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Transcript from an interview with Roz Schanzer

Below is an edited transcript from Reading Rockets' interview with Rosalyn Schanzer. The transcript is divided into the following clips:

A family of artists and storytellers

My name is Rosalyn Schanzer and I'm an author and an illustrator non-fiction books for kids, and kids of all ages. And I love my job. It's really fun being the detective who ferrets out all those secrets from history and kind of snooping around to see what's out there that nobody else has seen before. I try to do everything from a different angle from everybody else. So all of history and the stories in history are like great adventures. I love doing them.

I didn't think about what I was going to write when I decided what my job would be, because I decided to become an artist when I was two years old and I didn't know any better. I didn't know that you would have to sit indoors for long, long hours and stuff like that, which is really fun, but I'm an outdoors kind of person. And so, I come from a family of artists, of every possible kind and I was very influenced by that.

For example, we have professional puppeteers. We have professional acrobats. We have other authors. And we have tons and tons of photographers. We have people who make violins for famous violinists. And we even have a graffiti artist who started in New York and got in trouble for it and then he wasn't to Europe and he's really famous and he's in galleries all over New York. So you name the kind of art. Oh, we have crafts people and story tellers galore.

It's all about the story telling. And the story telling is what kind of convinced me, well… I was always influenced by that. So I guess I should tell you who influenced me the most. And I have to say, it wasn't a teacher. It wasn't a class. It was my wonderful Aunt Ruthie, who was the best story teller I have ever heard, at least to me. She was terrific, because she could do things that made us laugh. And so instead of standing on her head she'd stand on her ear. I don't know how to explain that exactly.

And when we were little we adored my dad and he was very handsome. And so I don't know if I took after that, I don't think so. So she would make up handsome Sam and Yashik stories, so handsome Sam was my dad, it was a super hero thing and Yashik was his mule. And the stories were hilarious and we're roll around on the floor. And then at dinner we used to make my mother really mad because my dad would tell stories too.

And we called him the Lone Ranger — funny ones, that dates me, I know, because we listened to the Lone Ranger on the radio all the time. So we were big, big story tellers. So what my family would do, this has nothing to do with non-fiction, but it did get me interested in that, every time there was a wedding or a Thanksgiving family reunion and we have huge Thanksgiving family reunions, often they are over 100 people, we would do, because of Ruthie, my Aunt Ruthie, we started out doing musicals.

And this was a long time ago when musicals were big. So she was so fast at writing these that she could sit in the car and write a musical to the tune of real musicals or popular music of the day and then we'd all have fun, we'd get in the room and we'd rehearse and we'd rehearse dance steps and we'd rehearse singing. And it was hilarious, because a lot of the people that were doing this were little kids, like between three and 12 or something like that. So it always makes it more fun.

And then the real dancers would dance and we'd play music and so I was very much influenced by that.

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A "Golden Age" of nonfiction

Now that I'm a grown up and I write all these non-fiction books for kids, I want to let you know that I think in my opinion we're in a golden age of non-fiction because the writing is so superb. When I was in school not only were my teachers not encouraging to the arts, but I hated history because of the way that it was taught. It was so boring. It was like they gave us lists of names and dates to memorize and black and white maps.

So when I do a history book, I do it with teachers and kids in mind because the history is so fascinating. So what I want to do is make my books come alive for kids and the people in them come alive too. And that way what we can do in schools is have kids to be excited about the stories in history; they cannot be beat. So we're trying a very interesting experiment right now. I belong to a blog called, it's INK, I-N-K. And it stands for interest non-fiction for kids. And we can give you the address later where you can find this blog.

But the people who are on it are really such outstanding non-fiction authors. I strongly encourage people to look them up. They're just fabulous. And I'm so honored to be in this group. And so, because of the blog we decided wouldn't it be great if schools had access to these books and knew which the award winning books were and who the best authors are. Then they could integrate them into their classroom and get kids excited about history instead of getting them bored.

So we started a website called INK Think Tank, inkthinktank.com. That one's easier to remember. And we do a couple of things. First, we have, well, we do a lot of things, because we have a scroller that shows the covers of the books and we have a page that introduces all the authors and it connects them with their books and their list of books and it tells what it is that they do and what they focus on. It's very interesting.

And what we offer for free on the website that teachers can really, really use is a link to a database that a teacher can go into. And here's how it works, you sign up for the database and say you're teaching about Ben Franklin in third grade and you want to teach him from the standpoint of science. So on the list of things that you can check off, you can check off the grade, you can check off the person, and you can go through your list of national educational standards, the real list, and you can check all the little things on that list that pertain exactly to what you're teaching.

And then, and it's for all grade levels, so since the grade level is in you're going to get a different list of books. So you click on that and enter it and when you do, the site prints out a list of award winning books and tells exactly how they're tied to the curriculum and then you can, if you want, you can order them from that site or you can get a copy or you can see if it's in your library or you can connect to us to speak to you.

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What Darwin Saw

The Charles Darwin book is called What Darwin Saw: The Journey that Changed the World. And so I'll talk about that one first, because it's the most recent of the two. And Charles Darwin, when he was a young guy in his 20s — he started when he was 22 — he took a five year voyage, all the way around the world, and he was the naturalist on a ship that was actually doing surveying and a lot of other things, so the trip ended up taking much longer than they thought.

And Darwin was wonderful because he was at an age that kids would really relate to him. He was a good looking guy, very athletic at the time, and he would go anywhere and do anything. He did get seasick on the boat, but other than that he was just fine and I loved him because he wrote a series of journals, or he wrote a journal basically about the entire trip and told what he did every day.

And so as I went through that journal, which is fascinating, I kind of focused on the science part of it. He had a lot of adventures along the way. But I focused on the science because I wanted to know what it was that influenced him and made him even think about evolution in the first place. And if you read the book there are clues, big clues, huge clues on every page as to what he saw that let you know how he came up with that theory of evolution.

And then, he didn't even think about it specifically during the trip, but when he came back he put everything together and he went aha, and so the aha moments in the science experiments that he did and all the things that he had learned are shown visibly in the book and he and I narrate his story. So he tells his part of it through quotes, exact quotes from his letters and journals and books that he wrote, and sometimes he wrote updated versions of his books as he went along and got more sophisticated with what he did.

And the thing that made that fun is because he's so likeable, he has such a good sense of humor and you can hear his British accent even when you're reading what he wrote. And he's just enormously readable, so readable that everything that he wrote is still in print and has never been out of print to this day. His books were best sellers during their time, even though he was terrified that his theory was going to turn everybody off because people had such a literal idea about the Bible at the time and he was terrified that everybody would just hate him. And some people still give him trouble.

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Drawing Darwin

Okay, when I do these books I do a ton of research. Like, I have bit stacks of books that are so tall that before my poor dog died she couldn't get anywhere near me that's how much research. But the other thing that I do that's really fun is that I travel all over the world to get research for these books. And for the Darwin book I traveled to South America and I traveled to the Galapagos Islands. And I took zillions of photographs of things that might be in the book.

So let's take the cover, for example, Charles Darwin had his portrait done a lot, but not during that period at all. So all the pictures we have of Charles Darwin are one when he was a kid, and it's hard to tell exactly, but he looks about eight or ten to me, I forget his exact age — he was young. And then the other one is a few years after he came back. Those are the only ones that are anywhere close to when he took this trip.

After he came back he got real sick apparently from something he picked up along the way, but we're not sure exactly what made him sick. And his hair was also starting to thin. But what did he look like during that period?

So some people said Darwin had brown hair and some people said he had blond hair and some people said he had red hair. And I can see why. I know what portrait they were looking at and it's impossible to tell. And they also said he had brown eyes or blue eyes. But nobody knew. And everything else is sort of in black and white that I could get in touch with or it's very much later. And confusing, some paintings, you know how paintings go.

And so I had to decide what to make him look like. So we knew he had very heavy eyebrows. We knew that during that period he would have had these certain kind of side burns that were fashionable. And we knew what he wore. So we're good to go on that and we knew what people wore on the ship as well when they were sort of, I don't want say a nobleman, but people of the upper class wore different clothes from people who were not from the upper class. So we knew what he wore on board.

And so I figured if he was out in the sun a lot that if he had blondish reddish brownish hair that it would have been sort of bleached by the sun. So I gave him a kind of windblown bleached hair. And I gave him the strong eyebrows and I gave him the kind of nose he had and the kind of clothes he had and he was a real happy guy on that ship, so he's got a big grin. And I put him in a forest, because he loved Brazil, just adored it, and he thought it was gorgeous.

So I took the animals of South America and incorporated them to the front and back covers. And I made sure they were accurate and I took their pictures as much as possible and lots of hummingbirds and butterflies. And there are flowers on the cover that I have a lot of photographs of. They're these red flowers that hang down like so, and they were very common all over South America. And so I put those in.

And every single page I do in the whole rest of the book is that carefully coordinated so that the research is done in enormous depth.

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Exploring the Galapagos

Let me tell you how much fun it is to write these books. When I did the Darwin book I went to the Galapagos Islands. And what people don't know, there are a couple of things that people don't know about me, one is that I am a serious swimmer and I compete. And the other one is that I'm a serious photographer. People don't know that because I haven't used my photography in my books. There's a little bit of it on my websites, just to show you the research.

But I wanted to take these pictures. And since one of the places I went to was the Galapagos I was blown away when I got there, because they have these iguanas that Darwin called imps of darkness, and he thought they were the ugliest things he'd ever seen. So I definitely had to photograph those. And there are two kinds. There land iguanas and marine iguanas. And they're huge, they look like a little, not even very little dragons. They're really big, like my hand should be outside the screen here.

And they look like they're made out of volcanic rocks. And they are amazing. And I get blown away by stuff like that. Then there are the things that I discover … and I also shot pictures of those gigantic tortoises and one of them was so big that's left, and they used to be much, much, much bigger, that when it put its head up, I wish I had a picture of it, but its head came up to my face, the tortoise. So I used those pictures as research for specific pages in my book.

Sometimes you have side adventures. So one thing I loved to do in the Galapagos since I love the water is to go, you know, I didn't go, I went snorkeling. So I went into the water and I looked down below me and there was a school of fish that I couldn't see the edges of it. The school of fish were…it was comprised of fish about this long, but there were so many that it was bigger than enormous building. And as far as I could see it was solid fish. It's what the world used to look like before we messed it up.

So I'm amazed by this and I'm looking at this swarming mass down below me and then all of a sudden somehow I knew something was about to happen, I guess a shadow happened or something and a gigantic Blue Footed Booby dove into the water this close to my face, about as zillion miles an hour, dove straight down, stabbed one of those fish or caught it in its beak and went straight up, right in front of my face.

And that was absolutely amazing. I didn't have any time to be scared of it at all, just to be amazed. So you have other side adventures that you have, alive and everything. And I didn't get killed either. So that was a safe adventure, but that's one of my related adventure stories.

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True tales of adventure

I'll do anything to find tales of adventure. And one reason is I like to have adventures myself. And the other one is that kids like adventures. They don't want to just sit still, they don't want think that the people from history are a stone cold statue. And so, the adventures are things that I think the kids would have liked to go on.

In the Lewis and Clark book, for example, I tell kids you had no grocery store back then, where would you get your food? You would be gone for you know all these months and months and months and months without having a grocery store. Where did you get your food? They're very fascinated by that. They're very fascinated by who you would see along the way of these trips because people wore all kinds of different things. They love the adventure.

And my books have always been upbeat, even when they're about serious topics and wars are going on and terrible things sometimes happen it the books, like people are killed in the John Smith books. John Smith was a slave at one point, that's a pretty serious thing; he was a slave on the other side of the Black Sea in Europe. And those are serious, but the basic tenor of the books is upbeat.

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A dash of humor

A very important thing to me when I write and illustrate these books, and it's important in both the writing and the illustrating, is to add humor to kind of live in what's going on. Any thing that's serious that's the meat. And so a date and a name in an event, an old war or whatever that's the meat that's in my books. But the salt, I like to sprinkle in the salt. And the salt is the every day things that happen or the funny things that happen. So the people become real because they're not perfect, nobody's perfect.

George Washington was great, but he had slaves. That's serious. Lewis and Clark were great and were attacked by bears, but they were also attacked by fleas and mosquitoes and I just think that's very funny to show a picture of them being attacked by fleas and mosquitoes. So much so that they had to rip off all their clothes to get rid of all the bugs that were attacking them.

And so, when I can show them dancing around and doing that and you have to look at the pictures to see that they're not gross, that adds a spark to everybody's book. I did a book called How Ben Franklin Stole the Lightning. And in that book I have a page that shows everything he ever did in his whole entire life.

You have to look at the picture, but it's set in some scenery and it's him at all these different stages in his life doing everything, because Ben Franklin could do everything. And since he was a swimmer in those days they swam without any clothes on. So in one part of the talk Ben Franklin is diving into the lake and he's obviously naked even though there's a tree in front of important, most private parts.

When I do school talks, kids love Ben Franklin forever, the think that's the funniest thing in the whole book. So I add humor to every book that I do to leaven it. Now how could I add humor to a really serious topic, like Witches? Well, I don't exactly add humor, but the illustrations kind of leaven the disastrous things that are happening.

There are 19 people who hang in this book. There's one person who is pressed to death by having stones piled on top of him. How do you illustrate a book like that? I used very symbolic illustrations, very much more sophisticated ones. They're black and white, because the subject is serious. I add little spots of bright red almost like a blood red. But because the artwork is symbolic it keeps the tone a little bit lighter than it would be if I had put some realistic picture of somebody being squashed by a pile of rocks. That's gross. And so you don't want to do that.

So it helps. It helps to use those every day events, the humor, the symbolism and so forth to make the book work, you know, for the readers.

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Getting the research right

I think it's so important that everything be accurate because you're teaching something and you don't want to make anything up. I'll give you an example of another book that I wrote. It's called How We Crossed the West: The Adventures of Lewis and Clark. And they had several different kinds of boats that went on that journey. And so I researched them so carefully that I have the plans for all the boats, the ones that you could plan. I have William Clark's plan for the main boat that went on the journey. I have seen pictures of every bit of it and put it in my book.

And it's upsetting to me when I see other books where they put a birch bark canoe in there, because they didn't have anything to do with the birch bark. So you want every button on somebody's military uniform to be correct, you want all their weapons to be correct for the period of what they really would have used, whether it was a black powder rifle or a bow and arrow by various Indian tribes. That has to be correct.

What the different Indian tribes wore in my different books is thoroughly, thoroughly researched from museums that have their actual clothes from paintings that were done during these periods by various artists. All of that has to be correct for that year. In the book George Versus George: The American Revolution as Seen from Both Sides, that book is about George Washington and King George the Third.

I not only had to know what they looked like, but I had to know what they looked like at certain ages. So I have huge posters that I can show people where I have every possible portrayal of George Washington on one side and every possible portrayal of King George the Third on the other side. So that I'll have them at every age and then I can draw their faces and their hairdos and their clothes correctly for that time period.

And Ben Franklin, the other scientist that we were briefly discussing for two seconds before, he had a great sense of humor. So I made him tiny Ben Franklin but he still had to be accurate. And tiny Ben Franklin, I made him tiny so that he could jump up on top of all his many inventions and show you how they worked. And since he had such a good sense of humor I had him doing funny things, like on the title page I have him turning cartwheels across a reproduction that I made myself of a conglomerate of his many inventions, drawings of his inventions, some of which work and some of which didn't, by the way.

But, I think he would have liked being tiny Ben Franklin telling jokes inside my book, because he had such a good sense of humor. Even so, everything I did about him which is a more cartoon style than the realistic style in the other books we've talked about, everything that I did had to still be accurate, so his clothes had to still be accurate and his inventions had to still be accurate.

And the buildings that he went into, the library and all those fire engines that he would have had something to do with, because he wanted to stop fires in cities all over the place, those had to be accurate too. And so you really become quite the detective in uncovering this. And you have to do that, otherwise it doesn't ring true. And it makes it more fun for kids when they can see that people, if they were a guy in George Washington's time the guys would have worn tights and they might have worn white wigs. And they are the age of the kids that would be reading my books.

At the time of Ben Franklin he was an inventor. He started becoming an inventor when he was elementary school-age and kids really relate to that. He invented I'm a swimmer, he's a swimmer, okay, so I'm into this But he wanted to swim faster and so he invented paddles for his hands and fins for his feet and they worked, they made him faster, but they were made out wood so they were heavy. So he invented a better way to swim fast. And what he did is something Ben Franklin would do if you think about it.

He got himself a kite, because he always did love kites and he would hold onto the kite string and lie on his back and when the wind came up the kite string would pull across the water faster than ever before, even faster than the paddles and the fins. So Invent a Guy I try to relate my characters through the accuracy of the drawings that I do, but I also try to relate the in every other way I can.

So if the kids can relate to him, to Ben Franklin and to Charles Darwin because he was young and good looking they're going to like history a whole lot better.

Authors notes and bibliographies

Everybody should know how we do our books because in order to make them accurate we have to do so much research and we want them to know that the research is correct. So at the end of my books I always put a note from the author and I make them as interesting and as entertaining as I possibly can, but tell them how I went about doing the research and where I got it and funny stories about that are maybe on a little higher age level than the reader sometimes and maybe not.

And I also have an extensive bibliography in the back of the every single one of my books. And the bibliography is not just books, it includes of original source material. Say for Darwin you know there are good and bad websites on line and you want to make sure that you get a good one. Well, for Darwin there was a wonderful one. It comes from England, and it is a totally accessible to the public compilation of every single thing that Darwin wrote in his entire life word for word.

And not only that, but everything that everybody wrote about Darwin especially during his lifetime, like his wife's letters about him, his friends letters to him, his letters back and forth between people who were working on things he was working on, like birds or geology and so forth. So I could go to that website, and for free I could pull quotes off of it as long as they're attributed in the back of my book. And it's just very helpful for people to even, who are interested in it, to take a look at the bibliography and the notes and then they can go back and do more research if they're interested in the topic. So that's how I let them know.

You have to be real careful if you're a young author or a potential author to decide that what you're writing about is accurate. Very important, because when you go online you're going to see things that are wrong. But even, here's something that's interesting to me. I'll read every adult serious scholarly version of every book I write for kids, even though my books are short, I have to do as much research as I would if I were writing for adults. So, I go to the most authoritative adult books on the subject I can find to give me a certain feel for the period that's not necessarily in the original source material that the people during the time have written themselves.

So if I go to five or six or seven books, sometimes they don't all say the same thing, and even the adult books that are good, and they don't all give the same account. So what I have to do because I'm a control freak is to compare everybody's accounts of a different incident say and look at their source material too in the back of their books and do a careful enough comparison that I can decide which is the most accurate point of view based on everything I've learned.

And I guess all authors do that. We didn't live way back then. So John Smith lived in 1604. My new book that I'm going to talk about is about 1692. We didn't live back then. We didn't see what happened. So we can only do our very, very best to make sure we're doing everything accurately, just like with the cover of Darwin where I didn't have any pictures of him at that age group, I had to compare various pictures. So you have to do the same thing for the writing, you have to compare and make sure you get it as close to the actual truth as you honestly can.

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From research to writing

How do I know when to stop doing my research? You know, it's such a fun job to do the research. You really get to take the roof off of people's house and look inside and see what their life is really like, because you're reading their private letters and their journals and diaries and you're so snoopy and it's legit, because these people are long gone, you know. And so you can be totally nosy.

And so I love doing that, it's just so much fun. And also I love doing the research because I get to travel around the world and take pictures and do that. So when do you stop? I mean, it's almost like you're having way too much fun. You stop because your book has a deadline. And so, when you've got all this stuff compiled that you spent way too long compiling but you're compulsive like me, you've got to stop and write the book onc

"I have always imagined that paradise will be a kind of library." — Jorge Luis Borges