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Mar. 8th, 2011


Thank you, Paton School

Today I spoke to first through fourth graders in Shrewsbury about writing, and what a patient and thoughtful audience they were. At the end of each talk I had the honor of announcing awards for reading, and the glow of pride on some winners’ faces was heartwarming, as well as the enthusiastic applause from their peers. Outstanding classes of readers won pizza parties, and those who’d quietly listened to me went momentarily just a little wild with delight.

It was fun to meet a teacher who’d heard me talk nine years ago, bought MARY ANNING AND THE SEA DRAGON then and more recently ANNE HUTCHINSON’S WAY, and asked the principal to get copies for all the second grade classrooms. “I’d much rather teach history like this than through a textbook,” she told me. I hope she guessed how much that made my already-made day. Here are two of her students with a diagram they made to compare the two picture books.

I hope I inspired the students as much as they inspired me, asking good questions about the lives of characters beyond the last page. I was asked about the books I wrote that were never published, and appreciated the empathetic gasps when I described piles quite taller than my stack of published books. But when I was asked if I knew which of my old unpublished manuscripts I’d most like to see as a book, I didn’t hesitate to name one I put in a drawer years ago, and felt my heart widen as I thought of how those characters deserve their chance. Some manuscripts just needed to be written, but this one wants out of the drawer, and I’m putting it in line for a revival. As someone who’s been nursing a recent rejection wound, I was glad to be reminded that a single no thanks does not mean the end of a book’s life. 

There were great questions about origins and process, but today I appreciated those that sent me back to my desk drawers and possibility. Writing involves many roadblocks as well as successes. Writing is hardly ever finished. But the kind questions of friends and once-strangers keep us going.

Apr. 19th, 2010


English Majors Give Thumbs Up to Two Nonfiction Picture Books

My children’s literature students are almost entirely English majors, trained, of course, in the art of critique. It seems you can hand them a nonfiction picture book, even a very pretty one, and it’s not hard for them to rip it apart. It had better not to be too long. It had better not be what they’re unafraid to call boring. It had better move beyond facts, eschew big words and a show-off attitude, and keep a tight focus on the subject. They are not daunted by stickers on the cover; if it’s didactic it’s didactic. If the author drones on about volcanoes, sharks, the Inuit, or Leonardo da Vinci, they will say so. They scared me a little bit. Hey, everything can’t be, say, Lily’s Purple Plastic Purse.

But there was some love, too. The students liked the intimate tone and the way the narration kept to a child’s point of view in One Thousand Tracings, written and illustrated by Lita Judge They liked the endpapers with photographs of old boxes that Lita found in an attic and that inspired the story. The book is based on a girl, Lita’s mother, who helped collect penciled or cut-out tracings of feet so that shoes the right size could be sent to those who had little food and clothing after World War II.

My students approved of the way the war and Europe were kept to the background, while a child’s curiosity and care were up front. They liked the tactile and relatively small images of shoes and brown paper, and how something that could be held in the hand might raise bigger questions about the world if a reader desired. But issues weren’t slammed down upon them.

Another book that met with their high-bar approval was Planting the Trees of Kenya: The Story of Wangari Maathi by Claire A. Nivola. A group who focused on biography and nature liked the quote form Maathai on the book’s back: “Remember what millions of hands can do.” They felt this philosophy was reflected in the book, which is naturally about the Nobel prize winning founder of the Green Belt movement, but shows her in the context of other people and not smack in the center. You see that in this picture, too.

Both of these favorite books were written and illustrated by one person. Both have received a lot of acclaim, but so had most of the other books students read and dismissed. The art is lovely in both, but the tones are soft and the style more realistic than not; neither used a layout that called attention to itself. Many of the other books used bigger pictures, bolder colors, more experimental design. The tone and pace of the writing, like the art, is quiet: no one seems to be trying too hard. Perhaps what made these books stand out was the warm and clear connection the creators had with their subjects. Both books have someone who cares about others at their centers. Maybe that’s what we were drawn to. True stories with a beating heart.

For more Nonfiction Monday links, please visit:

May. 1st, 2009


Interview with Linda Cotta Brennan about Anne Hutchinson’s Way

Linda Cotta Brennan is running an interview with me today about Anne Hutchinson’s Way on her blog . It was so nice to be asked by this great writer, generous teacher, and all around gracious person. And she’s kind of from the right state, too. I’m a proud resident of Massachusetts, but we’ve all got our bits of shameful past; while I’m glad to say a statue of Anne Hutchinson with a daughter now stands in front of our State House, a few hundred years ago she was told to get out of the Mass. Bay Colony or else. She was a little too free with words. Anne, husband, children, and supporters hiked and canoed to Aquidneck Island of the welcoming state of Rhode Island, where Linda lives.

Linda asked me questions I’d never been asked before. If you’ve ever been interviewed, you know how great that is. If you want to know more about Anne Hutchinson or writing picture book biographies, please check it out!

November 2013



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