I always loved to draw, and I originally thought I would illustrate my books. And people who knew me as a child were surprised that I was writing and not illustrating my books. But it actually worked out very well for me, because a good illustrator has a style, and a certain style is only suitable for a certain kind of book. And I've never been forced to write the same kind of book again and again, because I'm not illustrating it. So, I do fiction, nonfiction, young, old; and an illustrator generally doesn't have that kind of range, because he's focused only on the kinds of books he, himself, can illustrate. So, it actually worked out well for me. But I still like to draw.
And if you came in my room, above the bulletin board – from the ceiling down to the bulletin board line, I had all these signs from Key Food. And kids would call my room the "Supermarket Room" – but that's math. And part of the "Do Now" when they came in sometimes would be, "How much would six cans of peas cost?"
And the kid would say, "How would I know?"
Said, "Look at the signs."
And they said, "Well, it's three for a dollar," and I taught them how to figure out what six cans would cost. And they got to feeling that math and numbers were everywhere.
And then there were other things I did. We had all kinds of different activities. I remember the children would say – every Wednesday, there was some kind of a creative activity with math, such as I'd give them the sales sheet from one of the local department stores, and I would tell them to find out how many three pairs of gloves would cost. And I gave the description directly from that sales sheet, so the children had to actually read and match up the words to find out what one cost and then figure out what three would cost. And it was amazing to me, because the children would say, "Gee, great. We don't have to do math today." And they spent the whole period doing math, not realizing that that was math. And that was my chance, really, to help them with the basics: addition, subtraction, multiplication and division
There's a new math book coming out this fall called You Can, Toucan, Math. And unlike other math riddle books, the solution is not simply the answer. These are math problems that are rhyming math problems all based on birds, but the question is not simply, "How many?" The question is, first, how do you find out how many? Which operation do you use, and then what's the answer? And what happens with a lot of children is they jump to the answer. And that's fine for that one problem, but that doesn't really teach you a method. It doesn't give you the way of going about solving a math problem.
So, I talk at the very beginning about when you use each operation – when do you add, when do you subtract, when do you multiply, when do you divide. And then for each problem, I ask the child, "What do you do?" and then, "What's your answer?" And I heard just at the conference that some kids, when they have multiple-choice questions, they just take all the numbers, play with them until they come up with one of the answers for the multiple-choice questions. That's a strategy for getting an answer to the problem, but it doesn't really teach you how to do the operation.
Stay at home dad
What happened was when my first son was born, I took a childcare leave. And my wife is a psychologist, and she stayed at work. And I wrote whenever he took a nap, and when my wife come home, I wrote some more. I had a certain amount of time I promised myself I would write each day, and when that time was done, I stopped, but until it was done I kept writing. And that's how I started as a writer, and then I developed Cam Jansen, and then that became busy and very steady work.
But in writing the Cam Jansens, I saw that there was a gap in the books available for children. There were the easy-to-read books, and there were the eight-to-twelve books for eight- to 12-year-old readers. There was nothing in between. So, either you could make the jump, or you got lost. And what the Cam Jansens are is an intermediate step. And when the first one came out in 1980, there really weren't books like that. There were two series that came out at the same time, mine and a series by Pat Reilly Giff, the Polk Street kids. Those were really the first two series that were transitional readers.
And people often don't quite get what makes a good transitional reader. It's not simply reading level; it's that the children read one word at a time, very slowly. They don't skip, and it's a very determined book, word after word after word. And we have no right, and there's no reason to rush through reading, but if things don't happen quickly enough, they get bored. So, since they're reading slowly, the plot has to move more quickly. And that means you can't have a lot of description, and the characterization has to come out of something the character says or does – not from the author himself telling you about the character. And that's what makes the Cam Jansens work – because the child reads slowly, but the plot moves quickly.
And the second thing that makes them work is when children are just beginning to read, they often don't pay attention to what they're reading. They puzzle out the words, and when they're done, they've read the whole book, but they don't know what they read. But with a mystery, you pay attention to the clues, and if you miss the clue, when Cam discovers the clue and solves the mystery, you go back to see if it really was there. So, it trains you to pay attention to what you're reading.
My own children were assigned biographies for book reports in the second and third and fourth grade, and I went to the library, and there really were no strictly nonfiction biographies for children just 20 years ago. And the books that they did have, I felt, were an insult to children, because they were fictionalized. And why, if you're only writing 1500 words, 2,000 words, do you have to make things up? When I was a child, I would read these biographies, and I remember reading one after another and finally going to my mother and asking her, "How did the author know what George Washington's mother said to him?"
And she said, "Well, that part was probably made up."
When I heard that, I stopped reading them, because if they made up one part, how do I know what else they made up? And the biographies I do at Holiday House – the picture book biography series – strictly nonfiction. Nothing's made up. And I think it's an insult to a child to make up stuff, if you're calling the book nonfiction.
So, in the eighties, that's when the picture book biographies first came out. I've heard afterwards that the teachers were so delighted and the librarians were delighted that they had strictly nonfiction picture books – biographies – for children.
I begin my book B. Franklin, Printer with the time Benjamin Franklin went to see King Louis XVI of France. He was going to him to try to get support for the United States in the Revolution. He was told that when you go to the King of France, you can't go bareheaded; you have to wear a wig. So, he had his head fitted for a wig. His head was measured, and then the wigmaker came and put the wig on Franklin's head. Then he was pulling and tugging, and he couldn't get the wig to fit. Finally, Franklin turned to him and said, "Maybe the wig is too small."
The wigmaker said, "No. The wig is not too small. Your head is too big."And Franklin had no more use for the wigmaker, and he decided to go to the king bareheaded. When he got out of the carriage at the palace of Versailles, people were shocked that he would have the nerve to go to the king bareheaded. Then they heard about the wigmaker and the wig, and they said, "It is a big head, but it's a great head." And that's how I begin the Franklin book.