Monday, March 23, 2015

History's Dark Underbelly in Brianna DuMont's 'Famous Phonies'

Looking for a good book to celebrate April Fool's Day? Pick up a fun read from Brianna DuMont called Famous Phonies: Legends, Fakes, and Frauds Who Changed History. This is the first book in a new non-fiction middle-grade series from Sky Pony Press that explores the underbelly of history, questioning whether the most noted figures are actually fakes. From Confucius to Pythagoras, Hiawatha to George Washington, Brianna "debunks many of history's legends, both those who really existed and some who never did," writes School Library Journal. 

Question: What made you want to write about the “scandals, swindles, and closeted skeletons” of history? And why a children’s book?

Brianna DuMont: Honestly, I love history. Even as a kid, I never had to be told that history was fascinating. My favorite vacations when I was little were to Colonial Williamsburg or the castles in Germany. That kind of thing.  But I know that not every kid is like that, so I was looking for a great lens through which I could tell these incredible stories and make history come alive. The sensational, the quirky, the scandalous—they make history fun and they help kids learn. It was a perfect combination. Writing for kids is a no-brainer. They’re discerning readers, so you can’t be pretentious. Which is just the sort of way I like to write.

Q: What was the research like in putting together Famous Phonies? Is your background in history? Or do you just like digging up the past for fun stories?

BD: Yes, my background is definitely history and research based. In college, my degrees were in Art History and Classical Archaeology, and Classics—which is the study of mythologies and dead languages. (I specialized in Attic Greek.) For Famous Phonies, one day of writing has at least a week’s worth of research behind it. Luckily, I live near a university where I have access to all the scholarly books I could ever want.

Q: Can you describe your creative process for Famous Phonies? Once you had some juicy material, how did you decide what went into the book and what should be left out?

BD: Famous Phonies stemmed from my first book idea ever about thieves who changed history. I was reading my mythology book for fun one day (yes, for fun), and I realized how many ancient stories were about thieves. That grew into a non-fiction idea about thieves who changed history, then snowballed into a four-book series. Once I started thinking about quirky things that changed history, the possibilities were endless.

Famous Phonies itself began when I realized a lot of famous ancient people never actually existed—like Homer and Pythagoras. That’s my Classics background coming into play again! Although I love history, I tried to keep each chapter streamlined. I especially didn’t want to bog them down with too many technical details or scholarly debates. It’s a kids’ book after all, not a dissertation.

Q: There is a great spirit of fun to your book. What do you hope kids take away from it? What do you hope to accomplish?

BD: I want to get kids interested in history and research. They’ve had enough of the dry, dusty textbooks that often leave out the interesting bits. If I tell another side of the story in a humorous way, I hope to show kids (and adults) how fun and alive history really is. It’s my favorite subject, and I want to showcase why it’s so fascinating. These were real people (some of them) who lived and breathed and made mistakes while making history. It’d be a disservice to put them so high on a pedestal that we forget the real person beneath the myth.

Q: What are you working on next?

BD: I’m finishing up the second book in the series, Fantastic Fugitives: Criminals, Cutthroats, and Slaves Who Changed History. It’s about 12 fugitives who changed history while on the run. After that, I’ll immediately start my third book, which is the untitled one about thieves who changed history. In between, I like to mull over a middle-grade fantasy and historical fiction, just to keep things interesting.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Remarkable Pioneers in Anna Lewis's 'Women of Steel and Stone'

In celebrating Women's History Month, I thought it fitting to feature a non-fiction title about some seriously smart, capable, amazing women. Anna M. Lewis's Women of Steel and Stone: 22 Inspirational Architects, Engineers, and Landscape Designers (Chicago Review Press, 2014) spotlights 22 women who were pioneers in their chosen, male-dominated fields. Spanning from the 1800s to current times, these stories explore the childhood passions, perseverance, and creativity that carried these remarkable women through daunting challenges all the way to the top of their professions.

A few favorites of mine were profiles of Julia Morgan, who built "America's Castle" in San Simeon, California, for William Randolph Hearst; Emily Warren Roebling, who took over the role as chief engineer on the Brooklyn Bridge after her husband's illness; and Marion Mahony Griffin, known as Frank Lloyd Wright's "right-hand man."

Question: What made you want to write a book devoted to women architects and engineers? Do you have a background in math and science, or do you just like research and a good story?

Anna M. Lewis: My father ran his own consulting engineering firm in Cincinnati, Ohio, for over 50 years. During the summers, I would work in his office—helping with drafting on drawings and field inspections of sites.

Actually, my degree is in Product/Industrial Design. In college, there were definitely more male than female students. Also, I took several design and architectural history classes in college for fun. Working with my editor, I set out to write a proposal for a book in their Women Of Action series. While looking for topics, I found one website that listed the top 100 architects—with only two women on the entire list. That didn’t sound right to me. I started researching women architects and found some amazing women whose stories hadn’t been told. From there, I also discovered several women engineers and landscape architects, and the book grew from there.

Q: Was it hard to decide on which women to include in the book? Can you talk about your process and how you found these amazing women? How you decided which stories to tell?

AML: My daughter’s favorite number is 22, so I felt that I had to appease her and the karma gods and write about 22 women. Luckily, I found 22 fabulous women with stories that would be interesting to young readers. Also, my book contract stated that I had to have at least one good publishable photo of each woman and that became harder than you may think.

I found that almost all the women didn’t boast about their accomplishments, and I had to dive deep into research to find their stories, much less a photo. Maybe that’s why we haven’t heard of them before now. They were working in their fields because they truly loved the profession, not because they wanted the fame and notoriety.

Kidlit Celebrates Women's History MonthQ: Do you have a favorite story among them? Is there one woman with whom you really connected as you learned about her life and her accomplishments? And why?

AML: Great question. Truly, I fell in love with all the women in the book. Their stories were all so different—yet woven together with common threads. They all liked art and math. They all had a strong passion to want to work in their chosen fields. And, they all had supportive parents.

The story that bothered me the most was the story of why Natalie de Blois was fired (in the 1940s) at age 23 by an architecture firm. A male architect asked that Natalie be fired because she hadn’t responded to his “advances.” I still get mad thinking about that! I was honored to connect with Natalie while I was writing the book. At age 92, she was still handling her affairs and sent to me a never-before published picture of herself for my book. I sent her a final draft of her chapter a few months before she passed in 2013.

I spoke to several women or their descendants while researching the book. Denise Scott Brown even called one day to talk about the book. Her eloquent message in her beautiful accent is still on my answering machine. I can’t bear to erase it.

Q: What do you hope young readers take away from your book? What do you hope to accomplish by sharing these women's stories?

AML: It is my greatest wish that someday a young reader will come up to me and tell me that she or he was inspired to become an architect, engineer, or landscape architect while reading my book. My quest is to get these stories into the hands of as many readers as I can to inspire them. One day, a male adult fan came up to me at a signing and said that he thought Women of Steel and Stone should be made into a Ken Burns documentary. I totally agreed.

Q: What will we see from you next?

AML: Right now, I’m working with several editors on a wide range of projects from picture books to YA non-fiction. My goal is to promote creative thinking in my writing. And, I’m finally writing a young adult historical mystery that’s been running around my head for years. Rather fastidious about research, I even found one error on the British Monarchy’s website… so far.