Books in the family
My Mom is a retired elementary school librarian, so we spent a lot of time in the library at school, especially after school waiting for her to be finished. There were always books around in our house and on the weekends, we spent lots of time in the libraries. My Dad is a professor and also wrote a lot of science trade books for kids in the 1960s and 1970s.
So there are actually a lot of storytellers in my family. I started writing stories probably around the age of seven or eight. I remember in particular there was a series of stories that I started writing called "Henry, the Happy House." There were just terrible pictures that went along with it. I did those all the time, and I'm sure I wrote other things too, but I think those are the most vivid in my mind because I did them so often.
There were recurring themes and there were other characters and there were adventures that Henry the Happy House would go on even though it was obviously a stationary building. Somehow that didn't stop me.
I never really stopped writing. So, even though my first career was as an editor of children's non-fiction, I always wrote on my own. It was more poetry and journaling and things of that nature, and the years that I've spent editing I loved. I loved being an editor. I loved coming up with ideas for children's non-fiction series.
All of that informs what I do now. A lot of what I learned as an editor I had sort of in the back of my mind I think probably mostly subconsciously when I'm writing. But I knew a lot about the publishing business before I ever started to actually write.
I think my inner editorial voice is always there and I edit as I go. I'm always editing as I go. And so, it's not just the copy editing or the grammar or things like that, it's sort of the more structural, larger editorial questions that I ask myself as I'm going.
Is this working? Is it central to the story? Is it important to the character? You know, am I speaking to that idea of what does she want and how is she gonna get it? I do a lot of that as I'm going, so I do a lot of rewriting. People sometimes ask me how many drafts I've done, and I honestly could never answer that question because I'm continually redrafting and revising.
I don't necessarily stop and call it Draft Number Three, you know. And then the kind of editorial relationship that occurs after I turn something in is a different one because then that's sort of more thought provoking questions that someone else is asking me as they're looking at it with a more objective eye.
It's okay to write a bad first draft
I think the best way to help kids with writing, especially when they're stuck, has less to do with actual writing skills and tools than it does with remembering that they're trying to express themselves, as we all are. They're trying to get what's in their heart or in their brain onto a piece of paper.
Rather than trying to correct their grammar or their sentence structure during that phase of writing, I think it's much more important to listen to them and ask them, "What are you trying to say," and to say to them, "Ask yourself what is important to you about this story? Who is the character that you're talking about? What does he or she want? How is he or she going to try to get it?"
Just ask them that and let them answer it. Let them talk and let them explore what the answers to those questions mean, and then just let them write and don't correct it yet. Just let them write. Give them permission to write a bad first draft, because the point is to express yourself and to get what's in here onto the page.
Start with a story that grabs you
So, I do write in many different genres and for many different ages. And I don't know what I'm going to do next because it's not the genre or the age or the form that drives me; it's the story. So if I find a story that has grabbed hold of me and I find engaging and I want to spend a lot of time with, that sort of steers who is the story for. Who wants to know about this in addition to me? Is it a story for younger kids, is it a story for older kids?
I don't really worry about who the audience is before I know what the story is. So that's why I don't know if the next idea will be a picture book or a teen novel or a long form non-fiction because I might not know what the story is yet. It's always about the story. Always. It's never about form and function and structure for me.
I usually choose my topics as sort or a mysterious combination of serendipity, instinct, and conscious thought. I think it all sort of works together. I'm always listening to the world around me and trying to just pick up on things. I find that so often in my life — I don't use the word coincidence anymore, because so often in my life someone will say something or I will then see something in successions of three and four and five times within the course of a couple of weeks that will be pointing me clearly in one direction.
It's like the universe is speaking. It's that same kind of phenomenon when you learn a new word and then you hear it all the time. That's what happens with me and stories. I'll come across something or I'll hear someone mention something or I'll have a thought, and then it'll repeat itself over the next span of some kind of time.
I'll think, okay, well, then that's the next thing I need to be thinking about. And the genre often changes. So Almost Astronauts started out as a picture book and became long form non-fiction. And the book that I'm working on right now called Courage Has No Color started out as a picture book and is now becoming a longer form non-fiction like Almost Astronauts because the story demanded it.
Well, I do varying amounts of research depending on the story and what's required of it. But I do take my responsibility to young readers very seriously. If I'm writing a true story, I need to be as wholly accurate as humanly possible.
That's a tricky thing to do because I tell kids all the time — don't forget, anytime you read anything, whether it's a newspaper article or you hear a news report from an anchor person or your read it in a book or an encyclopedia, every single thing that you read has been written by a human being, and human beings see the world through their own unique set of eyes and set of thoughts.
So, my responsibility is sort of a mixture of recognizing that I'm a human being and I see the world through my own eyes, and then being as careful as I can possibly be to make sure that I do the best research that I can and document everything, and lay all of that fact matter out in the back of the book so that kids and teachers and librarians can go and read something further if they want and maybe add their own sense of what happened in a story or what happened to a person by extending the reading experience, seeing what I looked at and having some thoughts about it for themselves.
So, the research process for me is pretty deep and extensive. Anytime I can do primary source research I do, especially when I'm writing about people who are alive. That's fascinating, because then you're also getting their sense of what their life was like, which isn't factual either. So you have to sort of factor it all in and you really get to know a person and you learn how they walk and talk and what they smell like and what their face looks like when they're happy. All of those things inform your writing in a way that if you were just researching them on paper you wouldn't get to know, you wouldn't get to learn about.
Getting them jazzed
I think if you're getting a negative or a disinterested response from a student because they don't want to do research on something, they haven't found the topic that they're interested in. Because kids are natural truth seekers, natural information seekers. They want to learn. They are sponges. That is what they are here for. Kids ask questions.
I think if you're getting sort of a hesitant response, it's just because they haven't hit on what they really want to learn about. So what I would do is ask them what their topic is and sort of gauge what they're interested in-what their interest is in that and then ask them to name a few other things that they've always wanted to learn about.
What are you really curious about? What have you always wanted to know about? Pick a different topic if this one isn't doing it for you. So, again, it's giving them the opportunity to express themselves and listening, and not to be too stuck in the confines of, well, we have to get this assignment done, and we don't have time for you to change your mind.
Because in the long run it's going to take a lot less time if they're really jazzed about something that they want to learn about. And maybe the first thing that they said out of their mouth when it was time for everyone to pick a topic wasn't something that they really wanted to learn about. I think the first thing to do if they're stuck or acting bored or they don't want to do it is to say, "Well, okay, if you could change your topic, then what do you really want to learn about instead?"
A person's story
The Good, the Bad and the Barbie is what the book is called and it's coming out in October of 2010. The subtitle is "The History of the Doll and Her Impact on Us." The reason that I started thinking about Barbie is that I had just finished writing the Ella Fitzgerald book in the Up Close Series that Viking does and my editor and I, Catherine Frank, were talking on the phone about what I might want to do next for that series.
I was sort of reviewing the criteria for the series with her on the phone and I said, "Okay, so the Up Close Series needs to be a 20th Century Figure, an iconic figure, someone who has impacted our culture in a big way, and someone the kids know about and/or care about." And I said, "Barbie!"
She laughed and I said, "No, I'm serious." And she said, "Oh! Okay, well, tell me why." And we started to talk about why. And so what we decided was that it wouldn't be a good fit for the Up Close series because, you know, Barbie doesn't exactly look good on a shelf next to Thurgood Marshall and Bobby Kennedy and Frank Lloyd Wright, but we decided to do it as a stand-alone title, which was great because then I could just explore the topics that I thought would be interesting to explore.
The beginning of that book is sort of who is Ruth Handler and why did she invent Barbie in the first place. Then I go into thematic chapters about body image, and racial diversity, and role playing and things like that. I had people all over the country write in and share their sort of anecdotes and memories and quotes which I incorporated into all of those thematic chapters.
So whereas in Almost Astronauts I had a definite point of view, in this story I'm sort of pulling the camera back a little bit and letting the people speak as it were. Here's this chapter on body image and here are some questions that I pose and, well, what do you guys think about it?
Surprisingly, it was extremely well balanced between the pros and the cons, the positives and the negatives, which I found kind of interesting. I had just as many 15 and 16 year olds telling me that they thought that Barbie was a perfectly good role model because with Barbie you could do anything you wanted, you could be whoever you wanted, which was Ruth's initial intention.
Others think she's this horrible, you know, terrible body role image for young girls and she makes me feel bad about myself. So it was really, really interesting to sort of look at both sides of the coin and look at these different issues about how she's impacted our culture.
Reading from Almost Astronauts
Hi. I'm Tanya Lee Stone and I'm going to read you just a little bit from the beginning of Almost Astronauts, 13 Women Who Dared to Dream. Chapter One — T minus 38 Years. "July 1999, one woman stands alone off to the side of the crowd. She paces back and forth agitated, excited, impatient. From the back, it is hard to tell her age."
"Her faded brown, leather jacket and blonde ponytail reveal nothing, but if she were to turn to glance at the group of women on the observation bleachers behind her, you would see the lines of time etched on her face. You would see a smile tinged with sadness. Although the women behind her huddle close like sisters sharing a chuckle, a tease here and there, a knowing look, it is not at her expense."
"They understand her need for solitude. This is an emotional time for all of them, but perhaps especially for Jerrie Cobb. It was Jerrie who led them in a quest to live their dreams, Jerrie who first believed they had a shot at all this, Jerrie who still to this day is fighting for her dream."
"Nearly 40 years earlier it was Jerrie who thought she would be exactly where Eileen Collins is right now, inside a NASA craft about to fly into space."
Researching a story
Every time I do a school visit, I ask kids to tell me what are good sources of information on the Internet and what are not so good sources of information on the Internet. For the most, part they don't know. It could be because no one taught it to them, but it's more likely that someone taught it to them in the beginning of the year and they forgot.
They're on the computer so much that I think they need to be reminded continuously so that they start to have patterned behavior of how to use the computer for research. Studies show that behavior doesn't change until you do something the same way eight times, on an average. So you can't tell kids what websites are good and what websites are bad at the beginning of the year and then not remind them all the time.
I tell them about .edu and .gov and go to a historical society, go to a museum, go to a university. And then I ask them what shouldn't you go to? So once we start talking about it and I start giving them examples and it's back and forth, then they start to get it. So in the beginning of me saying what would be a good source of information, a child might say, "Well, you know, a fifth grade book report on Jane Adams."
I'll say, "Well, why do you think that that's a good source of information, or why don't you think that's a good source of information," and then they'll start to see for themselves that you can't necessarily trust that as a source of information. So it's all about what source can you trust. And, you know, we like to believe that we can trust historical societies and museums and universities.
And, also, the big part of using the internet for a resource. I'll say, "Well, how much research do you think I did on Almost Astronauts and where do you think I got the information," and they'll say, "The internet." And I'll say, "Well, where on the internet," and they'll say, "Google." And I'll say, "But Google is a search engine, so what do you think I needed to put in in Google to find that?"
And, so on it goes. And what we eventually get to in the conversation is that the internet is a collection of bits and pieces of information. You cannot find context on the internet. Context is the key to all of this. So if they find out one piece of information over here and one piece of information over there, how do they then tie it all together?
So we talk about what other forms of research do they have at their disposal to use. So we talk about books and they can find books in their library, or they can go on Amazon and find books about a topic that maybe their library can get for them. We talked about using periodicals, to find newspaper articles and then how you interview someone and what does that look like.
You can videotape an interview with someone, you can audiotape it and how do you start to use as much as you can. So, I talk to them basically about thinking outside the box and thinking about all their senses. So, can you read it, hear it, see it, smell it? What are the various different things that we can bring in so that you can get as much of a multi-sensory experience of what you're researching as possible.