Monday, February 28, 2011

Picture book tips and tricks, part 3 of 5: Show, don’t tell

Part 2.

With picture books, the common writerly refrain of "show, don't tell" takes on literal meaning. One of my last editing stages with the books I write is to go through the manuscript looking for text I can cut because that info can instead be conveyed visually. Kids—we all—appreciate something more when
we figure out what is going on; that’s the result of showing.

Take this scene from a childhood favorite of mine, Humbug Witch (SPOILER ALERT: If you don’t yet know this story, blur your vision and scroll down to the Puff, the Magic Dragon section):

I suspect if I were author Lorna Balian, I would’ve at first been tempted to accompany these cheerful images with a “She’s not a witch after all!” But then I'd hopefully remind myself to trust my audience. kids don’t need to read that because they see it, and the payoff, therefore, is greater.

Another example comes from the lusciously illustrated picture book adaptation of the beloved Peter, Paul, and Mary song "Puff, The Magic Dragon."

In this closing spread, we see the ageless Puff meeting a little girl with a man looking on.

With nary a clue in the text, we (adults and kids alike) can infer that the man is the now-grown little boy of the song/book, Jackie Paper, and the girl is his daughter.

Making this all the more noteworthy, the text also doesn’t indicate that there's been a jump in time from the previous spread and the man doesn’t necessarily look like the boy in a bigger body. Readers figure out who these two characters are almost by emotion, not deduction; we want Puff and Jackie to reunite, and here we learn (decades after the song) that—at least once—they did.

Oops, maybe that merited a SPOILER ALERT, too...

(All book text and images shown in this series are copyright their respective creators.)

Part 4.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Picture book tips and tricks, part 2 of 5: Timing is (still) everything

Part 1.

Like any narrative, a picture book must maintain a good pace. Yet in a picture book, this comes from not only the writing but also the breakdown of text.

Look at this sequence from the pinkredibly popular Pinkalicious:

Here’s another:

And now one from a favorite ghost story of mine, as well as one of the most fun picture books to read aloud, Three Little Ghosties:

Notice anything these three whimsical sequences have in common?

In each, the text breakdown foils the surprise! A reader turns the page and sees the pink, the red, and the boo before s/he reads about them. Therefore, by the time a reader gets to those moments in the text, they've lost some of their oomph.

(Actually, the nature of the impeded surprise in Three Little Ghosties is different—verbal, not visual. But the resulting feeling, for me, is the same. While reading this sequence aloud, I so wanted to synchronize the turning of the page with the shouting of the “Boo!” but a few other words were in the way.)

I feel these scenes would’ve been more effective if the text was repartitioned so that the first page/spread ended with an ellipsis and the first word on the following page/spread was, respectively, “pink,” “red,” and “boo.” I suspect that would've amped up the jolt of the humor. (By contrast, Pinkalicious nails it with its last page reveal, which I won't spoil here.)

The Milkman makes me nostalgic for an era I didn't live through in the first place. More on point here, it showed me that rhyming sentences/phrases do not need to appear on the same page. Before reading this wistful, lulling book, it never occurred to me that pace can override poetry!

In this case, it seems that the poetry was spaced that way to serve the art rather than to freewheel with the language. (In other words, the vignettes the the artist chose to depict dictated where to break up the text.) Interestingly, perhaps unintentionally, after these initial spreads, most other rhymes in the book appear intact on a page; the two exceptions are for effect, not art.

(All book text and images shown in this series are copyright their respective creators.)

Part 3.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Picture book tips and tricks, part 1 of 5: Vary the images

Welcome to a casual look at some of the subtle devices picture book authors and illustrators use to give readers a magical reading experience.

This comprises various observations I’ve made over the years, so there is no central thesis here. There is also no central theme to the books I’m using as examples. I’ve got peerless classics, forgotten charmers, contemporary blockbusters. I’ve got nonfiction and fiction. I’ve got horizontal and vertical.

And I’ve got no claim to copyright on any of them. Images are shown for illustrative purposes only. I am using scans I found online or made myself. (I apologize to artists whose beautiful work is partially cropped by my not-huge scanner; same goes for the occasional blurred edges and gutters that are shown as white stripes.)

Let’s begin with a dance.

And Tango Makes Three tells a lovely story in and of itself, but also has one of the most important messages of any picture book I know; further, it subtly delivers that message in a tone that is affectionate but never cloying.

However, nearly every scene takes place in the same setting…which consists mostly of rocks and water…and features mostly penguins…which all look alike. Imagine the challenge this presented illustrator Henry Cole: how to diversify the visuals.

Picture book authors must tell the story efficiently and engagingly, of course, but they must also write in such a way that allows for the illustrator to show his stuff. This involves complexity some of the time, but it almost always requires ingenuity. I feel this book never becomes visually tedious. Cole accomplished this using tactics such as winning expressions and unconventional angles:

A bird's-eye view of that's inventive and fun.

Part 2.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Back matter to the future

Deborah Heiligman's 2/15/11 post at Interesting Nonfiction for Kids brings back matter to the forefront.

Like, I presume, most authors of nonfiction, I am a back matter groupie. The back matter is not in the back because it's dull, on discount, or less important. It's there because it serves a different purpose than the front matter (AKA the story proper): enhancement.

By that I simply mean that the back matter would lose most or all of its meaning without the front matter. It elaborates on the narrative you’ve just read, so logically it must follow it.

And there is just as much room for variety of approach back there as in any narrative.

In nonfiction picture books, back matter typically consists of some or all of the following:
  • author's (and sometimes illustrator's) note/afterword (What is the difference between an author's note and an afterword? Without having researched this, I don’t know if a concrete answer exists, but here's a paraphrase of one my Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman editor Janet Schulman offered: an afterword continues/concludes the story, often bringing readers to the present day or even beyond, whereas an author's note comments on the story or reveals backstory. Author's notes are often depositories of irresistible anecdotes that wouldn't have flowed within the story proper.)
  • selected sources (sometimes called works cited or bibliography; I prefer "selected sources" to clearly indicate you’re not able to list all)
  • further reading/exploring (may overlap with selected sources and can include books, sites, museum exhibits, and so on)
  • acknowledgments
  • photographs (especially fun when in back matter of illustrated nonfiction picture books so readers can compare the illustrations and the "real" thing)
  • glossary (though I agree with Susan E. Goodman's comment on Deborah's post: the space is better used with other material you can get from only that author)
  • timeline (though I often feel this also isn't worth the real estate because the major beats are already presumably covered in the story proper)
  • list of works/accomplishments of the person/people profiled (say, recordings of a musician or season-by-season stats of an athlete)
As I noted on I.N.K.:

In Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman, I ended the story proper in 1940—only two years after Superman debuted, when he was top of the world. I "finished" the story in the afterword, at a higher reading level.

I did this because people who have even vague familiarity with comics history before reading the book know that Jerry and Joe's story doesn’t have a happy ending: the Boys of Steel had sold all rights to Superman…for $130. That fateful decision sets the downbeat tone that almost always permeates the telling of their story. For much of their adult life, the Boys fought against The Man for a greater (fairer) share of the profits Superman generates; they eventually got something, but most feel it was too little, far too late (it took more than 35 years!). It's bleak stuff. And kids can handle it…but I didn’t want that to be the thrust of the book.

I felt the Boys deserved a telling that, for once, ended on a high note. After all, they created the ultimate American symbol of hope…

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Back-to-back cartoons in "Barron's"

I didn’t plan to be a professional cartoonist.

In 1998, I started my campaign to cross a particular item off my life list: license a cartoon to The New Yorker magazine. I figured I’d draw 10 or 20, they’d pick one, and I’d move on to trying to host Saturday Night Live. (I’ve become more realistic in the years since and have therefore removed this goal from the list.)

However, I could be realistic then, too. Before my first submission, I reassessed the probability of making a sale quickly and decided I’d better prepare for some rejection. To better weather that, I made myself draw 100 cartoons before sending out the first batch of ten. That way, when that inevitable “no thank you” came, I would not let my disappointment impede my momentum. I’d have the next batch (and eight more after that) ready to go.

Thousands of cartoons later, still no New Yorker. (As a partial defense, I did stop submitting in 2002 to focus on my writing and have yet to get back to it. But I will.)

But sometime before that first 100 had been exhausted, I decided I was creating too much work for a single gamble. So I began to submit the cartoons The New Yorker rejected to other publications.

And four months after I drew the first one, I licensed my first one (which was not the first one I drew). And that began this unexpected side career that I sustain to this day, though it still takes a back seat to the time I spend on writing.

One of my earliest cartoon clients was one of relative few the average person has heard of: Barron's. (There’s a whole world that cartoonists license to that is largely hidden from the general public—non-newsstand specialty magazines, corporate newsletters, custom publications, company holiday cards, etc.)

Between 2005 and 2009, I did not regularly submit cartoons anywhere, but now that many publications finally accept submissions by e-mail (yes, for some it took a while), I’ve gotten back to it with select clients.

Here are my two most recent appearances in Barron's:

And quirkily, American Scientist recently contacted me to license a cartoon I’d sent them…in 1998. Yes, they wanted a cartoon from thirteen years ago, my first year submitting. It just goes to show that, whether cartooning or writing, you never know when you might hear from an editor.

By the way, I wasn’t quite accurate when I wrote I didn’t plan to be a professional cartoonist. I should have specified that, as an adult, I didn’t plan that.

But the first thing I remember wanting to be when I was a kid was indeed a cartoonist. Not a gag cartoonist, like what I became, but rather a strip cartoonist—the kind whose work appears on the comics page of the newspaper. Like many hundreds of others, my greatest influence in that regard was Charles Schulz (and, to a lesser extent, early Jim Davis).

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Untold tale of Bill Finger #8: Bill’s last two scripts

Bill Finger is best known as the unknown co-creator of Batman, who debuted at the start of Finger’s career. The end of his career also involved darkness, but not Batman.

His last two first-run stories to be published came out after his 1974 death. With respect to the short, sad life of Bill Finger, the titles of both the stories themselves and the comic book series in which they appeared are apt:

  • House of Mystery #241 (May 1976)—“Death Pulls the Strings”
  • House of Secrets #141 (August-September 1976)—“You Can’t Beat the Devil (see a page here)

In January 2011, I learned the whereabouts of one of the two, whichever was turned in later: Paul Levitz gave it to Finger’s lone heir, the granddaughter whom I uncovered in 2007.

In other words, it’s right where it should be.

Monday, February 21, 2011

"Boys of Steel" illustrator Ross MacDonald grabs the gold!

On 2/4/11, at the Society of Illustrators awards gala in New York, Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman illustrator Ross MacDonald was given the gold. Congratulations, Ross!

Four of his illustrations were chosen for inclusion in their annual competition, Illustrators 53. All four are from the wickedly
non-kid-friendly book In and Out with Dick and Jane: A Loving Parody, co-written by Ross and “the mighty” James Victore, and due out 4/1/11 from Abrams Image.

Here's “Now Billy can concentrate,” the illustration that got the gold:

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Waiting for "Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman"

On 2/17/11, I took part in my second Community Night event for the Washington D.C. organization Turning the Page. The format is this:
  1. I show up 15 minutes later than requested but still 15 minutes prior to the official start (D.C. driving is so confusing in general and rush hour feels worse than New York’s; by the way, I didn’t see a sign in time, if there even is one, but yes, that street in front of the school is one-way.)
  2. They feed me.
  3. I speak for 30 minutes to an audience of families.
  4. The kids break into groups and go to different rooms for mentor-run activities.
  5. I answer questions from the parents for 30 minutes.
  6. I sign books that the organization generously purchased for every attending family.
  7. I try to find my way back home.
The school was Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary. This is a school that shows its heart in multiple ways. My favorite: when its principal introduced herself, she looked me in the eye and clasped my hand for at least 10 seconds, if not more.

One parent asked me what my book Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman has to do with that recent “Superman movie.” It soon became clear that she was referring to the (riveting, harrowing, and shamefully not-Oscar-nominated) 2010 documentary Waiting for ‘Superman,’ which is about the broken American education system and the hope that a “Superman” will arrive to save it. Though my book and the film have nothing to do with one another, it was a fitting setting in which to ask that question since some D.C. schools are famously among the neediest in the country.

The Turning the Page staff are saints. They are communicative. They are more than welcoming to their guests. When the parental questions were slow to start, they got things going with thoughtful questions of their own. That coaxed out others, and then it was one question upon another.

This is not just a good deed to TTP. They care about the people in these communities beyond an evening event several times a year. They know their names, their stories. They love their children.

And I think that
not the authors, or the free books, or even the free popcorn chicken and saladis what keeps people coming back and motivates them to get involved.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Third anniversary: best of the blog

Noblemania launched three years ago today. Here are some of my favorite posts of the past three years, organized by category. (For each subsequent anniversary on which I’m still blogging, I will share my favorite posts of that previous year.) These aren't necessarily the posts with the most comments or most links pointed toward. They're just ones I feel best illustrate why I blog in the first place.



Friday, February 18, 2011

Untold tale of Bill Finger #4, part 2: Not the Batdance

While writing, Bill liked to listen to Mozart on his snazzy desktop Crosley radio. I was planning to wait till the book is out to show how that radio likely looked, but then I decided this is not one of life's—or even the book's—greater mysteries.

Charles Sinclair has had staggering recall about even some of the smallest details about his longtime friend and sometime writing partner Bill Finger, yet he could not remember precisely which model Bill had; he is more than forgiven. He did kindly look through dozens of images and said that this 1949 model comes close...

...and this 1948 model comes very close....

...though the dial looked more like the one here, if on the right and with three knobs under it:
 So maybe you can mash up these three in your head and produce an authentic image.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Democracy vs. republic

Here is one of my favorite entries from my book What's the Difference?: How to Tell Things Apart that Are Confusingly Close, modified only slightly from its publication version:

What’s the difference between a DEMOCRACY and a REPUBLIC?

Of all the differences in this book, here is the one you’re probably most embarrassed to admit you can’t explain. It was covered practically every year in school, yet you still don’t remember. The difference comes down to who’s got the authority. (Doesn’t it always?) Here’s a teaser: America is not a democracy. Just as the Founding Fathers intended.

In 1787, James Madison wrote in the Federalist Paper 14, “The true distinction between these forms…is that in a democracy, the people meet and exercise the government in person; in a republic they assemble and administer it by their representatives and agents. A democracy, consequently, must be confined to a small spot. A republic may be extended over a large region.”

In a democracy, majority rules. In a republic, the rights of the individual rule. In a democracy, the masses can outweigh the individual, whereas in a republic, no group can override the rights of any single citizen. Some even liken democracy to mob rule—whether the mob’s opinion is “right” or “wrong.” But a republic is rule by law as decided by the entire population.

A democratic government can become a tyranny—tyranny of the majority. A republican government doesn’t have power
over its citizens—it gets its power from its citizens. It says so in the Declaration of Independence, right after mentioning the pursuit of happiness. Democratic governments grant rights—and can take them away. Republican governments see rights as unalienable, and protect them.

Both democracies and republics can have elected leaders, but in democracies, those leaders can set law on their own—like a monarchy. While a democracy can have royalty, a republic has no hereditary rulers such as kings and queens. That doesn’t preclude a so-called republic being ruled by a dictator—sometimes a person who seizes control, but sometimes a person chosen by the people who then rules by force.

A true democracy would not be practical for the United States—or any body larger than a town hall meeting, really. Would you want to keep abreast of every matter of government and be expected to vote on something every day? We elect legislators to do that with our interests in mind, and all citizens, including government officials, are subject to the same laws. Therefore, the United States is not a direct democracy but a republic governed by a representative democracy.

If the United States’ classification still doesn’t sound familiar, here’s something that will: recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Ah—“…and to the
republic for which it stands…” Or sing the “Battle Hymn of the Democracy.” Wait, that’s “Battle Hymn of the republic.” Or just read the Declaration and the Constitution. Neither describes America as a “democracy”—neither even uses the word. Looks like the clues have been there all along.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The "Boy Wonder"...of 1903

In 1955, DC Comics began publishing a title that would become an evergreen for them: The Brave and the Bold.

That first series lasted until 1983—impressive in and of itself. In the 1990s, DC published two miniseries with that name, unrelated to one another and the original series. The phrase was used for the title of a 2002 episode of the animated series
Justice League. DC revived and reinvented the series in 2007. An animated series called Batman: The Brave and the Bold debuted in 2008 and was soon followed by a companion comic book series. (As of this writing, rumors are swirling about the possible demise of both the 2007 series and the cartoon.)

I just learned that pairing “brave” and “bold” in an adventure title predates DC. A dime novel series that began publishing in 1902 was called
Brave and Bold. In 1907, it became Brave and Bold Weekly and continued until 1911. I don’t know if it had anything to do with the inspiration for the original DC comic book series.

The March 2011
Comics Buyer’s Guide runs a letter about Brave and Bold #49 (November 28, 1903). That issue featured a story entitled “The Boy Wonder, or Dick Gray’s Marvellous Pump.” The 18-year-old Dick is “athletic in figure and singularly agile in his movements...handsome in person and modest and refined in demeanor.”

Thirty-seven years later, writer Bill Finger would give Batman a sidekick named Robin. Nicknamed “The Boy Wonder.” Real-named Dick Grayson.

Fluke? Subconscious lift? Or was Finger knowingly ripping off this dime novel?

The similarities are indeed wild. But I think this is nothing more than a wild coincidence.
There were dozens of pulp titles and I don’t think Brave and Bold was one of the big ones. As voracious a reader as Finger was, I feel it’s unlikely he would have heard of a pulp that ended in 1911 (three years before he was born). Even if he had heard of it, I feel it's unlikely he would have had access to an issue from 1903 (11 years before he was born).

More to the point: by Finger's own admission, Grayson was pulp-inspired
—only not this pulp.

The Steranko History of Comics, Volume 1, Finger is quoted as follows: “Dick Grayson came from the pulps. Frank Merriwell had half brother Dick, and Grayson came from book I was reading, edited by Charles Grayson, Jr. The name sounded good.”

Dime novels were a style of hastily produced adventure or romance books popular in the latter half of the 19th century and the first few decades of the 20th; they were not known for their literary quality. Though definitions can be amorphous, they are commonly considered precursors to pulp magazines (which, in turn, partially spawned comic books).

Finger wasn’t coy about revealing influences for Batman and other characters. In this case, as shown above, he
did credit the pulps for elements of Robin, and the Frank Merriwell stories were more widely known and more recent than the 1903 Brave and Bold story. Therefore, if he had taken inspiration for Robin from the Brave and Bold rather than (or even along with) Merriwell, it seems he would’ve just said so. For one thing, it would’ve looked more original than citing a character that 1939 readers would be familiar with.

Other elements of Dick Gray and Dick Grayson do align rather curiously, but you can take that only so far. Of course “Dick” and “Gray” were fairly common names. The description of Dick Gray’s appearance and personality also recalls Dick Grayson—and dozens of other heroes/protagonists. Generic Boy.

The oddest overlap is “Boy Wonder,” but in those days of carnival freak shows and the like, many posters shouted such attention-grabbing sobriquets, and that reduces the oddness.

I know of no “marvellous pump” in Robin lore...except perhaps with regard to Burt Ward's behind-the-scenes “adventures” during the making of the 1960s Batman TV show.

And the less said about that, the better.

Thanks to John Wells for alerting me to this topic and to Brent Frankenhoff for sending me the cover scan.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Appropriate age for "Vanished"?

A mother recently e-mailed me the following:
Can you tell me if it is appropriate for a teacher to read Vanished to 8-year-olds? I haven’t read the book, but know it did upset my son. I was thinking the teacher should have told us about the book first since it is based on true events. Just wanted to get your thoughts on it.
My paraphrased response:
Thanks for writing. I’m sorry to hear Vanished upset your son. I understand how you feel.

I wrote
Vanished with sensitivity. Yes, generally speaking, it is unsettling subject matter. But I chose stories that did not involve violence, sexual activity explicit or implied, drug use, and anything else inappropriate for children. As for the youngest age that it is suitable for, that depends on the individual. I do know of 8-year-olds reading it and handling it well. I personally think it’s best for grades 4 and up.

Two of the seven stories are about people who vanish but who then save themselves—and both of them are children. While some of these stories do have frightening moments, ultimately I find them empowering and inspirational.
I did not understand why she emphasized the fact that these are true stories. It seems as if she's saying that if they were fictional, it would somehow be better? In any event, I sent her a copy of the book to see for herself. I will update here if she sends feedback.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Joanne Siegel, wife of Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel, 1917-2011

The same day I learned my Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman editor Janet Schulman died, I learned that the widow of Jerry Siegel, co-creator and original writer of Superman, also died. (Janet died on 2/11/11 and Joanne today.) Two grande dames that did much for the cause.

Jerry said Joanne was the inspiration for Lois Lane. From what I hear, her real-life character bore out Lois’s combination of charm and tenacity.

Joanne with Jerry and their daughter Laura, 1976

Joanne at the Breman Jewish Heritage and Holocaust Museum in Atlanta; circa 2007; photo via Hogan's Alley

I never had the honor of meeting Joanne. I sent her a copy of my book, which (in a metaphor I am surprised I am using, even on Valentine’s Day) was my love letter to a phenomenon and my public thank you to the two young men who dreamed it up for us.

Joanne never gave an interview—or if she did, we don’t know about it yet. Since Jerry passed away in 1996, there are questions only she could’ve answered. (Jerry and Joe’s daughter Laura would certainly have great insight, too, but Joanne goes back the beginning of the character.)

The Siegel family has been involved in Superman-related litigation on and off for decades. They do not accept interview requests from any writers or journalists, even ones who are their friends. Like many, I want the family to receive a fair share of the profits from Superman. Yet I feel that the family also has an obligation to posterity, and one that would not undermine the actions they had to take on their own behalf.

Therefore, on 3/26/10, I meddled. I e-mailed the following to Joanne’s lawyer Marc Toberoff (with whom I’d already been in touch about other matters):
[Case Western professor] Brad Ricca is a good friend and [respected] academic who did a documentary on Siegel and Shuster called Last Son. It has been very well received on the circuit. The movie [helped get] him a deal to write a bio (already under contract with St. Martin's Press) on Siegel and Shuster. Brad has had friendly direct contact with Joanne and Laura and met them both last summer in Cleveland since he was a key organizer. I know Joanne and Laura have not talked with other writers and I understand why, but I'm hoping you'll consider talking with them about talking with Brad. He's a grade-A class act and if they are ever going to trust anyone with any anecdotes and memories that they have not yet shared, this is the time. I would hate for Joanne to not get the chance to tell her side of the story on record. I told Brad I would ask you this [meaning Brad did not ask me to ask you]. This has nothing to do with me other than that I would want Joanne's words to be in trusted hands and that is Brad.
I’m holding out hope that someone did conduct a secret interview and that it will surface eventually.

Janet Schulman, editor, 1933-2011

Today I learned that Janet Schulman, my editor for Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman, passed away on 2/11/11 after a battle with lung cancer that apparently began in the late 1990s.

(Incidentally, she was born the same year Superman may have been; though in Boys of Steel I attribute that historic moment to 1934, which is the year most commonly cited, I've since read evidence suggesting it could've been 1933.)

There will invariably be tributes to Janet by people who knew her far better than I did, so I will be brief in sharing my small experience.

I was so fortunate to be able to work with her, and not just because 22 other editors rejected the manuscript. After reading only the first two or three lines of her first editorial feedback, I saw firsthand why she had earned her towering (and, at times to me, intimidating) reputation in the industry. (She was an author, too.)

Almost any comment she made was a study in efficiency and, often, a valuable mini-lesson, even if she wasn’t presenting it that way. Here’s one comment that has stayed with me, from her 2/14/06 notes memo, addressing certain concerns I had:
Stop tearing your hair out! You are the author. You may tell me to go to hell...but you better not! Seriously, I do not expect you to accept everything that I am suggesting but I do expect you to take my comments seriously.
(It didn’t resonate because of the request to take her seriously—I was way ahead of her on that—but rather because of the invitation to disagree with her. Only the most confident of editors would tell an author—especially one they’d not worked with before—such a potentially risky thing.) Upon revisiting that memo today of all days, I was struck by the spooky coincidence of her sign-off:

I regret that Janet and I didn't have more (really, any) personal talks, but that seemed to be the way she wanted it. (I didn't even know she was ill.) She kept her focus on the story. Consistent with that, I am told that she requested that no memorial service be held for her, and that Random House is honoring her modest wish.

Yet all of us who love children's literature should honor her memory, privately. I'm quite sure she'd feel an apt way to do that would simply be to stop and appreciate a children's book. Not specifically one of hers. Just any good one.

I'll end with the end. I was struck by her ability to make her no-nonsense, waste-not aura seem polite. When she wanted to get off the phone, she wouldn't attempt to wind down with small talk the way many would. She would simply announce, "I'm going to hang up now."

No, please don't, Janet. No one wants to stop talking with you yet.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Lessons learned from the Boys of Steel

At the Wisconsin State Reading Association Convention, a middle school teacher from the Neenah Joint School District asked if I’d e-mail answers to questions her students had after doing a book study on Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman.

Two of my favorites:
  1. Would you write a sequel? (Answer: unlikely given that both writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster are deceased.)
  2. You've written books on Superman and Batman. Would you ever write a book on a villain? (Answer: close.)
I was also treated to “Some lessons that we learned from reading Boys of Steel”:
  1. Read a lot.
  2. Writers have to write and research a lot.
  3. Follow your dreams.
  4. Don’t give up.
  5. I will suggest this book to my friends.
  6. Are Jerry and Joe’s families rich from the invention of Superman? (Answer: no, but better off than they were for years.)

Saturday, February 12, 2011

The first became the last

On the final day of my first trip to Wisconsin, I visited my first Wisconsin school.

Not only the first chronologically according to the original schedule, but the first I booked, nearly a year ago.

Yet that 31-state blizzard had other ideas for us.

Luckily, both the airline and the school (Elvehjem Elementary in Madison) were flexible, and we flipped the visit from the canceled snow day to the tail end of the trip (from 2/2/11 to 2/10/11).

I’m so glad we did. This was a bright school—enthusiastic, attentive students and warm staff make for a great combo. At one point, to illustrate a point I was making, I ask kids to name things that happen at night. Certain responses are common, of course: we sleep/dream, owls/bats come out, moon/stars come out, trick-or-treating. But this time, one girl supplied a hilarious new addition: we drool.

Plus the kids had a super surprise for me. Every student in several classes showed up in their secret identities:

(Note: The school gave me permission to post this photo because the parents of each child pictured had already given the school permission.)

Plus I was told that the great-sport principal had been planning to come dressed as Superman himself...but he, too, was foiled by the blizzard (discouraging a drive to the costume rental shop). Too bad. That would've been a first!

The kids had spent some time with my books before I arrived and some will get to spend more time with them, thanks to their orders:

I packed in a lot on this Wisconsin trip, even (to my own surprise) the Packers. As I sat waiting for my return flight on a much more uneventful travel day than same time last week, I calculated the total miles I had driven those past seven days: 766.

Could’ve watched three Super Bowls in that time…

Friday, February 11, 2011

Way-out Wisconsin, part 2 of 2

Way-out Wisconsin, part 1 of 2.

On 2/8/11, my first of three schools was in picturesque Soldiers Grove. Here’s what awaited me in the rental car before I drove there:

And then:

And (aside from my most kind host) here’s what greeted me when I got there:

And a kind mention in the center of the "Coming Attractions" display...

Something else in this picture needs a close-up, so...

Note that it’s not just an owl but an owl with prey. Realistic prey (i.e. there's blood). This continued the in-school hunting theme that is decidedly atypical back East.

The school scheduled a single presentation, but one that spanned a wide range: grades 2-8. That’s right—second graders with eighth graders (along with all the grades in between).

Few authors come by these parts so I understood that the school wanted to give as many students as possible the chance to hear one.
And I will gladly present to groups of any size.

But I do typically request that K-2 is a separate talk (and, usually, that middle schoolers are their own group , too). I adjust my approach depending on the makeup of the audience. But in this case, I saw no one approach that would work for all throughout.

My host recognized this and instructed me to tailor my presentation to the older kids. I was worried about alienating the younger ones but the host assured me that they are a mature group—and, if they weren’t keeping up, that their teacher would quietly escort them out.

To their credit, they stayed the whole time. (Then again, I did talk about Superman. No, they were good kids no matter what I would've talked about.)

After, I drove 1.5 hours to Mineral Point, where I spoke at two lovely schools.

At each of the three schools that day, I did the give-away-a-book-by-initials thing again. In Soldiers Grove, I hit upon someone’s initials on what I think was the third try. It took a few more attempts in Mineral Point. Yet in the end, every book I offered did vanish…right into their backpacks.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Way-out Wisconsin, part 1 of 2

On 2/7 and 2/8/11, I got to experience the most remote areas in which I’ve done school visits to date: the hilly, snowy, wild west of Wisconsin, where the people are as nice as the roads are uncrowded. I spent hours on those roads, where cell reception was rare, as were stop signs.

The first day I spoke in Fennimore. It was the first time I can recall seeing hunting books in a school library. How-to hunting books. But I should not have been surprised, given this sign I passed en route:

I wonder what the wild turkey hunting capital of the country is?

A highlight of this visit was lunch. I got to eat it with four articulate students (a third grader and three fifth graders) who'd won a school essay contest. The topic: “Why I Want to Have Lunch with the Author.” Though none had written this in their heartwarming essays (which each read to me), the homemade lunch could've easily been a justifiable answer: it included sauceless mini-vegetable pizzas and homemade Rice Krispie treats iced with chocolate. (Last time I had one had to be at least 20 years ago.)

This was also the first time I gave away a copy of my book Vanished: True Stories of the Missing during a school visit. I didn’t want to do it by asking a question and awarding the book to the person who gave the correct answer, because there were almost definitely be multiple students who would know the answer to any given question, and I wouldn't be able to call on all of them.

So I went random. I said whoever has the same initials as I do would get the book.

No one did.

So I cycled through maybe eight more sets of initials…no dice. Ultimately, I gave the book to all the students—in other words, to the library.

Another highlight of this visit was not only how many books the students bought…

(The books once signed and readied to be distributed in classes.)

…but an incident that occurred while I was signing them.

Two students, a young man and a young woman, were at nearby computers in the library. They were half-paying attention to what I was doing. My library media specialist host and a library aide were there, too. We all began talking. I asked the students what grade they were in. They said they were both seniors, meaning they had not seen me present. It came up that I was an author (perhaps the signing made that obvious from the start).

The young man said he loved to read; the young woman reacted incredulously to that. Then she said she never reads. They playfully squabbled with each other about that topic. I couldn’t tell if either or both of them were putting on an act. But I liked them.

What I don’t like is hearing that someone doesn’t read, even if a joke. So to try to do my very small part of a job their teachers do regularly (meaning trying to inspire a love of reading), I handed each a copy of Vanished. The young man seemed keen about the subject matter. The young woman seemed keen to get a signature from someone “famous” (though I quickly corrected her perception by explaining that I'm not famous if she hasn’t heard of me). They thanked me and had to go.

I learned that both were in the library because they were not doing as well as they should be in school; to try to improve their grades, they do additional coursework there several times a week. The librarians took it as a good sign that both of these teens gratefully accepted the book I gave them.

And in the young man's next class, which included 20 minutes of free reading, that was the book he chose. He even came back up to me to ask me for clarification on something I'd written.

When he went back to class, the library aide whispered, "Breakthrough."

Way-out Wisconsin, part 2 of 2.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Wisconsin State Reading Association Convention 2011

On 2/4/11, I had the honor of speaking three times at the WSRA Convention: once on crafting compelling opening lines, once on
Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman, and once on writing non-boring nonfiction.

The sales floor had an impressive showing of my books:

And the turnout was pretty impressive, too, especially considering the huge storm earlier that week, though it did prevent a handful of the presenters (not to mention an unknown number of attendees) from making it.