HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: It was a huge competition. Which of us--we must have been in fifth grade or so--could read the most books over the summer? Now, that was a contest I could win! But-I'll never forget--one of the rules was that those little blue biographies did NOT count.
You remember them: Dorothea Dix, Girl of the Streets? (Is that right?) The Wright Brothers, Boys with Wings.
But our teacher told us those books weren't good enough. For some reason. (I read them anyway! Did you?) But we also had to find other non-fictions..
And that's how I found Kon-tiki. Which was a life-changing introduction to real-life adventure. (Did you read it?) I still think about it sometimes.
Triss Stein--whose new mystery is fiction!--has been thinking about the non-fiction world--and realized she's
BEING INSPIRED BY THE FACTS
by Triss Stein
What was your favorite childhood book? Ask any group of writers or avid readers and you are sure to get some lively responses. I bet most of them will be fiction. “Tell me a story” is such a strong need for children, and they (we ) are always looking for a friend (Betsy and Tacy; Charlotte All of a Kind; those March girls), a world that is more interesting (the Big Woods) or beautiful (Narnia) or surprising (Edward Eager’s ). Or the opposite, our own world made special by being in a book (Beverly Cleary, in my day).
How about non-fiction? Did you have any non-fiction books that made the same permanent impression as Nancy Drew or Mary Poppins or Caddie Woodlawn?
I did have a few of those books. I owe it all to Aunt Barbara, my mother’s only sister, who was a children’s librarian and knew what I wanted to read even before I did.
Abraham Lincoln’s World, the first book I read by Genevieve Foster, changed my world. In short segments, with her own charming drawings, she described what was happening all over the world in one iconic person’s lifetime. While Lincoln was learning to read in a log cabin an Indian boy in Mexico named Benito Juarez wanted to go to school, a Frenchman had the idea of building the Suez canal and in Greece, where men wore pleated skirts, there was a war for liberation from Turkey, where men wore turbans. While Lincoln kept a small store, postage stamps were invented, a teen-ager became Queen of England and a painter named Morse sent the first telegraph message.History wasn’t just the story of America. It was happening all around the world, all at the same time. This was a huge revelation to me.
Our Independence and the Constitution is a dry title for a fascinating book. It told in two parts about a little girl who lived in Philadelphia at the time of the writing of the Declaration of Independence and years later, the Constitution. By describing how the issues looked to an ordinary family, Dorothy Canfield Fisher, a famous author in her day, made it alive and more, made it inspiring. I realized for the first time that it’s only “history” later. At the time, no one knows how the story will turn out and it all could have been different. That was another revelation.
Richard Halliburton was, perhaps, the first adventure travel writer. I cherished my copy of his Complete Book of Marvels, He told about exploring Chichen Itza and the pools where humans were sacrificed, fabled Carcassonne and even more fabled Petra, swimming in both the Panama Canal and the reflecting pool of the Taj Mahal, sneaking into forbidden Mecca. Now, some sections are appalling reflections of outdated attitudes, and some of the history is pure romance, but the fabulous stories and the photographs gave me a sense of the wide, exciting world that was unusual in small town America, 1955. When I went to Petra (!) I thought of Richard Halliburton
There was one more, a book for children about great paintings. It had gorgeous full-color, full–page reproductions and the cover was –I’m pretty sure – Holbein’s portrait of the infant Edward VI of England. That book disappeared along the way, but one of these days I will track it down and buy it and put it on the shelf next to Richard Halliburton and Abraham Lincoln. And I will say thank you to Barbara Dobbis Block.
HANK: Oh, great topic, Triss! Reds, was there a book of fact that changed the way you saw the world?
Triss Stein is a small–town girl from New York state’s dairy country who has spent most of her adult life living and working in New York city. This gives her the useful double vision of a stranger and a resident for writing mysteries about Brooklyn, her ever-fascinating, ever-changing adopted home.
Erica is a youngish single mother and oldish history grad student, keeping it all together with street Brooklyn attitude and grit. As they are working on her unrenovated home at the ungentrified end of trendy Park Slope, her teen-aged daughter uncovers the body of an unknown teenager, a discovery neither of them can ignore.