Today, June 18th, is the publication date for four new books of mine.
Because I have done other young nonfiction, some on request, some by my own instigation, a Houghton-Mifflin-Harcourt editor approached me a couple of years ago about writing a new series for them. The series is called 50 States to Celebrate and is part of the Sandpiper Green Light series, level 3.
In the past, I have written some very young nonfiction series, books intended for preschool and first grade. I thought, how much more difficult to research and write can Level 3 be? It’s only second grade, after all.
The answer . . . a whole lot!
In past blogs I’ve talked about stretching into new territory to keep myself fresh as a writer. Clearly this would be one of those stretches. It was also, I quickly discovered, an opportunity to discover my own limitations.
I have loved gathering information for preschoolers. It’s challenging and fun to take a complex topic such as a biography of Christopher Columbus—and all that attaches to his “discovery” today—and turn it into something accessible and true for the very young. To do so I read and read and read until I’m saturated. I read, for the most part, without taking notes, because when the time comes to write I’m going to have only 250 words. For a fact to survive as part of those 250 words it has to be very basic and very important. If I don’t know it in the most fundamental way at the end of my reading, it doesn’t belong in my text.
After I’ve finished my reading, I let all I’ve gathered sift through my brain. My brain, in the best of times, is a sieve with very large holes. Once a topic like Christopher Columbus—or volcanoes or the Grand Canyon or rain—has sifted through, what remains is the core of what I can say. And then I have only to say it in a direct and interesting way.
Since I seem to have a reductionist mind—not always an asset, but it certainly is one when gathering information for the very young—the process, for me, is quite simple and even fun.
My first realization that writing a step up from what I’ve written before would be different came when the editor said that every fact must be presented with two respected sources. I panicked. That meant I couldn’t use my absorb and sieve method. I was going to have to take notes and to keep track of where every piece of information came from so I could be held accountable for every fact. And that was before I knew how difficult some facts were going to be to track down and corroborate! (If you’ve never done this kind of research, you would be amazed at how many permutations there can be of one presumably concrete “fact.”)
I had done that kind of corroborated research when I was a student, of course, as we all did, but even graduate school was a long, long time ago. And it’s not the way I prefer to work.
(Perhaps I should explain here that the reason I hadn’t had to do this before was that the facts that survive for the much shorter books are so much common knowledge that they rarely require corroboration.)
I’ve always admired librarians. I have new reason to admire them now. I sought out the facts, of course, but I went absolutely cross-eyed verifying them . . . until I hired a librarian to verify them for me and to send me back to my seeking when she couldn’t support what I’d found. As I write this, I’m just ready to sail into the tenth book, and I would have fallen away long ago without my librarian’s steady, professional hand.
I’ve discovered that you have to want to do something to develop true competence in it, and I know now that the capacity to do precise, detailed research is a competence I have little desire to develop.
So as I complete work on the tenth book, I’m also signing off from the series. Ten books was what I’d agreed to in the beginning, and ten books turns out to be enough.
But Celebrating California, Celebrating New York, Celebrating Florida and Celebrating Texas are finding their way into the world today, richly illustrated by C.B. Canga, lovingly edited by Margie Markarian, and painstakingly written (and I mean that word painstaking quite literally) by me. They are colorful and interesting and fun . . . and thanks to my faithful librarian, Caitlin Cowan, they are accurate.
I hope the series soars and that a new writer with a better hand than I have at keeping track of research will move on with the next forty states.
Even in the endless process of cobbling together a living, knowing one’s own limitations is a good and necessary talent.