March 27, 2017

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The World of Barbara Kerley | Interview

When asked for quality nonfiction titles, Barbara Kerley’s name comes immediately to mind. Her list of picture books includes titles on Mark Twain, Waterhouse Hawkins, Alice Roosevelt, Walt Whitman, and a biography of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Kerley’s approach to her subjects is often unconventional; readers learn about Twain through excerpts from his daughter Susy’s journal and Adams and Jefferson through an exploration of their differences and their political partnership. Recently the author updated the “For Teachers” page on her website with references to the Common Core State Standards and practical suggestions for educators implementing the goals of the initiative. We had a chance to talk about those changes and her work.

Biography, nature, and the things that unite us as people seem to be your topics of choice. What draws you to these themes?
My hope when I begin a new book is that it will open up the world a little bit for my readers.

I love writing biographies because they show kids how other people have lived and the amazing things people can accomplish. Biographies illustrate the almost limitless potential people have to do something wonderful. And biographies also remind us of how fulfilling life can be when you follow your dream.

Titles about nature open children to the world beyond their immediate home and community. They tap into kids’ curiosity to explore and see what the world has to offer and remind us that we are all stewards of the planet.

Books about other cultures allow us to experience the different ways people live around the world. They encourage us to try new things and think about familiar things in new ways. And, at the core of that idea, titles about other cultures help us understand each other better and remind us that we may have a lot in common with people who might, on the surface, seem very different—opening us up to all sorts of possibilities.

When I write a book that I think will enlarge a child’s view of the world, it makes me very happy.

Do you visit schools often?
Lately, I’ve been doing about a dozen presentations a year, in a variety of settings. I speak at schools and libraries, to groups of teachers or librarians, at conferences, and to classrooms via Skype. It’s a good balance in that it gives me a chance to meet readers and the people who work with my books but also gives me time at home to concentrate on writing.

From these visits and gatherings have you learned anything about the way teachers use your books that surprised you?  Or perhaps, unexpected reactions or takeaways by children?
I’m continually amazed at how creative teachers are and how often they use my books as a springboard to a huge variety of student work. When I was a kid, it seemed like all I ever did after I read a book was write a standard book report that basically just summarized what the book said. But teachers I meet now share some terrific student work inspired by my books: poems, short stories, posters, dioramas, video book trailers—you name it. It’s such a great way to honor the partnership of the writer and reader, who each bring something important to the book.

As for kids, my favorite reaction is when they’ve read and enjoyed one of my books, and then I tell them it’s a true story. It makes the whole story that much more amazing when they learn it really happened.

Talk about luck—you’ve had the good fortune of teaming up with fabulous illustrators. Can you speak to how they have contributed to your work?
I have been incredibly lucky and feel very fortunate to work with such talented artists. Brian Selznick, who illustrated The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins (2001) and Walt Whitman: Words for America (2004, both Scholastic), brings such an expressive depth of feeling to his work. When I write a biography, I always try to place readers in my subject’s shoes so they can ‘live’ in the story as it unfolds. I can do a lot with text in terms of the details I choose to include and the word choices I make, but it takes a truly great illustrator to find a way to depict those emotions visually. Brian’s also a master at thinking about book design. He thinks about the whole book, from cover to cover, to make the experience of holding the book and turning its pages such a pleasure.

Edwin Fotheringham, who’s illustrated several of my titles, including The Extraordinary Mark Twain (According to Susy) (2008) and Those Rebels, John and Tom (2012), brings such lightness and liveliness to his visual storytelling. His characters jump off the page. He infuses the art with a sly humor, and he’s a genius at playing with perspective. A great example is looking at the opening of What To Do About Alice? (2008, all Scholastic). The text reads, “Theodore Roosevelt had a small problem.” And the art introduces Theodore and his daughter, Alice, basically from the knees down. We see Theodore tapping his foot in exasperation as Alice charges out of the house on her next unladylike adventure. Ed captures their personalities perfectly—and the humorous conflict at the core of the book—just by showing their feet. Fantastic!

I also have to give a shout-out to photo editor Lori Epstein, who has worked on many of my National Geographic titles, including One World, One Day (2009) and my newest, The World Is Waiting For You (2012, both National Geographic). She takes the most minimal text—some spreads only have a word or two on the page—and finds the most amazing photographs to illustrate them. Lori brings a level of heart to the books that simply wouldn’t be there without her.

You participated in SLJ’s Fall 2012 Summit on a panel about the Common Core State Standards. Had you already been thinking about the initiative and how it might impact how your books are used in the classroom?
The Summit was such a terrific gathering. I love being surrounded by librarians; they are always so passionate about their work! And, happily, the panel met again for an online version of the presentation that’s been archived.

I left the Summit feeling really energized by the focus the CCSS place on nonfiction for kids. The CCSS are really smart; they ask kids to think critically about how the material in books is presented. But I really appreciate that there are two components implicit in this critical thinking:

One component is what I’d call nuts-and-bolts issues, such as asking kids to identify the main idea of the book, the author’s point-of-view, and what references are cited for the material. I have to work through all the nuts-and-bolts challenges for every book, and so I appreciate that those issues are so important in the CCSS framework.

But the other component asks students to pay attention to the artistry in the storytelling—things such as tone and word choice. I get a tremendous amount of satisfaction in finding just the right word to set the tone or to capture a particular moment. And the CCSS affirm the importance of this.

You are known for your quality nonfiction, so it would be no surprise to any librarian to find your name on the top of a list of authors that educators should know about when looking for material to integrate into classroom libraries and lesson plans with the CCSS in mind. I’m wondering, though, has your understanding of the goals of the CCSS influenced the way you think about your work now?
The Common Core standards haven’t changed the way I approach a project. What the standards have done is given me more confidence to continue working on nonfiction—and to continue working hard. With all the research required and all the work fine-tuning the storytelling, I can easily spend one or even two years working on a single picture-book biography. The CCSS give me even more confidence to take the time to write the very best books I can.

So, tell me about how you have revamped your website with Common Core in mind?  Did you have any help?
I’ve just added a section to my “For Teachers” page with a CCSS guide for every one of my nonfiction titles, including books like A Cool Drink of Water (National Geographic, 2002) that only have a few words per page—even the simplest nonfiction books can be analyzed from a CCSS perspective.

Teachers and librarians are asked to do a million things every day, so I wanted to make the guides super practical and flexible. My goal was to present relevant information clearly and simply so that teachers and librarians can use it any way they want: in individual, small-group, or whole-class activities.

For each book, I provide a couple Common Core Standards and then break the book down as it relates to each. So, for example, for the standard that asks students to identify the main point of a book and how it is supported, I basically say, “The main point of the book is x, and I support it with the following six ideas.” Teachers and librarians can then use this information in any format they want: for a class discussion, as the basis for a worksheet, in an individual writing assignment or art project—whatever works best for them.

I created the guide on my own, but I do want to acknowledge help I got as I was first learning about the CCSS.

A terrific educator named Mary Ann Cappiello of Lesley University in Cambridge, MA, was the moderator for the SLJ Fall 2012 Summit panel on the Common Core. Before we participated in the Summit, Mary Ann sent the authors on the panel a wonderful analysis of how our books could be explored from a CCSS perspective. She basically walked us through how to think about our books as they relate to the CCSS, and that experience guided my thinking as I created my own Teacher Guide.

We need a Mary Ann in every school district, but until then, do check out the blog she and a whole team of talented folks write, called “The Uncommon Corps.” It’s a great resource for teachers and librarians figuring out how to use the CCSS in their work. (Eds. note: Mary Ann Cappiello, along with Myra Zarnowski and Marc Aronson, also writes a monthly column for Curriculum Connections.)

Do you mind if I share a page of your website with our readers? 
That would be great!

Readers, below you will find content from one of Barbara Kerley’s webpages with CCSS notes on Those Rebels, John and Tom. Follow the link below to her website for CCSS suggestions on using her other titles.  

Exploring Those Rebels, John and Tom: A Common Core Approach

By Barbara Kerley

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.2 Determine central ideas or themes of a text and analyze their development; summarize the key supporting details and ideas.

The central themes of the book are opposites, overlooking differences to find common ground, cooperation, and compromise.

The theme of opposites is established early, as John Adams and Thomas Jefferson are introduced. The text contrasts:

—John’s humble vs. Tom’s privileged upbringing
—John’s rambunctious vs. Tom’s bookish hobbies as children
—John’s love of public speaking and arguments vs. Tom’s dislike of both
—John’s hands-on approach to running his small farm vs. Tom’s reserved approach to managing his estate

The book then explores the theme of overlooking differences to find common ground:

—John and Tom’s shared love of the American colonies
—their dislike of King George and his government
—their desire to improve the situation

The themes of finding common ground, cooperation, and compromise are developed as:

—the Continental Congress first meets to discuss ideas
—John and Tom decide to form a partnership to compel the delegates to take action
—John assumes the role of swaying the delegates through his speeches while Tom agrees to write the Declaration, uniting the colonies in one common purpose
—Tom compromises by accepting the changes the delegates make to the Declaration
—the delegates join together in signing the Declaration and launching the struggle for independence

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.6 Assess how point of view or purpose shapes the content and style of a text.

Kerley’s purpose in Those Rebels, John and Tom is to introduce two primary figures in the Independence movement through the lens of how very different they were, and then, once their differences are established, to explore the book’s themes of cooperation and compromise by showing how they looked past their differences to find common ground and work together.

John and Tom are introduced through the lens of their differences—John’s humble and Tom’s privileged childhoods. We then see them as young men:

“When John and Tom grew up, they were even more different.

John liked to talk. And talk. In college, he joined a debating club so that he could talk some more. And when he became a lawyer, he found he could talk for hours without using any notes—a handy skill in the courtroom.

He loved nothing more than to battle wits in a lively argument.”

“Tom was shy, and dreaded speaking in front of crowds. Talking too loudly made his voice hoarse. When he became a lawyer, he found he didn’t enjoy presenting cases to the jury—a bit of a problem in the courtroom.

He hated arguments. If he had an idea, he quietly wrote it down.”

The contrast between the men is detailed in the content on the page, and the parallel structure in the style of the text—employed in many of the opening spreads—makes it easy to contrast the differences between the two men.

Edwin Fotheringham’s art also conveys point of view or purpose. His use of, as he puts it, “visual metaphor” is evident in the exclamation points and question marks used throughout the book.

To help establish the theme of opposites, Fotheringham employs opposing pages of dark vs. light; action vs. passivity; and loud vs. quiet—all seen in this spread and appearing throughout the book. After the opening spreads that lay out the differences between the two men, there is the transition—that John and Tom had two things in common: their love of the American colonies and their dislike of King George.This transition sets us up to explore the themes of cooperation and compromise carried through the rest of the book, as John and Tom decide that by working together, they can compel their fellow delegates to take action. Text features extend and enhance the point of view or purpose in the subtitle page; the author note; and even in the book design, as the men are shown in profile, facing away from each other on the book flaps and then facing toward each other on the title page.
To explore the CCSS in relation to Kerley’s other titles, visit her “For Teachers” page on her website.
Curriculum Connections

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Daryl Grabarek About Daryl Grabarek

Daryl Grabarek dgrabarek@mediasourceinc.com is the editor of School Library Journal's monthly enewsletter, Curriculum Connections, and its online column Touch and Go. Before coming to SLJ, she held librarian positions in private, school, public, and college libraries. Her dream is to manage a collection on a remote island in the South Pacific.

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