Tag Archives: nonfiction

Labor Day: More than a picnic

There’s just a week left until Labor Day. For many of us, Labor Day means the end of summer or the beginning of the school year. For others, it means a picnic or a festival. Or perhaps a 5K Fun Run (if you can call a 5K run fun).

Labor Day weekend is a weekend to celebrate, but if it weren’t for the labor movement, we wouldn’t even have weekends. The labor movement limited child labor,  improved workplace safety, and gave us the 40 hour work week.

Labor Day—the first Monday in September—celebrates the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of America. Grover Cleveland made Labor Day a federal holiday in 1894 in response to a strike that crippled the railroad system. Federal troops were called in. There were riots. People died.

A couple of years ago, Tracy Abell put together a post about child labor. I encourage you to read it, if you haven’t already. She listed some great books. Read them. And here are some more books about the labor movement and the children involved in it.

Tracy’s post listed two books–Kids at Work: Lewis Hine and the Crusade Against Child Labor by Russell Freedman and Counting on Grace by Elizabeth Winthrop– that feature photographer Lewis Hine and his influential photographs. The photos exposed the horrendous conditions in a way that words couldn’t. His photos spoke truth to power. A Lewis Hine photo graces the cover of another book in Tracy’s post: Growing up in Coal Country by Susan Campbell Bartoletti. In fact, the same photo is used on the cover of this book:

Breaker BoysBreaker Boys: How a Photograph Helped End Child Labor by Michael Burgan (Compass Point Books 2011)  

From IndieBound: “Child labor was common in the United States in the 19th century. It took the compelling, heart breaking photographs of Lewis Hine and others to bring the harsh working conditions to light. Hine and his fellow Progressives wanted to end child labor. He knew photography would reveal the truth and teach and change the world. With his camera Hine showed people what life was like for immigrants, the poor, and the children working in mines, factories, and mills.”

Like Bread and Roses, Too by Katherine Paterson, which was featured in Tracy’s post, The Bobbin Girl takes place in a textile mill, one of the industries that made extensive use of child labor. (Many of Lewis Hine’s most powerful photos of working children were taken in textile mills.) This particular subject is close to my heart, since my own grandmother was one of those girls. She worked in a silk mill in Paterson, New Jersey after she finished the eighth grade. Because she was gifted academically, the teachers at the high school pleaded with her parents to let her continue her education, but as the eldest of nine siblings, she had to work.

Bobbin Girl

The Bobbin Girl written and illustrated by Emily Arnold McCully (Dial 1996)

From IndieBound: “Rebecca Putney is a bobbin girl who helps support her struggling family by working all day in a hot, noisy cotton mill. Working conditions at the mill are poor, and there is talk of lowering the workers’ wages. Rebecca’s friend Judith wants to protest the pay cut–but troublemakers at the mill are dismissed. Does Rebecca have the courage to join the protest?”

In November 1909, workers, mostly Jewish women, at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York went on strike for shorter hours, better wages, and safer working conditions. The strike grew to include 20,000 garment workers and lasted until March 1910. The following year, a fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory killed 146 people, the youngest a 14-year-old girl. The next two books–one nonfiction, the other fiction–bring the realities of the sweatshop and the tragedy to life.

Flesh and Blood

Flesh and Blood So Cheap: The Triangle Fire and Its Legacy By Albert Marrin (Knopf Books for Young Readers 2011)

From IndieBound: “On March 25, 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City burst into flames.  The factory was crowded.  The doors were locked to ensure workers stay inside . . . It is the story of poor working conditions and greedy bosses, as garment workers discovered the endless sacrifices required to make ends meet.  It is the story of unimaginable, but avoidable, disaster.  And it the story of the unquenchable pride and activism of fearless immigrants and women who stood up to business, got America on their side, and finally changed working conditions for our entire nation, initiating radical new laws we take for granted today.”

Uprising

Uprising By Margaret Peterson Haddix (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers 2011)

From IndieBound:  Told from alternating points of view, this historical novel draws upon the experiences of three very different young women: Bella, who has just emigrated from Italy and doesn’t speak a word of English; Yetta, a Russian immigrant and crusader for labor rights; and Jane, the daughter of a wealthy businessman. Bella and Yetta work together at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory under terrible conditions . . . Yetta leads the factory’s effort to strike, and she meets Jane on the picket line . . . Through a series of twists and turns, the three girls become fast friends–and all of them are in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory on March 25, 1911, the day of the fateful fire.”

The photographs of Lewis Hine and tragedies like the Triangle fire may have prompted changes that improved the lives of American workers.  But that didn’t put an end to problems faced by workers. It was complicated . . . 

marching to the mountaintop

Marching to the Mountaintop: How Poverty, Labor Fights and Civil Rights Set the Stage for Martin Luther King Jr’s Final Hours By Ann Bausum (National Geographic Children’s Books 2012)

From IndieBound: “In early 1968 the grisly on-the-job deaths of two African-American sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee, prompted an extended strike by that city’s segregated force of trash collectors. Workers sought union protection, higher wages, improved safety, and the integration of their work force. Their work stoppage became a part of the larger civil rights movement and drew an impressive array of national movement leaders to Memphis, including, on more than one occasion, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

King added his voice to the struggle in what became the final speech of his life. His assassination in Memphis on April 4 not only sparked protests and violence throughout America; it helped force the acceptance of worker demands in Memphis. The sanitation strike ended eight days after King’s death.

The connection between the Memphis sanitation strike and King’s death has not received the emphasis it deserves, especially for younger readers. Marching to the Mountaintop explores how the media, politics, the Civil Rights Movement, and labor protests all converged to set the scene for one of King’s greatest speeches and for his tragic death.”

. . .  and the struggle continues. 

sweat and blood

For a comprehensive look at the role of labor unions in American history, check out  Sweat and Blood: A History of U.S. Labor Unions By Gloria Skurzynski (Twenty-First Century Books 2008)

For a roundup of web-based sources on Labor Day, go here.

 

Go ahead, enjoy your Labor Day picnic, but as you serve up the hamburgers and potato salad, give a thought for those who made it possible.

Jacqueline Houtman is the author of The Reinvention of Edison Thomas. Her next book, with coauthors Walter Naegle and Michael G. Long,  is Bayard Rustin: The Invisible Activist (Quaker Press). Bayard was an active supporter of the labor movement. 

The Nonfiction Family Tree

A few weeks ago, I attended the New England SCBWI conference in beautiful Springfield, MA. I had the pleasure of sitting in on a workshop given by  Melissa Stewart and Sarah Albee on Nonfiction. It was fascinating!  There was so much GREAT information that I felt it would be good for others to learn about it. I contacted Melissa and she graciously agreed to be interviewed.   For those of you that haven’t heard of  or been lucky enough to meet Melissa, here’s a little about her:

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Melissa Stewart is the award-winning author of more than 150 science books for children. She has always been fascinated by the natural world and is passionate about sharing its beauty and wonder with readers of all ages.

After earning a bachelor’s degree in biology from Union College in Schenectady, NY, and a master’s degree in science journalism from New York University, Melissa worked as a children’s book editor for nine years before becoming a fulltime writer in 2000. She has written everything from board books for preschoolers to magazine articles for adults.

Melissa believes that nothing brings nonfiction writing to life like firsthand research. While gathering information for her books, she has explored tropical rain forests in Costa Rica, gone on safari in East Africa, and swum with sea lions in the Galapagos Islands.

When Melissa isn’t writing or exploring the natural world, she spends time speaking at schools, libraries, nature centers, and educator conferences. She serves on the Board of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and the Keene State College Children’s Literature Festival.

With the advent of Common Core, nonfiction seems to be taking off. Can you give us a little background of how nonfiction has changed over the years? Wow, it’s changed A LOT. Fifteen years ago, most nonfiction text was rather dry. If an author wrote a manuscript with a strong voice, it was edited out. Today editors want, no demand, a strong voice. In the past, authors were supposed to be unbiased, but today it’s perfectly okay for writers to express a point of view.  Art and design has also changed. Ever since desktop publishing software was invented, illustrators and designers have been experimenting. The result is dynamic designs that kids can’t resist. The upshot is that today’s nonfiction has a dual purpose. It delights as well as informs.  

 

In your talk, you broke nonfiction up into seven categories. Can you explain these categories? Sure. In my talk with uber-talented author Sarah Albee [link: http://www.sarahalbeebooks.com/], we drew upon the work of a group of highly-respected academics who call themselves the Uncommon Corp [link: http://nonfictionandthecommoncore.blogspot.com/]. They classify nonfiction books into seven broad categories. Data: In more friendly terms, you might call this category Fasts Facts. It includes Eyewitness Books, The Guinness Book of World Records, and my own book Animal Grossapedia. These are the concise, fact-filled books that groups of boys love to read together and discuss.

Expository: You might call this category Facts Plus because the facts are interwoven into a content-area explanation. This is could be considered “traditional” nonfiction in some ways, but there’s nothing old-fashioned about today’s expository titles. Their engaging text and rich, dynamic art and design are sure to delight as well as inform young readers.

Narrative: This is a category we’ve heard a lot (I mean A LOT) about in the last few years. It’s the current darling of awards committees. Narrative titles present facts in the form of a true story with a narrative arc.   As you learn about the next few categories, I think you’ll see that some of the books that have been lumped into the narrative category should really be thought about on their own terms, based on the author’s approach to the information.

Disciplinary Thinking: These books reveal how scientists and historians go about their work, how they evaluate evidence and form theories. The structure could be narrative, but it usually isn’t. This category might also be called something like Experts at Work. Scientists in the Field books are the perfect example, but there are plenty of other examples. Skull by Mark Aronson is one that immediately comes to mind.

Inquiry: This category could also be called Ask and Answer. In these books, the author raises a question or a group of related questions and then seeks the answer. Sally Walker’s Written in Bone and What Bluebirds Do by Pamela F. Kirby are great examples.

Interpretation: For these books, authors research a topic widely, find their own meaning in the information, and present the content from that point of view. Charles and Emma by Deborah Heiligman is the first title that leaps to mind, but I’d also put books like Those Rebels, Tom and John by Barbara Kerley in this category. I think we’ll see more of these books in the future because this type of presentation directly supports Common Core.

Action: This is category offers a separate spot for titles that invite young readers to take action. The most obvious examples include Citizen Scientists by Loree Griffin Burns and the Science Play series by Vicki Cobb. I’m not sure this system is the be all and end all, but it’s a very interesting way for writers, teachers, librarians, and other book lovers to think about nonfiction. It stretches the way we think about current books and future possibilities, and I think that’s extremely valuable.

 

Do you think certain topics lend themselves to certain categories? Yes. I think narrative nonfiction works very well for biographies and books about historical events. These topics naturally have a beginning, a middle, and an end. With enough research, an author can craft the alternating scenes and summary architecture that characterizes narrative nonfiction. When writing about science, math, or the Arts, narrative nonfiction may not be an option. Even if it is, it may not be the best choice. For a broad overview of any topic, expository usually works best.   Two great examples are Bugged: How Insects Changes History by Sarah Albee and 9780802734228_p0_v4_s260x420 A Black Hole Is Not a Hole by Carolyn Cinami Decristofano.     If writers think about these categories at the beginning of a project, I think they may have an easier time coming up with a great way to approach a topic and a solid structure for their book. It provides some options, so we aren’t just shooting in the dark.  

 

Which one do you think is most popular with kids? Why? Data books are clearly the most popular with kids. Most school librarians will tell you that titles like The Guinness Book of World Records is almost constantly checked out. Elementary-aged readers love fascinating facts, so Data books can be good for hooking beginning readers. But many educators worry that these books don’t do much to help kids build their reading skills. Right now, thought leaders like Jonathan Hunt and Marc Aronson feel that we need a new breed of book that forms a bridge between Data books and long-form nonfiction that students are expected to read in middle school and high school.

 

Which categories do teachers tend use in their classrooms? In recent years, teachers didn’t use much high-quality trade nonfiction in the classroom at all. But the hope is that Common Core is changing that. Right now, teachers are struggling to learn about nonfiction, and they are building their classroom libraries. Luckily, most school librarians have been singing the praises of the new nonfiction for several years now, so they are becoming trusted advisors in schools where they exist. We need more school librarians!

 

Any tips for readers about how to find fun, engaging nonfiction books? Here are some lists to keep an eye on. They include great nonfiction titles from all seven categories:

  • AAAS/Subaru Prizes for Excellence in Science Books
  • ALA Robert F. Sibert Informational Book Award
  • CRA Eureka! Nonfiction Children’s Book Award
  • Cook Prize for STEM Picture Book
  • Cooperative Children’s Book Center Choices List
  • Cybils Nonfiction for Middle Grade & Young Adult
  • Cybils Nonfiction Picture Books
  • NCTE Orbis Pictus Award for Outstanding Nonfiction for Children
  • NSTA-CBC Outstanding Science Trade Books for Students K-12
  • YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults

 

How do you see the world of nonfiction changing for the future? That’s a great question, and I’m not sure I really know the answer. My hope is that we’ll see more nonfiction being published for children. Although I think many editors are now more open to reviewing nonfiction submission than they were in the past, what I hear is that they aren’t yet acquiring significantly more nonfiction manuscripts. This may be because many editors are still trying to get up to speed on the market. They need to familiarize themselves with what’s out there and gain an understanding of the characteristics of best-selling and award-winning nonfiction. Some editors may also be in a wait-and-see mode, wondering how long Common Core will stick around. There is a lot of controversy regarding the testing associated with CCSS, but the standards themselves are sound. Still, educators are famous for a throw-the-baby-out-with-the-bathwater mentality. They tend to move in completely new directions every decade or so, abandoning previous ideas rather than revising them.

 

Of all the books you have written, do any stand out as having been really fun to write? Perhaps they were about a topic that you loved or in a format that you enjoyed.  I guess I’m still an elementary-aged fact-lover at heart. One of my favorite books to research and write was Animal Grossapedia because it’s so chock full of amazing examples of how animals use pee, poop, vomit, slime (mucus), and spit to catch food and stay safe. But what I also really like about this book is that as kids read example after example, they gradually come to the book’s central idea—that animals have an amazing array of adaptations and behaviors that make it possible for them to survive in the world. So I’m sharing an idea that’s a central tenet of biology, but in a package that they find irresistible. To me, that’s a successful book.

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Thanks so much for helping us to understand the wild and wonderful world of nonfiction, Melissa!!

To learn more about Melissa see her website at www.melissa-stewart.com.  Melissa also has a great blog called “Celebrate Science” where she focuses on cool nonfiction books, how she writes them, and talks more about the classification and structure of nonfiction books. Check it out here:  www.celebratescience.blogspot.com

 

**** Jennifer Swanson is the author over 20 fiction and nonfiction books. She is a science nerd at heart and loves to learn new and fun science facts which is why her shelves are filled with books!!

Courage and Civil Rights: An Interview with Tanya Lee Stone

On this day, many of us retell the stories of Martin Luther King, Jr. and his speech, the bravery of Rosa Parks on the bus, and the students of Little Rock. But few realize that the seeds of the civil rights movement began during World War II.

courageIn Courage Has No Color, award-winning author Tanya Lee Stone tells the story of our nation’s first black paratroopers who integrated the army six months before Truman’s executive order calling for “equality of treatment and opportunity” in the military in 1948.

Tanya met Walter Morris, the sergeant who decided to train his men in the service company of the Parachute School as paratroopers. He wanted them “to act like soldiers, not servants.” Because of Morris’ leadership, the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion, the Triple Nickles, was born.

At the end of the war, black and white servicemen had shared experiences that began a shift in society. “White Americans found it difficult to ignore the fact that they had been fighting Hitler while perpetrating atrocities and inequalities on their own black citizens—especially when those black citizens had done their part to unite in the fight against the same foe,” Tanya writes.

Courage Has No Color earned four starred reviews, was named Publishers Weekly Best Books 2013 and Kirkus Best Books of 2013, and received many honors, including the YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction Award and NAACP Image Award Finalist. Tanya took some time out of her busy schedule to answer a few questions.

Tanya Lee Stone

MUF: This is an amazing story about the courage and patriotism of the Triple Nickles. You tell the largely hidden story of the Japanese balloon bombs, giving meaning to the firefighting these paratroopers did in 1945. Yet these paratroopers never went overseas to fight Hitler. Was it hard to write about that disappointment?

TS: Yes, it was. It was a tricky thing to piece together as well. There was a lot of disappointment and sadness involved with this story as well as pride and accomplishment, heroism and honor.

MUF: Sergeant Walter Morris was a true leader and, it seems, a storyteller. I was saddened to learn that he died in October 2013. Was he happy to see his story told?

TS: Oh, he was elated. And the book came out the day after his birthday, so he had it in his hands. I was on the phone with him during his birthday party and a lot of the Triple Nickles men were there, and we were all whooping and hollering. It was an honor and a joy to have gotten to know Walter these last ten years, and not only was he happy to see his story told, he was able to participate in that telling. I will forever be grateful for that.

MUF: This book began as a picture book, and it sounds like you resisted turning it into a longer work for middle grade readers. Can you talk about that decision?

TS: The phone call I received from Hilary Van Dusen at Candlewick came at a moment when I was probably more tired than I had ever been from writing. I had just finished The Good, the Bad, and the Barbie right on the heels of Almost Astronauts, with a picture book in between. Ashley Bryan had read the picture book version of Courage Has No Color and the praise he gave me bolstered my confidence. And did I mention I was tired? So when Hilary told me she wanted me to expand it to the scope of Almost Astronauts, I was resistant. We both agreed that I was tired, and I asked her for some time to think about it. Of course, my sister-by-choice, Sarah Aronson didn’t hesitate at all in reminding me that she had been telling me that for some time! Once I took a nap and thought about it some more, I knew most certainly it was the right choice.

MUF: One of the things children’s books do—and you do well—is to tell the truth, with room for hope. Was it hard to write your last chapter, “We will have a colorless society one day”?

TS: I don’t think I would characterize it as hard, and my research in that area didn’t surprise me, but it was certainly sobering. Of course, that is balanced by many of the forward steps our culture has taken. There is certainly room for great improvement.

MUF: You’re an award-winning writer of children’s nonfiction books. I know that takes a lot of research and firsthand interviews with amazing people. Tell us: Have you ever jumped out of a plane?

TS: Ha! I almost did—in college—but I chickened out! I will never forget what it felt like to climb to the Drop Zone and look out the door of that plane, though!