Louise Borden is the author of many acclaimed books for children, including The Journey That Saved Curious George, Sea Clocks, and His Name Was Raoul Wallenberg. In this podcast with Franki Sibberson, Louise talks about writing history for children, and the power of writing for both teachers and students of all ages.
A full transcript is available below the player.
Franki Sibberson: Louise, you’re really committed to writing the stories of people in history has made a difference. Can you talk about that commitment and why it’s so important to you as a writer?
Louise Borden: When I was a kid, some of my favorite books were about people whom I could look up to and admire, like Wanda in The Hundred Dresses and the kids in The Wheel on the School, and I loved the Landmark biography series. I just ate those books up when I was in elementary school. Then in college, because I was a history major, I was studying ordinary people who did just amazing things and who were so brave, people in the Danish or the Dutch resistance movements. Or I was reading about patriots during the American Revolution. Those weren’t all famous people, but their actions made a difference.
Now I write about people who inspire me because I want kids to be inspired. I write about inventors like John Harrison; or the Wright brothers; or a woman like Betsy Coleman, who persevered to realize a dream; or a man like Wallenberg, who stood up for other people. I think I’m committed because I want kids to know that all these heroes were ordinary as kids. They lived in different eras; they grew up in different countries; but when they grew up, they did something with their lives. So I think each of their life stories, it’s really a part of something bigger, and I want kids to make those connections. Kids are smart; they’re gonna get it if they’re exposed to history or any subject in an interesting way.
I’m also committed to writing about ordinary contemporary people who make a difference like all those teachers in my third grade stories, or a custodian or a principal. So I hope I can write books that will resonate with kids in a lasting way and they’ll remember these people and aspire to be like them.
Franki Sibberson: That’s a big, powerful job. It’s so amazing because it does expose them to things they wouldn’t know. I’ve kind of been on the listening-in side of your research process over the years, and it’s an amazing process the way you find these stories. Can you talk a little bit about your research process and how you go about getting to the story that you tell?
Louise Borden: Yeah. I’m kind of a totally unorthodox detective, and some of my books – well, lots of them were written before Google was in our lives. Thank God for Google now.
But I guess I can say that generally each book starts first with a passion for an event or a person or a place, and then I kind of need to immerse myself in that subject. So I begin. Sometimes I go buy boxes at the container store, those Swedish boxes. I get colored boxes; I really get into my boxes. I gather all kinds of materials, and I stack them in one place – books, maps, photographs – although maps now, I use my iPhone or my iPad – and notebooks. These are very crucial on all of this, because every project I have has a variety of notebooks. I love that word notebook, don’t you? What would we do without notebooks?
I take notes, I make lists of images I want to convey, I write about the heart of what I want to say, so I kind of write to myself in the notebooks about what I’m trying to track down. Sometimes I make a timeline or web; I learned that from all those kids in the schools. I usually begin with something like that, a web, and sometimes I’ll do it on a really big piece of paper, like 11 x 17 or something like that, and I fold it up and carry it around with me. Then this all expands into sometimes taking trips, meeting people, interviewing people, calling up people, and it involves lots of listening. I try to use primary sources first and foremost, either by talking to people or reading accounts of people who were there. Obviously you can’t do that if it’s about the 18th Century – or you could get some primary sources, but it’s harder the farther back you go. Then sometimes I go off on these fantastic adventures. I need to know a lot more than what’s going to show up on the pages that I’m gonna write. That way, I choose the most essential and the best details that intrigue me.
I think I’ve got this secret language with kids sometimes, and I’m looking for the details that are gonna charm them. I think I know what kids – what intrigues them. My challenge is to make the subject accessible to them, and I want to keep them reading; I want to keep them turning pages. I don’t want kids to be bored, and I think they get overwhelmed by all these facts and dense paragraphs. So I trying to keep my writing clean. During the research, I get overwhelmed by the amount of information that I’ve gathered. I’ve got boxes of files and pages and pages of notes, and I’m just – I feel like the way the kids do. I’m swimming through difficult and wordy text, and I’m trying to stay afloat. So I can sympathize with that, and so that’s why I write in broken verse and a lot of white space.
I do most of the research, I guess, before I begin writing, but then during the writing I have to back and rethink some things and check a zillion details. I’m turning back, but I’m trying to move forward with the text, so I’m kind of looking in both directions, I guess.
When you ask about getting the story, that is huge, because you have to keep your intention sometimes for several years and remember the reason you began it all in the first place. You just have to have this belief that you’re gonna do this. Sometimes I have to turn around and look back at books I’ve written before and say – I’m looking at the final copies, but in the very beginnings of those books I was so tentative and I didn’t think I could find the right information. So you’ve got to really hang on to that initial emotional seed and then grow it into something.
Franki Sibberson: For a long time. Who gave you the idea to write about H.A. Rey, the author of Curious George? What gave you that idea?
Louise Borden: I was just plodding along in my life as a writer of children’s books, and in 1995 I read in Publisher’s Weekly a little snippet of text. They had an article on famous book illustrators and authors like Ezra Jack Keats, and the Reys, and E.B. White; and I saw this sentence that stated that the Reys were German-born Jews who had escaped from Paris on bicycles. I was just amazed when I read that, because I’d studied this time period in college and I knew about the great exodus from Paris. Some people didn’t, but that was kind of my area. I had this image in my head of these two now famous – but they weren’t famous then – artists with their manuscripts. I carry my work in progress around with me all the time; I’ve got it in my backpack today. So when I asked around, no one had written about this, no one knew about this, so I thought well, if I can find the details, maybe I can write something.
It was almost like this big jigsaw puzzle and I had to go find all these pieces. The information wasn’t just there; I had to go to a lot of different places to find it – the de Grummond Collection down in Mississippi where all the Reys had left their materials after they died – they had no children. I had to persevere to find the information, and at times I thought I wasn’t gonna be able to write this book, because I was creating a record of fact and truth and history for the world to know about the Reys, and I wasn’t sure that I’d be able to find enough information. People today say, “Why didn’t you write a biography for adults?” My field is children’s books, and that’s what the Reys wrote. That was their art, and I kind of felt like I was a witness to their life, and a lot of the things they did are things that I do – letters to editors, and travels, and trying to get just the right words.
So now when I open up that book and I see the end paper of Allan Drummond’s map, that’s one of my favorite parts of the book because I was able to answer my question: “How did they get out of Paris and how did they get to America? Were they in danger?” My unorthodox detective work found those answers.
Franki Sibberson: Do most of your ideas – you mentioned answering your own question – do most ideas come to you as a question or something that you wonder? How do most ideas come to you for your writing?
Louise Borden: I tell kids that ideas come from questions and curiosity, or they may come from something I’ve seen or read about, or just general observation, like in my school stories. I know about schools because I do school visits, and I know a lot of teachers, and I’ve been in a lot of classrooms; so those contemporary stories, I just kind of pick those details that I see or ask teachers about and put those in my text. Ideas really, I think, have to come to me on an emotional level. I have to really care about a character, or be touched by a teacher’s relationship with a student, or the invention of John Harrison’s sea clocks. So it’s all about emotion for me. Then each book begins with an image in my head, kind of a picture that evokes this feeling, this emotion.
I try to teach kids that you need more than one idea to build a book. In fiction you’ve got to link two or three ideas together to create a good story; and in nonfiction the story’s already there, but your challenge is to make it accessible to kids and to make them care about it. It’s on two different levels, really, that I look for my ideas.
Franki Sibberson: So your days as a writer: can you describe your life as a writer? How do your days go? I know they’re all different.
Louise Borden: They are all different, just like teachers. It’s an adventure every day. School’s the adventure of the day, and so is writing. I do a lot of circling as a writer, and I think I have to go back as well as ahead. In that, I mean if I’ve already written something that’s been accepted to be published but then I’ve got to wait a few years for the art or the production process, then I’ve got to return to that project and get reenergized when the galleys come in. So I might be going over first or second proofs for a book likeÂ Wallenbergwhile I’m trying to work on rough drafts for new work. This book calledKindergarten Luck. I can’t write two books at the same time; it’s like trying to sing two songs. But I find myself circling back on the older books until they’re finally out there in the published arena.
I always start my books in solitude, usually at my desk, and that’s why I admire students in their classrooms because they’ve got all these kids around them. But I’ve got a great workspace in Cincinnati, and I like to move among my bookshelves. Then later I carry my rough drafts around with me. Now we live in two places – Cincinnati, but mainly now the DC area, and we’re in an apartment there. So I’m dragging my notebooks, the laptop, the iPad to the Library of Congress or a cafÃ©. Those people you see in Starbucks typing on their laptops, you wonder who those people are and how they have time to be in there doing that? Well, that is now me. Sometimes I’m in a public library like the one in Georgetown here; it’s just got beautiful windows. Being in a beautiful architectural space kind of inspires me. But when I’m typing and when I’m immersed, I can forget where I am. But really solitude is best for me.
As a writer, a freelance person, you’ve got to be focused, because the phone’s gonna ring, there are a zillion e-mails to answer, and when you go to get a cup of tea you see the dust balls under the kitchen counter, and you pick up a paper towel and you swipe at them. I recently read somewhere that a writer had this sign on her office door, and I really love this; I think I’m gonna make one. It said, “Why are you leaving?” That’s kind of you’ve gotta stay in the chair by the desk. It’s perseverance as well as skill and craft.
So that’s the writing part of my life, but I also speak in schools and I’m with teachers and travel around to see our grandchildren. So that energy, all of that loud, noisy, fun energy, also feeds my writing in a good way. Sometimes I feel like I’m a nomad, but when I get back to my desk and my solitude, I kind of feel like I’m a boat finally back in its harbor, and getting back there really anchors me in a good way.
Franki Sibberson: You may have answered this, but you have such a variety of books. They span so many topics and age levels. How do you balance all the various kinds of writing that you do?
Louise Borden: My first five or six or seven books, I think, were all fiction; and then I started some nonfiction; and then I started interspersing that with more fiction. Then I turn around and I see these books behind me, and I didn’t really plan it; I didn’t ever plan to write nonfiction or to write about third-grade kids; it just kind of all unfolded that way. So I do have this range, and I think when I’m writing a school story or writing about this new book calledKindergarten Luck, it doesn’t have the intensity of research like a World War II book does. It’s a lighter layer on my desk and there’s less pressure for accuracy when it’s fiction. But it still begins with a blank page, and I still want some kind of emotional resonance for the reader when they finish the book. So I’m thinking about rhythm and cadence, and every word has to count, and I’m picturing page turns, and I make dummies for all my books, whether they’re fiction or nonfiction. But I like that balance of going to something fun like the last day of school, and then I’m working on something very serious and really hard to write about, like the Holocaust. I seem to have found some kind of balance, I guess, and certainly when I’m in a school, teachers really love the fact that my books can appeal to a range of readers and a range of ages.
Franki Sibberson: You mentioned the kindergarten book. Is that what you’re working on right now?
Louise Borden: Yeah, I’m working on two. I think I’ve sold this book,Kindergarten Luck, so very simple text. It’s about a little boy who finds a penny. First I wrote it in first person, and then I changed it to third person, and so that went through a lot of revision; and then sent it to an editor, who seems to love it, so I’m really excited about that. And I’m working on – today I was typing away on a World War II book set in France in 1942. I think I must have lived in that time, don’t you think? That’s when The Greatest Skating Race takes place. But that book, I think it’s going to be function, not nonfiction, but it’s kind of wrapped around nonfiction. Then I’ve got a book about baseball that’s in production right now. I sent you those sketches, and I just think they’re just amazing. But the World War II book right now, I’m just getting the walls of the house built right now. I’ve got the first ten pages.
Franki Sibberson: [crosstalk] with all of them.
Louise Borden: Yeah, exactly.
Franki Sibberson: Nice. What writing advice do you have for kids and teachers? What’s your big advice?
Louise Borden: I think it’s something I heard 25 years ago when I was listening to a writer talk. I tell kids and teachers to first think of themselves as writers. We are writers, and we all have stories to tell or ideas to share. All the classrooms today – not all, but many – are really fostering this community of writers, and it’s really exciting. I think notebooks are important, reading like writers, being observers, being listeners; and these are all things that language arts teachers are sharing with their students. Finding mentors, that is huge. I wouldn’t be the writer I am today without my friends who are writers, and artists, and editors, and teachers. That’s my sea that I swim in.
Another thing I might suggest is I read a lot of biographies and autobiographies of writers and artists, and for me it’s kind of like warming up or stretching before you go jogging – I don’t jog; I know you’re jogging. It just kind of gets you into the right place when you get in front of that blank page. I want kids to not fear writing, and I think if they write from their hearts and in their own voices, it’s very powerful. The same with teachers, and the challenge is to explain to them how do find their voices. Long ago, I had some really great teachers who groomed me as a writer and a reader. I was a reader before I was a writer. I look back now, and I see the seeds of all my books are right there, right in my elementary school years – in the interests I had as a kid, in the curiosity that teachers were surrounding me, leading me into curiosity. I tell kids to – and teachers – try to have confidence in yourself and your ideas. I don’t know; I remember a quote from somewhere; it said, “Confidence is courage with ease.” I tell kids, “Be brave when you’re staring at that blank page, and then begin.” ‘Cause the beginnings are really hard. Then you just begin – one word, and then the next.