Some recent reads: great narrative nonfiction

Most of my recent read­ing has been cre­ative or nar­ra­tive non­fic­tion.  Before the hol­i­days, I was read­ing THE BOY WHO HARNESSED THE WIND by William Kamk­wam­ba and Bryan Meal­er. I’m in awe of, and frankly a lit­tle intim­i­dat­ed by, the lev­el of detail they go into. I don’t think I’d ever be able to inter­view a sub­ject enough to get that kind of back­ground. Of course, in this case, the sub­ject is also one of the authors, so maybe that col­lab­o­ra­tion is the secret.

For Christ­mas, my hus­band got me Jean­nette Walls’ HALF-BROKE HORSES. It’s fic­tion, but was heav­i­ly researched and based on the true life sto­ry of the author’s grand­moth­er. I think a non­fic­tion writer can learn a lot by study­ing this book. The writ­ing is sim­ple, engag­ing, and beau­ti­ful all at the same time. The biggest take-away from this one, though, is voice. As a read­er, you can hear the grandmother’s voice and feel her per­son­al­i­ty while you’re read­ing, and that, in turn, allows you sneak peeks inside her char­ac­ter and go beyond what the author is telling you directly.

San­ta brought my daugh­ter Jim Murphy’s AN AMERICAN PLAGUE: THE TRUE AND TERRIFYING STORY OF THE YELLOW FEVER EPIDEMIC OF 1793. (San­ta has good taste in books, no?) This book is pure non­fic­tion, but it reads like a nov­el. The strong devel­op­ment of the set­ting feels like you are right there Philadel­phia (thank good­ness it doesn’t have scratch and sniff stick­ers!). The ten­sion is ris­ing at a fever pitch (for­give the pun) as the fever itself spreads. And the writ­ing is pure poet­ry. Check out this clos­ing para­graph of Chap­ter 2:

“On Sat­ur­day, August 25, a sav­age storm hit the city, bring­ing winds and tor­rents of rain. Water cas­cad­ed of roofs, splashed loud­ly onto the side­walks, and ran in bur­bling rivers through the streets. The howl­ing wind and pound­ing rain made a fright­ful noise, and yet through it all a sin­gle, chill­ing sound could still be heard—the awful tolling of the church bells.” [they rang the bells to announce a death]

My tech­ni­cal writer/journalist ten­den­cies would have been to say some­thing like, “x num­ber of peo­ple died that day.” Con­cise, fac­tu­al… and bor­ing! The para­graph above does so much more. Then, the clos­ing para­graph of Chap­ter 3 kicks it up anoth­er notch:

“Philadel­phia was a city in pan­ic and flight. It did not even help when May­or Clark­son act­ed on anoth­er rec­om­men­da­tion from the Col­lege of Physi­cians. The tolling bells that had so thor­ough­ly ter­ri­fied every­one were ordered to remain still. The great silence that fol­lowed did lit­tle to com­fort those left behind. It was too much like the eter­nal silence of the grave.”

Chills, right? And that’s only Chap­ter 3.
I also love the design of this book. The fac­ing page of every new chap­ter is a pho­to­graph­ic repro­duc­tion of a pri­ma­ry source rel­e­vant to the chap­ter: a news­pa­per page, let­ter, gov­ern­ment report, etc. You can gloss over them if you want with­out miss­ing any of the sto­ry, but you can also find your­self rev­el­ing in the thrill of going through the pri­ma­ry source mate­r­i­al for your­self. I love that they chose to do it this way, espe­cial­ly in a book for children.

Final­ly, I recent­ly read the pic­ture book BIBLIOBURRO by Jeanette Win­ter. This book is so sim­ple, so con­cise, but yet so beau­ti­ful­ly told. The art­work is gor­geous, but it’s also a mas­ter­piece of say­ing every­thing you want to say, and noth­ing more. What struck me as par­tic­u­lar­ly inter­est­ing about this one is that she chose to tell the whole sto­ry in present tense, even though the point in time changes part of the way into the sto­ry! And it works.

Anoth­er thing that struck me about this book is the sub­ject. It’s about some­one no one (at least in the U.S.) has ever heard of deliv­er­ing books to remote vil­lages by bur­ro. Hav­ing been told that you can’t sell a book these days about some­one no one has ever heard of, no mat­ter how inter­est­ing their sto­ry is, I’m thrilled to see that a respect­ed pub­lish­er like Beach Lane Books took a chance on this one. I hope they con­tin­ue to seek out those inter­est­ing yet under­re­port­ed sto­ries that more of us need to hear about.

What are your recent non­fic­tion favorites, and what makes them stand out for you?

Alchemy and Karen Cushman!

Oh, this is so much fun! Not only is there a brand-new book out from one of my all-time favorite authors, but I got to read an ear­ly copy (squeee!) and inter­view the author for my blog (huz­zah)!

First, let me gush a lit­tle about how much I enjoyed read­ing Alche­my and Meg­gy Swann. There’s an awful lot for read­ers of any age to love in this lit­tle book: from the open­ing scene where we start right in with action and a bit of a mys­tery, to the feisty but kind-heart­ed hero­ine, to the his­tor­i­cal rich­ness, to the won­der­ful array of cre­ative insults. It’s tru­ly got some­thing for every­one. If you’re not already a fan of Karen Cush­man, this book will sure­ly trans­form you into one. And now, let’s meet the alchemist herself—welcome, Karen!

LT: First, I love the par­al­lels between the father’s search for alchem­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion and Meggy’s per­son­al trans­for­ma­tion. What made you start think­ing about alche­my as a book sub­ject, and was the par­al­lel planned from the outset?
KC: I found alche­my an intrigu­ing idea but did­n’t real­ly have an idea about how I’d use it in a book until I thought more about trans­for­ma­tion, about that very par­al­lel between alchem­i­cal and per­son­al trans­for­ma­tion.  I love how the ides of change works for both and how trans­for­ma­tion may not hap­pen exact­ly as they want­ed or expected.


LT: I think you real­ly gave us an accu­rate por­tray­al at what it’s like to feel dif­fer­ent and/or unwant­ed and the mis­guid­ed but all-too-com­mon defense mech­a­nism of push­ing peo­ple away before they can reject us, and it is these under­stand­able flaws that make Meg­gy such an inter­est­ing and uni­ver­sal­ly appeal­ing char­ac­ter. Did you know you were shoot­ing for that at the start, or did those aspects of char­ac­ter evolve nat­u­ral­ly as you wrote the story?
KC: Meg­gy start­ed out much sweet­er and more com­pli­ant but as I under­stood more about her and her strug­gles, I real­ized she prob­a­bly would not have respond­ed or act­ed in such under­stand­ing ways.  So, yes, those aspects of char­ac­ter evolved as I wrote the story.


LT: I find it fair­ly dif­fi­cult (but extreme­ly enter­tain­ing) to pic­ture you hurl­ing insults at any­one, but Meg­gy seems to have no trou­ble what­so­ev­er. How exact­ly did you come up with Meggy’s many inven­tive invectives?
KC: I found an invalu­able lit­tle book called Shake­speare’s Insults and bor­rowed some of those.  And there is a web­site called the Shake­speare­an Insult Kit ( that allowed me to come up with intrigu­ing com­bi­na­tions.  It was great fun.


LT: I can tell you did a ton of research for this book. Do you think you’ll reuse any of it in future sto­ries? Will we see Meg­gy again? (I need to see her reunit­ed with her goose!)
KC: I had­n’t planned on a Meg­gy sequel but young read­ers have said they like the idea.  First I’d have to fin­ish a new book, Will Spar­row’s Road, where I will use a lot of what I learned about Eliz­a­bethan England.


LT: How about non­fic­tion? I’m a pri­mar­i­ly non­fic­tion writer who dab­bles in research-based fic­tion when some­thing I’m research­ing gets my imag­i­na­tion going. Have you ever or do you think you will ever dab­ble in non­fic­tion? You’ve cer­tain­ly got the research part down!
KC: So far it’s the “what if?” of sto­ries that has my atten­tion.  I love sit­ting in my chair and mak­ing things up.  But I dab­ble in non­fic­tion when I write my author’s notes.  The notes for Meg­gy Swann were espe­cial­ly fun to do.


LT: I love that you “like to write about gut­sy girls fig­ur­ing out who they are,” and I love gut­sy girls, even if some of us don’t get gut­sy or fig­ure out who we are until we’re actu­al­ly mid­dle-aged women (who, me?). Which real-life gut­sy girls (and women) have inspired you most?
KC: Some of my female heroes are Jane Addams of Chicago’s Hull House, the anthro­pol­o­gist Mar­garet Mead, Eleanor Roo­sevelt, and genius illus­tra­tor Tri­na Schart Hyman—all gut­sy girls.


LT: I’ve always said that I’ll feel like a suc­cess­ful writer when I receive one let­ter from a read­er say­ing that my book helped them in some way, and you’ve said that con­nect­ing with read­ers is what makes you feel proud­est of your work. What’s the best let­ter you’ve ever received from a reader?
KC: I got a won­der­ful let­ter that said, “I nev­er read one of your books but now that you’ve come to my school, I am con­sid­er­ing try­ing to read one.”  But I trea­sure the ones that say “I nev­er thought about that before but…” or “Since I read your book, I know there are oth­er peo­ple who feel like I do.”


LT: Alche­my and Meg­gy Swann, even more so than your oth­er books, I think, is a short­er book with more dif­fi­cult lan­guage. Was there ever any ques­tion, from you or your pub­lish­er, about audi­ence, age, and/or read­ing ability?
KC: No, I think Dinah, my edi­tor, thinks as I do that we should give young peo­ple more cred­it for their under­stand­ing. And I tried to use words that could be under­stood through con­text or ono­matopoeia.  It was great fun search­ing the­saurus­es and the Oxford Eng­lish Dic­tio­nary.


LT: I love that answer and com­plete­ly share the belief that we should chal­lenge and believe in chil­dren rather than sell them short. Since you men­tioned Dinah, can you tell us what it’s like to work with the leg­endary Dinah Steven­son?
KC: Leg­endary?  Is Dinah old enough to be leg­endary?  I was assigned to work with Dinah when Clar­i­on bought my first book–an amaz­ing stroke of luck.  Dinah is a great edi­tor, intel­li­gent, insight­ful, and not at all pushy, and she makes my work much bet­ter and rich­er than it would be with­out her.  That does­n’t mean I don’t snarl and throw things when I get one of her famous 17-page edi­to­r­i­al let­ters, and I don’t fol­low every sug­ges­tion she makes but I do think about them care­ful­ly.  And she always reminds me it’s my book and I should write it my way.


LT: Age has noth­ing to do with it—only the esteem she’s earned with­in the indus­try! You’ve been very loy­al to Dinah and to Clar­i­on over the years (and I must admit that Clar­i­on is one of my dream pub­lish­ers!). They’re inter­est­ing because they’re a rather small imprint with a small list, but owned by a huge con­glom­er­ate. How do think this has helped or hurt you?
KC: I think Clar­i­on’s small size has meant there’s a small­er list and few­er oth­er authors.  I can have a per­son­al rela­tion­ship with every­one on the staff and feel they know me.  I like that.  And I’m sure the sup­port Clar­i­on gets from Houghton Mif­flin Har­court ben­e­fits me in ways I don’t even know.  So far I have felt no drawbacks.


LT: Final­ly, any advice for up-and-com­ing wanna-be’s?
KC: I tell most women who come to me for advice that they prob­a­bly are just too young yetI was fifty, after all, before I start­ed writ­ing.  Beyond that I rec­om­mend what most writ­ers dolots of read­ing, much writ­ing, cri­tique groups, and sup­port groups of like-mind­ed folks like the SCBWI.


LT: Phew, that’s good to knowI’ve got a few more years yet. What a relief! Thanks so much, Karen. As always, it was won­der­ful to talk with you, made even more so by hav­ing such a delight­ful book to discuss. 



** Dis­claimer: I received a free advance review copy of this book from the publisher.

Congratulations Cybils 2009 winners!

A few spe­cial shout-outs for a few spe­cial Cybils 2009 winners:

Non-Fic­tion For Young Adults
The Frog Scientist
by Pamela S. Turn­er; illus­trat­ed by Andy Comins
Houghton Mif­flin Harcourt
Nom­i­nat­ed by: Lau­rie Thomp­son (YAY, that’s me!)
Again, what a field. Each of the books in this cat­e­go­ry blew me away. It’s thrilling to see these excit­ing top­ics being cov­ered in depth in such inter­est­ing for­mats for upper mid­dle grade and young adult read­ers. I was shop­ping a teen non­fic­tion book awhile back, and an agent told me, “Nobody buys teen non­fic­tion.” Look at this list (and any oth­er awards list this year!), and it’s obvi­ous that is so not true. I think each of these books will leave an impor­tant and last­ing impres­sion on their read­ers, but spe­cial con­grat­u­la­tions to Pamela!

Pic­ture Book (Non-Fic­tion)
The Day-Glo Brothers
by Chris Bar­ton; illus­trat­ed by Tony Persiani
Nom­i­nat­ed by: Cyn­thia Leitich Smith
As soon as I heard Chris was work­ing on this, I fig­ured it would be a slam dunk. What a great top­ic idea! Chris and Tony REALLY pulled it off, though. Chris’ insane research adds so much depth (remind­ing me to always do my home­work, because you nev­er know what you’ll find), and what kid (or adult) could resist Tony’s Day-Glo car­toon-style illus­tra­tions? (Not me!)

Fan­ta­sy & Sci­ence Fic­tion (Mid­dle-Grade)
Dream­dark: Silksinger (Faeries of Dreamdark)
by Lai­ni Taylor
Put­nam Juvenile
Nom­i­nat­ed by: Melis­sa
Wow, this was a tough cat­e­go­ry for me–so many great final­ists! I know (and love) Joni, Lai­ni, and Grace, so I was cheer­ing for all three (if that’s pos­si­ble). I bet it was even hard­er for the judges, though, don’t you think? It’s got to be a win for all just to be going up against the likes of Neil Gaiman, I guess. But, huge con­grat­u­la­tions are due to the dear, sweet, ridicu­lous­ly tal­ent­ed, and super hard­work­ing Lai­ni Tay­lor. Both Dream­dark books are true masterpieces.

Pic­ture Book (Fic­tion)
All the World by Liz Gar­ton Scan­lon; illus­trat­ed by Mar­la Frazee
Beach Lane Books
Nom­i­nat­ed by: Cyn­thia Leitich Smith
I LOVE this book, and I can’t decide which I love more, the words or the illus­tra­tions. This is a per­fect exam­ple of a pic­ture book, stand­ing equal­ly on both legs. It’s a beau­ti­ful mes­sage for today and always–sure to become a classic.

Mid­dle Grade Fiction
by Lau­rie Halse Anderson
Simon & Schuster
Nom­i­nat­ed by: melis­sa
This is his­tor­i­cal fic­tion at its best, and a book that need­ed to be writ­ten. The only thing miss­ing is book two. I can’t wait! Exel­lent choice, judges!

Easy Read­er
Watch Me Throw the Ball! (An Ele­phant and Pig­gie Book)
by Mo Willems
Nom­i­nat­ed by: Melis­sa
You just got­ta love Ele­phant and Pig­gie. ‘Nuf said. Although I think THERE’S A BIRD ON YOUR HEAD will always be my favorite.

Nonfiction Monday: Emotion and Passion in Writing Nonfiction for Kids (#nfforkids)

I loved this recent post by Cheryl Har­ness over at I.N.K. (Inter­est­ing Non­fic­tion for Kids). My favorite part comes right at the end:

As for me, here’s the “Boston Mas­sacre,” March 5, 1770, in The Rev­o­lu­tion­ary John Adams: “Noisy men and boys were throw­ing snow­balls and oys­ter shells at a British sen­try …The scene explod­ed with more sol­diers, an alarm bell, and a mob of men run­ning from the town and the docks, shout­ing “Kill ’em! Knock ’em down!” Shots rang out in the frosty air and five Amer­i­cans fell…” For me, a sense of what the moment was like is what I want and what young read­ers need in his­tor­i­cal non­fic­tion. Sto­ry, snap­py descrip­tion, human­i­ty, and imme­di­a­cy: these are the sug­ar that help the med­i­cine, i.e. the need-to-know facts, go down, With these things, You Are There.

What makes for extra­or­di­nary non­fic­tion is often the same as what makes for extra­or­di­nary fic­tion, and this sense of human­i­ty and immediacy–the You Are There effect–is def­i­nite­ly a key ingre­di­ent. If the read­er does­n’t FEEL what it was like to be there in the moment, they prob­a­bly won’t real­ly care about or remem­ber the facts or the sto­ry, no mat­ter how inter­est­ing they might be. I’m adding it to my revi­sion checklist–thanks, Cheryl!
Ink1-copyAnoth­er recent post that stuck with me is this one by Deb­o­rah Heilig­man, again over at I.N.K. Deb­o­rah shares the sto­ry–both use­ful and touch­ing–behind her first book, FROM CATERPILLAR TO BUTTERFLY. She also gives some good prac­ti­cal advice about how to increase sales by find­ing ways to tie your book into the curriculum. 

I tell chil­dren in school vis­its that when­ev­er they read a book they should know that the author was think­ing of them when she wrote the book. I would like to tell teach­ers the same thing: we think of you, too.

What I real­ly loved about this post, though, was that you can tell how pas­sion­ate she is about writ­ing non­fic­tion for kids. Not coin­ci­den­tal­ly, I’m sure, Deb­o­rah is a 2009 Nation­al Book Award Final­ist with CHARLES AND EMMA: The Dar­wins’ Leap of Faith.Congratulations, Deb­o­rah!

Nonfiction Monday: Recent Links Roundup #nfmon #nfforkids

Facts First! Nonfiction Monday

nonfiction.mondayWhat a great idea! A group of tal­ent­ed authors who write fan­tas­tic non­fic­tion for kids have just launched a new project: INK Think Tank. “Each author has con­nect­ed his or her books to nation­al cur­ricu­lum stan­dards through a data­base that is acces­si­ble to every­one.” This is great for the authors involved, great for edu­ca­tors, and great for non­fic­tion for kids over­all. Way to go, I.N.K.ers!
I would love to know what book Andrew Karre was work­ing on here for Lern­er! Any­one got time to try to reverse engi­neer his clues?
I’ve been work­ing on fic­tion late­ly, and I’ve guess I’ve fall­en behind on the non­fic­tion mar­ket. I’ve been watch­ing the Cybils nom­i­na­tions roll in, and WOW! For both the pic­ture-book and mid­dle-grade/y­oung adult non­fic­tion cat­e­gories, the books look amaz­ing! I’ve got some seri­ous (fun!) read­ing to do. Con­grats to all of the nominees!
Anas­ta­sia must’ve writ­ten this one just for me… I love books, I love the mag­ic of a child learn­ing to read, and I love cats! I’ve read all but one of her 5 Great Books About Cats.

Book Review — Swimming with Maya

I picked up this book because the pic­ture on the cov­er looks like my own daugh­ter. When I read the back notes and learned that she was dead, I quick­ly put it back down. I didn’t want to read about Eleanor Vincent’s dev­as­tat­ing loss. For some rea­son, though, I felt com­pelled to try to com­pre­hend her experience.

What I found was indeed dis­tress­ing, but inspi­ra­tional at the same time. The book is in many ways a post­mortem trib­ute to Vincent’s daugh­ter and an explo­ration of the heal­ing effects of organ dona­tion. Tak­en in its entire­ty, how­ev­er, this book is real­ly about a jour­ney through the process of heal­ing from a life­time of psy­cho­log­i­cal trau­mas. The extreme grief over her daughter’s sud­den death and the strug­gle to cope with it lead Vin­cent down buried paths of pain going all the way back to her child­hood. She emerges trans­formed. She lost her daugh­ter, but there­in found her­self, and we can’t help but applaud her success.