Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Historically Speaking About Mary Anning

It was fun to see Google celebrate British paleontologist, Mary Anning today on her 215th birthday! My first encounter with this historic woman was through Jeannine Atkins picture book, Mary Annng and the Sea Dragon.

Jeannine had traveled to Lyme Regis in England where Mary was born. She walked along the beach where 11-year-old Mary found a 17-foot fossil that made her famous. Jeanine captures Mary so beautifully in this book, which is why it was the Society of School  Librarians International 2000 honor book.  It is a great addition to a classroom library and fits in well with Common Core standards!

Saturday, May 10, 2014

The Kite That Bridged Two Nations - An Interview with Alexis O'Neill

Author and school visit specialist, Alexis O’Neill  is here today to talk about her latest award-winning book, The Kite That Bridged Two Nations.  Alexis, this is a great nonfiction picture book that introduces readers to a historic kite contest and Homan Walsh, who dreamed of flying his kite across the wide Niagara.

Can you tell us about the research that went in to writing this book?

Nancy – thanks for your invitation to share!

For pleasure years ago, I had read David McCullough’s book, The Great Bridge, about John A. Roebling’s building of the Brooklyn Bridge. McCullough mentioned Homan Walsh and the kite flying contest because Roebling finished the Niagara Suspension Bridge project when the original engineer left. When someone suggested to me that that incident might make a good kids book, my research began.
Internet. I searched Wikipedia to get overviews of the event, people and places; collect key words and images; and examine bibliographic sources.  I collected online articles. maps and images.
Secondary Sources: I read books about Niagara Falls, the bridge engineer, kites, and American economics and transportation in the 1840s. I saved bibliographies from those books to explore and to see where expert sources overlapped.
Primary Sources: I accessed archives at libraries, historical associations and museums in Niagara Falls, Ontario Canada; Niagara County, NY; Buffalo & Erie County, NY; Monroe County, NY; Nebraska State Historical Society; and which yielded  U.S. Census data, a passport application, newspaper articles and reports contemporary to the times, lithographs, photographs, and maps. But a key element of my research was traveling to Niagara Falls and walking where my subject actually walked, seeing where his family lived, and experiencing Niagara Falls first-hand.

Did you actually make your own kite and fly it?  

I didn’t construct my own kite, but I finally learned how to fly one! I used to be a “Charlie Brown kite flier” – every kite crashed.  Then two things happened: a kite store owner advised me to keep my back to the wind so that it flowed evenly over both ears. Then I brought my kite to the beach where there was no chance of it getting stuck in a tree. And it worked!

How did you organize all your research when you were writing?
I used two main organization systems – one for computer files, the other for paper files.
For computer files, I made folders as I went along. For example, I had folders called Bibliography, Bios, Bridges, Contacts, Images, Kites, Railroads, Timelines , etc. Within the folders, I had sub-folders and specific files. For example, in the Bio folder, I had sub-folders for information on key players such as Homan Walsh (including his family), Charles Ellet Jr (the bridge builder), Theodore G. Hulett (bridge consultant). Within the sub-folders, I had files for specific articles.
My paper files were similar, but they included catalogs, brochures, maps and other bulky items.  

It must have been difficult to decide what to include and what not to include. Can you share a bit about that process?
I had a bit of a struggle. I wanted to be true to the actual events, but I also had to create a compelling narrative arc. When I test-drove a draft with 5th graders, they didn’t like the scene in which two men, the bridge engineer and a bridge consultant, approached Homan Walsh when he was alone flying a kite. While the incident was true, kids today are hyper-aware of “stranger danger,” so that scene bothered them. I took it out and it actually improved the story’s flow.
Another challenge I faced was in correcting long-held understandings of the kite flying contest which had been misreported – from an interview with Homan Walsh to an historical lithograph depicting the event. I’m grateful to my editor for allowing my extensive Author’s Note at the end to set things right!

What tips can you offer budding nonfiction authors?
Always fully document your sources, no matter how slight they are. When I collect an image or an article from the Internet, the first thing I do is paste the URL into a Word document, then paste in the content. When I collect information from books, pamphlets or other “hard copy sources” on paper or index cards, I put complete bibliographic information at the top of the first page or card. Beside the information, I make sure to reference the specific page
on which I found it. This makes it easier to find later if questioned by an editor.

What are you working on now?
I’m juggling many projects. I love 19th American history and have a fondness for New York State where I lived for so many years, so that’s where I’m focusing my attention right now.

When you have questions about research or publishing nonfiction, how do you find help?
My go-to place for finding out answers to pressing questions is the NFforKids listserv. With over 800 participants, many of whom are highly published nonfiction authors, it’s a fabulous resource.

Anything else?
My Kite book recently won the SCBWI Crystal Kite Award in the California-Hawaii region. I want to express gratitude to my peers for this great honor. The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators has over 22,000 members, and this is the only peer-given award in publishing for young readers.

Congratulations, Alexis!  The book certainly deserves the honor!  Thank you for such a wonderful interview.