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Sharing My Thoughts

October 8, 2014.My letter in response to yesterday's NEW YORK TIMES article "To Lure Young Readers, Nonfiction Writers Sanitize and Simplify:"

I don’t appreciate your term “sanitize” in your headline regarding nonfiction kidlit.
As the author of four 38,000 word biographies for middle grade readers, I believe that kids don’t get enough credit for being able to understand history as it actually happened. As I write, I try to explain the ‘whys’ of situations as well as the ‘whats.’

In my book on Isaac Newton, I dug into Newton’s secret life as an alchemist and explained his religious heresy -- this for readers nine and up. The same goes for my book on Elizabeth Tudor. It deals with political intrigue and assassination, the Reformation and how Catholics and Protestants alike were persecuted, pressed, and burned, and about treason and its punishment: drawing and quartering. I wrote appropriate descriptions that tell the truth without being unduly graphic. What was more, I carefully selected the accompanying illustrations in order to draw my readers into the text.

A colleague of mine, Brandon Marie Miller, wrote an terrrific biography about Thomas Jefferson with an excellent explanation of his relationship with Sally Hemmings.

As a kid, I started reading all about this kind of stuff when I was nine or so. And as other letter writers have pointed out, there’s very little time until the more motivated kids (as I was) will move on to adult books.

Appropriate? Sure. Sanitize? Never.

Theodore Roosevelt followed the cortege of King Edward VII. Photo from Theodore Roosevelt Center, Dickinson State University

100 YEARS SINCE WORLD WAR ITheodore Roosevelt's 1910 Visit with the Cousin Kings

For three years I worked and waited to get a contract for a book for young people about World War I. Originally I envisioned a project about the Theodore Roosevelt Family, who sent seven of its members to war. That idea never flew, but earlier this year Chicago Review Press gave me a contract to write a book of different kind.

I don't think this sample chapter will ever appear in print, but I think it tells a good story of an event in TR's life that unfolded in 1910 when he attended Edward VII's funeral in Windsor, England. It was the last family reunion of its kind.

A Royal Family Funeral (15.4 KB)

Click here to read the sample chapter

Thoughts on My Writing Process....

Thank you, Keila Dawson (, for asking me to join the Writing Process Blog Tour! Please check back with those before me on the tour -- there are some inspiring stories from other authors. Click on Keila's page using the link at the end of this post.

1. What am I currently working on?

At the moment I’m splitting my time between two aspects of an author’s life: 1) promoting my new book, and 2) writing Book Number 6! Not the best timing, but I’ve learned that everything piles up at once since I embarked on writing for young people.

2. How does my work differ from others of its genre?

I explain to people who don’t know me that I write library books for kids with “heavy duty content” they can use for book reports and presentations.

3. Why do I write what I write?

When I grew up in Oak Park, Illinois in the 1950s, I lived two blocks from Dr. Percy Julian, the African American chemist who synthesized cortisone from soybeans. Curious about my childhood neighbor, whose house was firebombed, I started reading about him and wrote my first full-length manuscript for middle graders about his life. That project is still in a drawer, but since then I’ve written four books for young readers with themed activities which promote my belief that “hands on” is a fabulous way for kids to learn, just as Dr. Julian did.

When my own kids left home and I needed a change, I asked myself, ‘How do I nurture my inner sixth grade girl, the one who loved social studies, traced each flight of the Mercury astronauts, and read Compton’s Encyclopedia for fun?’

I found my answer writing nonfiction for kids and teens. I was never wild about science in school, but as I grew older, the evolution of scientific ideas began to intrigue me. My first book, Isaac Newton & Physics for Kids, offered the best kind of opportunity: to write about the history of science and capture the imaginations of young readers who will grow up to become scientists--or historians--themselves.

My new book, Reporting Under Fire: 16 Daring Women War Correspondents and Photojournalists, is for teens and adults. Writing for an older audience has been a nice change, not only because I can use compound/complex sentences (!) but because I can tackle more mature and serious themes that are appropriate for kids in junior high and high school. Introducing teens to some of the leading names in war journalism has been enormously satisfying for me -- each profile is only a few thousand words, but I hope that my book will lead readers to further explore the lives and work of these sixteen women.

4. How does my individual writing process work?

I’m one-third of the way through the manuscript for my next book, profiles of young men and women who took part in World War I. I’m researching and writing each chapter in a chronological fashion as these young people were drawn into the fighting. I’m following my usual routine: I read secondary sources and book reviews to get familiar with each person, and then I follow up digging into primary sources -- newspaper archives, memoirs, oral history transcripts and the like. I plug a lot of information into both One Note or Evernote and draw up a rough outline.

Then, like anyone who writes a feature story, I work on a strong “lede” (as it’s called among journalists) to capture my reader’s attention. I write a first draft sort of slogging through -- when I can’t decide on a word, I write two or three options with slashes in between. If I’m not sure of a fact, I highlight that in red and move on. It’s the best way for me to write, calling on my muse and getting words down on paper for a third of the chapter or so. Then I do a first but not complete edit and move on to get more of the chapter written. Once the whole chapter is complete and in fairly good shape, I leave it alone for awhile -- there’s nothing like coming back to something I’ve written after a couple of weeks with fresh eyes to pick up mistakes and reword what doesn’t sound right.

For this World War I book, I’m doing photo research before I write a chapter. I must ensure that I have one good picture for each of my profiles -- pictures are truly worth a thousand words!

The next stop on our writing process blog tour happens on Monday June 9. It’s my pleasure to tag Mary Kay Carson, who writes wonderful science, nature, and social studies books for middle graders. Soon-to-be-published MG author Kathy Cannon Wiechman will also share her experience with the writing process, and as Kathy can tell you, it's taken more than a few years to get published.Please visit bothby clicking on their links below!

-- June 1, 2014


I typed my first short story on an Underwood portable when I was 9, home from school with the mumps. Then I shifted to writing reports, and I’ve been writing nonfiction ever since. The equipment has evolved -- from longhand to Underwood to an IBM Selectric with the keys mounted on a crazy little ball to a Mac SE to…you get the picture.

As a history major at Allegheny College, I dug out research from stacks of books buried deep in the sub-basement of our old library. My master’s program in journalism helped hone my work to a sharper edge, which I put to use in corporate and hospital communications and marketing. Then, when my kids went to school, I worked with Hands On Science Outreach, which got me excited showing kids how science works in the world they know.

Nine years ago, I needed a change. I asked myself, “What do I love to do?” Answer: research and share what I learn. With a journalism background, I made the transition to writing for young people using workd that spark, sing, and fly.

I was never enthusiastic about science in school, but as I grew older, the evolution of scientific ideas began to fascinate me. My first book, Isaac Newton & Physics for Kids, offered the best kind of opportunity: to write about the history of science. From Newton I moved on to Theodore Roosevelt, Elizabeth I, and the history of women’s suffrage. Last year I wrote my first book for teens, REPORTING UNDER FIRE: 16 DARING WOMEN WAR CORRESPONDENTS AND PHOTOJOURNALISTS.

-- August 15, 2013