Thursday, February 28, 2013

Just the Facts!

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

  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.

Brooklyn Bones

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.


  1. I don’t even have to think about this one --- Isaac Asimov’s “Words of Science and the History Behind Them;” later, “Satellites in Outer Space” . . . “Stars” . . . “Galaxies” . . . “The New Intelligent Man’s Guide to Science” . . . . Of course, I read all the science fiction, too . . . .

  2. I wish I had Lincoln's World as a child. I read everything in our small town library kid's section before 1st grade and the librarian let me move on. Dee

  3. There was a series of biographies published by Landmark when I was a kid. Those books were my introduction to amazing women as diverse as Nellie Bly and Elizabeth the First. I also remember reading a biography of singer Jenny Lynd. And, yes, Kon Tiki, too.

    I just finished reading Brooklyn Bones and thoroughly enjoyed it.


  4. "Bring 'Em Back Alive" by Frank Buck

  5. i cut my teeth on fairy tales. Maybe that's why I write thrillers - the grown up version of fairy stories! Thelma in Manhattan

  6. Oh, yes, Nellie Bly! And the biographies of Clara Barton and Irving Berlin.

    Do movie magazines count?

  7. Good morning, everyone. I will be here most of the day, dropping in to share the conversation. I"m interested in all the titles you've mentioned already.

    Yes, Kathy Lynn! The Fisher book was a Landmark too.I know I read others but that is the one I did, and do, own. Bennett Cerf at Random House had the brilliant idea of asking experts to write history for children. There was a science series also; my brother wore out his book about dinosaurs - written by the director of the Museum of Natural History!

  8. Joan, yes, Isaac Asimov's books introduced a whole generation of children to both science and S.F.I heard him speak once - he was terrific.

  9. OH, you heard Isaac Asimov? What did he talk about?

    And I also read the WOrld Book--A to Z. I bet you all did,too..right? We had the white-covered ones.

  10. And Triss, you launch is tonight, right! For those in NYC--give us the details! (and hurray!)

  11. I was a dork - I read the encyclopedia. I'd get a research assignment and it would take forever because I'd get sidetracked reading about something else.

    I love fiction, but I also love a good biography. My favorite might be Victoria by Stanley Weintraub. I also love Dreadnought, which is about the run-up of British and German naval power leading up to WWI - can't remember the author though.

  12. Oh, they were little red biographies in my library, and I consumed them voraciously!

  13. I discovered thos little biographies in our library and fell in love with them. And I'm still in love with biographies today. (I am such a pushover for rock star bios. I can't help it).

  14. I wonder just how many adventurers Richard Halliburton spawned with those books! My husband loved them so much that one Christmas I tracked down two of them for him. The other was The Glorious Adventure. I seem to remember reading a lot of bios as a kid. Up The Down Staircase and Born Free were the two most memorable. Did not become a teacher but I have had a few Joy Adamson moments.

  15. I remember reading a whole series of travel picture books for children with "This is.." in the title. I loved them. "This Is New York," and "This Is Munich" were my favorites. Those books made want to visit all the title cities, and I was lucky enough to go to many of them.

  16. Oh this is odd. I can't think of any nonfiction that had an impact on me. Do books about horses and Elvis Presley count? And stamp collecting books? And about ghosts and poltergeists?

  17. I read Nancy Drew and any fiction that I could get my hands on. I think I was ten when I had exhausted the children's shelves in our library. The Librarian let me move on to adult fiction but my mother was shocked when I came home with "Forever Amber", a racy book.

    Mom dragged me and the book back to the library for a confrontation with the librarian -- who convinced her I should be able to read anything that interested me. And, I did. Of course, a lot of what I read went over my head.

    I don't remember reading much non-fiction but I do love history and biography so maybe I did read them.

  18. In my grade school library, those biographies were blue, white & orange hard covers, not like the ones pictured here but I'm betting they were the same series. "Crispus Attucks, First Man Killed in the Revolution." Eleanor Roosevelt, Amelia Erhardt, Maria Mitchell. Heavily fictionalized, no doubt, but they got -- and kept -- us reading.

  19. Hank asked for details of my launch party- tonight!

    It's at Mysterious Bookshop in NY, 6-8 PM 58 Warren Street (Tribeca)

    Excited and freshly manicured for the occasion.

  20. I heard Asimov at a librarian's convention MANY years ago. He talked about the ideal reading gadget,and what it would need: portability,economical, easy to mass-produce, etc. Of course the punchline was "We already have it. It is called a book." Librarians loved it; I still do.

  21. Rosemary I just love running into someone else who remembers Halliburton. We're a little club. When we planned a trip to Brittany a few years ago I hauled out the book, pointed to the photo of Mount St.Michael and said, "Look at that! We have to go!"

  22. Oh yes, I did read Kon-Tiki. Also was fascinated by Chariots of the Gods. Didn't read non-fiction much--I'd fallen in love with science fiction by the time I was in 6th grade, thanks to reading one of my step-dad's novels. I did fall into a short WWII history streak for awhile, due to having to write a report on the Bataan Death March in 7th grade, but maintained my love of sci-fi.

    Now I think of myself as eclectic--mysteries, fantasy, sci-fi--but spent too many years reading textbooks for nursing school, advanced courses, etc., so I rarely read non-fiction. I do admit to watching documentaries. Sometimes being a "visual" learner can make wading through non-fiction a difficult and frustrating proposition.

  23. These are such great memeories! And it really shows how much influence the right person can have..offering just the right book at just the right time.

    And yes, watching documentaries--what a difference it can make to WATCH the story, rather than read it. Which is why it drives me crazy when events are fictonialized--because I wind up remembering the ficton.

  24. The description of Abraham Lincoln's World sounds like a marvelous way to make history real and relevant. Wish I'd had it when I was a kid. I think I'll look for it now!

  25. Catherine, I'm certain I read FOREVER AMBER, too, though couldn't tell you a thing about it. What a wonderful librarian! (though really, have you ever met a bad one?)

  26. And congratulations Triss! Very excited to read your book...

    I cannot think of a nonfiction book that swept me away the way fiction did and still does. I so loved CADDIE WOODLAWN and of course Nancy Drew and all the other series.

    I loved a book for young teens about a set of twins named Joby and maybe Joanna? they both loved the same boy. Does this sound familiar?

    Anyway in 6th grade, my father decided I needed more stimulation and suggested the teacher give me some books on English history. (He LOVED reading history.) Sigh. I know it's interesting and important stuff, but it wasn't hub says I've been ruined for history ever since.

  27. I was another encyclopedia reading dork. I think reading about Greek and Roman legends started my interest in storytelling.

  28. OH, great, Darlene! Anyone else read the encyclopedia? (And can you spell it without singing it?)

    Triss-we are all sending you good vibes for your launch! Be sure to come back and tell us all about it!

  29. Encyclopedia readers -- yep, me, too. The green & white World Books -- waited eagerly each winter for the Year Book, the updates from the past year. But Hank, I don't know the spelling song! Share it at Malice? (I can't spell Constantinople without singing it -- or giving myself an earworm.)

  30. Leslie--do you mean: She'll be waiting for you in...Istanbul! ?

    The Encyclopedia Song is from the Mickey MOuse club--probably, you were not born. SIgh. xoo

  31. Triss, I'll definitely be reading your new book. Congratulations on its publication!

    There wasn't one particular book that changed my view. In the late 50s or early 60s my parents bought a set of Collier's Encyclopedia. It included a Bibliography, Index, Yearbooks and a set of 10 children's books that had poetry, biographies, adventures, and animal stories.

    In addition to using the volumes for school projects, my brother and I devoured them for entertainment and enlightenment. Our first library was a bookmobile, and when the town library was built it wasn't much larger.

    I remember sitting on the front porch, browsing through an encyclopedia volume or yearbook chosen at random, reading about all sorts of things. This could account for me having what my husband refers to as a "fly paper brain." You know, I threw lots of stuff at it and it's fun to find out what stuck.

  32. Another encyclopedia reader here! Actually, my siblings and I all enjoyed reading the encyclopedia. (The Dork Family of CT:-)

    I read those blue biographies and I wouldn't be surprised if I read all the ones our library had. I know I read a lot of other non-fiction but I don't remember the titles. We were required to read a certain number of fiction titles and a certain number of non-fiction titles. I always wanted to read EVERYTHING and generally had trouble narrowing it down.

    I always read atlases, too, and I still do. I would study the maps and pick out places where I wanted to visit or live. I memorized place names that sounded unusual to me. I would wonder how some places got their names. This is probably why I also read some travel guides.

  33. The little blue (grey?) books were my favorites. I read all of them and cried when there were no more new ones. Auntie-Mom said, "More books lie ahead." She was right, of course. But I reread them a few times, anyway.

  34. My mother - an English teacher in the mid 30s - always said we had to go to the original source (library) for information so no encyclopedias for us. We had to read them at our friends! When our youngest son was born we bought a set, plus the kid's version, and signed up for what seemed like a gazillion payments. Mom was dumbfounded! But when she saw the kids reading them - us included - and would hear the thump of them falling on the floor as the kids fell asleep she apologized. Imagine her surprise and delight if she knew what the internet now brings us. I wish she was still here to see all the places you can now find the "original source" right at our fingertips.
    I miss you, mom.

  35. Oh, Hank, Kon-Tiki! Wow! Yes! I lived that voyage with him when I was a kid!

  36. Triss, Dorothy Canfield Fisher, yes. I don't remember this book, but read many by her when I was a kid. And how lucky to hear Isaac Asimov in person. Right now, I'm writing a grant for a big Texas book tour in a few months and remembering what his wife said of him--"There are two Isaac Asimovs. One loves to meet readers and accepts all kinds of invitation all over the place. The other will not fly. I am married to both."

    And Lucy, I loved CADDIE WOODLAWN, and usually when I mention her, no one knows who I'm talking about!

    Triss, I already have your book on my list. Congratulations on your launch tonight.

  37. Hank, that was so unfair of your teacher to exclude those books!

    Eleven Blue Men, a short story by Isaac Asimov that I read in eighth grade; several lives of saints; Kon-Tiki (of course); and I Married Adventure, by Osa Johnson, who married a wildlife photographer.

    I read that last one in sophomore year of high school, little realizing that 15 years later I would also marry a wildlife photographer. Our 31st anniversary is tomorrow!

  38. Atlases! A blog for another day, most definitely.

    Is this not the NICEST group of people you have ever met? I am always so wowed by you all...xoo

  39. Yes,Hank, it's been a great series of comments and a fun discussion. And thank you for doing such a great job as host ( hostess?)

    I'll respond to many at once.

    Yes, another encyclopedia reader here. World Book in our house. I remember the several illustrated pages showing what people wore in different eras and different places, and the ones about dog breeds. Why, I have no idea.

    Libby Dodd, Abraham Lincoln's world was the Foster book I owned, then and still, but she wrote several others along the same lines. Christopher Columbus and Augustus Caesar are two I remember.

    Many thanks for the kind words about reading my book. I'm happy to discuss it later.You can find me

    I can sing the encyclopedia song too. Jiminy Cricket! Sadly I am not too young!

  40. Dog breeds! Yes, absolutely. ANd insects. My sister and I used to try to get each other to touch the color plates...

    Oh, and military uniforms. For some bizarre reason. We decided a coast guard SPAR was the coolest.

    Yay Triss! Hope you had a fabulous day.

  41. Thanks to everyone who sent good wishes for my launch party. It was great fun. There were a lot of friends from my everyday life, my writing life, some people I have not seen in years and a few old friends who came into town just for the party.Some of my grown daughter's friends came! A lively q&a, many books signed, great staff at Mysterious Bookshop. I feel like a lucky woman tonight.

  42. I was wishing I'd seen a photo in the post of one of the series of slim, beautifully illustrated books of great composers that I had: Wagner, Tchaikovsky, Verdi...wish I could remember them all. Lives presented as something exciting to aim for, with drawings that were colorful and sweeping. Anyone remember them?

  43. I remember visiting my cousin Marianne in Boston. She lived in the house where Auntie-Mom grew up, where our grandparents lived as had our great-grandparents.

    She let me read one of her books while I was there. I had never heard of it before. It was called On the Banks of Plum Creek. I took it to bed where I slept in the little room that had been Auntie-Mom's. She had the smallest room, because she was the youngest of all her brothers and sisters. There was just room enough for a bed, a little table, and a book.

    I read for hours but could not finish before I had to go home and leave it behind with Marianne. I never saw the book again. Our little library didn't have it, and our town did not have a bookstore.

    The next time I saw On the Banks of Plum Creek, I was an adult. I was a mother. I discovered it was part of a series. I bought all of the books, and read each one to my children, starting with the first. They have told me that was one of the best things we did together.