Monday, July 28, 2014


Today I welcome Jane Sutcliffe to my blog to talk about her book, Stone Giant: Michelangelo’s David and How He Came to Be, which recently received a marvelous review in Kirkus

Jane Sutcliffe is the acclaimed author of over twenty nonfiction books for young people. She says her childhood was so average that she read biographies to get a peek into the exotic and exciting lives of others. Now she writes biographies and other nonfiction books for children.

Stone Giant was inspired when Jane visited Florence. She stared at Michelangelo’s David for a very long time, knowing that there was a story in that face. This interview is the story behind the story that Jane discovered.

Could you tell us about that trip to Italy and why you were so struck by Michelangelo’s statue of David?

I honestly went to Italy just as a tourist, not looking for a book idea. Of course, I wanted to see the David, since I’d heard about it my whole life. We were lucky enough to have a very wise tour guide who let us just drink in the magnificent view of the statue. Then she asked two questions. “Do you like David?” she asked. Heads bobbed. “What do you like about David?” she continued.

We all had different reasons. Some liked the physical perfection of the statue, some the artist’s skill, and so on. For me it was that face. In the expression on David’s face, I could see the whole story of David and Goliath. I had never seen anything so expressive. It gave me such a thrill to see that face on the cover of Stone Giant.

How did you approach your research on Michelangelo’s creation of David? Were there any memorable incidents along the way?

I always start by reading as much as I can about the subject. This is the pure joy part of research. And sometimes you find a bonus along the way. In reading about Michelangelo I also learned a great deal about his contemporaries, including Leonardo da Vinci, who makes a brief appearance in Stone Giant. I was especially struck by a brief anecdote about Leonardo described in a 16th century biography. That anecdote became my picture book Leonardo’s Monster (Pelican, 2010).

You begin the book with the “giant,” a big, trouble-making, block of marble. How did you come up with such an opening?

The marble block really was called the “giant” at the time. So it seemed like a natural hook to compare the stone to a big troublesome ogre. The opening sentence is repeated at the end of the narrative with a different twist on “giant,” this time to refer to the masterpiece. My editor actually suggested repeating the idea in the Author’s note and ending with, “There is a giant in the city of Florence.” It was dropped in the cross-read; apparently three times was too much.

You did such a marvelous job of shaping your information into an engaging story. In your book, you talk about how Michelangelo saw David in the stone, all he needed to do was to carve away what was not David. How did you manage chip away at all the not-Stone Giant information to reveal your David story?

Great question! That is exactly how I see the job of any nonfiction writer. Once we’ve done our research, we know our story is all there. All we have to do is reveal it. The art is in knowing what to leave out—not too much, not too little. And never, ever, to add anything that does not belong.

This book is pitch perfect for its young audience. Did you always envision this as a picture book? At what point in the writing process do you consider your reader?

I knew because of its tight focus and its visual appeal that it had to be a picture book. So I had to reimagine all the information I had into something that would appeal to young readers. Once I’ve done my research and my head is all full of adult-speak, I usually step back and just start jotting down ideas, more to regain my own voice than to start the writing process. I think of this step as kind of cleansing the palate.

Can you tell us a little about this book’s journey from idea to published book?

Well, it went to a number of publishers before it found enthusiastic support at Charlesbridge. Everyone there has been completely on board with the idea of a fully illustrated David for young readers.

John Shelley’s illustrations are the ideal accompaniment for your text. What was it like seeing them for the first time?

John is the perfect illustrator for a nonfiction book. His attention to detail and his obvious enthusiasm for the project make the book shine. And his inclusion of some of Michelangelo’s sketches gives the book an added dimension, and something for adult readers to connect to. I think that’s immensely important in a picture book, and often overlooked.

What’s coming out next? What are you working on now?

My middle grade nonfiction book about the burning of Washington during the War of 1812, The White House is Burning: August 24, 1814, will be released next week from Charlesbridge. You can see the book trailer here:

I also have a picture book about William Shakespeare and the Globe, Will’s Words: How William Shakespeare Changed the Way You Talk, due out from Charlesbridge in 2016. It will be illustrated by—ta-da—John Shelley! And I couldn’t be happier!

Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers?

Hmmm. Since you asked, how about a plug, not for me, but for our local libraries. (Full disclosure here: I’m on my town library’s board.) Every one of my books starts with a trip to the library. Libraries are as important now as they ever have been. Support your local library, with your time, your visits, and your votes. (Leaving soapbox now.)

I couldn't agree more. Libraries are the living, thinking, beating hearts of our communities! Jane, thank you so much for being my guest today. Now I can't wait to read The White House Is Burning. 

To find out more about Jane and her work, drop by her website at or follow her on twitter at
I just wanted to add that I'm a guest today on the blog. I wrote about the passion of children's nonfiction here:

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Author Lea Wait on UNCERTAIN GLORY

I’d like to welcome Lea Wait my blog, today.

She and I are raffling off a signed copy of her book, Uncertain Glory. All you have to do to be entered in the drawing is leave a comment on this blog post. Good luck!

Lea Wait writes acclaimed historical novels for children set in 19th century Maine. Stopping to Home, Seaward Born, Wintering Well, and Finest Kind are on recommended reading lists throughout the country and have been named to student choice award lists in 13 states. Lea also writes the Shadows Antique Print Mystery series for adults, the most recent of which is Shadows on a Cape Cod Wedding.

Today, she’s here to speak about her latest historical novel for young people, Uncertain Glory.
Thirteen year old Joe Wood has always dreamed of being a newspaper man. When a distant cousin dies and leaves him a printing press, Joe borrows money to start his own newspaper. But now his loan is almost due, and he doesn’t have enough to pay it back. Will special editions about the growing hostilities between the North and South keep Joe’s newspaper afloat? What about Nell, the young spiritualist who’s come to town advertising that she can communicate with the dead? Joe’s friend and partner, Charlie, is looking for a way to debunk her. But Joe isn’t so sure she’s a fake. And when his assistant, the young African American boy Owen, goes missing, Joe turns to Nell for help.

Joe Wood, a thirteen year old boy who owns and runs his own newspaper, Charley, his flighty friend, Owen, an African American boy who works for Joe, and Nell, a young spiritualist, are all thrown together at the start of the Civil War—how did you come up with such a  fascinating and diverse cast of characters?

            I like to mix real and fictional characters in my historical novels. Joe Wood really did publish his town’s newspaper during the mid-19th century. His mother ran a local dry goods store. His friend Charlie, also a “real person,” helped him with the paper, but was a bit flakier and unfettered … so I described him that way. (I include historical notes explaining what Joe’s and Charlie’s future lives were like.) Nell, a 12-year-old spiritualist, is based on a number of child spiritualists of the period, including the Fox sisters. There were free black families in Maine in 1861, and, although Owen is fictional, because of his race, he’s able to give a different perspective on the beginning of the Civil War.

How much of the real Joe Wood is in Joe the character? What did you invent about him? Can you tell us a little about your process of turning an historical figure into a book character?

            Yes – Joe is real! I’ve read his diaries and think I have some idea of what kind of a young man he was. I knew I wanted to center a book on him and his newspaper … and originally set the book in the winter of 1859, which was the year he began publishing. Charlie and Nell were also in that first version. But I realized I needed more depth to their story … so I changed history a bit and set UNCERTAIN GLORY in April of 1861, during the first two weeks of the Civil War.

Joe is torn between the demands of his newspaper and helping his mom with the family store. His father hasn’t been much use since Joe’s brother died. How does this theme of family responsibility and grief fit in with the rest of your novel? Are any parts of the novel drawn from your personal life?

            Joe’s mother really did run a dry goods store. In the late 1850s – early 1860s she supported the family. Historically, Joe’s father was a minister in a small church which closed, leaving him without a profession. In UNCERTAIN GLORY I have him depressed and not contributing to the family, but in the book I blame his depression on his feeling responsible for  the death of Joe’s (fictional) older brother. I thought that would be easier for young readers to understand … and his reaction to Nell also explains why many people were attracted to the messages she brings.

            Luckily, I haven’t had to cope with the problems Joe and his family had.     

How do find ideas for your historical novels for kids? Do you scour historical records looking for interesting individuals? Or do you begin with an era or theme?

            All my historicals for children (so far) are set in 19th century Wiscasset. I wanted to take one town
and show, through a series of stand-alone books, how the geography of a town may stay the same, but the
way people live there changes over the years. Usually I start with one idea and then build on it. STOPPING TO HOME? (1806 – Wiscasset was the largest port east of Boston, and there was a smallpox epidemic.) SEAWARD BORN  (A devastating hurricane in 1804 Charleston, SC, nearby plantations changing from rice cultivation to cotton, and 20% of American mariners were African American). WINTERING WELL (1819-1820. Maine becomes a state … and what role was there in the 19th century for a disabled boy/man?)  FINEST KIND  (the Wiscasset Jail burned, and 2 school boys got the jailer’s family and the prisoners out and saved them)  Those were the beginnings …

I do a lot of work in small town Maine archives! 

So far, all your historical novels for kids are at least partially set in Wiscasset. How can you come up with so many stories from one small town? Do you ever think you’ll run out of material? If you had to set a novel somewhere else, where might it be?

            All small towns are full of stories. I have one Wiscasset book that hasn’t sold yet, and I could continue in Wiscasset for a while, but I’d also like to write a book or three set in the 20th century … it all depends on my time (never enough of that!) and, honestly, which books are selling.  I wrote a book for young people set in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1838 that I still think is one of my best … but it hasn’t sold. So the market is important. 

I love the fact that you have recipes from your books on your website. (I made Cassie's Anadama Bread for dinner last night.) You don’t have one up from Uncertain Glory yet. If you did, what might it be?

            Good question! Probably a stew … Joe’s mother seems to cook those quite often!

Few writers are able to successfully write for both children and adults, yet you also write adult mysteries. Which audience did you write for first? What compelled you to jump to a new readership? How does the process of writing for adults differ from writing for young people?

            I’ll admit … I love writing for children best. But the first full manuscript I wrote was a mystery for adults.  It didn’t sell, and I was happy to turn to writing books for children. Then the mystery DID sell .. and I found myself having deadlines in two genres. Not a bad situation, actually … it lets me write about different subjects, in different ways. My books for children are my “serious writing:” I’m very fussy about accuracy and pacing. Our children deserve the best.  

Can you tell us anything about your upcoming projects?
            Let’s see! The 7th in my Shadows Antique Print mystery series (SHADOWS ON A MAINE CHRISTMAS) will be published in early September. The first in a new contemporary Maine series based on a business of custom needlepoint and restoration (the Mainely Needlepoint) series will begin in January, 2015, with TWISTED THREADS. Right now I’m writing the second in that series, THREADS Of EVIDENCE. And for children? I’ve written another Wiscasset book, set in 1777, and I’m working on a book set in New Jersey in 1970 with the background of the Vietnam War and women’s liberation. 
For any teachers out there, Lea has a Teacher’s Guide for Uncertain Glory available on her website. For more information on Lea Wait and her books, see

Friday, April 25, 2014

Environmental Hero: Diane Wilson

Diane Wilson was a Texas shrimper—a fourth generation Texas shrimper. She had started working on her family’s boat at age eight. By the time she was twenty-four, she was a captain.

Then she read a newspaper report saying that her county was the most polluted in the United States. She confronted four chemical plants to stop them from dumping toxins into the bay.

You can find out more about Diane Wilson in Nobody Particular: One Woman’s Fight to Save the Bays, written and illustrated by Molly Bang.

You can also visit this PBS website

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Earth Day's Legacy

Earth Day made the environment a voting issue.

Despite heavy lobbying by industry, months after the first Earth Day, a strong new version of the Clean Air Act passed the Senate unanimously and the House by a voice vote.

President Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency by executive order.

Congress enacted the Clean Water Act and Endangered Species Act. More environmental legislation was passed in the decade that followed
than at any other time in U.S. history.

Now Earth Day is celebrated around the world, reminding us that we need to care for the earth that sustains us. Our future depends upon it.

In the words of Gaylord Nelson, "Are we able to meet the challenge? Yes. Are we willing? that is the unanswered question."

Find out how you can do your part at the Earth Day Network. 

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The First Earth Day

They filled Central Park and spilled into the streets of New York City. Old people and babies, blacks and
whites, people in suits and hippies. They raised banners, acted out skits, and swept the streets clean.

In Miami, Florida, they held a "Dead Orange Parade" where the winning float sported a statue of the Statue of Liberty wearing a gas mask.

In Omaha, Nebraska, they collected 156,000 cans and built a tin mountain.

In Albuquerque, New Mexico they played mariachi music and marched to protest the stench of a sewage treatment plant.

Over 20,000,000 people took part in the first Earth Day, on April 22, 1970, a tenth of the population of the United States. It was the largest demonstration in U.S. history.

“Earth Day 1970,” CBS News with Walter Cronkite,

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Earth Day's 44th Anniversary

Denis Hayes was a college student when Senator Gaylord Nelson invited him to organize the first Earth Day.
There was no email, twitter, or cell phones. So Hayes used newspaper ads, mailings, and fliers. He reached out to professors and students, hunters and housewives, cub scouts and kindergarteners. 

He began with this ad in the New York Times:
A disease has infected our country. It has brought smog to Yosemite, dumped garbage in the Hudson, sprayed DDT in our food, and left our cities in decay. Its carrier is man.

Earth Day is a commitment to make life better, not just bigger and faster; to provide real rather than rhetorical solutions. It is a day to re-examine the ethic of individual progress at mankind’s expense. It is a day to challenge the corporate and governmental leaders who promise change, but who shortchange the necessary programs. It is a day for looking beyond tomorrow. April 22 seeks a future worth living. April 22 seeks a future.

The result was the largest demonstration in U.S. history. Check out these images from National Geographic.

Happy Earth Day!

Monday, April 21, 2014

Senator Gaylord Nelson and the First Earth Day

The Vietnam War, desegregation, nuclear disarmament—there were so many issues demanding attention in 1969. Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin was dismayed by the degradation of the environment, but how could he convince his fellow legislators to act to save it?

After a major oil spill in Santa Barbara, California, he was invited to speak at a conference in Berkley. While flying in, he read an article about college teach-ins protesting the war in Vietnam. Nelson said, “It popped into my head. That’s it! Why not have an environmental teach-in and get everyone involved?”

That idea was the seed of the first Earth Day.

Here’s Senator Nelson speaking at a rally in Milwaukee on the first Earth Day.