February 19, 2018

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Presenting the Past: Q&A with Capstone’s “Captured History” Series Authors | Series Made Simple Fall 2014

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Taking the innovative and effective approach of exploring historical events using well-known photographs as a jumping-off point, Capstone’s “Captured History” series has long garnered acclaim and attention. From Shelley Tougas’s Little Rock Girl 1957: How a Photograph Changed the Fight for Integration (2012), which SLJ heralded as “a testament to the power of the press and the bravery of all who fought for equal rights,” to the latest titles, which focused on world history, these books are ambitious yet effective examinations of history. To shed light on the origins of these groundbreaking works, SLJ caught up with authors Tougas (ST), Michael Burgan (MB), and Don Nardo (DN).

How did you balance a look at the photograph itself with a discussion of the history?
ST: To me, the most interesting part of the story came before the photo was taken. My enthusiasm and fascination for history helped me establish context. However, my job was easier because the two photos in my books (Little Rock Girl 1957 and Birmingham 1963: How a Photograph Rallied Civil Rights Support) were of kids. Everything about the photo, including the history, was relatable to young readers. Once they can project themselves into the experience, curiosity takes care of the rest.

MB: To me, how they came to be taken and the history are intertwined. You have to give the background that leads up to that decisive moment, and that’s history, and then describe the impact, and that’s history. The balance between the photography and history element also depends on the book. For Raising the Flag: How a Photograph Gave a Nation Hope in Wartime (2011) [about Iwo Jima], there is just one picture, so there was a little more history. For Shadow Catcher: How Edward S. Curtis Documented American Indian Dignity and Beauty [out in 2015], I talked about many of the iconic shots as art and documentation. Telling the story of the photographs led to exploring the historic treatment of Indians in this country.

What was the research process like?
ST: These are powerful stories, and I wanted to keep reading, especially the transcribed oral histories. The transcripts were most valuable because they were personal. Overall, the most difficult and time-consuming part of research involved the filtering. You have to decide what stays and what goes. I used to be a journalist, so I learned then how difficult it is to leave fascinating material in the notebook. You want readers to learn everything you learned.

DN: [“Captured History”] examines the background and creation of the photos themselves. Authors must seek the necessary information in places they would otherwise rarely or never go. This also means that these books would have been much harder to research before the early 1990s, when the Internet began to become a useful tool. If I had been writing these volumes in the 1970s, for instance, I would have had to do a good deal of “legwork,” including driving to scattered libraries, digging through various archives and periodicals, making lots of long distance phone calls, setting up and conducting personal interviews, and so forth. With occasional exceptions, the Internet eliminates the need for close to 90 percent of those steps. Once I’ve collected the materials that I need, I organize them, read them, and then begin the actual writing. On average, I tend to use roughly 30 to 40 separate sources for a book of this length and theme.

What are some of the biggest challenges of working on these books?
ST: Helping young readers understand a world in which information was not immediate and plentiful. In the 1950s and 1960s, you learned about major issues from the newspaper, TV, or radio. No Googling for alternate sources, no YouTube for watching events, no debating with people from across the globe. The power and influence once held by the [established] media is difficult to understand when you live in a world where information has been “democratized.”

MT: These books combine my love of history and photography, and I’ve gotten more pleasure out of doing them than most others I’ve done. The only challenge is limiting the word count!

This article was published in School Library Journal's November 2014 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Mahnaz Dar About Mahnaz Dar

Mahnaz Dar (mdar@mediasourceinc.com) is Assistant Managing Editor for Library Journal and School Library Journal and can be found on Twitter @DibblyFresh.

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