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A Retrospective

Cleopatra and the Man-Eating Tigers:

Past Winners of The Children’s Book Guild Nonfiction Award

by Kem Knapp Sawyer

Sy Montgomery has been swimming with pink dolphins. She has also been bitten by a vampire bat and put her hands on a purring cheetah. Winner of the Children’s Book Guild Nonfiction Award in 2010, Sy has had her share of adventure while traveling from the Amazon to New Zealand to write books on the natural world (e.g., The Man-Eating Tigers of Sundarbans). “Being with animals in the wild changes your life forever,” she says. “It’s like going to heaven and being able to come back.”


Other Guild award winners take their research no less seriously, and in conversations with many of them I learned that each one has had memorable moments and unexpected thrills.

Sneed Collard, who has written on everything from global warming to pocket babies (as in kangaroos and other marsupials), got to dive in a deep-sea submersible. It made him “realize on a gut level that most of the living space on our planet is dark, cold, and full of bizarre, amazing animals.” He says, “I never got to be an astronaut, but this was better because there were living things down there.”

Those who write about history can get just as excited about the discoveries they make while spending time in libraries. It was Plutarch who showed Diane Stanley that Cleopatra was “perhaps the most misunderstood ruler in all of history.” “She wasn’t a beauty—she won men’s heart through her charm and intellect.”

Doreen Rappaport, winner in 2007, uncovered little known facts as she researched her new book Beyond Courage: The Untold Story of Jewish Resistance During the Holocaust. “Before I started I was 97% ignorant of the Resistance and I happen to be a Jew.” She spoke of how personally rewarding it was to listen to people who had never before discussed their past—survivors who may have organized escapes or started secret schools.

“At My Age I’m Getting an Award for My Body!”

The Guild’s Nonfiction Award celebrates distinguished writing and illustration, clarity and accuracy, a stimulating presentation of ideas, and reader appeal—books that encourage curiosity and a sense of wonder. The award is given to an author in recognition not of one single book but of a body of work. Not only have our winners felt deeply honored to receive this award but they also appreciate the attention that is given to nonfiction. Diane Stanley found her award “a special kind of affirmation” and Sy Montgomery said hers made her feel “like a million dollars.” She liked knowing the award would help get her books into the hands of children.

Sneed Collard mentioned the award’s “lasting impact” on his career and recalled that it was “a comfort to me that my father got to attend the Children’s Book Guild award banquet shortly before he died.” Caroline Arnold, author of more than 150 books including Global Warming and the Dinosaurs, was “impressed to see the list of previous winners”—it made her feel she was in good company.

“Do you mean that award with the etched-glass cube in my line of sight as I work all day?? The one for my 'body' of work?” Kathleen Krull, author of The Big Wig: A Little History of Hair, asked. She talked about meeting “so many true-blue and congenial book people” at the award ceremony. “I feel like I made new friends,” she said.

Laurence Pringle, who writes about everything from frogs to penguins, cicadas, and woolly bear caterpillars, remembered and repeated a line from his acceptance speech in 1999: “The combination of a nice engraved something AND a check is always a good thing for a writer.”

“Holy cow. At my age I’m getting an award for my body,” Susan Bartoletti remembers telling friends and family. Winner in 2009, Susan is the author of both fiction and nonfiction, including Black Potatoes and Growing Up in Coal Country.

“Bright and Dark Times”—But Mostly Bright

“I feel especially lucky that I can wake up and read about animals and make pictures and do that for a job. Seems unreal sometimes,” said Steve Jenkins, whose most recent book is The Beetle Book. Steve enjoys gathering ideas (from his children, trips to the zoo, or natural history museums). But the best part is having something click when he realizes a concept can turn into a book. (He also likes the challenge of trying something new—his next book will be a pop-up.)

“I love that I get to learn for a living. I have a natural curiosity about, well, EVERYTHING, and one of the blessings of being a writer is that if I get interested in something, I can go write a book about it,” Sneed Collard said in an email. Steve and Sneed aren’t the only ones to think they’ve found the best jobs ever.

Susan Bartoletti feels “pure joy” in making her brain “go electric looking for new ways to put together information.” She likes to make discoveries others may have overlooked whether it’s looking into the lives of children who worked in the mines, the starving Irish who fought to survive, the young people who became part of the Hitler Youth movement, or schoolteachers who were attacked by the Ku Klux Klan. (This has meant going down in a coal mine, studying laissez-faire economics, tracking down survivors of the Third Reich, and attending a Klan meeting.)

Diane Stanley loves “the autonomy, the fact that I get to explore the things that interest me.” She always does extensive research—her Saladin, with its Persian miniature-style illustrations, is but one example. “You learn so much from the research, knowledge that is with you forever. And it’s knowledge in depth, the kind of reading you rarely do after your student days.”

In an email Diane wrote of touching the lives of children all over the country, in some cases all over the world: “I’ve heard stories from time to time about the impact of my books on children I didn’t even know—a boy who went on to study arms and armor as the focus of his MFA program because he was inspired, years ago, by reading Good Queen Bess; a boy who chose to introduce me at a Battle of the Books program rather than go on a baseball team trip, a fact that was brought up at his funeral after he died of leukemia; and a certain little boy, part of a large group of kids I spoke to at a school years ago, kept only two children’s books into adulthood—one of which was an autographed copy of Peter the Great—and who also had the good taste to grow up and marry my daughter.”

Writer and photographer George Ancona, Guild award winner in 2002 talks about the pleasure of knowing that a kid will open up one of his books and that “is going to open up a door to the world.” He loves making deep connections with the people he encounters while working on a book. Pablo from Pablo Remembers would become a lifelong friend (and George would dance at his wedding). Sy Montgomery also sees making “friends for life” as one of nonfiction’s big attractions. Hers are often the scientists and researchers she has met while tracking down endangered species in countries across the globe.

Doreen Rappaport loves a challenge of figuring out how to tell the story. When she was writing Lady Liberty the moment that gave her the most satisfaction came when she discovered she wanted to focus not on the Statue of Liberty as a symbol of freedom but instead on all the people who had made the statue possible. Doreen also likes meeting kids at schools—she sees that her books have helped to empower them in one way or another. (Eleanor, Quiet No More and Dirt on Their Skirts, about the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, come to mind.)

In 1984 Peter Sis left Czechoslovakia to work in Los Angeles on a film about the Olympics. When the project fell through, he chose to remain in the United States—never knowing if he would be allowed to return.

Leaving his childhood home provided the inspiration for many of Peter’s creative endeavors. “If I was born in this country or if I never left my own country I wouldn’t be so in need of sharing very personal feelings, fears, and emotions,” he says. Peter wanted to tell the stories of those who dared to do the unexpected—Galileo, Christopher Columbus and Charles Darwin. Later he told more personal stories—The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain was published in 2007.

Peter, the Guild award winner in 2012, had a very difficult time naming a favorite book—like most writers I interviewed. As Diane Stanley points out, “authors generally pour their hearts and souls into every book they do.” Or, as Caroline Arnold explains, “Every book is like a baby. How do you love one child better than another? You love them all for different reasons.”

Many authors were quick to say that no matter how many awards they had won—or how many books they had published—writing was still “hard work.” Some spoke of those moments when they were not sure they would ever finish their book project. Steve Jenkins recalled that somewhere in the middle of the process, when he has hundreds of notes and he’s trying to pull everything together, he often wonders if he’s bringing anything new to the subject.

Sy Montgomery passed on this advice: “When you don’t believe you can do it, or if you feel you’ll fail, you have to believe in your material and that will get you through it. I’m a speck, but it’s OK to be a speck,” she says.

Or, in the words of Susan Bartoletti: “With every book there are bright and dark times. You have to move through the fear.”

“Do It Your Way”

Steve Jenkins says, “Write about what you’re personally fascinated with not what you think will sell.” I heard the same message from others: Sneed Collard believes you have to choose topics you’re passionate about—“anything else is a waste of your—and your readers’—time.”

Diane Stanley advises, “Read deeply and critically,” “Don’t talk down to the reader,” “Collect interesting facts that will grab your readers’ attention, but will also tell them something new about your subject.” She keeps notes in chronological order in a card file; she has a separate file for visual materials. And whenever possible she travels to the country where her subjects lived in order to set the scene for her illustrations. (She visited the birthplace of Leonardo and the room where Charles Dickens died.)

Susan Bartoletti refers to the need to have “a personal connection or an intellectual connection” to her subjects. She says she tells students to (1) always track every quote back to its original source, (2) triple check your facts, and (3) start writing when the facts begin to repeat themselves and you’re no longer learning anything new.

To “make history come alive” Kathleen Krull tries to “hook readers with prose that flows, is funny when appropriate, and makes them want to read more.” Doreen Rappaport suggests not shying away from controversial subjects.

When taking on a book project, Laurence Pringle likes to start out in the “Alert Antenna” stage. He becomes extremely conscious of everything related to his topic. He notices that interesting connections keep popping up—in newspapers, on television, in conversations. In his books about animals he always tries to work in stories and “odd little known things” wherever he can. Getting the facts right is important. (Laurence has a special place in his heart for E. B. White who consulted a spider expert before creating a fictitious Charlotte.)

Caroline Arnold enjoys starting a book project because it gives her “an excuse to ask questions.” She also likes nearing the end: “When you know it’s ready to go out and have someone else read it there’s a tremendous feeling of satisfaction. The book takes on a life of its own.”

Dorothy Patent, author of Big Cats and many books about the natural world and the American west, wants to “grab kids right at the very beginning. If the first page doesn’t interest them you’re done.” She also advises writers to take themselves seriously and to be disciplined. “You have to respect your job. Don’t let other things get in the way. Set aside the time. Turn off the phone. Get at it.” Dorothy is quick to seize opportunities—watching sea turtles lay their eggs at night or getting into a pen with whooping cranes. And she finds that people who work with animals will open up their hearts to her as they did recently while she was researching Dogs on Duty.

“There’s no one like you—so do it your way,” says George Ancona (a photographer who refuses to go digital and still uses film). “Art is a search for what’s inside of you.” George also believes in having fun: “That was taught to me by Leonard Bernstein. I was photographing him during a rehearsal. I told him, ‘you look like you’re having a ball.’ He answered, ‘If it ain’t fun it ain’t worth doing.’ That stuck with me. Have fun. The coaches in the Olympics told their athletes to have fun. With that in mind they did beautifully.”

For Peter Sis the creative process can be a lengthy affair. He no longer flies across the country with crates of books as he used to, but now he uses an iPad or laptop to do research. Still as always he pays attention to detail. When he had almost finished the drawings for The Tree of Life, he saw a documentary that showed that Darwin was left-handed. Three of his images depicted Darwin, so Peter sat down to correct his “error”—using a razor blade to erase all traces of Darwin holding an object in his right-hand.

But the story doesn’t end there. His editor did not believe Darwin was left-handed. Peter and his wife contacted the director of the documentary who informed them he’d been mistaken. So now Peter had to get his razor blade yet again and redo the drawings. He knew if he didn’t there would be some precocious child who would discover the mistake.

One picture can take Peter two weeks to complete. Cross-hatching is hard on his eyes but it gives him great satisfaction. He finds the time he spends sketching in his studio very peaceful, but says, “It can get really lonely too. You listen to this music and that music.” He can spend so much time immersed in a project that he loses track of time—and of how quickly his children have grown.

When I asked Peter if there was anything he would like to pass on to other writers, he had just returned from London where he had received the Hans Christian Andersen medal for illustration, an international biennial award. Peter answered, “I still remember how hopeless and dark seemed to be the days when I didn’t know if I would get published. But you have to believe in yourself. Stay truthful. Stay on the path. And rewards will come.”

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