Please welcome award-winning author Sarah Albee!
Sarah Albee is the author of more than 100 children’s books. She has had three of her books appear on the New York Times children’s bestseller list. She currently has an upper-middle-grade, nonfiction book published in May, 2010 about the history of toilets and sanitation entitled POOP HAPPENED! A History of the World from the Bottom Up, and a follow-up title under contract due out in 2013 about how insects have affected human history. She blogs daily on a variety of science and social history topics geared toward middle-grade readers (sarahalbeebooks.com/blog). She spent nine years as an editor at Children’s Television Workshop, working primarily for Sesame Street and attending both the Bologna and Frankfurt Book Fairs.
Here’s her new release!
Why’d They Wear That? from National Geographic Kids (Feb 2015)
Move over Project Runway. Get ready to chuckle your way through centuries of fashion dos and don’ts! In this humorous and approachable narrative, kids will learn about outrageous, politically-perilous, funky, disgusting, regrettable, and life-threatening creations people have worn throughout the course of human history, all the way up to the present day. From spats and togas to hoop skirts and hair shirts, why people wore what they did is an illuminating way to look at the social, economic, political, and moral climates throughout history.
Fanatastic reviews for her new book:
“Now see, the reason I like National Geographic Kids is that they’re reliable. Take Why’d They Wear That?, for example. You know what you’re getting here, even if you don’t know the details. Mind you, the details are where all the good stuff is.” - School Library Journal
“Full of period images that show off every bustle, frill, and rivet, this wide-ranging guide to clothing throughout time will fascinate history and fashion buffs alike.” — Publisher’s Weekly
I love that I get to do both. And I do think writing for different genres is a great opportunity. My fiction editors appreciate that I like to do research. And my nonfiction editors appreciate that I know how to tell a story. At present, though, my passion is nonfiction.
What was it like working at Sesame Street?
It was a fantastic place to work. I landed a job there soon after I graduated from college. I loved the humor, the music, the travel, the creativity—and just being surrounded by so many talented people. It was a dream job.
Your nonfiction books are so much fun! How did you get interested in writing nonfiction?
Thanks for that! I’ve always been interested in nonfiction. As a kid, I read the World Book Encyclopedia for fun. It’s only been in the last 6-7 years, though, that I’ve been able to devote larger chunks of time to researching and writing longer, middle-grade books. For years, when my kids were young, I wrote a lot of work-for-hire and younger fiction and nonfiction. It was fun, and rewarding, and I learned how to meet tight deadlines and never get writer’s block. But now that my kids are older and don’t need me around as much, I feel like I’m in a new phase and I’m loving the flexibility to choose a topic I’m passionate about and plunge into it.
Three of your nonfiction books, including your newest, take a specific topic from the beginning of civilization to the present time. Why so broad a category?
I often ask myself that very question—why do I keep writing the same book over and over–the history of the whole world from ancient times to the present? But what I love to do is to trace one theme chronologically through human history, ideally a theme that kids will find interesting. First sanitation (okay, poop), then insects, and now, with my new book, crazy fashions. Chronology is really important to me. Some might call a broad sweep through history superficial, but often kids don’t get enough context when they study historical units in school. They might study ancient Egypt, or the American Revolution, but they may not have a good sense where and when these events fall on the historical continuum. And the beauty of tracing a theme through history is that I am not limited to one time or place—I can take a snapshot of the world from multiple places and perspectives, as long as I can relate them all to my theme. For instance, in Why’d They Wear That? in the chapter on the seventeenth century, I was able to include the Pilgrims in America, Oliver Cromwell in England, Louis XIV in France, sedan chairs, tanning leather, and the weird trend of wearing face patches—because I could tie everything together with fashion.
How much time does it take you to research one of these books? Where do you start?
I spend about a year doing research—but it’s not all I’m doing, of course. I usually have various book projects in different phases at the same time. For instance, I just finished two new book proposals, and am working on a first draft for my 2017 book, but am beginning research on a new idea. And my new book, Why’d They Wear That? (National Geographic), launched on February 10th so I’ve been super busy with publicity for that.
For research, I have the greatest library nearby—my husband is a high school teacher, and we live close to his school. His school’s library has fantastic subscriptions to various academic search engines, and the librarians are awesome and helpful. I make frequent trips to DC to research at the Library of Congress and the National Archives, and then, depending on my topic, to more specialized academic libraries. I also interview experts, in person if possible, but also via Skype.
Do you travel to places to research your books or do it from your house?
A little of both. Every place I go—whether it’s a school visit in another state, a family vacation, or a museum trip—I see as a research opportunity. And whenever I can, I visit a place I want to write about, to get a feel for the sights, sounds, and smells. I’ve been to the Paris sewers, and Lyon, France where they still make silk, and a cotton mill museum in Lowell, Massachusetts so I could hear for myself how deafening the sound of the looms are. And last fall, I visited the poison plants garden at Cornell University to research a future book project.
Can you tell us three fun and unexpected facts you discovered when researching your latest book?
Early versions of men’s athletic trunks—the kinds acrobats and boxers wore in the late nineteenth/early twentieth century—were the same in front and back, which must have resulted in a terrible wedgie.
Shoes, even for the wealthy, who could afford custom-made shoes, did not come in right and left until the latter part of the nineteenth century.
As late as the nineteenth and even early twentieth century, most young boys in Europe and America from well-to-do families wore petticoats up until the age of six or seven, when they’d be “breeched,” and dressed in pants. Once you start looking for them in portrait paintings, you start to see boys in dresses everywhere.
Okay, one more: 4. In seventeenth century Venice, most men, women, and children wore masks for a huge part of the year, and not just during Carnival season. It made it hard to tell the identity, or social class—or even the gender, sometimes—of most people, and allowed them to participate in some serious debauchery incognito. It was quite a bizarre phenomenon.
What tips can you give people if they want to write nonfiction?
Find a topic you feel passionate about, and don’t worry about whether it will “sell.” It’s a really exciting time for nonfiction right now—there’s so much great nonfiction being published, and writers can really develop their own voice and style, more than ever before.
Thanks for joining us Sarah!!
Sarah has generously donated an autographed copy of her new book,
Why’d They Wear That?
To win this prize, tell us the craziest outfit you ever wore below.
Jennifer Swanson is the author of over 20 nonfiction books for kids. Like any good scientist and author, Jennifer is rarely without a notebook and she writes down her observations throughout the day. It is a practice she encourages many young readers and writers. You can visit Jennifer at www.JenniferSwansonBooks.com, her special place to explore the world.