March is National Women's History Month. To celebrate, author, Sue Macy stopped by to answer a few questions. For those of you who don't know, Sue is the author of Wheels of Change: How Women Rode the Bicycle to Freedom (With a Few Flat Tires Along the Way) which was recognized with a nomination for a YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults. Way to go Sue!
For some background information for my readers - When did you decide to become a writer? And how did you come upon being a writer of nonfiction books for children?
When I was a junior in high school, I won a competition sponsored by my local New Jersey newspaper that enabled me to attend the National High School Institute in Journalism at Northwestern University. That five-week summer experience was the foundation for my career as a nonfiction author. I had always liked to write and was the editor in chief of my junior high and high school newspapers, but the Northwestern program gave me the practical and ethical tools that have used throughout my career. I see myself primarily as a reporter, but one who usually reports on events and developments that happened in the past.
Basketball Belles came out about a year ago. When I read it, I immediately had to tell others about it. What was the inspiration for writing the story of about Agnes Morley and her team mates?
I first learned about the 1896 game portrayed in Basketball Belles more than 15 years ago, when I was writing Winning Ways: A Photohistory of American Women in Sports. At that time, I read some of the reporting about the game in the San Francisco newspapers. Since no men were allowed to watch the game, all of the reporters were women, and it was really interesting to read their perspectives on this sports event. As it happens, my college thesis advisor at Princeton had become a tenured professor at Stanford, and that made the idea of researching this game, which was between Stanford and Cal Berkeley, even more enticing. I didn’t decide to focus on Agnes Morley till much later in the process, when I realized I needed a central character and decided it had to be a player. I researched the backgrounds of a lot of players, but I felt I got to know Agnes best because I read some of the short stories she wrote, and her memoir. The circumstances of her childhood made her the perfect protagonist.
How many hours of research goes into writing a nonfiction picture book like Basketball Belles and how do you work to ensure that the facts are as accurate as possible?
Since my writing background is as a journalist, I’m a stickler for facts and the “truth.” I struggled with that when I was working on Basketball Belles. It was my first picture book, and I knew I had to make the story compelling and exciting, but I also wanted it to be true. One of the drafts centered on a fictional girl who was attending the game so she could write a school report, but it felt wrong injecting a fictional character into the mix. I’m glad I jettisoned her and highlighted Agnes Morley instead.
As for how much research I did, the answer is: LOTS! I went to Stanford and Cal to use their libraries and even spoke to the current women’s basketball coaches there. That wasn’t at all necessary, but I’m a basketball fan and it was such a treat. It also helped me put that first game in perspective. I think I read every article written about that game, before and after it was played, in all the San Francisco papers, as well as those from Berkeley and Stanford. I tried to follow up on the stories of as many players as I could. I think there’s another book in that, or at least an article. The group of players went on to be teachers, doctors, and scientists, as well as wives and mothers. It was quite a crew.
I’m big on organization. When I start a project, I label a series of file folders so I can file my research articles according to the chapters they belong in. I also have folders for photographs, memos and correspondence, back matter, and other topics. That helps tremendously because I gather lots of material and it does me no good if it just sits in a pile on my desk. If I file it away, I can usually find it when I need it.
While I can read my research anywhere, most of my work is done at my desk, in front of my computer. A few years ago I got a Mac with a 27-inch screen because I like to have a lot of windows open at once. When I’m writing, I’ll often refer to Internet sites to check facts or confirm spellings. When I’m doing online photo research, I’ll compare a number of photographs head to head to decide which ones work best for me.
My other ritual is to let things gel by taking occasional breaks to play an online game. When I was working on a PC, I would play Spider Solitaire. Now I’m somewhat obsessed with the Jigsaw Puzzle Generator on the National Geographic Web site (http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/your-shot/jigsaw-puzzles). That makes jigsaw puzzles out of photographs, and you use your mouse to put the pieces together. It’s a great way to step back from the intensity of writing, and it usually ends up helping me move the story forward when I go back to it.
Recently, I heard some historical fiction writers talk about their research and how some of the techniques could be used by children as part of the writing process. Are there certain things that you can suggest to teachers that they can use to assist young writers?
Whenever I write about a period in history, I try to read the newspapers of that time. Often, I use the Library of Congress’s Historic Newspapers collection (http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov). It covers newspapers from 1836 to 1922 and is easily searchable. If you want to find out what the papers were saying about basketball in 1896, for example, you can use search parameters to find the articles in the newspapers in the collection, which includes papers from 30 states and the District of Columbia. You can even target specific states or newspapers in your search.
I’m also big on timelines. I’m currently trying to lock down an idea for a new YA nonfiction book, and I actually downloaded a timelines app that automatically plugs information I input onto a graphic timeline. It really helps me look at the big picture. For example, I input the lifespans of about 20 people I’m considering covering in the book, and with the timeline I can see at a glance who was born first, who lived the longest, and when their lives overlapped. It’s a very useful tool, whether your research covers a century or only a year.
One of the challenges many of my librarian friends run into is with the number of pages in a nonfiction book for 4th to 8th graders. Many children will come in asking for a biography or nonfiction work on a particular topic and say that it needs to be 150 pages I have noticed that many nonfiction books for this age group fall between 96 to 130 pages. Many of these books are fantastic. Any thoughts on how to help teachers recognize the quality of a nonfiction book despite this randomly set number of page criteria not being met?
When I started writing nonfiction for that age range in 1993, many books were straight narratives. The trim sizes of the pages were similar to those of fiction books and they usually had rivers of text, broken up by some captioned pictures. Today, trim sizes are bigger to make room for sidebars and features and primary source reprints. While there is still a narrative thread in most books, there’s also supplemental material that helps readers gain additional perspective on the story (and fulfills the mandate of the Common Core to teach kids to use primary sources). If kids read all of these sidebars and analyze the images, they may very well spend as much time with a 96-page book as their predecessors did with a 150-page straight narrative. I’d urge teachers to reevaluate the strict mandate on page length to allow for the realities of the new nonfiction.
Anything that you can share about future books that you are working on?
My next project is a picture book about Roller Derby in 1948. It’s another subject I first wrote about in Winning Ways. There was a point in time when Roller Derby was first televised, and it both exploded in popularity and led people to embrace television as a medium that could show live action events. The book will focus on that moment in time, and on the skater with one of my favorite sports nicknames ever, Midge “Toughie” Brasuhn.
I’m also working on an idea about women in early television, but it’s too early to tell you much about that yet.
Don't forget to follow Sue on twitter: @suemacy1