February 6, 2016
I went to a terrific book event on Wednesday: Susan Goodman (nonfiction writer without peer, in my opinion) was at the Harvard Book Store talking about her new picture book: THE FIRST STEP: HOW ONE GIRL PUT SEGREGATION ON TRIAL. The book's illustrator, E. B. Lewis, also spoke, so the audience had a double treat: learning about both processes, writing and illustration.
The book tells the true story of Sarah Roberts who, in 1847, was the plaintiff in a court case (Roberts v. City of Boston) in which she demanded the right to attend her neighborhood school. The school refused to allow her to attend because she was black.
Susan spoke about her meticulous research (making it sound as exciting as a high-stakes treasure hunt! which of course research is! I love research!) and also how that research informed the writing in a way that allowed her to tell the story most effectively. Susan's books are always accurate, and I admire that in her work, but more than anything else, I admire the way she makes her nonfiction prose sing. You feel things in Susan's books. Important things.
On December 4, 1849, a heavy snow blanketed the city. Even a ferocious blizzard wouldn't have stopped people from flooding into the courthouse. So many of them were African American—dockworkers and washerwomen, barbers and blacksmiths—giving up a day's pay to be there. Some were lucky enough to get a seat. Others were willing to stand, for hours if need be.
As a writer, I can't help but notice her use of rhythm, repetition, imagery, alliteration, assonance, and consonance—all techniques of poetry—that convey the facts of the story in a way that makes the words flow straight to the reader's heart. It isn't just a true story; it's one that draws you in and calls on your emotions to sit up and take notice.
Like so many of Susan's books, this one pulls off a really neat trick: in telling one very specific story from the past, it gives us a greater truth that applies to our lives today. Sarah Roberts lost her case. The court ruled against her, and she was not allowed to return to her neighborhood school. She lost. We don't like that word very much in children's books, do we? We want success! Triumph! Something that inspires young readers to reach for the stars! And what inspires us more than winning? But Susan points out that this trial was one important step in a long, slow march toward equality. As she writes so beautifully (using a physical metaphor that school-age children can understand):
Every big change has to start somewhere...
Three steps forward, one step back.
One step forward, three back.
And who among us doesn't need to remember that lesson, in our day-to-day lives, as well as in viewing the wider scope of the world? Sometimes we lose, but sometimes our loss is an important step into the future.
January 26, 2016
Oh, it's a sad, sad day in the Davies house. The clock that I've had on my bedside table since I was ten years old broke. Well. That's a rather euphemistic way to say that I clumsily knocked the clock to the ground (I was reaching for a book! Oh, the irony!), causing the plastic cube to crack and the clock's guts to literally spill out on the floor. It was the very definition of tragedy.
This clock might be the oldest thing I've ever owned continuously. When I was ten, my favorite color was lime green. I had a lime green beanbag chair, a lime green bedspread, and this lime green clock. And if I'd had my way, I would have had lime green patterned wallpaper. I had it all picked out. It was the Seventies. Such things were possible. (I was outvoted by both my mother and sister, with whom I shared a bedroom. We ended up with the same wallpaper, but in sunshine yellow. Phooey!)
Anyway, back to the disaster at hand. Despite the fact that the clock split open on the floor and some strange, brown, crumbly stuff spilled out, the clock is still running. There seems to be a sign in this, don't you think? I'm thinking of supergluing the cracked plastic to see if I can Humpty-Dumpty it all back together again. I'll keep you posted. Meanwhile, it's kind of cool to look at the inside of a clock. Particularly one that refuses to die. Also, the whole event did cause me to think about time passing, particularly related to the manuscript I'm working on, which has a time slip element in the plot and which is OVERDUE. I'm on a very tight deadline that I'm determined to meet, so time is heavily on my mind. Just sayin'. Things happen for a reason.
January 10, 2016
Hey, Happy New Year!
I've been meaning to post this fun, fun video of the extraordinarily talented kids at Mt. Pleasant Elementary School in Livingston, New Jersey. I visited their school, and they put together this great cheer to welcome me. Aren't they coordinated?? I could not keep up—and I tried! Well, thanks for putting this together, kids. I watch it every time I need a smile.
December 23, 2015
I just wanted to send a quick shout out to Andrew O'Neil, a wonderful four-year-old who recently underwent a stem cell transplant to fight a type of adrenal cancer called neuroblastoma. Andrew is the son of Principal Brian O'Neil of Hillcrest Intermediate School in Norwin, PA, and his wife, Jamie. The students at Hillcrest read THE LEMONADE WAR and decided to wage their own Lemonade War to raise money to help Andrew in his fight against cancer. The Andrew Avengers (what a great name for true superheroes!) raised $2,100 for Andrew, which absolutely knocks my socks off. Team Jessie raised $1,071 and Team Evan raised $1,049, so—just like in the book—it was pretty much a tie. Way to go kids at Hillcrest! You are an inspiration to us all, and I know Andrew's smiling face makes all your hard work worthwhile. Peace and joy to the O'Neil family and the whole gang at Hillcrest. And keep up your strength, Andrew. We're with you all the way!
December 13, 2015
So happy to announce that NEW SHOES (see my post on May 6, 2015), written by Susan Lynn Meyer and illustrated by Eric Velasquez, has been nominated for an NAACP Image Award in the category of Outstanding Literary Work—Children. The awards celebrate excellence in Television, Recording, Literature, Motion Picture, Documentary, Writing, Directing, and Animated/CGI work. The winners will be announced at the 47th annual NAACP Image Awards Ceremony on Friday, February 5. You can watch the show live at 9:00 PM EST on TV One. There's even Red Carpet coverage beginning at 8:00 PM EST. How glamorous! For anyone who hasn't read NEW SHOES yet, I heartily encourage you to take a look at this moving story of an African-American girl struggling to understand injustice in 1950s America, as she also finds a way to fight for her rights.
December 5, 2015
I had so much fun meeting with teachers who attended my workshop today at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The entire program was organized expertly by Suzannah Neipold, the Manager of Teacher Services at the Musuem, and it was just a fabulous morning. First, I spoke to the teachers about my book The Boy Who Drew Birds: A Story of John James Audubon. I discussed how I got the original idea, how the text changed over the course of a year of revisions, and the ways in which the artwork by Melissa Sweet brought the story to life. Each teacher received a free copy of the book and a copy of the Teacher's Guide that describes some ways the book can be used in the classroom. After a lively Q&A session (teachers always have great questions!), we were treated to some guest visitors from Mill Grove, the historical site that was Audubon's first home in America. Carrie Barrons, the Assistant Director of Mill Grove, brought two live owls to share with us, and the Museum gave us materials to draw them. Fun! First, we were encouraged to draw a "blind contour," which means we weren't allowed to LOOK at the paper we were drawing on and we weren't allowed to lift our pencils until we were finished. I've included two of my blind contour attempts below; the first is of a stuffed Screech Owl and the second is of Sammy, the live screech owl from MIll Grove. Sammy moved halfway through my blind contour (thanks a lot, Sammy!), which accounts for the Picasso-esque nature of the drawing. It was challenging! And then we attempted to draw the owl more fully by looking back and forth between the owl and the page. That, too, was difficult! But I did my best.
I loved seeing the magnificent owls (Odin is the Great Horned Howl on the left and Sammy is the small Eastern Screech Owl on the right), and attempting to draw them gave me a new appreciation for Audubon's incredible achievement. I'll close this post with an image of the Museum's banner, which fluttered all over the beautiful, vibrant city of Philadelphia, and another image of Audubon's masterpiece: Carolina Parakeet, a species of bird that has been extinct since 1918, less than seventy years after Audubon's death. Audubon's painting is displayed at the Museum's exhibition, "From Audubon to Warhol: The Art of the American Still Life," which ends January 10. Be sure to see it if you can.
And in this time of climate change and the imperative we face in changing the way we live in order to sustain our planet, I would encourage all of us to remember Audubon's words: "A true conservationist is a man who knows that the world is not given by his fathers, but borrowed from his children."
December 4, 2015
I'm in Philadelphia to speak tomorrow and Sunday at the Philadelphia Museum of Art about my picture book The Boy Who Drew Birds: A Story of John James Audubon. These two programs (one for teachers and one for families) are in conjunction with the Museum's current exhibition: "Audubon to Warhol: The Art of American Still Life." I'm looking forward to viewing the exhibition tomorrow, but today I had a wonderful time visiting with the students and teachers at the Abington Friends School in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania. For the past few years the second-graders at the school have used The Boy Who Drew Birds as a foundational text in their study of birds, art, and Audubon. In addition to writing detailed reports about various birds, they painted these remarkable bird "portraits" in the style of Audubon. I think the kids' level of attention to detail and the beauty of these paintings are astounding. Audubon would have been impressed, I'm sure.
If you're looking for other ways to use The Boy Who Drew Birds in the classroom, be sure to download my Teacher Guide, which has a dozen activities related to the book.