchcock was hooked. He spent the rest of his life studying the strange trackways that the New England soil coughed up so frequently. He amassed the world’s largest collection of dinosaur footprints—some 10,000 individual specimens. He devised a system of classifying the fossil footprints that is used to this day, hunting for clues to the animals that made them. He called these animals “lithichnozoa,” stony track animals. Out of all that passion and many late nights studying rocks by candle light came a new science, the science of ichnology, the study of trace fossils.

Sadly, the one find that would have shed light on the identity of the track makers eluded him. The New England soil was not conducive to the preservation of fossilized bones. Hitchcock had only the footprints, and as it turns out it’s difficult to identify an animal from “the bottom up.” His best guess was that the tracks were left by an extinct species of giant bird. Not a bad guess actually. Edward Hitchcock, dinosaur hunter, worked his whole life and established a new science without ever having met a dinosaur.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Everything I Know I Learned from Dolley Madison

This week, May 20, we celebrate the 243rd anniversary of the birth of First Lady Dolley Madison.

Let's start at the end of this story. When Dolley Madison died on July 12, 1849, her funeral procession was one of the largest in the history of Washington. The president was there, as was every member of Congress, officers of both the army and the navy, her many friends, and a good many of the citizens of Washington. So who was this celebrated and much-loved lady?

Current opinion seems to have downsized Dolley. I've read too much about her beauty and her love of fashion. She's been cast as a party-girl, and I have to believe that that is a reflection of our own shallow culture. Dolley was beautiful, yes. And she most certainly had a flair for fashion. But this was a woman who had a clear vision of her role as first lady. Dolley knew how to set priorities and hold to them. Think Hillary, not Paris.

Dolley opened the President's House, as it was known then, to everyone. She greeted everyone warmly, as a close friend, and took care to pay special attention to anyone who was alone. She saw her role as one of peacemaker. She knew that politics made for strong opinions, and she sought to soothe ruffled feathers and build consensus wherever possible. In her low-necked gowns and her feathered turbans, Dolley played diplomat.

Her shining moment came when Washington was under attack during the War of 1812. With her husband, President James Madison, away, Dolley stayed at the President's House, packing for an evacuation. The content of those trunks is telling: important government papers, books, a clock, and other furnishings from the White House. With cannons booming, and British troops approaching, she could not be persuaded to leave until these imporatnt items were safe. At the last moment, with servants imploring her to leave, she had the Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington removed from its frame, and she packed that, too. She would not let it fall into British hands. Only then did she consent to leave. Later that night, British troops invaded and set fire to the President's House. She watched the flames from a distance.

Those lovely gowns? They burned.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Everything I Know I Learned from NESCBWI

If you were there, you know....AWESOME!

I've been home two days now and I'm still riding the wave of enthusiasm that I boarded at the NESBWI Conference in Fitchburg, MA. I felt so fortunate to listen to five wonderful keynotes from the likes of Jane Yolen, Tomie DePaola, Steven Mooser, Lin Oliver, and Harold Underdown. They are, after all, the rock stars of our industry. Jane was funny and numinous (I had to look it up), Tomie was funny and generous, Steven was funny and sweet, Lin was funny and instructive, and Harold (with the help of Mr. P and Mr. O) was funny and encouraging.

It's enough to make me want to add some humor to my own writing. And, with the help of Donna Gephart's great intensive workshop, I just might be able to do that. And Julie Berry's helpful tips will help me to get the thing finished. I was especially happy to have a chance to chat with Loree Griffin Burns, who presented an in-depth look at the research process.

Above all, I count myself fortunate to belong to a group of such generous and supportive professionals. I went to the conference solo, since my regular critique group members were not able to attend. I now know, Jane, how to "touch magic." You plop yourself down with a group and ask, "Mind if I join you?" The result never failed to be magical. I met the nicest, most interesting people, and came away positively enchanted.

But, alas, enchantments end. And I am left with the real world and Lin's advice: Do the work!

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Everything I Know I Learned from Orson Welles

This week, on May 6, we mark the 96th anniversary of the birth of actor, writer, and director Orson Welles.

When I visit schools, I often explain to students why I write nonfiction instead of fiction. I talk about the cool fiction stories that they might have read, stories that are funny or scary or mysterious. “But,” I tell them, “if I tell you a story that is funny, or scary or mysterious, and then I say ‘This really happened…this is a true story,' I think that is magical.” Seeing “Based on a true story” at the beginning of a movie has never failed to make me sit up a little straighter and pay closer attention. The True Story—it just gives me goosebumps.

Orson Welles understood that. He was the one, after all, who found fame for taking a fiction story about an alien invasion and turning it into a mock radio newscast. By recasting H. G. Wells’ novel The War of the Worlds as a True Story, Welles managed to give his listeners a ripping good case of goosebumps.

Wells’ novel was already well-known in 1938, when The War of the Worlds was performed as a Halloween broadcast on October 30 of that year. The script for the radio show changed the novel’s setting from nineteenth century London to contemporary New Jersey. It paired an ordinary broadcast of dance music with increasingly ominous news flashes which periodically interrupted the broadcast. The formula mimicked typical radio news broadcasts of the day. It gave the broadcast a unique feeling of immediacy and urgency. The result was widespread panic. People tuning in were led to believe that aliens from Mars were landing in an invasion force—right here, right now. Police stations took hundreds of calls from terrified people convinced the Earth was being invaded. Some swore they could smell poison gas or see flashing lights in the distance.

At the end of the play Welles broadcast a disclaimer reminding listeners that the episode was in honor of Halloween. It was just his equivalent, he said, of “dressing up in a sheet, jumping out of a bush and saying ‘Boo!’” Don’t believe it. Welles knew just what he was doing. He knew the power of the True Story.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Everything I Know I Learned from the Red Baron

This week, on April 21st, we celebrate the 93rd anniversary of the death of famed World War I ace Manfred von Richtofen, aka the Red Baron.

On of the trends in children's publishing is the shifting of responsibility for book promotions from the publisher to the often slender shoulders of the author. We are encouraged to get out there and sell via Facebook and Twitter and blogs, with fancy book launches, book birthdays, and trailers. You can't open an SCBWI Bulletin or other trade publication for kidlit authors these days without seeing some advice on book promotions, whether online or via more traditionbal avenues, and we are constantly admonished that promoting is no longer optional. It is expected. Predictably, most authors are terified at the thought of having their baby sink into oblivion. So we join the big noisy parade, whether we feel fully prepared for it or not.

Now, publishers don't get all riled. I know dollars are tight in this economy. And I know that no one can give a book a push like its author. I also know some authors who are incredibly imaginative at this, and excel at getting--and keeping--their book in the spotlight.

But for a lot of us, the reason we write is because we love writing, not because we like promoting. We are not fully comfortable with the whole idea of the spotlight and feel as if we are shouting, "Hey, look at me! I wrote a book!" (Never a good idea, by the way.)

We could learn a thing or two from the Red Baron.

Now, I read The Right Stuff, and I know that fighter pilots of any generation are not by nature modest. But this guy makes other fighter pilots look like shrinking violets. Richtofen was a master at aerial combat, and made sure everyone knew it. After downing his first enemy plane, he ordered a small silver cup made to commemorate the event, and had it engraved with the date of his victory. After that, he had a new cup made for each new victory. By one report, he amassed a total of sixty such silver cups. The only thing stopping him from continuing the practice was that Germany, which was blockaded at the time, began to run short of silver. No wonder!

He received his famous nickname, of course, from his practice of having his airplane painted bright red. His aim was clearly to be noticed. It was the only way he could be sure he would be distinguished from other fliers from the ground. Nothing stands out agianst a blue sky like a bright red plane. Combined with his skill as a tactician and his mounting tally of kills, the effect was to instill fear and respect in enemy fliers. His legend was born.

So I guess I should be more fearless when promoting my next book. I should not be afraid to stand out, to stand, yes, in the spotlight. Maybe a bright red book cover wouldn't hurt either.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Everything I Know I Learned From The Thirteen

This week, on April 8, we celebrate the 122nd anniversary of the birth of pioneer aviator Blanche Stuart Scott.

In 1910, at age 21, Blanche became the first woman in the United States to fly an airplane. Later she was the first professional woman pilot, performing stunts at airshows. She made the first woman’s long distance flight. She was the first female test pilot and the first American woman to ride in a jet.

The lady knew her way around the sky.

She also knew about discrimination. Her first flying instructor, a man, at first refused to teach her beause she was a woman. When she insisted, he rigged her plane to keep her from taking off. (She figured out the problem and flew anyway.) She would have been right at home with the women I've been reading about in Tanya Lee Stone's wonderful Almost Astronauts: Thirteen Women Who Dared to Dream.

In direct, pull-no-punches prose, Stone relates the story of thirteen women who dared to dream of becoming astonauts. In the early 1960's, twenty years before NASA accepted women into its astronaut program, they became the "Mercury Thirteen." They were thirteen women, all acomplished pilots, who underwent the same rigorous physical, psychological, and piloting tests as the seven male Mercury astronauts. They knew full well, as Blanche did, what they were up against. They knew that to be taken half as seriously as the men, they had to be twice as good. They passed every test, jumped every hurdle but one--the blind sexism of nearly everyone around them. Their unyielding determination and courage shine in Stone's telling.

So does the arrogance of discrimination. Again and again, Stone offers up examples of the condescension the thirteen suffered. From the patronizing nicknames the thirteen were given ("Fly Gals," "Astronettes") to the smug, smirky attitudes of reporters ("A pretty girl like you must have thought about marriage....") Stone leaves the reader feeling furious at what these tough women had to endure.

Of course, Blanche would have recognized those same attitudes. Maybe that is what makes me most furious: that so little had changed between her time and the thirteens'.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Everything I Know I Learned from Mickey Spillane

This week, on March 9, we celebrate the 93rd birthday of crime author Mickey Spillane.

Here is what I know about Mickey Spillane:
1. He is the creator of gritty detective Mike Hammer.
2. He got his start writing comic books.
3. He wrote his first novel, I, THE JURY, in less than three weeks.
4. He wrote it because he needed the money to buy a house.

It's that last factoid that I find interesting. Every writer I've ever known has wrestled with the question: do I write because I want to or do I write for the money? There's no doubt money is seductive. Especially if by earning money you can pay enough bills to ensure that you can spend more time writing. But then, are you spending that time writing what you want or simply what will pay so that you can keep spending more time writing...well, round and round we go.

At the heart of the conundrum, of course, is the assumption that what pays is different from what is near and dear. Unfortunately, that seems to be the case more often than not. What most of us want is to write someting different, something that breaks the mold that we can call truly our own. Marketing departments are skittish about new and different. They like tried and true. They'd push everyone onto the same bandwagon if they could, as long as that bandwagon keeps rolling along. Happy is the writer who's always dreamed of writing a teen paranormal romance in today's market.

I suppose here would be a good place to insert a plea for balance: you know, prostitute ourselves just a little so that we can free up some time for our "real" work. But I'm frankly not so sure.

I'm not sure I could work up a passion to write on a topic I'm not passionate about. Maybe it's just that nobody has dangled a big enough carrot in front of me. But writing still seems like such a mysterious process to me. I don't know where the words come from. I know only that when the passion is there, they come freely. I suspect that whole mysterious process would fall apart for me if I tried to do it minus the passion. The very thought makes me cringe.

So, I guess there we have it: I'm the kind of writer who can't write just for money. I'm the kind of writer who needs to feel invested. I'm the kind of writer who's destined to keep her day job.

Anyway, I'm glad it all worked out for Mickey.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Everything I Know I Learned from Chester Nimitz

This week, on February 24th, we celebrate the 126th anniversary of the birth of World War II naval hero, Admiral Chester Nimitz.

Over the past few months, when I’ve told people that I’ve been researching the life of Chester Nimitz, I’ve received more than a few blank stares, polite smiles, and an outright “Who’s that?” Chester Nimitz, is seems, is a name we’ve forgotten. It’s a name we should know.

As Commander in Chief of the Pacific Fleet during the war, Nimitz was the architect of the US victory in the Pacific. Assigned the post just days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, he was told by FDR to go to Pearl and "stay there till the war is won." He arived in Hawaii on Christmas Day and was horrified at what he saw. It was his task to rebuild the crippled fleet and to halt the Japanese advance across the Pacific.

In a way, Nimitz had been preparing for the job since boyhood. His grandfather, to whom he was very close, had been a merchant sailor. Young Chester had listened wide-eyed to tales of the sea. "The sea," his grandfather told him, "like life itself, is a stern taskmaster. The best way to get along with either is to learn all you can and do your best and don't worry, especially about things over which you have no control." Nimitz took the words as his personal philosophy.

Nimitz graduated from the US Naval Academy seventh in a class of 114. He spent his next years at sea, learning firsthand what a stern taskmaster it was. One night, at the helm of a destroyer, he felt the ship stop. He'd run it aground on a mudbank. The he remembered his grandfather's words. He'd done all he could. Now all he could do was wait for morning for another ship to pull him off. He earned a reprimand for the error, and learned a lesson.

As CinCPaC, he set out to push the Japanese fleet back across the Pacific. His decisive victory came at the Battle of Midway. Alerted that Japanese code had been broken and that enemy ships were underway, he set his ships into position for a surprise attack. Then he could only wait. Once more, he'd done all he could. By the end of the battle, the enemy's carrier force had all but been destroyed.

On September 2, 1945, Nimitz at last fulfilled the mission he'd been given after Pearl Harbor. There, on the deck of the USS Missouri under cloudy skies, he accepted the formal surrender of Japanese forces. The war was over.

And that, boys and girls, is why we should know the name Chester Nimitz.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Everything I Know I Learned from Thomas Edison

This week, February 11th, we celebrate the 164th anniversary of the birth of inventor Thomas Edison.

In researching a subject biographers always end up with an abundance of great information, all of which illuminates the subject in some way, all of which we are terribly invested in, and most of which we have not a prayer of using in the final product. It hurts. I’m often asked how I decide what I’ll use and what I must cut. One biographer I know solved the problem by, as she puts it, “writing to quotes.” A good quote can often speak volumes about your subject when you just don’t have room for volumes in your manuscript, especially in material for children, where the writing must be extraordinarily tight.

With no subject is this more true than for Thomas Edison. He is the man who said the following: Everything comes to him who hustles while he waits. And: Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration. And: Great ideas originate in the muscles.

Well. Bit of a theme there, wouldn’t you say? Clearly this was a man with little patience for armchair inventors with great notions but without the drive to put them into action. GET OFF YOUR BACKSIDE! he must have wanted to scream at such dabblers. JUST DO IT ALREADY!

Great advice for writers too, isn’t it? The idea is never enough. It’s the writing that counts, the writing that's both the sweet and the bitterly difficult part of the task. Even the dabblers know that. That's why they dabble.


Thursday, January 27, 2011

Everything I Know I Learned from W. C. Fields

This week (January 29) marks the the 131st anniversary of the birth of W. C. Fields.

Conventional Wisdom says that it was Fields who once said, "Never act in a picture with kids or animals. They'll upstage you every time." I've since read that Conventional Wisdom was mistaken, but hey, it does seem like his style. After all, he did say, "I like children--fried."

Now personally I like being upstaged. Every so often at a school visit a child will ask if I'm famous (ha!). I always answer that I'm not and I don't want to be. I want only my work to be famous. I want my subjects to outshine me every time, and if I write well, they do.

But really, where would a children's writer be without kids or animals? They're pretty much our stock in trade. Talking pigs and pigeons, round-headed kids dragging big purple crayons--that's who we're all about, isn't it?

But I think I know what Fields meant. It's all too easy for any book with cute kids and fuzzy animals to wander into the land of the saccharine, to be just so sweet and adorable, the book loses all relevance to the real world. It's what editors mean when they say a book isn't "edgy" enough: it's just too sweet to be real.

I think any book, fiction or nonfiction, needs a balance. Even a fuzzy velveteen rabbit can have an edge.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Everything I Know I Learned from Charles Perrault

This week, January 12, we celebrate the 383rd anniversary of the birth of fairy tale author Charles Perrault.

Ah, fairy tales. Once again I have to go back to the set of books I was given when I was nine or ten. It was a set of abridged "classics." Fat little books they were, mostly because they were two books in one. LITTLE WOMEN flipped over to LITTLE MEN. There was TOM SAWYER on one side, HUCK FINN on the other. And there were two sets of fairy tales, one by Hans Christian Andersen, the other by the Brothers Grimm. I literally read those books to shreds. (Nothing to pass on to my own kids--sorry guys.)

But it was Perrault who laid the foundations built upon by Andersen and Grimm. Before Perrault, fairy tales were part of the oral tradition, well-known stories passed from one generation to another, but never written down. Perrault set these tales down with a great deal of wit and elegant detail. He published his book, TALES OF MOTHER GOOSE, in 1697 in Paris. And with that, a new genre was born. (Think of it--writing something so groundbreaking that it constitutes an entirely new genre. Yikes!)

Among Perrault's stories were some of the most familiar fairy tales of Western Civilization: Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Little Red Riding Hood. These stories are so well-rooted in our culture, it's easy to overlook them. But next time you're tempted, try counting all the different ways the Cinderella story has been told. It's been updated, reworked, staged as an opera, a ballet, and a musical. There are hundreds of movie versions, going all the way back to the silent era.

As children's writers we sometimes are dismissed by adults as something less than "real" writers. I'll think of Perrault when that happens. He created something so timeless it deserves to be called "classic."