by Peggy Thomson
I'm impressed with the title. And please know that it's totally bogus, implying that I am not still a dial telephone person with a number that is OLiver 6-9999, implying that I am surfing about on the Internet with which I have not yet become acquainted. In fact I happily continue to do my research in a very old-fashioned manner.
As writers we all know that we have to be brave. I talk about that with kids on school visits. Writing, we need to be brave to start on empty sheets of paper, to do what Jane Yolen refers to as facing the AHA factor--what will be the game plan, the rules, the focus, what is really my point? We have to tinker, change, accept advice. Worst of all we have to discard--leave out a lot that we like. All of that is why there's nothing too good for a person when she's writing--kindly attentions in the form of trips downstairs to consult with the dictionary or to consult with a dog who lets you know you're on track surely and doing fine.
The research part is different. Research is its own fun and reward. It's energizing-- the work of a crow swooping onto shining objects, a packrat, out collecting, a beachcomber, dreaming over shells. It's active and upbeat, a success experience of clattering about and reading in quiet places, talking to experts, and much of the time (at least so I find) watching, listening, tagging along, not to say eavesdropping). Research is going places--in my case to China to meet the quintessential water buffalo, to New Mexico to meet a flock of sheep, to a spaghetti factory to learn how you make a ton of spaghetti or to a bats and balls factory in Tullahoma TN to learn how you whittle down a wood billet to make a wood bat, how you squeeze an aluminum tube to make an aluminum bat and you fill it to make it sing right--the equivalent of wood bat's famous crack!--how you make the cores for balls too and cut out the leather covers and with a long red cotton thread and a needle at each end you stitch the ballcovers together--left right left right as if you are lacing your shoe.
How else but in the name of research can you do all that reading, going, learning--and on company time? Living in Washington we have it all in the way of terrific resources. Not just a Natural History Library but--for studying the great auk--a birds library complete with skins, eggs, skeletons plus the letters of explorers. To study George Washington's famous teeth: the national medical library. To find the very street where Ulysses Grant got his speeding ticket for driving his carriage too fast, the Washingtoniana division of Martin Luther King.
For baseball, we in Washington have the books and the encyclopedic advice of our genial local author Paul Dickson. I was also skimming stacks of biographies of players to find that Joe DiMaggio as a boy swung a bat that was part of a broken oar from his fisherman father; that Hank Aaron batted bottle caps with a broomstick, happily to discover later that bottle caps float like curve balls, that Mickey Mantle's father pitched to him right-handed and his grandfather left-handed, and so he became the best switchhitter ever.
To research spaghetti, there's the agriculture library. I wanted to write that Thomas Jefferson was the first president to serve spaghetti in the White House. I'd seen that in magazine stories. Just to be fastidious I called the White House historians for confirmation. No, they said, No don't put that in a book. Sure, he loved spaghetti on trips to Italy, yes he sent home crates of dry macaroni to Monticello. But we have no White House menus as evidence. Then I discovered a spaghetti fan in the American History Museum's rare books library. She could show me the very letter from a Massachusetts Congressman, telling the family back home about supper at the White House with Jefferson--meat, fish, chicken, every kind of dish--including what he considered a rather peculiar pie of strong onions and macaroni.
I find that, when it's possible, relying heavily on observation is just an awfully comfortable way to work. At the Zoo, doing a book where each chapter is a keeper's activity with one animal, I found that the zoo was delighted to set up 4 interviews for me with keepers, but then--thank you good-bye--the public affairs division was quite ready for me to go home and stop wasting keepers' time. The best chapters turned out to be where I could watch the same activity Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday. The whole book could have been How to Give Your Elephant a Bath with neat stuff in it about foot care in particular. Follow that with How to Train Your Sea Lion for the sea lion's fun, health and protection. Then How to Teach Sign Language to a Sickly Orangutan to perk up her spirits. Separate books instead of chapters.
Interviews fascinate me. Early on, in the Auks book, I learned from Mr. Braisted that some interesting people aren't good interview subjects. Mr. Braisted who cleans all the natural history objects that are not under glass said in his office: you don't want to interview me, go talk to the curators, implying he was kind of a janitor. Tagging along with him though on his rounds I found he could be a nonstop talker, full of surprising advice on how to keep the shine on the coat of a tiger and a realistically dusty look for the elephant and how to avoid leaving an ostrich feather behind on dusting a dinosaur.
On the way to China I read a book of interviews called "Chinese Lives." When the plane landed in Changsha, I could scarcely bear to put down this book. How had these two interviewers achieved such natural-sounding accounts filled with heart- and mind-expanding stories and sentiments? They kept the hand of an interviewer totally hidden, yet the reader sensed that some warmly sympathetic bond had made it possible to elicit this material from the subjects.
In China and then again in New Mexico with Navajo Katie, I felt how helpless a person is without languages. At the start we had an interpreter. The photographer had brought along his Chinese instructor. But Question and Answer is such an unsatisfactory way to hold a conversation. Our interpreter happened to be alarmingly assertive. I was interested in an egg lady in the market. And so the egglady was buttonholed and peppered and she began backing away. Luckily my China-born husband appeared for our last four days. Again an egg lady. He caught her eye, saying he bet her eggs were wonderfully fresh. She sparkled and was soon telling him her morning's adventures from a 3 a m visit to the henhouse on to the long walk along the highway with egg baskets on her carrying pole.
In Chinese school yards, I was fascinated by the jump rope and the hopscotch. Not just little kids, but 7th graders--intent and skillful. The teacher (who had two of her pupils explain to me) wound up at a later date telephoning me from the greyhound bus depot here in Washington and coming to live with us for 3 years and summoning her husband to join us also.
While she was here I learned a research technique I've loved knowing--from Washington writer Michele Slung. Michele was at work on her book about nonsense words from around the world--how you say cock-a-doodle-doo if you are Japanese or French. Great idea. She assigned me to have 3 young people, recently from Mainland China, on whom she could try out her 80 words. Three tend to sparkle each other up, show off a bit, get carried away. Here when a dog barks we say it goes woof woof, arf arf or bow wow. The 3 Chinese looked at each other and laughed. Dogs say: wang wang. Of course. I wish I'd known that because kids landing in the dog square for hopscotch have to bark. I hadn't noticed wang wang. I didnt pick up on the much used expression ma ma hu hu either, though I learned that from my husband and his brother in time to put it in the book. And kids love to learn that too. ma ma horse horse hu hu tiger tiger. It's in answer to "How are you doing?" Oh, horses and tigers, comme ci comme ca.
Then, how to research Katie sheepherder, weaver, great-grandmother out with her flock, her horse, her dogs 10 months of the year? There are good books on Navajo culture, on Navajo weaving. But how to tell the story of this remarkable talented woman who smiled to me but never spoke directly?
Things weren't at all as I expected. There was a 3-day-old baby and lots of other kids in the house of her daughter who was taking a few days off work to be interpreter. I washed a lot of dishes in the company of a 12-year-old who was not inclined to chat about granny Katie beyond confiding that she may indeed refuse to speak English but when kids get out of hand she does yell: BE Quiet!
I'd expected to camp out with Katie and her flock at one of her 5 sheep camps accessible to water and good grazing. Sleeping bag, spoon and pan at the ready. But Katie, it turned out, had been invited to perform in the Smithsonian folk festival on the Mall. She was half a day's walk from home and on her way to pack. So I had just time to reach her by truck and to spend that one morning with the grandkids, running after her on her horse, running over the rocky grassland, experiencing the power of cutting off the animals' escape into the woods. Goats go and come back. Sheep just go--20 40 miles--and may never be seen again.
Actually Katie's packing was interesting too. Not her animals. They'd have churro sheep for her here on the Mall. But I could watch her deciding on essential favorite tools to bring, her 2 best looms, her carding combs and battens, her plant dyes and cook pots. There was time too for a 15-mile truck ride to the ruins of the hogan where she was born and lived with her 6 sisters and brothers. On the way she was talking quietly to her daughter--in the front seat. Grocery lists, gossip? I hated to keep asking and the daughter relayed messages in a decidedly bored tone of voice. "O, she's just saying that's the field where she was in charge of 50 of her parents' sheep when she was 8 years old. And that's the tree where she shot her first porcupine--with an arrow--just that kind of stuff."
At the hogan where the kids used the ruins as a jungle gym this Katie could point to the very spot on the ground just to south of center where she was born. She told how she'd run away into the woods and been told to hide by her parents, who were expecting the visit from school officials, wanting to take Katie to the boarding school for the Navajo children. Her parents couldn't trust, she said, couldn't trust what might become of her. They told her the sheep would be her livelihood always, even as they'd buried her umbilical cord in the sheep corral when she was born.
The sheep were all that to her, she says now. And more.
Interestingly, though, she wanted school for her children. And, I think, all 10 are college graduates.
My best research break, out in New Mexico, was to meet her bilingual 12-year-old grandson Dwayne, a kid who loved telling about her as a great shot and a rock thrower, killing a rattler with one blow, as the person who taught him to shake snowy branches on a bare chest for snow showers and to yell the appropriate yells.
Kid communicators are strokes of luck--like the school kids in Changsha who wrote me letters that became the best part of the China book. The girl whose parents never taught her to cook because she's an only child and they wanted her to study hard. Grandma taught her though one summer--jiaodzes and fish with ginger. I did always think cooking will be interesting, she wrote. It is not. It is hot and dangerous. True! The boy who says of his bike: My bike he is black and shiny. A treasure. But sometimes he is sick.
Here when Katie came to Washington she was greatly admired by the crowds. She found it kind of funny--that they should be interested not just in her roping and shearing, carding, spinning, weaving, but even how she made her mush and tied up her pony tail and sat on the ground on one foot. It was a blessing for me. I could sit and watch for four days in a row, I could listen to her interpreter son and to her friends who tend sheep and weave also and who tease her. They speak English and they like to say when her kids sell her flock and expect her to stay home and pay utility bills, that she'll run away and not stop till she finds another flock.
Why won't she speak English? It's clear she understands it. She says her mouth just won't make the sounds. She says children don't hear enough Navajo if they don't get it from her. I wish I'd been with her here when she was shown in the Smithsonian the looms that had been taken from her ancestors at the time of the Long Walk. She fingered the weaving and said: this woman had strong hands--to judge from the sharp edges she made. That other woman had a large flock--because she had so many natural wool colors. I hear Katie had tears streaming down her face that day. When she talks to Navajo school children she tells them: the story of the Navajo past has much sadness in it. Know the past so that it's a part of you and so you never let it embitter you.
I can't help wondering: how well did I get to know this remarkable woman? It gives me at least some confidence that her daughter says: reading my text she realized--oddly--that she was hearing her mother's voice speaking in Navajo.
There's not the time to tell you the wonders and marvels of my authorized prowl through the National Gallery of Art for their behind the scenes book. I was authorized and official and assigned to play my way through the workshops and archives and rooms full of amazing files for each and every work of art. I was also work-for-hire. And so they were free to assign widely and then to lop and restitch and add. And I never even got to write captions or mop up typos, or grammatical errors. I have 10,000 deep regrets for what might have been. You don't want to hear. It was research worth doing. And it was an adventure.
I close on one piece of advice from Ellen Roberts whose books on writing for children you may know. She understands us researchers well. Her advice is to start writing well before you have every little research point in place. Start getting your project on paper, so you then have a pudding into which to put every splendid new plum that you gather. Ellen is right!
The preceding was presented by Peggy Thomson at a joint meeting of The Society of Childrens Book Writers and Illustrators and the Womens National Book Association on March 20, 1997.
Go to a study guide prepared by Peggy to accompany her book Katie Henio, Navajo Sheepherder
Go to a review of Katie Henio, Navajo Sheepherder
If you're interested in reviewing children's and young adult books, then send a resume to firstname.lastname@example.org.