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.