Reverse-Engineering an Engineering Process from the Past

They are short and for kids, but nonfiction picture books can require the sleuthing skills of Veronica Mars, the puzzling wizardry of Sherlock Holmes, and the science chops of Bill Nye.

When I set out to write about how The Great Blondin engineered his tightrope across the Niagara Gorge in 1859, I hoped to find the honey pot of details in the countless newspaper articles I uncovered. But instead of a step-by-step reveal, I faced scattered and inconsistent details and humongous gaps in information. Though my picture book narrative couldn’t possibly include every single step, I needed to understand them, to ensure accuracy and a you-are-there sense of tension. Piecing those steps together required that I step out of my comfort zone and into the world of STEMs. Beginning with rope.

The Mysterious STEM of Ropes

You’d think that the simplest detail to nail down would be the rope Blondin performed on, right? Afterall, witnesses could touch the “hawser.” Alas, though most sources correctly estimated the length of the walking rope to be ~1300’ feet long, the rope’s circumference was another matter. Reporters claimed it was 1.5-inches, two, three, 3.25, 3.5, four, six, ten-inches “wide,” “thick,” “diameter,” “around,” “large,” “circumference.” Oy vey! What a snarl to untangle. Was it really that important? Absolutely! There was only one way to solve this hempen-braided mystery, 160-years after the event. I turned to an engineer. Specifically, one with a vested interest in my project—Blondin’s great-great-grandson in France.

The blessed planets aligned for this fortuitous connection. Jean-Louis (thankfully, an English-speaker) and I exchanged clues from historical accounts, then he tapped into his expertise to determine the tension/breaking rate of fiber ropes of different sizes until the mystery was solved. Historical clues + Modern science. Voila! Now I could accurately state that The Great Blondin’s walking rope was 3.25” diameter, or ten+ inches circumference (circumference= diameter X pi [3.1459]). That concrete detail affected every step of Blondin’s process, including the 40,000’ of other ropes. It seems like a lot of effort for something as simple as rope, but accuracy matters. For classrooms, I hope my STEM research mystery inspires a hands-on approach to learning math and engineering concepts.

It’s All About the Questions

Now that the rope mystery was solved, I extracted more research clues to determine necessary questions. How did Blondin and his helpers get the walking rope from the American shore to the Canadian shore in a rowboat? How far upstream did they have to begin to compensate for the wicked current, in those days before human intervention, when 1.5 million gallons of water per second flowed over the Niagara Falls? How did the men transport, attach, lift, transfer, tie, splice, stretch each rope for its intended purpose? Step by step?

Looking back, I see an evolution of my own thought-process in my early diagrams and moodling, often with my engineer-son’s help. The engineering calculations were over my head, to be sure, but my inner Veronica Mars embraced the challenge of connecting the proverbial dots.

Once Blondin’s process was nailed down, I could put Blondin on his rope. Almost.

The Science of Balance

I couldn’t write about a rope-walker without feeling rope beneath my own feet, so I found a four-foot-long, 2 ½”-inch diameter manila rope (the largest available). I walked back and forth on the rope, as it rotated under my feet, and I struggled to keep my balance. More questions emerged: What is balance? How does a balance pole help a tightrope walker? Suddenly, I was a kid again, wobbling on a balance beam, a cavaletti, that crazy swinging playground bridge—oblivious to concepts of gravity, inertia, mass—the secret recipe to keeping me upright. I like to think that, had I read a story like King of the Tightrope: When the Great Blondin Ruled Niagara at that time, I would have been inspired to solve the mystery of my own STEM connection.

I encourage kids to think critically and to embrace historical and STEM topics when I visit schools. To help educators, there’s a curriculum guide, a one-page related STEM glossary, and two experiments to inspire students’ inner Mars/Holmes/Nye.
Find the full curriculum guide and more information at http://www.donnajanellbowman.com/book/king-of-the-tightrope. Follow me at  https://www.facebook.com/donnajanellbowmanauthor and on Twitter @donnajbbwrites__________________________________________________________________________

Donna Janell Bowman is the author of award-winning and lauded nonfiction books, including Step Right Up: How Doc and Jim Key Taught the World About Kindness, illustrated by Daniel Minter (Lee and Low, 2016) and Abraham Lincoln’s Dueling Words, illustrated by S.D. Schindler (Peachtree, 2018). STEAM-infused King of the Tightrope: When The Great Blondin Ruled Niagara (Peachtree, 2019) released in October 2019. Donna has an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She enjoys mentoring and inspiring writers of all ages, especially during school visits. Donna lives in Central Texas where she does NOT walk on a tightrope.

TLA, A book launch, school visits, Classes I’m Teaching, Oh My!

Life-sized Abe Lincoln is ready for photo-opps at my April 15th launch party.

Abraham Lincoln’s Dueling Words

Much has happened within the last month. The book launch trailer for Abraham Lincoln’s Dueling Words released, which makes me all kinds of giddy. Then, on April 1, the book itself hit bookstore shelves. I hope you will get your own copy from your favorite independent bookstore and share it with the young people in your life. I think you will agree that it has powerful tie-ins with character education. And I employed a fun, direct-address narrator that makes it great for read-alouds, too. Be sure to read the expanded content, linked to the book page here. While you’re on that page, if you’re a librarian or teacher, consider sharing the full bibliography and my working timeline with your students. Everyone will be surprised to learn how much peripheral research was required. And don’t miss the teacher’s guide here. 

Though the book released April 1, the official launch party for Abraham Lincoln’s Dueling Words will be Sunday, April 15, 2018, at 2:00 pm at Book People in Austin. If you’re in the area, please come by for a reading, snacks, trivia, and a photo opp. You can view/print the Lincoln launch flyer for full information.

Step Right Up

Taking photos of your kids in the bluebonnets is a Texas tradition that has taken on a new meaning for me this year:)

Step Right Up: How Doc and Jim Key Taught the World About Kindness, illustrated by Daniel Minter, continues to be embraced by schools and families around the country. Entire schools are taking the Step Right Up Kindness Pledge. How humbling and lovely! As many of you know, because of my personal connection to horses and my love of all animals, this story is infused with an extra piece of my heart. Now, SRU is on at least four state award lists, including Kansas, Louisiana, Tennessee, and the Texas Bluebonnet master list for 2018-19. As a native Texan, I admit to being especially honored by the Bluebonnet nod. At the 2018 TX Library Association (TLA) conference in Dallas this past weekend, I had a blast meeting librarians from around the state during the Bluebonnet speed dating event and signing. What these remarkable literary champions may not realize is that we authors think of them as the rock stars. After all, every educator spends their career to changing young lives every day. Wow!

 

Honored to see Step Right Up acknowledged for the 2018-19 Bluebonnet master list.

Other highlights from TLA’18 included catching up with other authors, meeting TLA committee and staff members, collecting more books, signing both of my books in the author area, attending the Bluebonnet luncheon, and being stopped by KidLitTV for an interview. You can see that here. 

School visits

I’ve had a lot of school visits in Texas this year, and I look forward to traveling to Louisiana for school visits in May. During my presentations, I offer my personal connection to my books, my writing and research process (aimed to reinforce classroom goals), expanded content, and a conversation about how one person can make a difference with kindness and how words are a super power. During the 2018-19 Bluebonnet season, I hope to visit as many schools as possible.

You can view/print my 2018 School visit flyer here. Email me for more information. 

Upcoming Classes that I’m Teaching

If you’re a librarian or teacher who dreams of being published, stay tuned. I might be offering an online class or webinar just for you!

If you’re interested in having me critique your manuscript, of if you’re interested in hiring a writing coach, donna@donnajanellbowman.comemail me.

June 9, 2018—I will be teaching a one-day workshop on writing picture book biographies for the San Antonio chapter of SCBWI. Registration is open.

June-July—I’ll be teaching an online class about picture book biographies. Stay tuned for details. Email if you would like more information.

Fall 2018 (event not yet announced)—I’ll be speaking at an SCBWI conference about writing query letters, synopsis, and cover letters. Stay tuned.

Subscribe to my e-newsletter to stay up to date with what I’m offering.

That’s quite enough for this month, don’t you think? Thank you for taking the time to read.

Picture book biographies—My most-viewed posts

We’re working to re-establish the blog archives and categories that got tangled up in the recent website import. For now, if you’re looking for past posts about nonfiction picture books or picture book biography (or ies), simply type those terms into the blog search box. You can also find the most-viewed posts below.

*DISCLAIMER: These posts were written in 2010 and 2011, as I was teaching myself how to write picture book biographies by dissecting other books. Since then, picture book biographies have evolved and I have evolved as a writer. When my imaginary household staff, interns, and assistants catch up on the backlog of responsibilities, I hope to return to the topics with a more recent perspective. Til then, enjoy!

NEW! Listen to The Porchlight Podcast where author Cynthia Levinson and I discuss the challenges of writing nonfiction picture books.

Nonfiction Picture Books- the power of THEME

Nonfiction Picture Books – Defining Tight Focus

Nonfiction Picture Books – Language and Tone

Picture Book Biographies with First Person Point of View

Nonfiction Picture Books – The Power of Illustrations

Nonfiction vs. Creative Nonfiction vs. Historical Fiction

Truth Inspired – How Story Dictates Itself

Interview with Marc Tyler Nobleman – BOYS OF STEEL and the Nonfiction Picture Book Genre

Waiting for the “NOW”. When it’s time to start Writing

Stealing, Tweaking, Voice

Alternating POV and Alternating Tense in Nonfiction Picture Books

Dramatic Point of Vew in Historical Fiction Picture Books

To Nonfiction or Historical Fiction. That is the Question

Nonfiction Picture Books – Defining Tight Focus

Research- The Scavenger Hunt of Writers

Do nonfiction picture books always have a story arc?

Research Resources- Start Growing your Cyber Library

From Befuddled to Eureka- Clarifying my narrator’s lens-P.B. Biography

Revising like a Sculptor

Revision

SCBWI Grants, the Cost of Research, and My Most Used Research Sites

Interview with Marc Tyler Nobleman – BOYS OF STEEL and the Nonfiction Picture Book Genre

I’m Teaching a NF Picture Book Class! Join Me!

Children’s nonfiction is increasingly popular these days, especially in the picture book form. Yet, it’s difficult to find relevant instruction in writing books, workshops, or classes. With ever-changing styles and creative approaches, it is important to seek out up-to-date expertise on the subject.

I’m thrilled to be teaching a six-week class about nonfiction picture books and picture book biographies at The Writing Barn in Austin this summer. In addition to authoring the recently-released (and, thankfully, acclaimed) STEP RIGHT UP: HOW DOC AND JIM KEY TAUGHT THE WORLD ABOUT KINDNESS (Lee and Low, 2016), and the forthcoming ABRAHAM LINCOLN’S DUELING WORDS (Peachtree, 2018), and KING OF THE TIGHTROPE (Peachtree, 2019), I completed my MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts, where I researched the heck out of picture book biographies for my in-depth, fifty-two-page critical thesis. See, I am smitten!  Oh, did I mention that I’ve also written books for the education market? Or that I have other p.b. bios. and nonfiction p.b.s in various stages of revision and submission?

Enough about me.

I am planning our class syllabus around a primary goal: to lead you to creative breakthroughs about your own current and future nonfiction projects. We will do this by analyzing published nonfiction picture books as mentor texts. During class times, we will explore decisions about:

Choosing a viable topic
Narrative vs. expository styles
Scope & Angle—finding the kid-friendly story
Intended audience (length and sentence complexity are a clue)
Word count and page length
Point-of-view
Tense
Structure—linear and nonlinear options
Creative options in nonfiction and how they affect the nonfiction classification
Word choice / Tone
Theme
How to leave room for the illustrator
Research (where to start, when to stop, how to organize)
Back matter
I will share relevant process information about my own books, too.

Students will:

  • Revise current projects and begin new projects
  • Receive feedback me and fellow student
  • Join in collaborative discussions with classmates (in class and on a private Facebook page)
  • Read many nonfiction picture books—assigned and student choice–with an analytical eye
  • Maintain an informal bibliography with low-stress annotations.
  • Have fun, be inspired, and develop priceless friendships with fellow writers

Class begins June 11, 2017. Last class is July 30, 2017.
We skip June 18 (Father’s Day) and July 2 (for July 4th travelers).

Learn more about the class and how to register here.

Contact me with questions here

NEW SALE! King of the Tighrope: When the Great Blondin Ruled Niagara

The announcement made by my agent Erin Murphy, of the Erin Murphy Literary Agency.

I am so honored that illustrator Adam Gustavson will be working his artistic magic to bring this story to visual life.

The announcement made through Publisher’s Weekly.

Kids books ROCK!