01 Aug

Whoosh! subject Lonnie Johnson last month at Kennedy Library Forums

As I write this, I’m listening to the audio of Lonnie Johnson’s presentation this past July 20 at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. Even for someone who knows Lonnie Johnson’s story well, this telling of it is riveting.

For those not quite ready to consume an hour — even a fascinating hour — of the story of the NASA engineer who invented the Super Soaker water gun, might I recommend my picture book biography Whoosh! Lonnie Johnson’s Super-Soaking Stream of Inventions?

illustrated by Don Tate, published by Charlesbridge

22 Sep

A sample from Chapter 1 of The Week the World Changed

As I mentioned the other day, a few years ago I pursued a project that I’d hoped would turn into a book for young readers called The Week the World Changed, about the JFK assassination. The book never happened, but here’s what the sample of Chapter 1 looked like in the proposal I sent out:

Chapter 1: Who was John F. Kennedy? And why was he in Texas in November 1963?

John F. Kennedy was elected the 35th president in November 1960. A Democratic U.S. senator from Massachusetts, he was the youngest person elected president and the first Catholic to hold the office.

Frank Wilczek is a Nobel Prize-winning physicist. During the 1960 presidential campaign, when Wilczek was nine years old, he shook Kennedy’s hand at a rally on Long Island.

Wilczek: It was a rainy day, and he was late by an hour and a half, but we stayed. I thought it was a great adventure. It was very exciting to see a potential president. It was very impressive that all these grownups were acting in a very different way from [the way] they usually acted. They were getting excited and cheering. It was something special. My family was Catholic, so that was a point of identification [with Kennedy]. My parents were not strong, practicing Catholics. Nevertheless, I think they felt a kind of group identification. I was already very interested in science, and the whole thing about going to the moon and so forth — I very much associated that with Kennedy, this kind of dynamism, so I was a big fan. Even at that time, I liked that he was young and spoke very well in complete sentences, and he was funny.

In fall of 1963, Kennedy was preparing for the next year’s re-election campaign when he planned a November visit to Texas, including a stop in Dallas.

Wilczek: I kind of identified with Kennedy because I had run for class president and given speeches and several of the teachers said that I reminded them of Kennedy, the way I spoke, and the gestures. It’s very possible that I was imitating Kennedy.

Tom Lichtenheld is an illustrator of bestselling children’s books. In fall of 1963, he was ten years old and had just moved from Racine, Wisconsin, to Rockford, Illinois.

Lichtenheld: My teacher was Mrs. Williamson, and at the time, I thought she was mean, because the very first day of school, she asked me my telephone number, and we had just moved that week so I didn’t know my telephone number, so I started crying. Pretty humiliating for a grade-school kid, a 10-year-old boy, to start crying. I had a newspaper I used to write every Sunday. It was called the Sunday Thing. I would write it and draw the pictures for it and my dad would print it on a little thing called a hectograph. I’d sell it to my family and friends for a nickel apiece. In September or October of that year, I wrote an editorial critical of President Kennedy in the Sunday Thing. And the thing that’s most embarrassing is that at the time out music teacher would start every class by reading from John Birch Society propaganda. We didn’t know it was John Birch Society propaganda, we thought it was the truth, because she was a teacher. And that’s what I wrote about in my editorial — that I didn’t think President Kennedy should sell wheat to Russia. Apparently, that was a big issue that the John Birch Society was touting in those days.

Kathi Appelt is an award-winning author of books for children and young adults. In fall of 1963, she was nine years old and living with her parents and two sisters in Houston, Texas.

Appelt: [Kennedy] came to Houston the day before he was in Dallas. My mother and dad actually took my sisters and I out of school to go down and stand on Broadway. She got us all dressed up, and all five of us — my whole family — went and stood on Broadway to watch the president and vice-president come down the road. We were right in front, and I’ll never forget, because my mother made us wear our hair in rollers to school, which was, like, “Aaaahhh!” So, we were dressed up like we were going to church, but we were only standing on the side of the road to see the president go by. It seemed like they went by really fast, and so we went through all that trouble just to barely see him.

20 Sep

Interview Across a Breakfast Table: One That Got Away?

The latest in a series from me and Jennifer Ziegler, part of it here, and part of it there.

Jenny: Can you tell me about a story idea or manuscript that never took off for one reason or another? A big one that got away?

Chris: I could tell you about lots (and lots, and lots) that have gotten away, both fiction and nonfiction. But most of them are still in the process of getting away, which means there’s still the possibility that I’ll be able to get some of them back through some combination of fresh perspective (from a new editor, perhaps, or from my own older-and-wiser self) and effort (all mine, I’m afraid).

There’s one, though, for which I believe the opportunity has passed. This November is the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy, an event that fascinated me as a boy. Predictably, the anniversary will be getting lots of attention, and I wanted to make my own contribution with a book for young readers called The Week the World Changed.

It was going to be an oral history of recollections from prominent Americans who were between 8 and 13 years old at the time of the assassination. I had a long list of people I wanted to interview, and I actually did get interviews with TV personality Al Roker, singer Rosanne Cash, and physicist Frank Wilczek, along with my children’s book pals Kathi Appelt and Tom Lichtenheld.

Editors were pretty consistent in viewing such a project as an exercise in nostalgia that wouldn’t have resonated with today’s young readers. I disagree, of course. There was much more to the project than that, a much bigger picture I wanted to show, and I’m still disappointed that this book never came about. It’s the kind of book I would have loved reading as a kid and still love reading as an adult — to say nothing of the amount of fun I would have had interviewing all those folks and weaving their stories together.

Would you like to read the introduction I’d written for the proposal?

Jenny: Why, yes.

Chris: OK, then. Here goes:

“I was in school when I heard JFK had been shot, at my piano lesson. I was in third grade. I was sitting on the piano bench and my piano teacher, a nun, was sitting next to me in a chair. An older girl came in to the room, and said to the nun that the President had been shot, and she burst into tears.”

– Rosanne Cash

When something big – something huge and tragic – happened in the middle of an ordinary Friday in November 1963, there was no tweeting or messaging or posting or texting the news. It was the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and for tens of millions of Americans your age, word most likely came in a shocked, tearful rush from someone at their school who had just heard it on the radio.

It was the beginning of a bewildering several days. The nation got a new president. The suspected assassin was captured. The accused shooter himself was shot and killed. And finally, Kennedy was buried, with his own young children – and the rest of the nation – looking on.

Back then, people got their news from AM radio stations, the three TV networks, a local newspaper or two – many cities had one in the morning and one in the afternoon – and weekly magazines. If they learned anything on their phones, it was because someone called to say, “Did you hear…?”

That weekend in 1963, the news came closer to being delivered round-the-clock and in real time than it ever had before. But most of the information that spread was delivered by adults and intended for other adults. It focused on grownups’ views of what had happened and questions about what it meant to them.

Young Americans were not experiencing and dealing with that tragedy the same way older people were. From the moment that kids first heard what had happened – not at the office or at home or in their cars, but in their classrooms – it all looked and sounded and felt different to them. What upset and scared them – or didn’t – wasn’t the same as what upset and scared Mom and Dad.

And after the assassination, when life returned to normal, even this wasn’t the same for young people. Maybe it happened faster. Maybe it happened more slowly. However it happened, there’s no reason to think that things would go for a 12-year-old just as they did for someone who was 32, or 42, or 52. Yet the memories of those days and weeks and months, passed back and forth and shared ever since in books and on TV, have tended to be those of people who were already grown.

But what about those 40 million Americans who were around your age? For that matter, what about those who were kids on 9/11, or when the Space Shuttle disasters occurred, or back when Pearl Harbor was attacked? And what about those who will be in a classroom when they first learn of some future national tragedy?

Young people’s stories about these sorts of events – no matter how quickly they are shared, whether it’s the next instant or five decades later – are simply different. This book is about finally listening to those stories from Americans who were your age when President Kennedy was killed.

I had also prepared excerpts from several chapters in The Week the World Changed, based on those five interviews I did.

Jenny: Please share!

Chris: Hmmm…