Monday, March 30, 2009

Non-Fiction Monday: A trip to the North Pole

I, Matthew Henson, Polar Explorer

By Carole Boston Weatherford

Illustrated by Eric Velasquez

Two men made history in 1909, the first men ever to stand on the North Pole. Admiral Robert Peary is the one you’ve probably heard about. Matthew Henson? Maybe not. Twice on the polar ice cap, Henson saved Peary’s life. The two men faced “sudden storms, frozen peaks and ridges and shifting iceberg castles,” on their perilous journey. Patches of open water and faulty instruments made more trouble before they reached the Pole. The achievement had been both men’s life ambition. But when they returned home some dismissed their accomplishment because Henson was a black man, and Peary downplayed Henson’s contribution to the expedition.

I love everything about the illustrations in this biography. The colors, the shapes, the varied scenes. The emotional resonance and the beauty of the art makes this a powerful and stunning book. The text is unique. You will have to read it for yourself to see how this author shows Henson’s determination and strength of purpose through the sentence structure she chose. Fabulous book!

Friday, March 27, 2009

Go, Zags - Mid-major Team Inspires Spokane Author

Tonight my beloved hometown basketball team, the Gonzaga Bulldogs, plays North Carolina in the Sweet Sixteen. Our son Conor will be sitting behind the Gonzaga bench with his two cousins and Uncle John. Lucky guy. The Zags are the tie that binds the Rudolf and Murphy clans with every victory, every loss dissected over the long distance and email. My dad was the first Zag fan and like my ninety-year-old mom likes to say, they attended games when the Zags were poor relations. My dad's been gone four years now. But Big Kerm loved the Zags and he loved that I am a writer.

So what do the Zags have to do with writing? Everything, including that right now I am writing this blog instead of working on my novel.

Gonzaga's run ten years ago into the Elite Eight sparked a flame that has kept flickering through good times and bad. This season has been a roller coaster, too. A great start with victories against nationally ranked teams into December. But after a loss to UConn and the February drubbing by Memphis, the team had to find their soul again. And they have, running the table in the West Coast Conference and now two NCAA tourney victories, with a different hero every night. And how about the women's team? They were within inches of making it into the Sweet Sixteen, too, while entering the tournament as a twelve seed. So enough basketball until 7p.m. PCT tonight.

We have to find our souls as writers, too, after a dry spell or rejection. So I want to write like the Zag men and women play basketball. Writing from Alaska and later Spokane, I've been insecure at times in dealing with East Coast editors, especially early in my career. But if the Zags from Spokaloo can play in the big leagues, shedding their perennial underdog moniker, so can we mid-list writers. We can survive the rejections, the days with little writing output, the bad reviews by just sawing wood, as Coach Mark Few likes to say. Dribbling out those words, nailing a three-pointer with a great metaphor, and cheering at the end of the day when we given our writing our best shot.

Only one difference between us writers and the Zags. We have to be the whole team of players. We have coaches in our editors, agents and fellow writers. But when the clock is running, it's just us. We have to be Matt Bouldin with a sense for the whole court action, the scope of our book. We have to be Micah Downs who turned his potential into reality when he finally listened to himself first. We have to block shots like Austin Daye and Josh Heyfelt, tough defenders when it comes to revising our work. WE have to light up our story with our passion like Demetri Goodson and Ira Brown. We have to keep shooting, keep writing like Steven Gray until the three-pointers, the words on the page start lighting it up again. Like Will Foster, we have to take the chances we get, even when they don't seem like enough. WE have to play like Heather Bowman even with a shoulder injury or writers' block. We have to tear up court, the page, like floor leaders Courtney Vandersloot and Jeremy Pargo.

Okay - have I beaten this metaphor to death yet? One more shot.

March Madness comes but once a year. Book acceptances and publication days, less often. But like the Zags who play summer and winter, we must write every day, even when it seems like we're fouling out. Playing well, writing well, that's in our hands - every morning. And we win, when we attach the seat of our pants to the seat of chair, as Hemingway advised. Go, Zags.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Non-Fiction Monday: Aliens from Earth

Aliens from Earth: When Animals and Plants Invade Other Ecosystems

Written by Mary Batten

Illustrated by Beverly J. Doyle

Peachtree Publishers

Izaak Walton League of Conservation Book of the Year

This thirty-two page picture book packs quite a wallop. It's on a subject that I've been concerned about, but understood very little. And I wondered how it could be be presented for young readers Through illustrations and text, it traces the history of alien plant and animal invaders arriving on our shores along with new ones that threaten our lives today. In a clear, readable manner it presents these plants and animals who have taken over our oceans and even our backyards. It’s a tough, complex subject for any age to understand. But the text and detailed illustrations invite readers, grades four and up, to explore its dangers to our quality of life. And the final spread offers suggestions on what regular citizens, young and old, can do to prevent their arrival.


Sunday, March 15, 2009

Non-Fiction Monday: Listen to the Wind

Three Cups of Tea
Greg Mortenson and Susan L. Roth have collaborated on a picture book for children based on Mortenson's bestselling Three Cups of Tea. Their book Listen to the Wind is sure to be a bestseller, too. I admire the simplicity with which the story is told of Greg's adventure into the mountains of Pakistan as well as the school-building project that followed. Roth's use of paper collage is stunning and fitting for the rugged setting of the book. The use of narrative and nonfiction backmatter with photos works well together. Of particular interest is the spread in which Roth talks about how her work was influenced by artifacts from the regional culture.This book offers substance and heart. Greg's work demonstrates the good that results when compassion does not stop at our respective countries' borders. It is a book I will be giving to young friends for years to come.
~~Meghan Nuttall Sayres

Monday, March 2, 2009

Students on Strike: Jim Crow, Civil Rights, Brown and Me

This memoir by John A. Stokes, with Lois Wolfe, Ph.D., published by National Geographic in 2008, knocked my socks off. John Stokes was a teenager in 1951, one of several students leaders who led a strike of their  segregated black  school, Moton High school in Farmville, Virginia. Sick of inferior conditions and shacks for a building, these young people inspired the entire student body to walk out of school, refusing to return until a new high school was built. When national NCAAP leaders arrived to help, they were so impressed that they begged the young leaders to join the Brown vs. the Board of Education lawsuit, rather than fight for a segregated school. The students agreed. Their case was the only one in the Brown lawsuit initiated by students. When the U.S. Supreme tore down Plessy vs. Ferguson in 1954 in support of the Brown lawsuit, these students were long out of school. But they remain proud of what they did to this day.
But this 126 page book is much more than a retelling of the dramatic days of the strike. It reads like a novel. The young voice of Stokes rings through on every page and vividly reveals life growing up in the Jim Crow South, before and after the student strike. Published in a small novel-like format with eighteen çhapters and photos, it holds appeal for readers ages ten through adult. It is one of those terrific nonfiction stories that pulls you in on the first page and propels you into the future on the last page. As a reader, it makes you wish you had been brave like those students. With great details leading up to the climax of the strike, helps us understand how the students' courage grew out of despair and frustration with "separate but equal" schools, public transportation, swimming pools, movie theaters and drinking fountains. Stokes is a retired educator who speaks around the country about this case and the continued need to fight for justice and equality in America today. Though this book was co-written, it is clearly Stokes' story and an uplifting one it is. Young readers will connect to the boy who grew into a teen, so sad and depressed that he had to risk his life to make a difference.