Sunday, October 25, 2009

Wikipedia fossils

Recently I gave my "professional" assessment of Wikipedia. Here's a brief tangent on Wikipedia, more of an archeological observation.

As I research, I copy any online articles I reference and paste them into a single Word document (along with interview transcriptions, notes from books, and notes from print articles). It creates one long but easily searchable file to account for my facts.

All of those articles remain static, constant, inert, unchanging, frozen...all except Wikipedia. When I look back at any given Wikipedia article I screen corralled and compare it to the article as it currently appears online, they are, of course, never the same.

What I kept is a fossil, a trace of a subject that has evolved. Often the changes are in the name of encyclopedic approach, but that tends to make the revised article less quirky. The small details or seemingly isolated facts are the first (along with typos) to be cut.

On writing projects that go on long enough for a Wikipedia article I've used to be more than just superficially updated, I end up copying and pasting multiple versions of it. And I date each one, too. If only real archeology were so easy.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

A tale of two creators

In an earlier post, I expressed frustration that some libraries have shelved Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman in the 740s (drawing and decorative arts). I feel it is a biography of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster and should be shelved with other picture book biographies.

First of all, Jerry was a writer, not an artist! Superman was written before he was drawn! The 740s classification applies to only half of the team!

I will stop shouting. After all, we are in a library.

If people regularly checked library catalogs for books on Siegel and Shuster, there'd be no issue.

However, the reality is that the majority will come across a book on such a topic by chance, not intention. Even people who would enjoy a book on Siegel and Shuster may never look for one because it seems unlikely to exist.

And it seems to me that the greatest chance for a browser to make this unexpected discovery is if the book is in biography.

Why? At one time or another, most school kids go to the picture book biographies section…because they have to. They are assigned a report on a historical figure. So they browse, looking for a subject that grabs them. But mine can’t from several shelves over.

Here are excerpts from e-mails a librarian and I exchanged on the subject; the way I pulled out key comments may make it read as clipped, but the full dialogue was harmonious, an honest sharing of concerns and constraints. I learned a lot from her. And I could not convince her to move my book to biography.

patient librarian: Your book contains biographical information, but is not a biography, per se. It contains biographical info about the two men as it specifically relates to the subject of their cartoon, but not a great amount about other parts of their lives.

pushy author: No picture book biography—no biography period—ever tells the “full” story of a person. It is an art form that typically examines a life through the lens of what that life became famous for. This is especially true with picture book bios since their format limits how much info they can include.

patient librarian: It is also about two men, so if we wanted to classify it as a biography, we would classify it as a “collective biography” and shelve it in 920. Our biography section contains mainly single-subject biographies, with a few exceptions (the Wright brothers, for example, have the same last name and we’ve decided to shelve books about them in the biography section under Biography/Wright).

pushy author: If Siegel or Shuster had individually done something else noteworthy, my argument might not hold up. However, Superman was the sole lasting achievement of either one. They are forever linked and almost always discussed as a unit, whereas most other people who star in picture books are known for solo achievements—presidents, athletes, composers, etc.

In any event, I disagree that it does not include enough biographical material to be reshelved. Unlike many other biographical picture books, mine includes a three-page afterword about the rest of their lives, including info that has not been published before. This afterword alone uses more words than most picture book biographies have total!

As you’ve seen, the book is classified as a biography on the copyright page. And because it’s the first book in any format on Siegel and Shuster, it is (for the time being, anyway) the biography on them.

patient librarian: I agree that your book has enough biographical material to include in our “Easy Biography” (E/Bio) section (picture book biographies aimed at 4-8-year-olds). The reason we did not shelve it there is because it is about two people, unrelated, with different last names.

pushy author: [I listed a handful of nonfiction picture books and wrote if any of those were shelved in biography, I feel mine should be, too.]

patient librarian: With a couple of exceptions, they are shelved in the E/Bio section, but they are all single-subject bios (except the Astaire one, and they were related, with the same last name). Biographies are shelved by their subject’s last name, so this does matter.

pushy author: If this were a book about the parallels between Lincoln and Kennedy, for example, I would understand how it might be problematic to shelve under one or the other. Yet this is a unique (or at least rare) case of a duo that history treats as a single individual for their singular creation.

A book with multiple authors is shelved by the last name of the first author listed, not in a special section for books with multiple authors. It seems to me that the same should apply for book with multiple subjects. As it stands, semantics, not content, determined where my book was shelved, and that doesn’t make sense to me.

When the first illustrated picture book bio of the Beatles comes out (hard to believe it hasn’t already), will you shelve it with music, collective biography, or biography? I am guessing the latter, under “B.” But that is again semantics, because those four musicians happen to have a name for their collective. (Same would hold true for, say, a musical act whose name is simply the names of the musicians, such as Simon and Garfunkel.)

And this is the same situation as Siegel and Shuster—a bio of multiple individuals’ joint achievement. Since Siegel and Shuster have no name for the collective, I would argue it makes sense to shelve under “Siegel” (he originated the concept and is always listed first in the partnership). Alphabetically, Shuster is right there next to him anyway!

patient librarian: We shelved Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!: The Beatles, Beatlemania, and the Music that Changed the World by Bob Spitz in the music section. A few libraries have it shelved in Biography (under “Beatles”), but as you pointed out, those four individuals share a collective name.

Simon and Garfunkel’s Bookends by Pete Fornatale is owned by four libraries in CT, all of whom have it shelved in music, likely for similar reasons as your book being shelved in the 740s in the majority of libraries in CT.

The multiple-authors point is an apples-and-oranges thing; it doesn’t really apply to subject classification. I know this all seems like semantics, but there are guidelines behind the semantics. When you catalog 400+ books a month, these guidelines are crucial to keeping your collection consistent.

the last word from the patient librarian: I think we’re just going to have to agree to disagree on this one!

Where do you think the book should be shelved?

Sunday, October 18, 2009

A book ordering dilemma

On October 16, I had the pleasure of being the luncheon speaker for 200 media specialists and reading teachers at a conference in Topeka triple-sponsored by the Kansas Association of School Librarians, the Kansas State Department of Education, and the Kansas Reading Association.

But they called it the Kansas Reading Conference rather than the KASLKSDOEKRA.


Duration of my presentation, in minutes: 60
Number of normally separate presentations it consolidated: 4
Number of slides in my PowerPoint: 70
Number of slides featuring me in a Superman costume: 2
Number of book suggestions I got from the audience: 1
Number of good book suggestions I got from the audience: 1
Number of copies of Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman I sold afterward: 24 (one carton)
Number of people who wanted a signed book but didn’t get one: well…

Writers asked to speak at events are in a tricky spot. Do we ask our host organization to order books generously or do we let them decide the quantity without our input?

If we ask them to order generously, it may require a greater up-front expense than they are prepared for (even assuming they can return unsold books). Further, unless we’re a big name, it may imply that we have an inflated sense of our appeal. And if the host does place a bigger order but doesn’t sell many, our embarrassment may be compounded.

However, if we keep mum, we run a greater risk—missing sales, as happened here. As the number of books dwindled, a few attendees gestured for me to stand up and peer around the wall behind where I sat, as if I needed to see the (humbling) line to motivate me to bring in more copies, stat. I didn’t want to be inconsiderate to the people waiting so I didn’t do that, but vendors (past whose display tables that line stretched) later told me there were as many as 75 more people who wanted a signed copy. Some of those people even stayed in line to personally (and politely) tell me that they were bummed the book sold out as quickly as it did.

By the time this photo was taken, the Barnes & Noble staff member was still there, but most of the books weren't:

To emphasize the point, one vendor stood at the spot where the line (at its longest) ended. She’s holding out her arms—click to enlarge. The signing table in the foreground sets the perspective.

In this case, I did not know in advance how many copies of Boys of Steel would be on hand. And if I had, I would not necessarily have thought it was too few.

But, as with many other authors, I do tend to sell more copies at events where I speak rather than at festivals or even bookstores where I simply sit at a table. A presentation may make a person realize he is more interested in a subject than he thought.

So going forward, when asked to speak, I will be a bit bolder. I will request that the host estimate how many books we could sell on a good day—and order more. This event reminded me that I might not be the only disappointed one if we don’t.

Anecdote, part 1 of 2:

In my presentation, I mentioned that my first job out of college was at a publisher known for its high-end coffee table books. I joked that coffee table books are more often displayed than read. After, one of the vendors who’d heard my talk told me the book on her coffee table is Boys of Steel. (I didn’t ask if she’d read it.)

Anecdote, part 2 of 2:

That same woman told me that, months ago, her 24-year-old son, a Barnes & Noble employee, had brought the book home and raved about it. (Thank you, son.) She had to bring so much to set up at the conference that she forgot to bring the book to get it signed for her son. So, like I did for the others short-changed, I signed a makeshift bookplate.

Then she asked if I’d be willing to leave a voice mail for her son, saying he’d love that. I said, “Will he love that or is this a mom thing, like what my mom would do—well-intentioned but not necessarily appreciated?” She laughed and assured me that he would indeed love it, so I somehow found the words to leave a message.

End of anecdote

Never to Kansas before 2009, then twice in ten months—with, it looks like, return trips likely. The “Superman’s First Home on Earth” author visit tour may get a second life.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Browning in black and white

Today I ran my workshop "The Language of Cartoons: What's So Funny?" at the all-boys Browning School in New York City. The participants were a small group of 12th graders whose Spanish teacher assigned them to adapt a portion of a Spanish-language novel into a graphic novel(la).

They went in not realizing they speak Cartoon.
I went in not speaking Spanish.

They left realizing they speak Cartoon. I left not speaking Spanish.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Heroes vs. superheroes and a southern weekend

From October 8 to 10, I was in Nashville—first time in Tennessee. I spoke at a dream school called Ruby Major Elementary and appeared at the wonderfully run Southern Festival of Books.
Buzz Aldrin spoke there, too, and I reckon the awe I felt to be near him came close to rivaling the awe he must’ve felt to be the second man on the moon. Yes, it was that profound for me. Twelve humans in history have walked on a celestial body other than Earth whereas I haven't even been to Mexico, and now one of them stood a foot away from me in the hospitality room, deciding between a box of raisins or a granola bar. (I recommended the raisins. His wife recommended neither.)

Why was Ruby Major a dream school? For starters, they responded to my first e-mail within hours and booked me by the end of that school day. I wish they were all so fast!

It only went up from there. Here was my warm welcome:

The following photos are courtesy of the school and photographer Bill Bernal:

After I spoke, my host was kind enough to mention I would be appearing at the festival over the weekend in case any kids wanted to bring their parents by. I found this so conscientious and considerate.

But what I found most revealing about the character of the school was a discussion the media specialist had with the kids before I arrived. She challenged them to distinguish between a hero and a superhero.

’ve had this discussion myself—mostly with myself. I took notice when reviewers of Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman referred to Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster as heroes. Anyone who’s been to this blog before knows the reverence I have for Jerry and Joe, but I don’t call them heroes.

Yes, they were persistent, and yes, they overcame intense hardship, which takes a level of strength many don’t have. But the more liberally we use the term “hero,” the less value it has. Jerry and Joe certainly created a heroic ideal, and they were pioneers of the imagination, but I generally reserve “hero” for a different order.

Boys of Steel has taken me to numerous schools, libraries, and conferences across ten states, but I believe the Southern Festival of Books was the first with no major connection to Superman, Siegel and Shuster, or me. (Ohio is where Jerry and Joe lived. Kansas is where a young Clark Kent lived. The Northeast is where I live. And so forth.)

As I was walking into my hotel, a woman was storming out. I heard her stop and tell the security guard/doorman/concierge/unsure “I can’t stay here.” He said something and she left. A few minutes later, I didn’t mind my own business and asked him what irked her so.

“No room service.”

The festival took place at War Memorial Plaza in downtown Nashville. Here I am zooming in on my books:

My first of two appearances was a panel about marketing books in the digital age. It was the first panel I've been on where I was the only writer. The other panelists were entrepreneurs and publisher executives and lordy lordy were they sharp.

This panel took place in Nashville's House of Representatives. It was by far the most, well, stately location I've spoken in.
So just before the panel began, I had to take a photo of us on the political Jumbotron:

It turns out that my unassuming hotel thick with tourists was actually tourist-worthy in and of itself. It holds a distinction that no other site in the state can claim:

And typical me, I didn't get my photo taken in front of the 6th floor guest rooms.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Educator __________ Week

Today a Borders in Connecticut kindly hosted me as part of Educator Appreciation Week. I had written it down on my calendar as Educator Awareness Week.

"Hey, you're a teacher! I've heard about you people!" And I was planning to lead my short talk with that joke-like statement, but I ended up cutting it. And the rest of the talk. Because there was no audience.

As many authors will tell you, these things happen. And in retrospect, they make for great entries in books.

I did an Educator Appreciation Week event at Borders in 2005, and attendance then was fairly brisk. But it was also opening day. Plus I think there were cookies. Today, the rain boded well, but apparently this was one of the last days of the event. Also, no cookies. While teachers did show up, not enough at any one time to do my presentation.

Still, I did manage to sell a few copies of the two books I was there to introduce (Vocabulary Cartoon of the Day and Quick Nonfiction Writing Activities that Really Work). Plus I also brought over the store's copies of Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman and sold a few of those, too. That wasn't my plan, but the books just so happened to be face out on a shelf in the line of sight behind the table they'd set up for me. You can't expect an author to disregard that.

The highlight, however, did not have to do with my own books. I was talking to 4th grade teacher whose young son rushed up holding Goodnight Goon by Michael Rex. The boy was so excited that I blurted out that I am friends with the author-illustrator and could ask if he'd send a signed bookplate. I assured Mike, and consider this notice for other author friends, that I won't make a habit of that. Probably.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Capes in the classroom

In posts on the Golden Age of Picture Book Biography, the importance of teaching about lesser-known figures, and the one discouraging response I've gotten from a school, I've touched on the role books like Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman (i.e. nonfiction books with a pop culture bent) can play in school.

I'm far from the only one.

I just stumbled across a battalion of lesson plans specifically about superheroes (not all of which are tied to books).

Here's a substantial one.

Here's one that starts off strong yet soon takes an alarming turn. For all the good it does in validating a topic some view as frivolous, it undermines that open-mindedness by scandalizing something of utmost innocence.