Thursday, July 17, 2008

The Puzzle of Books

This article by Caroline Arnold was published in the L.A.S.C.B.W.I.'s newsletter, Kite Tales (Summer 2008). It's a great insight into how a nonfiction author works. Thank you, Caroline.

I am fond of doing crosswords. Nothing is quite like the burst of satisfaction I get after filling in that last square to make the puzzle complete. I particularly like the Sunday crosswords, which not only have a theme, but usually employ some sort of word play to “get” the theme-related answers. In many ways, writing a nonfiction book is like doing a crossword puzzle. There is a topic or theme that threads its way through the manuscript; there is the network of clues used to create the skeleton, or support, for the theme; and often there is a twist at the end, which creates the “aha” moment, providing the reader with fresh insight.

Just as book writers always have their antennae up for possible book topics, puzzle creators need to come up with potential topics for their theme clues. These can be common phrases whose meanings change with the addition or subtraction of a letter; famous names that can be turned into puns; switched word orders, and so on. When one of these lists gets long enough, they make a puzzle.

In the same way, after I choose a topic for a book, I begin to collect information. Some of that information never gets used. It may be tangential to my main theme, for another age group, or, if the book is short, it may not fit. Some may get saved for another book. But when I think I have enough information, I take what I have and sort it into its various main topics or chapters. My next step is always an outline. I plan my book, page spread by page spread. This provides me with the overall structure of my book. Nothing is ever set in stone. As I work, the details of the plan may change, and I may rearrange parts if it makes sense to do so.

One thing I like about crossword puzzles is the symmetry of the grids. Each puzzle has an overall pattern made by the black and white squares. Usually, one half of the puzzle is a mirror image of the other. One of the challenges for the puzzle creator is finding pairs of theme answers that have an equal number of letters so that they can be placed opposite one another on the grid. In the same way, the structure of a book has to be balanced. It doesn’t have to be exactly symmetrical, but it needs to feel as if each part has relatively equal weight. And just as there are many grids for the puzzle creator to choose from, depending on the requirements of the theme answers, the structure of a book can take many forms as well.

In solving crossword puzzles, everyone has his or her own technique. I start in the upper left and work my way to the lower right. One of my friends answers all the theme clues first and then fills in the other squares. I would like to do this, but generally I need a few hints, so I wait until I’ve filled in enough squares with the regular clues to figure out the key to the week’s theme. The puzzle title helps, but usually involves another level of word play.

When I write my books, I work like my friend, and start with the main themes and gradually add the smaller details. Just like working a puzzle, the completion of the manuscript goes bit by bit, with periods when I surge forward, and other periods when I sit stumped, until suddenly I see how a missing piece pulls everything together.

I am sometimes asked when I do school visits, “What is your favorite part of the writing process?” My answer is always the same: “When I am finished!” Just as I breathe a sigh of satisfaction as I fill in the last square of a crossword puzzle, I have that same sense of accomplishment when the last word is written in the manuscript. Then I know that everything is in its proper place and, hopefully, will cause my readers to say “Aha! I’ve learned something new.”

Caroline Arnold is the author of many books for young readers, including these from Charlesbridge: Wiggle and Waggle, Birds: Natures Magnificent Flying Machines, Did You Hear That? Animals with Super Hearing, Shockers of the Sea and Other Electric Animals, Super Swimmers, Who Has More? Who Has Fewer, and Who Is Bigger? Who Is Smaller?

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

ALA 2008, Anaheim, CA

Not quite like the glamour of BEA in Hollywood, but certainly a clean, well-ordered corner of the world, Anaheim was host to this year's American Library Association conference. It's a magical kingdom of books!

As ever, ALA was a love-fest of books, librarians, authors and illustrators. We were lucky to host a few in our booth:

Pam Muñoz Ryan signs Our California in California! For the sequel, we'll have to find out what the strange purple Disney flowers were.

First comes love, then comes Eve Bunting autographing The Wedding and Baby Shower

Caroline Arnold and Mary Peterson wiggled and waggled for us.

Marjorie Cowley made us giggle with her tale of ancient Mesopotamia.

The AWESOME April Pulley Sayre signs Trout Are Made of Trees and The Bumblebee Queen.

Pam Turner proves there is life on earth--and beyond.

Edward Einhorn, probably. He signs A Very Improbable Story.

The Charlesbridge Family Dinner. Better than Thanksgiving
(no actual family guilt served). But if you're in Anaheim again, you have to go to this restaurant... it was so good, we went twice (not in the same night). It's called Gabbi's Mexican Kitchen and it's a short drive from Anaheim to Orange. The margaritas are fantastic, but you will be dreaming about the churros for ages to come.

The night we all look forward to all year long: the Newbery-Caldecott banquet. Two great books this year, with two endlessly entertaining authors (and illustrator). With us at our table were the members of the Theodor Seuss Geisel Award committee. We thank you very sweetly.

But this is why we were so proud to be at ALA this year: Hello, Bumblebee Bat was the recipient of a Theodor Seuss Geisel Award Honor.

Posted by Donna

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Pirates are good, okay?

The very first book I can remember loving was called The Pleasant Pirate. I got it--alongside my other favorite book The Story of Ferdinand (an antiwar picture book, so you can see how conflicted I was even then)--from the Newport News Public Library. My mother, baby brother, and I were living down in Virginia with our grandparents Dan and Fanny Berlin while Daddy (Will Yolen) was away in the War. Actually he was a second lieutenant and head of the Secret Radio ABSIE, stationed in London.

very first book I ever made was in 7th grade. It was a school project for one of my classes at Hunter Junior High in New York City. It was about pirates and I leaned rather heavily on my sources, made illustrations, cardboard-covered-with-blue-cloth jackets, and sewed it together. I think it was simply called Pirates.

The very firs
t actual book I sold to a publisher was called Pirates in Petticoats, about women pirates. I was living in New York at the time, and had a bunch of badly written picture books making the rounds plus one interesting nonfiction proposal. I never actually sold any of those picture books but Rose Dobbs, an editor at David McKay, made an offer for Pirates in Petticoats on my 22nd birthday and so my book writing career was launched. It took a year for the research (in the NY Public Library's rare book room, and at Foul Anchor Archives in Rye, New York, this being long before the Internet) and writing. The book got some nice reviews and went out of print just as the woman's movement was really getting going. Bad timing.

Years later, I took two of those women pirates--Ann Bonney and Mary Reade--and wrote a ballad about them called The Ballad of the Pirate Queens which David Shannon illustrated and it is still in print.

Which brings me to now and to Charlesbridge.

I had often bemoaned the fact that Pirates in Petticoats went OP. But I knew it had been
written by a 22 year old, one still learning how to write. I wanted to redo it. Once I thought of writing it for adults and calling it Buccaneer Broads. After all, most of the pirates didn't actually wear petticoats And I'd made up conversations between the pirates and their friends and enemies with abandon. (One did that back in the 60s in children's nonfiction.) I discussed this with the irrepressible Judy O'Malley, editor extraordinare who was--at that time--newly come to Charlesbridge. Among other things, I'd discovered Grania (Grace) O'Malley whom I hadn't put in the earlier book. I'd discovered that several of the pirates in my first book were probably simply storybook lasses, not real at all. In the ensuing years (Pirates in Petticoats had come out in 1963) much more had been written about women pirates.

Judy and Charlesbridge were intrigued. My granddaughter and her best friend went trick-or-treating as Anne Bonney and Mary Read the year Charlesbridge gave me a contract for the book (the next year they were "Thelma and Louise.") And I began to work hard on the research and writing.

Sea Queens will be out this year, in time for September 19, "Talk Like A Pirate Day." I plan to take to the airwaves, saying things like "Get off the poop deck!" and "Arrrrrrr" to anyone who will listen. I may even buy myself a parrot. Or learn to sail.

Posted by author Jane Yolen.