Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Amazing Grace: Historical Fiction, Primary Sources and Social Justice

This has been a historic and moving few weeks, and the connections that have bubbled up between history, the opening of the human heart and the expansion of freedom have inspired this post.

When the Supreme Court expanded the definition of fourteenth amendment rights to guarantee the right to gay marriage in every state in the union, freedom was likewise expanded. That this decision fell roughly on the anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising makes it even more resonant with the struggle that went before.

Meanwhile, a more painful resonance came with the despicable and cowardly mass murder of nine Black worshipers at the Emmanuel AME church in Charleston in the name of white supremacy. The initial resonance was with our ugly history of racial violence. 
(right - a sign about the Confederate battle flag amidst the tributes at Emanuel AME)

But something astonishing happened which shifted that resonance to a deep and resounding echo of the history of the inspired struggle for civil rights and human dignity in the United States. Rather than the effect desired by the alleged killer of starting a ‘race war’, the ultimate effect of his crime was to galvanize people to tear down emblems of hate and segregation across the South: a symbolic step, no doubt, but a valuable one. A way of saying that Black Lives Matter -- the doing is still up to all of us. The forgiveness extended to the alleged killer by the relatives of his victims was stunning and heartrending.

President Obama’s eulogy for the Reverend Clementa Pinckney movingly engaged with the themes of violence, injustice and the possibility of change, and inspired me to think about how powerful historical narrative narrative can be. Here is a link to the eulogy:  (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RK7tYOVd0Hs)

The president wove his speech around the words of the hymn “Amazing Grace” and made repeated references to history, mentioning that while we “have a deep appreciation of history…we don’t have a deep appreciation of each other’s history”, and suggesting that “we’ve been blind to the way that past injustices continue to shape the present.”

And as a deep believer in the idea that knowing each other’s history is a step toward “…the steady expansion of human rights and human dignity” that the president lauded and that the Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage embodies, I’m thinking in this blog about how important it is to go directly to the source and listen to the voices of those who have too often not been heard. Historical fiction can be a first step for kids and teens toward that engagement. (left: Ouladah Equiano - see below)

At the end of my ancient history class this spring, I asked students to either bring in a quote from one of the “voices” that we encountered through our primary sources or to note which voices we did not hear. In the time period that I was teaching, such voices are limited, though some students loved that they could still hear Sappho, an ancient Greek poet, declare her love for another woman (notably, if they had read Sappho in the nineteenth century, the pronouns would have been changed by translators to make the poet appear heterosexual). Other students enjoyed hearing the wisdom of Confucius or the wild irreverence of Aristophanes. 

But many observed that they couldn’t hear at all from most women, or working people or slaves, and they wished so much they had been able to. They could only hear about people like Spartacus, the leader of the great slave uprising, or Boudicca, the warrior queen of the Iceni, through the words of others who were almost always elite, and often hostile.

As we teach history closer to the present day, more voices can potentially be heard as literacy expands and more sources survive — even the voices of the otherwise dispossessed (though there are still many, many silences).

An important role of historical fiction for young people is to give them an idea of who these voices belong to so that they can make the important step of transitioning to reading the actually primary source material that fiction writers use as sources for creating their work. Often the voices of the primary sources engage with issues that still stir and divide us today. In thinking of the legacy of slavery, several works of fiction and non-fiction primary source narratives come to mind.

For example, I remember reading Paula Fox’s novel The Slave Dancer as a child. The emotion it evoked is still vivid in my memory – pity and horror, as the main character’s musical talent is twisted into the service of macabre practice of “dancing” the captured slaves on a slave ship to keep them fit so they can be more readily sold once they arrive at slave ports.

Another story which has this powerful effect is “The People Could Fly” —the eponymous folktale in the collection of The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales by Leo and Diane Dillon. Many of the tales in the collection are ingenious examples of the oral tradition of riddle-making and story-telling which convey the richness of African American culture during the long period of slavery. Often there is a sense of joy despite dire circumstances. But the final story fully embodies the cruelties the slave system inflected and the passionate desire of enslaved people to ‘fly away’ to a land of freedom. 

This kind of narrative structure allows children and young teens to understand the horror of slavery and the value of every human being in the way a text- book just can’t convey.

The narrative form (usually an autobiographical narrative) was also used by eighteenth and nineteenth century former slaves who were also passionate abolitionists  in order to fuel others to join the abolitionist cause, and this ‘story telling’ of their own experiences is, I think, the next step for teens who have already read fictional accounts of slavery.

I’d suggest that history teachers can carefully and thoughtfully link the two, using the fiction as an introduction leading students into the primary sources. These primary sources are certainly much more challenging reading, which is why I’m specifying that this is a good tactic for older teens, though it is also possible to rework such connections so they are manageable for younger students (using only a chapter or a few paragraphs of a primary source and discussing how it differs from the fictional account and talking about the writer’s voice and purpose).

For example, no history teacher can hear "Amazing Grace",  the hymn the president so surprisingly sang, without connecting it back to the British abolitionists who fought and won the abolition of slavery by parliamentary vote in most of the British empire long before America achieved abolition through war.

Among this group was Olaudah Equiano, the former slave who bought his freedom and devoted his life to the cause of abolition. He wrote The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano and using his own story to make his appeal to the humanity of his readers in the cause of liberty. And he was not alone in using self-story-telling as a means toward liberation.

By telling their own stories, by engaging readers with empathy, and using the sort of structures that keep readers concerned with the outcomes of their tales, former slaves made slavery real and urgent to people who had never experienced it.

I am, of course, thinking of Equiano, but even more of the greatest (I believe) of all slave
narratives The Narrative Life of Frederick Douglass. This is a text I would love to see more teens reading in high school as they become more sophisticated readers of historical material.

The power of Douglass’s book is overwhelming. Every time I teach it to students, it is the autobiography that most powerfully moves them. From the description of Douglass’s mother walking miles from a neighboring plantation just to put him to sleep as a small child to the story of a man being shot dead by his master’s overseer for refusing to obey an order, to Douglass himself reaching his breaking point and beating up a degenerate overseer (in introducing this episode he says: “You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man”) to his final triumphant escape, the details are raw and the story urgent.

But for me, the most affecting chapter is the one where Douglass learns to read.

 His mistress begins teaching him, before being forbidden to do so by her husband (it will “unfit” Douglass to be a slave, the husband explains). But Douglass perseveres in any way he can, hiding books, tricking other kids into teaching him. 

What I love about this account of learning is how strongly he connects learning with liberation. He describes how learning about the slave trade engenders fury and discontent in him and concludes “I could regard (the slave traders) in no other light than a band of successful robbers”.

But even learning that causes pain is part of this process of liberation — for Douglass and for many others. As he explains, “(t)he silver trump of freedom…roused my soul to eternal wakefulness…” and once he had learned to read, he could never stop hearing that trumpet.

Douglass’s words ­—the words of any powerful primary source recording vast, systemic injustices —can still rouse our complacent souls to eternal wakefulness.

And if historical fiction for young people can serve as a bridge to Douglass’s thundering words, so much the better.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Writing Great Historical Fiction for Children, with Chris Eboch

The author at Coba, Mexico
Our goal at this blog is to target teachers, librarians, and readers of historical fiction rather than other writers. But since teachers, librarians, and readers may also be writers – and summer vacation is a great time to pursue your writing – I thought I’d share some insight into writing historical fiction.

What makes good historical fiction?

·         You need to find a way to communicate your passion. Find something interesting about the time, place, and characters you’ve chosen, and let your enthusiasm shine through.

·         Put away your teacher hat and put on your storyteller’s hat. The story comes first. It’s about interesting people doing challenging things in an exciting time and place. The action shouldn’t stop for facts. Details of setting, daily life, attitudes, etc., should be relevant and fit naturally into the story. No matter how interesting a piece of information is, don’t include it unless it moves the action forward. Historical fiction should not be an excuse to lecture within a fictional framework.

·         Be especially careful with technical information, such as how machines work. This can get tedious. You can always include extra facts as supplemental information on your web site or provide teaching guides for use in the classroom.

·         Except with omniscient viewpoint, all information must be from the point of view character’s POV. You can’t point out what they don’t have. Portray life as it was, and trust your readers to note the differences.

·         Make history live by appealing to all five senses. Try to include smells, tastes, and textures, as well as sights and sounds.

Tikal, Guatemala
Methods of historical research

·         Traveling to a site is especially helpful for inspiration and for noting surrounding details. However, buildings, vegetation, animals and even the climate may change over the years. Don’t assume things looked the same “way back when.” Sometimes this is obvious – visiting Mayan ruins, clearly the buildings have fallen into disrepair and the jungle has closed in. But it’s easy to underestimate how much things have changed. What now looks like a small cluster of large buildings in the midst of jungle might once have been a city center surrounded by miles of smaller homes and farm fields. Even the distant jungle might have been more open, with people clearing away undergrowth and vines to forage for fruit and tap trees for rubber. In more modern cities, the historical buildings may have been there, but the stone might have been light, not darkened by centuries of pollution.

·         Children’s books often have a concise overview of a subject, plus colored pictures of clothing, tools, weapons, etc. Pictorial encyclopedias for kids can be the best place to start to give you a quick overview of a culture.

·         Museums, such as natural history museums and local historical societies, often have old photos, historical artifacts and even recreations of buildings or towns from previous eras. You may need to make an appointment in advance to get into back rooms or archives. Fortunately, today many organizations are putting photos and documents on their websites!

·         History, anthropology, and archeology texts can provide specific details of the culture. Again, the Internet is a boon – when researching a recent nonfiction book about battlefield medicine in World War I, I could access Masters degree theses from Britain on subjects such as the British ambulance corps.

Jaguar, Belize Zoo
·         Travel books/websites may discuss the climate, vegetation, animals, and scenery. They may mention which plants and animals are native versus later introductions, but double-check if you’re not sure.

·         Encyclopedias are a good source of further information about birds, animals, etc. You can get specific details of how they look, sound, and behave. Online dictionaries and encyclopedias may even have recordings of animal sounds.

·         The Library of Congress Online Catalog contains over 18 million catalog records for books, serials, manuscripts, maps, music, recordings, images, and electronic resources in the Library of Congress collections,” according to the site.

Making tamales with friends in Mexico
·         Experts such as college professors, historians, tourist bureaus, and even avid amateurs can provide information and may be willing to fact-check your work. You can find many of them through the Internet, but check their references before you trust their information. If you are writing about another culture, ask people from that culture to review your manuscript for accuracy and sensitivity.

·         To some extent, you can also rely on human nature through the ages. Although the specifics of religious practice, social structure, and politics often differ, people throughout history have been motivated by the same basic emotions: love, fear, greed, insecurity, pride, piety, etc.

To learn more about writing well, grab a copy of You Can Write for Children: How to Write Great Stories, Articles, and Books for Kids and Teenagers:

In this book, you will learn:

How to explore the wide variety of age ranges, genres, and styles in writing stories, articles and books for young people.
How to find ideas.
How to develop an idea into a story, article, or book.
The basics of character development, plot, setting, and theme.
How to use point of view, dialogue, and thoughts.
How to edit your work and get critiques.
Where to learn more on various subjects.

Whether you’re just starting out or have some experience, this book will make you a better writer – and encourage you to have fun! Order for Kindle, in paperback, or in Large Print paperback.

Chris Eboch is the author of over 30 books for young people, including The Well of Sacrifice, an adventure for ages nine and up set in Mayan Guatemala. Kirkus Reviews called The Well of Sacrifice, “[An] engrossing first novel…. The novel shines not only for a faithful recreation of an unfamiliar, ancient world, but also for the introduction of a brave, likable and determined heroine.” Visit www.chriseboch.com for more advice on writing historical fiction, and a list of great books for young people.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Bloody Jack: Review by Elizabeth McLaughlin

Due to a most unfortunate accident, which has necessitated my being off the writing scene for several months, I have had to shelve – temporarily – my MG historical faction on the Second World War in Scotland.

When I was able to begin reading once more, my choice was ‘Bloody Jack’, by the American L.A. Meyer. This is one terrific book for young readers; it was sheer chance I happened on it, and after a reading, I’m surprised it isn’t more widely known. It has certainly piqued my interest in perhaps doing a naval historical fiction blog later on. Not only known as the Senior Service, the Royal Navy has a unique, illustrious, and fascinating history. Of course there were the sadists, the opportunists and the rogues as well as the great adventurers and heroes. I’d say the former were eclipsed by the latter! But to return to our novel:

It begins in 1797, in the modest London apartment home of ten year old Mary Faber, with her schoolteacher father dead from the plague of the time, and his body being dragged unceremoniously down the stone steps to be carted off. Mary overhears one man say they’d be back ‘for the rest of them soon enough’, and indeed the very next day her mother and little sister die. As the men take the corpses off, their leader tells Mary not to worry, ‘Old Muck will get you soon enough.’ – remember, this is the era of the body-snatchers – men like Muck made money from turning bodies – the fresher, the better – to the teaching universities.

Poor Mary, with only the clothes she is wearing, runs from her home through the uncaring streets of the great capital. She runs till she can go no longer, and she curls up in a darkened doorway hoping only to die and be relieved from her misery. Instead, come darkness, the street children come to life and a gang finds Mary. The leading girl strips her of her nice clothes, even her knickers, for the gangster girl is bare arsed, and tosses her dirty shift for Mary to wear. The gang leader, however, named Rooster Charlie, takes a liking to Mary and she becomes his protégé. Until poor cocky Charlie falls foul of Muck, who murders him. Mary, out looking for him, strips Charlie, dons his clothes, chops her hair – and Jacky is born.

Jacky tries her luck as a ship’s boy; despite her young age, the recruiting officer signs her on because she can read. Told in the first person, present tense, the book is a rollicking tale of Jacky’s adventures and misadventures, the friends and enemies she makes aboard ship, and the onset of adolescence. Mr. Meyer treats it all with sensitivity and humour. Without unduly dwelling on the cruelty and cynicism of the city, he also shows death as being ever-present, and does not sugar coat either death on the streets, or aboard ship, whether by accident, judgement, or battle. The dialogue throughout is that of the London streets at the time, it should be quite easy for today’s middle-graders to understand. I found just one jarring note – the use of ‘Brits’ to describe Mary’s fellow countrymen. I’m sure this loathsome abbreviation is of recent origin. There again, I’m prejudiced and open to any necessary correction!

This book paints an excellent historical picture of life in the Royal Navy, the perils, the Barbary pirates, life in London and Boston at the end of the eighteenth century. Sure to appeal to the MG.

 Elizabeth McLaughlin

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Genre Shifters - When Contemporary Fiction Becomes Historical

by Suzanne Morgan Williams

Recently I re-read Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck’s classic novel about the Depression. When he wrote it, in 1939, it was contemporary fiction. Grapes of Wrath was the result of interviews and short stories he’d written about California’s migrant families who’d been displaced during the Dust Bowl. But to today’s readers it’s historical.
How do some books hold up to the test of time? Of course, there is the engaging, universal story. In the Grapes of Wrath, we recognize the Joad family’s struggle to stay together in the face of insurmountable odds, to hold onto their dignity as it is stripped away, to stay alive. But what else makes this work as a historical novel when it wasn’t written as one? I’d argue it’s the detail.
Steinbeck gives precise descriptions of the land, the cars, the contents of the Joad’s homes and what they choose to carry with them to California. He lays out the politics and policies that work against them. We know what Rose O’Shar’n wore and what over ripe peaches taste like. Yes, some of the language is old fashioned and his message of workers joining together against big business may seem dated in hind sight (although the problem of greed undermining the value of human beings is certainly current). Through his copious and well-chosen details, Steinbeck offers a fully fleshed out world that we can understand and visualize seventy-five years later. If he had written only for his contemporary audience, if he’d assumed they knew much about the Joad’s world as the took to the road and so omitted what was then common knowledge, modern readers might feel lost or disinterested in a story we can no longer relate to.
What does this mean for today’s middle grade writers? Don’t skimp on detail. Even if everyone knows what the Empire State building looks like, give us a sense of looking up to the spire from street level, of the textures and messages of the bas relief art that lines the interior, of the speed of the elevator. This will engage today’s children and act as a guide to future readers who will have life experiences we can’t yet imagine. What will kids, seventy-five years from now need to know in order to love your books?

My question to you - What books do you love that where contemporary when they were written and are now historical? Why do you think they still speak to us?

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Summertime--and the Reading is Easy by Mary Louise Sanchez

Summer is the time teachers reflect on and evaluate the past year's lessons. Teachers also take summer staff development classes; and wouldn't it be beneficial if you received practical lessons which emphasized best practices for teaching history.

Summer is a good time to pique your interest in history by reading or listening to great historical fictional stories for children as you travel the highways. Imagine how much more prepared you'd be to pick those "just right" historical fiction books for your students that correlate with the curriculum and standards. 

In an interview with Teaching History.Org in 2011, Valerie Tripp, best known for her American Girl historical fiction characters, discussed how to make a period of history matter to your students. As you're reading those wonderful historical fiction stories think about how they can make history come alive using her suggestions.

She suggested that you consider where your students are right now and connect them to the past.  How would you celebrate your birthday? What would your chores be? What would your hopes and dreams be?

She also said "it is emotion—making a person-to-person connection, imagining yourself in someone else’s shoes—that sparks, fuels, and maintains a student's interest in a period of history."

There are so many resources which list great books, and here are just two of them which highlight history and social studies for children. One wonderful resource is the Scott O'Dell Award for Historical Fiction.

 It is awarded annually to "a meritorious book published in the previous year for children or young adults." To be eligible, "a book must have been published as a book intended for children or young people, it must be set in the New World (Canada, Central or South America, or the United States), it must be published by a publisher in the United States, and it must be written in English by a citizen of the United States."

By Historical Period
1993 prize Michael Dorris, Morning Girl, 1492 The Bahamas
1984 prize Elizabeth Speare, The Sign of the Beaver
1985 prize Avi, The Fighting Ground
1987 prize Scott O’Dell, Streams to the River, River to the Sea
(Sacagawea; Lewis & Clark) Early 19th Century
2006 prize Louise Erdrich, The Game of Silence, Ojibwe Mid 19th Century
1986 prize Patrician MacLachlan, Sarah, Plain and Tall, Late 19th Century
2005 prize A. LaFaye, Worth Orphan Train, Nebraska Late 19th Century
2003 prize Shelley Pearsall, Trouble Don’t Last, Underground Railroad
1997 prize Katherine Paterson, Jip, His Story, 1855-56 VT
2008 prize Christopher Paul Curtis, Elijah of Buxton, Escaped slaves, Canada
1988 prize Patricia Beatty, Charley Skedaddle
1994 prize Paul Fleischman, Bull Run
2004 prize Richard Peck, The River Between Us
1990 prize Carolyn Reeder, Shades of Gray
1999 prize Harriette Gillem Robinet, 40 Acres and Maybe a Mule
2002 prize Mildred D. Taylor, The Land
1991 prize Pieter van Raven, A Time of Trouble
1998 prize Karen Hesse, Out of the Dust
2010 prize Matt Phelan, The Storm in the Barn
2012 prize Jack Gantos, Dead End in Norvelt
1992 prize Mary Downing Hahn, Stepping on the Cracks
1995 prize Graham Salisbury, Under the Blood-Red Sun
2000 prize Miriam Bat-Ami, Two Suns in the Sky
2001 prize Janet Taylor Lisle, The Art of Keeping Cool
2007 prize Ellen Klages, The Green Glass Sea
1996 prize Theodore Taylor, The Bomb
2011 prize Rita Williams-Garcia, One Crazy Summer
1989 prize Lyll Becerra de Jenkins, The Honorable Prison

Another resource for historical fiction books for children is the Notable Books List published by the National Council for the Social Studies (NCCS). A panel of educators and librarians read more than 200 books to select these "notable books." Lists from prior years are free, and you can purchase the newest list or access it for free with a membership in NCCS. The database of lists by the years have general reading levels and applicable NCSS standards are identified. The lists also have an annotation of the book.
                                                 National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) 

My public library has a fun, visual way to track summer reading. Children and adults add a pom-pom to the large container in the library for every book that is read.

Perhaps you could add a coin to a jar for every book you read. If you read historical fiction books aimed at youth, (which are usually shorter) just imagine how much money you'll have by the time school starts again!

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Historical Fiction Based on Historical Photographs

As the author of The Iron Horse Chronicles, I find that photographs provide me with a solid source on which to base a scene. I follow a historical timeline in my trilogy about the building of the first transcontinental railroad, and I try not to deviate far from it in order to ensure an accurate depiction of the facts. First, I develop a chronological listing of the significant events that occur; then I weave my plot around each event, placing my fictional characters in juxtaposition with the historical personages who were present at that event.

History books, contemporary newspaper articles, and biographies and autobiographies, provided the bulk of the research material I consulted while developing the timelines for the three books comprising The Iron Horse Chronicles. Photographs contained in these sources, plus photos available in museum collections, have given me the basis for placing Will Braddock and his fictional friends and enemies in realistic situations. I personally walked the ground where many of the inspiring photographs were taken to get a better feel for how to describe the locale.

The above photograph served as the basis for an important scene in Bear Claws, the second book in the trilogy. A confrontational meeting took place at the Fort Sanders Officers’ Club near Laramie, Wyoming, between Doc Durant and General Dodge of the Union Pacific Railroad. General Ulysses S. Grant, the Republican candidate for President, refereed their disagreement, rendering a decision that had  a significant impact on the construction of the transcontinental railroad. All of the people in the photograph have been accurately identified. Grant stands left of center wearing a straw hat. Other well known generals are present, including Sheridan and Sherman. I wove a description of this photo into Chapter 37, from which I quote the following selection. Andrew Jackson Russell, a historical personage, was the official photographer for the Union Pacific. Will Braddock is the protagonist in The Iron Horse Chronicles. Luey (Lieutenant Luigi Moretti) and Will’s uncle (Sean Corcoran) are fictional.

Russell flipped the heavy, black drape over his head, and Will watched the camera bellows move back and forth until the photographer had the focus he desired. Then Russell stepped out from under the cloth hood.

 “All right, folks. We’re ready. I’m going to remove the lens cover and count to three, while I expose the plate to sunlight. After three seconds, I’ll replace the lens cap, and the picture will have been taken. Do not move while the lens cap is off! That’s important.”

 A final shuffling of the group took place. General Grant stood in the center leaning both hands on the picket fence. Dodge remained in the Club’s doorway. Doc Durant slouched against the open gate of the fence, sulking like a three-year-old. To the far left, Will saw Luey twist the ends of his mustache to straighten them, then stick one hand into the front of his uniform coat. Will couldn’t suppress his grin. Luey was imitating the famous pose of Napoleon Bonaparte.

“Here we go,” Russell said. He removed the lens cover and counted. “One. Two. Three!” He replaced the lens cap and slid a wooden holder out of the side of the camera, handing it to Will.

Will ran to the back of the wagon and exchanged the container for the one that he found, just as Russell had told him. He raced back to the photographer, who inserted the new plate into the side of the camera.

“One more shot, please,” Russell said. "Ready now. One. Two. Three!”

Russell stood and held up a hand. “Thank you, ladies and gentlemen. All finished.” He shook Will’s hand. “Thank you, young man. You were a big help. Everything went fine except I couldn’t get those two gentlemen on the far left into the picture. The lens is just not that wide.”

Will chuckled. So much for Luey’s imitation of Napoleon making it into the history books. Unfortunately, his Uncle Sean would be left out, too.

In addition to describing a historical event in which the protagonist participated, this scene gave me the opportunity to explain to today’s young readers the cumbersome photography of 1868.

Above is the second shot Russell took in front of the Fort Sanders Officers’ Club that day. I used the above scene to introduce Will to the Union Pacific’s photographer. Will encounters Russell on other occasions, including scenes in Golden Spike, the final book of the trilogy. Students of history will undoubtedly recognize the following, famous photograph taken by Russel on May 10, 1869.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Sara K Joiner: Take Advantage of Your Libraries

I was fortunate enough to attend two sessions about writing historical fiction at the Texas Library Association's Annual Conference. The second session, from Ann Weissgarber, focused on utilizing libraries for research.

As a librarian, I know the wealth of information libraries contain. As a writer of historical fiction, I know the importance of research.

But I didn't always know the the full power available to me at libraries.

I still remember the first time I ever heard of inter-library loan. I was in tenth grade and had recently watched Coal Miner's Daughter with Sissy Spacek as Loretta Lynn. Naturally, I wanted to read the book, but my high school library didn't have it.

Undeterred, my mother and I went to the public library the next weekend. This was a bigger deal than it sounds as that library -- the Friench-Simpson Memorial Library in Hallettsville, Texas -- was 20 miles from my house.

Unfortunately, the library didn't have the book either. Mom suggested I try to get it through inter-library loan.

"What is that?" I asked.

"When one library doesn't have the book you want, they can get it from another library," she explained.

That sounded too good to be true. The library would simply get it from somewhere else? You couldn't do that at the video store or a department store or Walmart.

Certain this was something only available at big libraries like Houston, where my mother grew up, I walked up to the circulation desk at my little one-building library prepared to be laughed right out onto the street.

"Can you do inter-library loan?" I asked timidly.

"Yes, we can," the librarian said. "You just need to fill out this form."

Imagine my shock!

Coal Miner's Daughter arrived about a month or later, and I read it with delight. A paper inter-library loan band obscured the cover, but that was a small price to pay for the incredible service provided by inter-library loan.

Now that I'm a librarian, I know how much work inter-library loans are for library staff. But it's still worth it. The service is generally free and there is still some minor paperwork, but much of the heavy lifting is done online now. One of the more fascinating aspects of inter-library loan is seeing where the material came from. I once got a book from the United States Department of State Library, which is how I learned there was a State Department Library.

A library's card catalog --
the original search engine
At college, I discovered another library secret. Librarians love to do research! When I had exhausted my own meager research skills as a freshman, I shyly approached the circulation desk once again. Admittedly, the desk at Texas Lutheran University's Blumberg Library was quite a bit larger than the desk at the Friench-Simpson Memorial Library.

I explained my needs. I can no longer remember the specifics -- whatever paper I was writing at the time was not nearly as exciting as reading Coal Miner's Daughter.

Off I was led on a journey through the largest reference collection I had ever seen up to that point -- Statistical Updates for every country, subject dictionaries, resource guides, plus the usual encyclopedias (more than World Book), atlases and almanacs -- all up-to-date. She also showed me how to use the online databases to find even more information.

Most importantly, she empowered me to find information on my own.

Once I started library school at the University of Texas at Austin -- and found an even larger reference collection -- I didn't feel so overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information found there.

As a librarian and historical fiction author, I get to combine the best of both worlds. Researching time periods, events and lives for information that will be useful or interesting in novels for children. What could be better?

Tell your students to ask librarians for help. We won't give you the answers, but we'll give you a ton of resources to find what you need. The tougher the question, the more we enjoy the challenge.

Take advantage of our skills. We paid a lot of money to graduate schools to get them. Remember Google doesn't have all the answers. Your librarian may not have the answer either, but she will go out of her way to find it. Google will never do that.

Sara K Joiner is the author of After the Ashes, coming in October from Holiday House. She is also the children's coordinator for the Brazoria County Library System.