Once, In America...
citizens were sickened by smog; pesticides wiped
out wildlife in towns, fields, and forests;
and the rivers were dirty enough to burn.
Author Linda Crotta Brennan’s newest title, WHEN RIVERS BURNED: THE EARTH DAY STORY, weaves together the environmental disasters experienced in America and the stories of the people who responded to them. It is a narrative timeline of the history of the creation of what has become a yearly global event Earth Day. The book, beautifully designed and illustrated by Lisa Greenleaf, promises to encourage another generation to care about our planet. WHEN RIVERS BURNED recently won an award from the Green Book Festival in the History category.
Welcome, Linda. Thank you for agreeing to be the first guest author on my blog. I was intrigued by your presentation at the launch party. It was clear you’ve invested a good deal of time in writing this book. What is the most compelling part of the research process for you? What part of researching this particular book made your heart sing?
Primary research has to be the most exciting part of the research process. It was thrilling to hold documents written during the Revolutionary War when I was researching The Black Regiment of the American Revolution.
With When Rivers Burned, the research was more immediate. Since the first Earth Day took place after the invention of things like photography and television, I had the opportunity to watch video clips of the actual events and listen to speeches made by the participants. One chilling video will always remain in my mind, of kids being sprayed with DDT as they climbed aboard their school bus. It was also remarkable to hear the testimony of people who lived through the Donora, Pennsylvania smog disaster.
But the most exciting part of my research for When Rivers Burned was interviewing Denis Hayes, who ran the first Earth Day. He was incredibly generous with his time, answering my myriad questions at length and reviewing the manuscript for accuracy after it was completed.
Authors hear a lot about branding these days. With the exception of your picture books MARSHMALLOW KISSES and FLANNEL KISSES, a review of your book titles gives the impression that you gravitate to writing nonfiction about economics and history. You’ve also published a host of magazine articles about the natural world. In writing nonfiction, do you choose the topic or does the topic in some way choose you?
Sometimes I choose my topics, sometimes my topics are chosen for me, and sometimes projects are a bit of both.
I was commissioned to write the series of books on economics for third graders. I would never have chosen to write about that topic on my own. But despite my initial reluctance, I enjoyed learning about something totally foreign to me and figuring out how to present economics in a way that would be meaningful to children.
I chose the topics for all of my magazine articles on nature, from “Frogs on Ice” (Spider, Feb. 2013) which is about wood frog’s ability to survive being frozen, to slime mold (“The Blob From Inner Space,” Ranger Rick), one of my favorite topics. Did you know that slime mold reproduces like a fungus, but moves like an animal?
With When Rivers Burned, my publisher asked me to pitch something for her new series, Once in America, about pivotal moments in history. I came up with the first Earth Day as a topic from a broadcast I heard on NPR.
You have another newly published book – WOMEN OF THE OCEAN STATE: TWENTY-FIVE RHODE ISLAND WOMEN YOU SHOULD KNOW. You’re familiar with writing biography. You’ve also written the story of Rhode Island’s Black Regiment. How does writing the story of a movement differ from writing a biography?
In many ways, it’s easier to write a biography. A person’s life has a natural structure, they are born, grow up, strive to accomplish something, die, and their legacy lives on.
A movement is amorphous. The writer has to decide what to include and how to shape the material. What are the roots of the movement? Who and what brought it to fruition? What did it accomplish? Where is it headed?
We hear a lot about that elusive quality called voice. Do you think voice contributes to a work of nonfiction and how? Are there current nonfiction books about the environment that inspired you?
Voice is as important to nonfiction as it is to fiction. Kathleen Krull's voice is humorous and snappy. She writes a biography like she's dishing out the latest gossip. Steve Sheinkin wrote The Bomb like a spy thriller. I strive to write nonfiction with an action/adventure flavor.
As to books about the environment which have inspired me, there have been many, The Swampwalker's Journal, Sand County Almanac, In Search of the Golden Frog, and Broadsides from the Other Orders to name a few.
Linda, can you talk about your selection of disasters that led to the creation of Earth Day? There were many areas that experienced smog, water pollution and the health hazards of pesticide application. How did you decide to focus on the cities and rivers that serve as examples in your book?
One of my biggest challenges was deciding what to include and what to leave out. Since this book was intended for a young audience, grades 5 and up, I had limited space. While many cities suffered from smog, and other rivers burned, I chose to use the examples which kept coming up in my searches. These places had garnered lots of press and captured the collective imagination.
Some say the efforts individuals and governments are making to save our planet are not enough. Are you encouraged or do you feel the response is too little and too late? How do you hope When Rivers Burned will have an impact on these efforts?
With our current contentious political environment, I don't think the environment is getting the attention it deserves. The quality of our environment affects all of us, Republicans and Democrats alike. But we've grown complacent, and desensitized to doomsday prophecies. I hope my book will remind people of what is at stake, and how important it is to act.
What particular part of the environment would you invest personal time and energy to preserve? What part of our earth calls to you?
There’s a common saying, “Think globally, act locally.” I spend most of my energy caring for my beautiful home state, Rhode Island. My husband and I have volunteered in a number of ways over the years, from helping set up family nature programs at our local refuge, to participating in the annual butterfly count. I’m an avid supporter of Citizen Science programs, and participate in Cornell Ornithology Lab’s Project Feederwatch. Of course, we also contribute to global environmental organizations and try to do our part in recycling and conserving resources.
WHEN RIVERS BURNED is geared toward young readers who are old enough to grasp the role politics played and continues to play in working toward a cleaner environment. It’s also an informative read for adults seeking an overview of the history of Earth Day. Did you have an idea of the book’s possible crossover role as you wrote it?
I wasn't really thinking of When Rivers Burned as a crossover book while I worked on it. I wrote it for kids, age ten and up. But I also wrote it for me, and maybe that's why it works so well as a crossover title.
You’re a writing coach. How does your teaching/mentoring of other writers inform your own writing? Can you recommend any craft books for writers that you’ve found helpful or informative?
I've learned more from teaching than I can say. As a teacher, I'm constantly evaluating what works in a manuscript, what doesn't, and why. That has to have an impact on my writing.
As for books on the craft, I recommend Anatomy of Nonfiction by Margery Facklam and Peggy Thomas and Peter Jacobi’s Writing the Nonfiction Article.
Will you leave us with a hint of your next writing project? Can we look forward to another well-researched nonfiction title or something entirely different?
This August I have a book on the Gulf Oil Spill coming out and another on the Boston Tea Party.
As for my current projects, my daughter's best friend works for NOAA and is stationed at the South Pole for thirteen months. She's graciously allowing me to interview her via email while she's down there. I'd love to write about her experience. I'm also playing with a middle grade mystery.
Thank you so much, Linda, for thoughtfully sharing your responses. And congratulations on your award-winning new book. Perhaps your next book involves a penguin visit! Is there anything else you’d like to share today?
I began my writing journey thinking that I'd write fiction, but along the way, I've discovered a passion for nonfiction. I revel in the research, and in revealing a little-known story to the world.
And speaking of little-known stories, I can't wait to read your book, Feathers and Trumpets, about the influential woman from the Middle Ages, Hildegard of Bingen. Thank you so much for inviting me to be a guest on your blog!