Author Interview: Ann Bausum on Our Country’s First Ladies

Ann Bausum writes about U.S. history for young people from her home in Beloit, Wisconsin. Her books often examine social justice themes, including the voting rights of women (With Courage and Cloth (National Geographic, 2004)), the struggle to integrate interstate buses during 1961 (Freedom Riders (National Geographic, 2006)), and the power of free speech (Muckrakers (National Geographic, 2007)).

Her books consistently earn awards and recognition, including Sibert Honor designation for Freedom Riders and a Jane Addams Children’s Book Award for With Courage and Cloth. Both titles were designated notable books by the American Library Association (ALA), too, and gained recognition on many other lists of commended books. In addition, Booklist named Freedom Riders “Top of the List” as the best youth nonfiction book of 2006.

Ann graduated from Beloit College in 1979. She and her husband have two teenage sons.

What about the writing life first called to you?

A love of books and reading–from the earliest ages–led directly to my writing life. Even as a kid I wrote picture books, memorized history, and organized neighborhood play productions. I don’t think I could not be a writer. That’s what I’m wired–and inspired–to do.

What made you decide to write for young readers?

After graduating from college, I used my writing skills and interests in very practical ways through public relations work. For ten years I wrote and edited news releases, catalog copy, and magazine stories.

Then I stopped working to stay home with my two young sons. My boys helped reintroduce me to children’s literature during weekly visits to the public library and the reading of hundreds, even thousands, of books for young readers.

Finally I had the dangerous thought: “I could write one of these!” And I was off.

Could you fill us in on your path to publication–any sprints or stumbles along the way?

Thinking I could write a children’s book was one thing; it took me years to figure out exactly how to do it. (And I’m still learning!) Eventually I focused on one topic and learned about the business through that project.

It took me about five years to go from the idea of writing a book about the explorer Roy Chapman Andrews to holding a finished copy of Dragon Bones and Dinosaur Eggs (National Geographic, 2000) in my hands.

Along the way I found the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (a tremendous resource for new authors), developed an understanding of how to write about history, and met my publisher, the National Geographic Society. My children were still pretty young then, so I learned how to work with short blocks of time, background chaos, and interruptions, too.

For those new to your work, could you briefly highlight your backlist as you see fit?

Sure. Dragon Bones and Dinosaur Eggs (National Geographic, 2000) tells the story of an adventurous explorer from the turn of the last century who helped find the first nests of dinosaur eggs. Roy Chapman Andrews made his discoveries during the first motorized expeditions to the Gobi of Mongolia. Camels carried in supplies–including thousands of gallons of gasoline–and hauled away fossils and other finds.

Our Country’s Presidents (National Geographic, 2001, 2005 2nd edition) is just what it sounds like, an introduction to the 42 men who have served our country as chief executive. (Fact: George W. Bush is our 43rd President, but only 42 men have been President. Grover Cleveland is counted twice because his two terms were interrupted by the Presidency of Benjamin Harrison; thus Cleveland counts as #22 and #24). This book is packed with facts, trivia, and details that help to put a human/personal face on our national leaders.

With Courage and Cloth: Winning the Fight for a Woman’s Right to Vote (National Geographic, 2004) grew out of my passion for this subject–and childhood memories of meeting one of the suffragists featured in the book, Alice Paul. I wanted young people to know that women worked and sweated and schemed and dreamed and suffered and persevered for 72 years to gain a right that is too easily taken for granted.

Freedom Riders: John Lewis and Jim Zwerg on the Front Lines of the Civil Rights Movement (National Geographic, 2006) tells two stories–the story of segregated life in the 1940s and ’50s, and the story of how people crossed racial and geographic divides to end the practice of segregated travel in the South. During this struggle Freedom Riders exhibited tremendous courage and a deep commitment to act nonviolently.

See below for more about Our Country’s First Ladies (National Geographic, 2007), a companion book to Our Country’s Presidents, and my upcoming book Muckrakers (National Geographic, September, 2007).

Congratulations on the publication of Our Country’s First Ladies (National Geographic, 2007)! What was your initial inspiration for this book?

National Geographic proposed the idea for Our Country’s Presidents, and Our Country’s First Ladies is a natural extension of that book. A Wisconsin bookseller (from Harry Schwartz Books) first suggested doing a companion book about the President’s wives, and I thought it sounded like a great idea. The same thought bubbled up through National Geographic staff members, too. I loved the notion of giving equal time to the women who partnered with our Presidents.

What was the timeline from spark to publication, and what were the major events along the way?

Actually we produced this book twice, once in 2005 as a 64-page supplement to a special edition of Our Country’s Presidents, and again two years later as a stand-alone edition. We knew from the beginning that the supplement might turn into its own book, so I collected sources and notes during the first production that would enhance an expanded edition. It took about six months to reinvent the book into its new 128-page layout.

One highlight during my second round of research was attending a conference about the First Ladies at a new museum in Ohio, the National First Ladies’ Library, that is devoted to all aspects of First Lady history. Not only did I meet and hear presentations by a number of First Lady historians, but I participated in behind-the-scenes peeks at the library’s collection of photographs, correspondence, memorabilia, and clothing that had been worn by the First Ladies.

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing it to life?

Number one challenge: Space. The design for this book designates a specific amount of space for each profile. I always try to “write tight” but a project like this requires constant reliance on that Strunk and White (The Elements of Style (Longman, 2000, 4th edition)) mantra of “omit needless words.” I shoe-horned favorite stories and trivia into fact boxes, photo captions, even the blank spaces on the last lines of paragraphs.

Number two challenge: Logistics. A project like this requires a tremendous focus on detail. Are we being consistent in our presentation of facts in fact boxes? Have we duplicated information between section, e.g. in the case where a point of trivia that was shared by multiple First Ladies? (I try not to duplicate the same facts within a book.) Is any text running over the allotted space? (Text overages are easy to miss during proofing unless you systematically compare new and old versions.) Keeping consistent within our own parameters–such as how to list family members or earlier marriages–requires a lot of double-checking, too.

Number three challenge: What are the facts? You would think that a fact is a fact is a fact, but facts are subject to all sorts of interpretation–and error. I consult many respected sources when I write, but even the best books can contain mistakes. About two-thirds of the way through the production process on this book I discovered a series of math errors in my source for the ages at which women had become First Ladies. I went back through and recalculated every age myself–as well as all the other ages I had taken from this book, like age at marriage and age at death. Children rely on a book like mine for school report writing, so I work hard to make sure it presents accurate information.

What advice do you have for beginning writers?

I encourage young people to do three things.

First, read: Read a lot, read for variety, read for fun–just read! Readers soak up the way our language works without even realizing it. Reading builds vocabulary, too.

Second, learn the mechanics: All those spelling lists and grammar drills make a difference. Do them! You can’t play a game if you don’t know the rules.

Third, practice: Keep a journal, find a pen pal, write your grandmother. Writing is like music, or sports, or any other skill–you get better with practice.

One final bit of advice: Step outside your comfort zone. By reading the book you think you won’t like, trying that food that looks suspicious, and visiting the place you never thought you’d want to see (as three examples), you’ll learn and grow in ways that enrich your ability to think and write well.

How about those interested in non-fiction specifically?

Read about your area of interest–discover the facts, interpretations, and opinions others have about it. Ask a librarian to teach you how to find a variety of sources of information. Don’t just rely on the Internet. Learn how to tell a reputable source from an unreliable one. Pay attention when teachers explain how to take notes (I still use note cards, just like I did in high school), plan an outline, and organize your thoughts.

Most of all, keep your passion for the subject. When all the stacks of reference books, note cards, and outlines are swept away, your love of a topic should remain.

What do you love about the writing process and why?

I guess I just touched on part of the answer in my response to the previous question: passion. My connection to a topic fuels my work. A lot of what a writer does is tedious, repetitive, time-consuming, even painful. Typing up all my note cards (which is faster than writing them by hand) isn’t much fun, but I love collecting facts. Sitting all day at a photo archive is uncomfortable, but I’m thrilled to see glimpses of the past. Revising a manuscript is hard work, but I find satisfaction in seeing the text grow stronger and more engaging. My commitment to a topic turns the steps in the process of writing into a pleasure instead of work. If I can share some of my passion with the reader, that’s the best reward of all.

What about the writing process do you wish you could skip and why?

I love doing photo research–finding the images that illustrate my books–and I’ve done that work for all but the presidential titles. I could do without the paperwork, though, that comes with securing permission to reproduce an image. That’s probably my least favorite part of the job. Or cleaning up my office at the completion of a project. I’d rather get going on the next book!

How about publishing? What do you love about it? What do you abhor? And again, in both cases, why?

I love working with my editor at National Geographic, Jennifer Emmett, who pulled my first book out of the mail pile of unsolicited manuscripts and has collaborated with me on every project since. Jennifer makes making books a joy. I love the production phase of a book–it’s fun to feel part of a team after working solo on a project for so long.

What do I abhor? I hate how hard it is for good writers to break into the business of publishing. I’m grateful that I’ve had the opportunity to see my books reach print. Too many other talented writers and illustrators wait too long for that same accomplishment–or never achieve the recognition they deserve.

What do you do when you’re not writing?

When I’m not writing, I’m busy with my family, gardening, hiking, cross-country skiing, traveling, cooking, or…reading. I like to read adult nonfiction U.S. history books–surprise!

What can your fans look forward to next?

There’s no need to wait long; my next book will be out later this year. It’s called: Muckrakers: How Ida Tarbell, Upton Sinclair, and Lincoln Steffens Helped Expose Scandal, Inspire Reform, and Invent Investigative Journalism (National Geographic, September, 2007). This book grew out of a devotion to the power of news writing that dates back to my childhood. I came of age reading news reports about assassinations, the Vietnam War, and Watergate. This book examines an earlier period of in-depth reporting (from the turn of the last century) and places the tradition of investigative journalism into its historical context.

One of my favorite parts of any book is the back matter, that stuff that follows the “end” of the story. Of my own books, I think Muckrakers has my favorite back matter yet. We interspersed a lengthy chronology of significant investigative news stories with profiles of my favorite muckraker journalists. The book designer did a great job making this section–and the rest of the book–come alive. I hope readers can have their own sense of investigation and research as they explore the ending of this book (not to mention the rest of it!). Enjoy!