Sunday, March 27, 2011

Manatees and Turtles and Armadillos, oh my!

I had a flash from the past a few days ago when I checked to see if a children's article I'd written years ago was still posted online. I had written it specifically for an online publication called Parents and Children Together Online. It included photos George took for me to go with the article. I had two articles published in that issue of PCTO. The manatee article was the one I was trying to find. I have one of the photos George shot framed in our 1/2 bath next to the dining room.
The entire article was still available online until shortly after I posted the link here. It had been up for years so I'm not sure why they decided to archive it now.

More than one person has asked me if George was in the tank with the manatees when he took the photos and I always tell them, no, that the zoo frowns on that type of thing.

The other online article published in the same issue of PCTO was called "Weekend Cowgirls." I got the idea for this one when my sister, Carol, told me about her friend who lived in the city during the week but spent weekends on a working ranch. I decided to write about this woman's two little girls for PCTO, so George agreed to go with me to the family's ranch on a Saturday and take pictures of the girls and how they interacted with the animals. The resulting article is no longer available online. Indiana University has something to do with that because they archived these articles. I was able to post a link to this when I originally wrote this but the article has now been taken down by Indiana U.

I've always been drawn to writing nonfiction for children as opposed to fiction.    My feeling about this is that if I find a topic interesting then I should be able to write about it in a way that would interest others.  As with most stories, it's not the subject so much as how you tell the story that matters most.  I love bananas and I found a way to write about them that led to three different articles in three different magazines.

The first article I had published was called "What Your Tears Do For You" in Children's Digest in 1989.  This was prompted by wondering why most of us feel better after we cry.
Until this article was sold, all of my published work had been in the form of book reviews, mostly for the local newspaper and a few trade magazines.  I felt like I'd found my niche with children's nonfiction.  I continued to write through the 1990's.

Many of the articles I sold were published with illustrations from either a free-lance illustrator or an illustrator on staff with the magazine.  The articles I'd written on tears, why we yawn, the history of the handshake, etc., were more suitable for illustrations.  I didn't think about the addition of photos until I saw that some publications preferred a picture to an illustration.  That's when I dragged George into it.

Besides the manatee and the ranch photos, he also shot pictures of gopher turtles, a Florida panther and a 15 year old girl I interviewed who was writing a sci-fi book.  The one subject I wrote about that George was never able to shoot a good photo of was an armadillo.  And it wasn't for lack of trying. 
They were always digging in our yard at night and there was one in particular who was recognizable due to a big splash of white pigment on his face and snout(?). For some reason I thought of the musician, Edgar Winter, so I named the armadillo Edgar. We had a next door neighbor at the time who was really pissed off at Edgar because he dug a hole under his air conditioning unit. My feeling about this is that, to be fair, the animals were here first so just repair the damage and forget about it. Unfortunately, this guy went into his garage to get a bow and arrow one night and I immediately moved toward Edgar and started telling him to 'run, run'! He was gone by the time the Big-Game Hunter found his weapon. That was a close one.

I have to admit though that I was so desperate for a photo that I actually considered using a roadkill armadillo if necessary. There are usually plenty of those around and I told George that if it still had a 'good' side we could prop it up and get a picture and no one else would know.
Luckily the editor for the magazine I sold my article to decided to use a professional photo (folded into the issue as a poster) and did a nice job laying out my article on the poster. I was happy with that. The roadkill idea never seemed to work.

Probably the most unusual place I ever found an idea for an article came from an episode of Saturday Night Live. Steve Martin was the guest host and there was a sketch where he played a barber/surgeon called Theodoric of York.
He played this character more than once on SNL. I knew that the history of barbers and surgeons were, um, somewhat intertwined. Apparently it wasn't unusual to have your hair cut next to someone having his leg amputated. So, from seeing that sketch, an idea came for an article called "The Days of the Barber-Surgeon" for a boys' magazine called Pioneer. If I should ever meet Mr. Martin, I'll have to thank him.

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