Don’t you just love authors who make historical figures interesting, fun, and accessible for younger elementary students? It’s a special skill and one Barb Rosenstock has obviously mastered. Her subjects have included photographer Dorothea Lange, bluegrass musician Bill Monroe, and Nek Chand Saini, the creator of the Rock Garden of Chandigarh; artists Vincent Van Gogh and Vasya Kandinsky; statesmen Benjamin Franklin, Theodore Roosevelt, and Thomas Jefferson; sports figures like race car driver Louise Smith and baseball player Joe DiMaggio; and Otis Barton and Will Beebe, the subjects of her most recent book, Otis and Will Discover the Deep, which received a highly recommended rating from our reviewers. I reached out to Rosenstock and she generously agreed to answer a few questions I had for her.
When did you know you wanted to become a writer?
Certainly NOT when I was a kid. I loved to read, but I had no idea where writers lived or who was allowed to be one or that “writing” was even something “regular” people could do as a job! Instead, I followed a career in corporate marketing/graphic design. Later, I started reading picture books to my sons and fell in love with the genre. My boys happened to like more realistic stories and back then, many nonfiction picture books were kind of dry and textbook-like. To me, great picture books work exactly like a commercial storyboard or a YouTube video. A scene happens, it breaks, you go close in, then pan back out, you keep at the theme, repeat. The format and brevity of picture books was super comfortable to me. Originally, I just wanted to write one picture book that treated history as a STORY, you know the way a grandparent might have told it (in particular, the way my grandfather might have told it). I took a chance about ten years ago and started submitting some terrible manuscripts. I collected quite a few rejections, but one manuscript, The Camping Trip that Changed America, was pulled out of a slush pile at Penguin Books and that started this whole new adventure.
What led you to Otis & Will? Would you have taken a dive in the bathysphere?
As far as I remember, Theodore Roosevelt introduced me to Will Beebe. Theodore Roosevelt in all his contradictions is a minor obsession of mine. About 2012 I read that he once talked about deep sea exploration (and supposedly sketched his own diving craft) with someone named William Beebe. Google “William Beebe” and you get “bathysphere” (among tons of other stuff,) Google “bathysphere,” you get “Otis Barton.” Seriously, three clicks of a keyboard and I knew this could be a book (trust me, most of the time it takes years). The biggest piece of serendipity in what became a pretty involved research process, was when I sent a generic email to the Library of Congress website just to see if they had any bathysphere photos and it happened to be answered at the desk that day by a science librarian named Constance Carter, who had been one of Will Beebe’s own research assistants! Connie became the book’s heart, lent me materials and her impressions. You can hear from her in the back matter of Otis & Will Discover the Deep.
Back to the second part of your question, NO! I would not, at any time, in any way, be the first person to go down in a hollow metal bowling ball deep into the dark ocean! I’m not even close to that kind of brave. I’d go second. I bet our fearless illustrator, Katherine Roy, would go first…Katherine?
You’ve written on a wide variety of people, which one would you most like to meet and why?
I’d like to say Benjamin Franklin, ‘cuz who wouldn’t want to listen to Ben’s stories? But I think even though I tried do him justice in Ben Franklin’s Big Splash, he’d probably ignore me as not scientific enough. I’m going to go with photographer Dorothea Lange, who I wrote about in Dorothea’s Eyes. When you study videos of Dorothea, she is so thoughtful, purposeful, and intelligent about her creativity, and its purpose. She has a drive combined with a centeredness and peacefulness about her work’s meaning that is truly compelling. I can only imagine how inspirational it might have been to meet her.
What do you enjoy most about school visits?
The kids’ energy. It’s encouraging and rubs any bad mood or jadedness right off you. I also like when I get a group of kids to realize that writing isn’t a “right or wrong” kind of subject. Writers all throw out ten times as many words as we keep. Sometimes your “mistakes” are where the best parts are gonna come from. It’s a craft, like knitting, dancing, or playing the oboe. Writing is exercising your brain in a specific way, over and over, like you’d shoot free throws. Eventually you get writing memory the way athletes get muscle memory. I just wish there was more time in school for kids to practice, not just produce!
Keeping in mind that we’re a magazine for K-12 school librarians, is there anything you’d like to add that we haven’t touched on?
I’d love to encourage school librarians to use picture books with older students all the time. Picture books bring surprisingly strong emotional connections to upper grade curriculum topics. They are among the best literary teaching tools for 4th graders, 8th graders, and even adults. Pictures books are naturally multidisciplinary, engaging, often higher in vocabulary, great writing models, visually oriented, and they can be tailored to specific student needs.
And gosh, I also hope that librarians and teachers don’t just “do biographies” during “biography month.” Learning about all these people’s lives has changed me, made me more optimistic about my own life. It’s wonderful to surprise kids with almost unbelievable stories that turn out to be true. Students need to see that anyone can accomplish anything. Reading about people’s lives and accomplishments can help kids understand that challenges can be met, problems solved, disabilities overcome, and differences celebrated. A lot of students today say they want to be “famous.” Well every “famous person” was once a regular kid, who worked at something they liked. So the future is made by people who are just like them. I hope my books encourage that spirit of optimism in them.
You can learn more about Barb and her books at her website http://barbrosenstock.com/