December 9, 2017

The Advocate's Toolbox

Nonfiction Creators on Inspiration, Research, and More | SLJ Day of Dialog 2017

Left to right: Christopher Lassen, Sue Macy, Steve Sheinkin, Michelle Markel, Alexandra Siy, and R. Gregory Christie. All photos © Julian Hibbard for School Library Journal

What did Steve Sheinkin, multiple-award winning nonfiction author, read when he was a teen? “If you asked me if I liked history, I’d definitely say no,” Sheinkin said during an author panel at SLJ’s 2017 Day of Dialog in New York City on May 30. He loved sea stories and tales about buried treasure—“but if you called it ‘nonfiction’ or ‘information books,’ you would have lost me.”

Steve Sheinkin

Sheinkin, whose latest title is Undefeated: Jim Thorpe and the Carlisle Indian High School Football Team (Roaring Brook, 2017), joined authors Sue Macy, Michelle Markel, and Alexandra Siy, along and with illustrator R. Gregory Christie, on the panel To Interstellar Space and Back: Nonfiction for Everyone!, which touched on the speakers’ early reading habits, research processes, and more. Christopher Lassen, youth material selector, BookOps—New York Public Library and Brooklyn Public Library, moderated the event.

Markel gravitated toward reading biographies, often about sports figures, when she was a teen. “These people succeeded without fairy godmothers,” said the author of Balderdash! John Newbery and the Boisterous Birth of Children’s Books (Chronicle, 2017). “I found that empowering.”

Siy, whose most recent book is Voyager’s Greatest Hits: The Epic Trek to Interstellar Space (Charlesbridge, 2017), read World Book, Time magazine, and watched 60 Minutes, while also reading lots of fiction and keeping a journal. Macy preferred newspapers and the “This Fabulous Century” time line books, which she described as “scrapbook compilation”–type volumes about different centuries. Macy’s newest title is Motor Girls!: How Women Took the Wheel and Drove Boldly into the Twentieth Century (National Geographic, 2017).

R. Gregory Christie

Growing up, “I was looking for images of myself,” said Christie, whose many illustrations include those for A Time To Act: John F. Kennedy’s Big Speech (NorthSouth, 2017). He was particularly drawn to biographies of artists. Christie describes his art today as “80 percent geared toward making people see other cultures and bring people together.” That’s evident in A Time To Act, whose portrayals include “wealthy people like the Kennedys and poor people in Alabama.”

While researching the book, Christie watched documentaries. One discovery: “I didn’t realize that in Birmingham, children were being hosed and attacked by dogs.” Christie later described the decisions he makes in presenting such painful historical imagery to young readers. “That picture of Ruby Bridges is always sad to me—that she had to go so school with [U.S.] Marshals,” he said. As an illustrator, “you have to hold back on your emotion almost, because you don’t want your emotion to go too dark.” That involves gauging “how much you’re going to give your own emotion to honor history. [You] don’t want to make something so ugly that people don’t want to look at it.”

Readers sometimes have fixed ideas of what famous historical figures look like, Christie went on. “Louis Armstrong was [once] thin,” he said, but most people don’t think of him that way. “Eleanor Roosevelt had an overbite, but you don’t want to insult the Roosevelts” with an unflattering image.

Inspiration

What sparks an idea for a new project? “Often, a book starts with a question,” Macy said. “[You] don’t know what you’re getting into. In nonfiction, you’re a detective; you’re following the leads.”

Sheinkin had always wanted to write a book that combined history and sports. He spent a lot of time researching the early New York City basketball scene “dominated by Jewish and African American teams”—but that project got relegated to the back burner. “Just because you have a great story idea doesn’t mean that you can do it,” he observed. Soon after, he learned about Jim Thorpe, a phenomenal football talent who attended the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, and described it as the “best underdog story I’ve ever come across.”

While researching her book about the Voyager spacecraft, Siy was inspired by the golden record on board—a gold LP with top hits of the day that served as a time capsule. “The appeal was to share not only the golden record but this idea of discovery history of science all the tech from the Voyager.” Siy’s research process is “not linear,” she noted: “NASA websites are huge and endless.” She prefers to find a book by a scientist and follow that lead. Plus, “I look for images with scientific information that will raise questions,” including primary source imagery.

Sue Macy

Sheinkin structured Undefeated around games and spent a lot of time researching Thorpe and the team in old newspapers. “I love that part of it—[the] nerdy detective work,” he said. “It’s the writing that I dread.” Macy’s noted that her research often involves using newspapers.com, which includes a trove of archives from small-time papers.

Presenting this research in her books, Macy, who has a background as a journalist, likes to “step back and give facts so people can draw conclusions.” That means producing writings from the time so readers “will say, ‘Oh yeah! it’s ridiculous that people thought women were too emotional to drive a car.’”

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Sarah Bayliss About Sarah Bayliss

Sarah Bayliss (sbayliss@mediasourceinc.com, @shbayliss) is associate editor, news and features, at School Library Journal.

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