Friday, August 24, 2012

Everything I Know I Learned from John Pendleton Kennedy

Ah the eighteen-year-old male. Is there anything so omnipotent, so immortal, so perfectly bullet-proof--at least in the mind of the eighteen-year-old male.

John Pendleton Kennedy was eighteen at the time of the Battle of Bladensburg in 1814. He had an eye for the young ladies, a "dashy" uniform, and a head full of romantic notions of the glory of war. It was all a grand adventure, as he saw it, at least until the shooting started. The young private, a volunteer with the Maryland Militia, had gone so far as to pack his dancing shoes along with the rest of his gear when he had set out for the battleground. These were essential, he later explained, since after they had beaten the British army and saved the city of Washington President Madison was sure to invite the victorious soldiers to a ball at the White House. It simply wouldn't do to arrive in combat boots.

The night before the battle, there was a great deal of talk among the men. The night was marked by excitement, confusion, frequent moves of the camp, and a lot of sleeplessness. Somehow, in all the hubbub, Kennedy's boots were misplaced. When the Battle of Bladensburg began, he had turned out wearing the fancy dancing shoes on his feet.

Today, August 24th, is the anniversary of Private Kennedy's first taste of battle. It is also the anniversary of the burning of Washington, which tells you all you need to know about how the battle turned out. The Battle of Bladensburg is usually referred to as the US military's most humiliating defeat. Not that there was great loss of life. Frankly the soldiers, mostly green untested militiamen like our young private, were running too fast to suffer much injury. The pursuing British soldiers fared worse. At least twelve of them died of heatstroke trying to keep up with the stampeding enemy.

Private Kennedy summed up the day in his own plucky way. "We made a fine scamper of it," he said later.

It would be easy to laugh at young Kennedy's naive cheerfulness. I admit I've done so. But lately I've come to appreciate the Private Kennedys of the world. Maybe, just maybe, when you're going into the worst battle of your life, it's not such a bad thing to wear your dancing shoes.


Thursday, August 16, 2012

An Interview with WORKING MUMMIES' Joan Horton.

Joan Horton is the author of MATH ATTACK!, HALLOWEEN HOOTS AND HOWLS, and other picture books featuring her trademark wordplay and smart, snappy verse. Her latest picture book, WORKING MUMMIES, illustrated by Drazen Kozjan, was chosen by the editors of Amazon as one of the best picture books of July 2012. Kirkus has called it, "sure to be a hit."

 Where did the idea for WORKING  MUMMIES come from?
A few years ago, I was struggling to write a poem about a witch whose house was for sale. I scribbled a few lines describing the house, but didn’t know where to go from there. I was about to set the poem aside when I pictured a real estate sign out front.  Who, I asked myself, put it there? The witch? An agent? If it were an agent, what did she look like? Was she a mummy – a working mummy?  What started out as a poem about a witch’s house morphed into a whole new picture book idea.

How long does it take you to get from idea to just right?
It depends. Once in a great while the stars are aligned, and I get lucky. A poem or an idea will come to me full blown. Other times, it takes me months or even years before I get things just right. And let’s not talk about the dozens of poems and stories I suspect I’ll never be able to finish. Even after a book has been published, there are times I wish I could take it back and tweak it ever so slightly.

What usually comes first for you, the story or the rhyme?
Probably the story, especially when I write a picture book with a beginning, middle, and end. For shorter poems, I might play around with words and sounds and see where they take me. I write a lot of light verse which often ends with a punch line. Sometimes, I think of the punch line first and work backwards, hoping I can come up with a second, rhyming line to complete the couplet - not a method I recommend.  

Many people find verse intimidating, but you seem fearless. Are you? 
Foolish might be a better word. When I first started out, I read a lot of books on writing for children. Almost every one of them had a paragraph or two warning the reader not to write in verse. According to the authors, editors hate it. But writing in rhyme is what I love, so I ignored the advice and forged ahead. I guess it was a case of, “Fools rush in…”

What were your favorite books growing up?
I didn’t read much as a child. I had a vision problem which wasn’t diagnosed until I started school. By that time, I had lost significant sight in one eye. Perhaps that’s why my mother encouraged me to go out and play, rather than sit in the house with my nose in a book.  

When I was very young, I loved the rhythm of nursery rhymes. Before I went to sleep, I’d beg my dad to read from one of my Mother Goose books. I don’t remember which poem was my favorite, but I do know Diddle, Diddle, Dumpling  signaled lights-out. Unfortunately, not all Mother Goose poems have perfect rhyme and meter. Kids as young as four or five know when something doesn’t sound quite right. That’s why I’m pretty meticulous about making sure my own rhyme and meter are as good as I can make them.  I owe that to my readers.  

Tell us about your journey. How did you come to be an author?
It wasn’t until I retired from my job as a medical technologist that I gave any thought to writing. By then my four kids were grown and on their own. It seemed the perfect time to try something new and different. A friend told me about a conference on writing for children that was to be held at the Hartford College for Women. I signed up, and that was one of the best things I ever did. I came away from the conference energized and excited about the prospect of writing. A few weeks later, I joined a critique group. Not only were the members encouraging and supportive, they shared practical tips on how to prepare and submit a manuscript. We’ve been together for fifteen plus years, and I feel privileged to call this remarkable group of writers friends. 

The first thing I ever wrote was an ABC book about apples. “A is for apple,/ I’m sure that you know./ B is for branches/ On which apples grow.” I thought it was pretty good. Editors didn’t share my enthusiasm, and the rejections piled up. In the meantime, I was writing and submitting a group of unrelated poems. These were also rejected, but a few editors took the time to scribble a note of encouragement. One day, I got a phone call from an editor who said she liked my writing, and suggested the poems would be more marketable if they had a theme. I always loved Halloween and set about writing twenty-one poems on the subject. When I finished, I eagerly mailed it off to that editor. To my dismay, she rejected it. She felt some of the poems weren’t strong enough. She was right. I reworked them, added new ones, and sent the manuscript off to a second editor who loved it and offered to publish it. Halloween Hoots and Howls was my first picture book.

What’s the best part of being an author?
Sharing my books with thousands of kids I’ve never even met. And then there’s the thrill of walking into a book store and seeing my book on a shelf. 

How do you work? Do you wait for inspiration to strike or are you, as Jane Yolen says, a “butt in chair” person?
I wish I were more of a “butt in chair person”.  My output might be greater. I don’t have a regular routine. Sometimes when I have an idea, I tuck it away in a corner of my mind and carry it around in my head for weeks or months. Other times, I write each day for several hours.
I always write in longhand. My words seem to flow better that way. When I’m satisfied with what I’ve done, I type it into my computer.  Some of my most productive times are just before I drift off to sleep. I keep a pad and pencil by my bed so I can jot down a rhyme or a couplet or two that had been eluding me during the day. A couple of times I woke up in the middle of the night with an idea that wouldn’t keep. I was so inspired, I hopped out of bed and went into another room where I wrote until dawn.  

What story would you love to tell in verse?
No one story in particular. But what I’d really love is to write a book in prose and have it published.

What are you working on now?
A picture book about a girl whose library books are long overdue. I’m afraid it’s somewhat autobiographical. To this day, I remember worrying about what the librarian would say when I didn’t return my books on time.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Everything I Know I Learned from Picture Books

When my younger son was about ten, he happened by one day when I was struggling with a writing project. I'd write for a bit, get stuck, then turn to a picture book by my side. I'd read a little to get the inspirational juices flowing, then start off writing again. My son watched this happen a number of times and then said, with an eye-roll that I would soon come to know well, "You know, Mom, I really don't think you're supposed to be copying other people's books."

Yes, I guess that's just what it looked like to him. But I often find myself turning to a number of favorite picture books to get unstuck. It's the voices I love. As a nonfiction writer, I find reading a much-loved picture book is especially valuable when I'm starting a new project. That's when I've spent months reading through adult information and I'm struggling to adjust to my kidlit voice again. Reading a great picture book, with a great voice, helps me through. I think of it as cleansing the palate.

So here, in no particular order, are my top ten picture books. (I lied. I do have one all-time favorite. See if you can find it!) And, in the interest of full disclosure, yes, they are all nonfiction picture books. That's just who I am.

The Man Who Walked Between the Towers, by Mordecai Gerstein. This is how I will always choose to remember the twin towers.

The Day-Glo Brothers, By Chris Barton and Tony Persiani. This is the total package, a perfect marriage of great text and simple illustrations with eye-popping color.

Eleanor, by Barbara Cooney. I love the so-sad illustrations of the early Eleanor, and the triumph of her later life.

Handel, Who Knew What He Liked, by M.T. Anderson and Kevin Hawkes. Fresh and a little irreverent, Hallelujah!

Martin's Big Words, by Doreen Rappaport and Bryan Collier. I can't imaging a more intimidating biography subject than Martin Luther King, but this picture book takes a larger-than-life subject and makes it kid-sized.

Michelangelo, by Diane Stanley. Because I'm a sucker for anything about Michelangelo. Or by Diane Stanley.

The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins, by Barbara Kerley and Brian Selznick. Who wouldn't love  a party in a dinosaur model?

When Marian Sang, The True Recital of Marian Anderson, by Pam Munoz Ryan. Marian's dignity shines through the text and illustrations.

Revolutionary John Adams, by Cheryl Harness. The absolute best for tight writing. So much is packed into both the text and the illustrations, right down to the portrait of Nabby in the Adams' home.

Snowflake Bentley, by Jacqueline Briggs Martin and Mary Azarian. The one I turn to again and again for a lesson in how to convey time, place, and mood in simple, lyrical language, with perfectly matched artwork. 

So there are my favorites. Please share yours with me.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Everything I Know I Learned From Thomas H. Gallaudet

It started with a friendship. Nine year old Alice Cogswell was Thomas Gallaudet’s little neighbor. The young minister noticed the girl sitting by herslf in the garden day after day. She seemed lively and energetic, yet none of the other children in the neighborhood bothered to play with her or even to talk to her. Puzzled, he stopped one of them and asked why. He was saddened to learn the answer. Alice was deaf, he was told. With no way to communicate with her, no one wanted to play with her. No hearing, no speech. No speech, no playing.

So Gallaudet began spending time with the girl. Most "experts" at the time thought that deaf-mutes (as they were called) were somehow brain damaged. That the lack of hearing either stemmed from or caused a brain defect, and that was why such children had difficulty learning. No hearing, no language. No language, no learning.

But Gallaudet made a very pleasant discovery. He found that there was nothing at all wrong with Alice's mind, and he set out to teach her himself. And if she couldn’t hear language, he would just have to find some other way to communicate with her.

He made little progress at first. He was no teacher and really didn’t know the first thing about teaching a deaf girl. But he was determined. His quest to find a key to Alice’s mind led him all the way across the Atlantic. Schools for the deaf in France had discovered that language didn’t have to be heard to be understood. Students there communicated through signs with remarkable results. Gallaudet learned French Sign Language and brought it—along with one of the school’s teachers—to America. He raised money to build the first school for the deaf in the United States. The school, now known as the American School for the Deaf, opened in 1817, and is still in existence today. Among its first class of students was Alice Cogswell.In his determination to find a way to reach her mind, he brought about a revolution in deaf education in the country, and brought illumination to countless deaf students.

Still, I can't help wondering. What would have happened if Gallaudet had not been the person he was? If he had given up, discouraged by his early failures? If he had decided he was not the man for the task after all? What would have happened to Alice then?

I use the word "determination" often in writing biographies, and Gallaudet is the perfect exemple why. No one writes a biography about a quitter. No determination, no victory. No victory, no illumination.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Everything I Know I Learned from a River

In 1998 my husband and I were casting about for something new to do on summer weekends. The kids were getting older--read bored--and an occasional trip to the beach just wasn't cutting it anymore. So we bought a power boat. The combination of speed and water was just the perfect combination for two pre-teen boys.

The boat was big enough to be fun and small enough to be trailerable. That meant we weren't tied down to one marina. We explored the local lakes and occasionally took the boat to the bay in Rhode Island. The boys went tubing and learned to water ski. It was all a great adventure.

It didn't take long, though, for us to outgrow the little lakes where we were skiing. There's only so long that you can tolerate going around and around and around in endless circles. It was then that my husband suggested taking the boat to the Connecticut River.

The river? I hadn't really thought about the Connecticut as a real river. It had always been just something I crossed over on my daily commutes. I had only ever seen the river from the highway bridge, and in truth, I usually didn't even give the river a glance. Were there even boats on that river? Maybe, but I couldn't have told you.

Well the river turned out to be our home away from home for many summers. It was a delightful discovery. Instead of water skiing in circles, we could ski long straight stretches of river. The boys swam from the boat and watched schools of fish. Once or twice a year we took the boat to the mouth of the river and into Long Island Sound. And when it was nap time (uh, not them, me) we put them ashore and let them play explorers or pirates. Every year we watched the Fourth of July fireworks from the cockpit of the boat anchored in the river.

But mostly we just powered down the river and watched the scenery. Who knew that below the crisscross of highway bridges was such unspoiled natural beauty? Well, my husband obviously did, but I hadn't a clue.

Last month the federal government launched the National Blueway System to focus attention of the nation's rivers and our historic connection to them. I am proud that the first river to be designated a National Blueway is the Connecticut River. Maybe more people will discover what I did: that if you really want to experience something you can't just look down at it from above. You'd better get down there and get wet and squish some mud between your toes.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Everything I Know I Learned from Stephen Pleasonton

The last hot dog has been eaten (yum!). The final fireworks have lit up the sky (oooh!).
The last BOOM has echoed though the night (wow!). And the dog has finally unstapled himself from my leg (It's OK, Willy!).

Fourth of July is over for another year. And yet I'm still thinking about it. Last week I was lucky enough to visit the birthplace of the Fourth. No, not Philadelphia. I went to Washington, to the National Archives, and stood in front of the Declaration of Independence, the document that started it all. It wasn't my first time, and God willing, it won't be my last. But seeing the Declaration of Independence never fails to make me weak in the knees.

Now, I admit, I'm a sucker for primary sources anyway. The very thought of something REAL that's been touched by so many heroes of history gets me in the throat. And in truth, there's really not much to see any more. The print is faded to near invisibilty, and pretty much the only name that's legible is John Hancock's.
And yet... And yet, there is something so special about the Declaration of Independence. What else can bring a group of antsy fifth graders to hushed reverence?

As I stood there elbow to elbow with the crowd of school kids, I couldn't help but give a silent prayer of thanks to another hero of history, Stephen Pleasonton. Don't know the name? Well, he's the reason we still have the Declaration of Independence to look at. He's the reason the Declaration--and other documents--were not reduced to ashes two hundred years ago. Let me tell you.

In the summer of 1814, all of Washington was in a panic. The war against the British had been going on for two years, but now it had arrived on the city's doorstep. Over four thousand British soldiers had landed at Benedict, Maryland, and were marching toward the capital. Their intent: to burn it to the ground.

In the midst of the panic, State Department clerk Stephen Pleasonton was ordered to safeguard the important papers of the department. He bought cloth and had it sewn into bags. Into the bags he stuffed all the documents of the State Department offices. And these were no ordinary documents. Among them were the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the letters of George Washington.

While he was busy, Secretary of War John Armstrong stopped by. He was well-known in Washington for refusing to believe that the city was in any danger. Baltimore, he was convinced, was the true target. He pretty much accused Pleasonton of overreacting, and told him to stop. The clerk refused. He spent the next few days searching for a place he felt was safe enough for such treasure. He finally hid the bags in an empty house in Leesburg, Virgina, locked the house, and gave the key to a trusted friend.

On the night of August 24, 1814, the British did indeed arrive in the capital.
They burned the White House, the Capitol, and other public buildings, including the offices of the State Department. The flames were visible as far away as Baltimore. But Stephen Pleasonton never saw them. He was so exhausted by the stress of his responsibility that he had checked into a hotel and gone right to bed.

Washington burned that night, but the Declaration of Independence and the other treasures of the nation were safe in their hiding place. Because a clerk named Stephen Pleasonton refused an order and saw what needed to be done.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Everything I Know I Learned from Botticelli

This week, May 17th, is the 502nd anniversary of the death of painter Sandro Botticelli.

I can only imagine what it was like to walk the narrow streets of Florence during the late 15th and early 14th century. The cradle of the Renaissance and home turf to such immortal artists as Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and Sandro Botticelli, Florence was a place passionate about beauty. In fact its passion for beauty in art, in clothing, in personal adornment led the extremist monk Savonarola to declare that the church was being threatened. He called for the destruction of many of those fine things in his Bonfire of the Vanities. It makes me shudder.

I fell in love with Renaissance art and with Botticelli's work when I took an art history class in college. I was not an art history major, and frankly didn't know a lot about art, but it fulfilled a requirement. I'm not sure what I was expecting but suddenly I was spending hours a week among the most beautiful works of art in history. Botticelli's BIRTH OF VENUS, and my favorite VENUS AND MARS simply took my breath away. By the time the class was over I had an A, a deeper appreciation for art, and a burning desire to visit Florence.

It took me nearly thirty years, but I did just that. By then my tastes had changed and become maybe more mature, maybe just more masculine--I'm not sure what. This time I had a burning desire to see Michelangelo's DAVID. And there I found my own passion. I was so blown away by the story I saw in that face that I had to write about him. The resulting picture book, STONE GIANT, will be out next year.

But to my surprise, I also found Botticelli again in this story. You see, when the DAVID was completed, everyone who saw it saw immediately that it was a masterpiece and that it would be the piece that would come to define Florence. But where do you put a masterpiece? The city officials could not agree. So, as politicians do, they formed a committee. But being Florence, it was not a committee of politicians, or even of the rich and powerful citizens of the time. It was a committee of lovers of beauty. There were musicians, sculptors, architects, embroiderers, and painters--lots of painters. Among them was Sandro Botticelli.

Botticelli and the other artists chose where DAVID would stand. They understood the power of beauty and of this beautiful symbol of Florence itself.