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March 2008

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Surviving in World of Children's Books
By Richard Frisbie

One of a pair of teachers who became award-winning, full-time authors offered insight at the March 11 SMA meeting in the Cliff Dwellers Club into how writers get started and survive in the world of children's books.

Judith Fradin and her husband, Dennis Fradin, working both collaboratively and individually, have produced about three dozen meticulously researched nonfiction titles over a period of almost two decades. A member of the audience, which included more non-members than usual, asked, "What age group?" "Whatever they'll pay for," said Judith.

In the beginning, Dennis Fradin was teaching second grade in the kind of inner city school that had few books. To keep control of his boisterous class, he made up stories. It turned out that he was good at it. The kids sat still and listened. At the time, he was also free-lancing for various magazines and newspapers.
One assignment he picked up was to write a children's book about Illinois. This led to a contract to write books about all 52 states over a period of five years.

About the time he (predictably) began to fall behind schedule, Judith Fradin's job evaporated at a school where she taught English in a special program for "problem kids who had already been kicked out of other programs for problem kids." As their graduation rates improved, the schools they had originally come from claimed credit. Board of education bureaucrats declared victory and shut down Judith's program.

So Judith pitched in to help with the 52-book project. Soon Judith and Dennis drafted their own children to work as researchers. "We paid them twice what they could earn at McDonald's," Judith said, "but they hated it."

Later, the kids were thankful. When they got to college, they said none of the other students knew how to do research, but for the Fradin kids research "was a piece of cake."

Dennis and Judith are noted for the depth of their research. When writing about historical figures, they have often tracked down descendants and unearthed new details about the lives of their subjects.

Judith passed around copies of some of the Fradin books. (Dennis was out of town.) They included biographies of historical figures, some African-American history and — for National Geographic Children's Books — accounts of disasters such as hurricanes and earthquakes.

They're "happy disaster books," Judith said, informative without showing the dead bodies. Judith currently gets double the usual royalty for tracking down photos.

Children's publishers fret about grade levels and language complexity. The Fradins write what they want, then argue it out with their editor.

A book about Sacagawea told that when the Lewis and Clark expedition ran low on food she helped them survive by finding caches of food hidden by animals. This, mixed with their remaining stock of beans, gave the explorers diarrhea.

An editor wanted to change "diarrhea" to "the runs." The Fradins successfully argued that although young readers might have trouble spelling "diarrhea," they certainly knew what the word meant.

The program was a repeat performance for Judith.

She bravely turned up to speak on Feb. 13, 2007, the date of one of last year's worst blizzards. The audience that night consisted only of the SMA president, the program chairman, the then-editor of Literary License, three polar bears and a walrus.

Member News

Victoria Lautman, founder, host and executive producer of "Writers on the Record with Victoria Lautman" will host the Society of Midland Authors annual awards dinner on May 13 at the InterContinental Chicago, 505 N. Michigan Ave.

Lynn Voedisch was elected at the Society's March board meeting to fill a vacancy on the SMA board. (Lynn has a YouTube "book trailer" for her book, Excited Light, on her Web site,

Charles J. Masters, author of a new biography of former Gov. Henry Horner, has offered to serve as SMA corresponding secretary.

In January, the Fox Valley Arts Hall of Fame inducted Aurora-born poet Ingrid Wendt. Plaques honoring inductees are hung in the lobby of Aurora's Paramount Arts Centre — the theater where Wendt went to Saturday cartoons as a child. Wendt, who also has been nominated for a 2007 Pushcart Prize, recently published poems in Prairie Schooner and the online journal Drunken Boat, and her poems are being included in the anthologies Gondola Signore Gondola: Venice in 20th Century American Poetry, Letters to the World: Poems from the Wom-Po Listserv and the Alhambra Poetry Calendar 2008.

Linda Nemec Foster was honored as a finalist for the 2007 ArtServe Michigan Governor's Art Award last November. She was the only writer selected (the others were visual artists). More recently, she received the 2008 International Creative Arts Award from the Polish American Historical Association. Foster was given the award on Jan. 5 in Washington, D.C. at a gala reception at the Embassy of Poland. She also gave a poetry reading at the event. The reception was part of the annual conference of the American Historical Association.

Jonathan Eig's Opening Day: The Story of Jackie Robinson's First Season was a New York Times best-seller and was named one of the best books of 2007 by the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune and Sports Illustrated.

Political consultant Larry Horist, having read SMA President Jim Merriner's manuscript of his book on former Illinois Gov. George Ryan and having discussed it with Coca-Cola lobbyist Kevin Morris said, "Kevin and I are going down there [Springfield] to pass a law that every f------ Illinois legislator has to read this book before they can cast a vote." Merriner is hoping his publisher uses the quote as a jacket blurb.

Dan Dinello will publish a chapter titled "The Wretched of New Caprica" in a new book, Battlestar Galactica and Philosophy (June 28, Open Court).

Martin Marty was quoted in a March 18 Associated Press story about Barack Obama's former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Marty, a retired professor of religious history who taught Wright at the University of Chicago, said Wright does not focus his ire on white America alone. "He is very hard on his own people," Marty said. "He criticizes them for their lack of fidelity in marriage, for black-on-black crime. He is not saying one part of America is right and one is wrong." Marty also was quoted on the same topic in a New York Times column by Nicholas Kristoff

Dick Simpson talked in January with the Chicago Flame, the student newspaper of the University of Illinois at Chicago, about his own political history. Simpson was 44th Ward alderman in Chicago from 1971-79. "I led the opposition block of the City Council against Mayor Richard J. Daley and Michael Bilandic," Simpson recalled.

Mary Elizabeth Anderson has written four books to be published in 2008 and 2009.

Charlene Baumbich and Kathleen Ernst will attend the 10th annual Southern Kentucky Book Fest April 19 in Bowling Green.

Luisa Scala Buehler will be at the Edwardsville Public Library April 5 in Edwardsville, Ill.

On April 11, Andrea Cheng will be at the Virginia Hamilton Conference on Multicultural Literature for Youth at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio.

SMA past presidents Rich Lindberg and Carol Carlson have teamed up on a new book project and are applying the finishing touches to Yesterday & Today Cities: Chicago, the second in a series of historical travel guides to American cities brought out by Publications International, Ltd., of Lincolnwood. The guide will feature a collection of vintage and contemporary photos with historical profiles of each of the major geographic components of Chicago: Downtown, South, West, North, the Northwest and Southwest Sides of the city and the suburbs. With an unbelievably tight five-month deadline the authors were required to meet, the book is on time and scheduled for a 25,000-copy national print run. For Lindberg, who recently appeared on an episode of the History Channel series "Cities of the Underworld" profiling the secret tunnels of the old South Side Levee District and the labyrinth of freight tunnels lying 40 feet beneath the Loop, it's a departure from writing about sports, crime and politics.

At 11 a.m. on April 5, Lorna Collier and co-author Tilli Schulze will give a presentation about Tilli's Story: My Thoughts Are Free at the Hyatt Lodge at McDonald's Campus Hotel, in Oak Brook, Ill., at the 11th Annual Illinois Education Association Retired Conference.

Copper Sun by Sharon Draper was No. 10 on the Feb. 3 New York Times paperback best-seller list

Michael Allen Dymmoch will be at the Wauconda Area Library, 801 N. Main St., Wauconda, Ill., on April 13.

On March 14, in Port Angeles, Wash., Shane Gericke was on KONP Radio (AM 1450) at 3:04 p.m. Chicago time), talking with host Karen Hanen on the show "Art Beat KONP."

Karen Evans, a children's library assistant at the St. Matthews/Eline branch library in Louisville, Ky., prepared a full spread of Abraham Lincoln-era recipes in January, including fried cornbread, gingerbread men and a Mary Todd White Cake with icing. Her source for the recipes was Lincoln's Table: Victorian Recipes from Kentucky, Indiana and Illinois to the White House, by Donna D. McCreary.

Margaret McMullan will be one of the featured speakers at the Oxford Conference for the Book and the Young Authors Fair on the weekend of April 3-5 in Oxford, Miss. All Oxford and Lafayette County ninth-graders will receive copies of McMullan's novel In My Mother's House to read and discuss in class before hearing McMullan speak at the conference. Participating Oxford area fifth- and ninth-grade students receive personal copies of novels by the selected authors and also have a chance to hear the authors speak about their work during the conference.

On March 8, Blue Line Studio hosted a free artist reception with refreshments titled "ChicArt Chicago" in celebration of International Women's Month. The monthlong show is co-hosted by David Hernandez and features performances to coincide with the exhibition.

On March 29, there will he a 3 p.m. reception and 3:30 event at gescheidle (a Chicago art gallery), 1039 W. Lake St., second floor, for performances of scenes from Paul McComas' book, Planet of the Dates. There will be live music, short films — all against the backdrop of an exhibit of peace-themed art pieces by James J. Peterson. Wine and cheese and a book signing will follow (all copies discounted to $20). Paul will promote the event with a live interview and performance on the Razor & Die Music Show, WLUW-FM 88.7, on March 27, at 11:30 a.m.

Author Jon Hassler, whose 1987 book Grand Opening won the Society of Midland Authors' Adult Fiction Award, died this month at 74. He was a former Bemidji State University professor who chronicled small-town life.

Stuart Dybek talked with students at Willowbrook (Ill.) High School on March 7.

The annual Writers of the Beach: Pure Sea Glass writer's conference in Delaware this month hosted Jacquelyn Mitchard. Also this month, it was reported EMO Films has acquired the rights to Jacquelyn's best-seller, Cage of Stars. Jacquelyn also was in Toledo this month to speak at a Women Against MS luncheon.

New book group being formed

SMA board members Cheryl Reed and Rosina Neginsky are getting together a writers group, and other SMA members are invited to join.
If you are interested, you can contact Cheryl Reed at or Rosina Neginsky.

April program: Celebrating Poetry Month

The Society's April program is titled, "Celebrating Poetry Month: A reading by Chicago poets Simone Muench and Billy Lombardo."
Billy Lombardo directs the Community Service Program and teaches fiction at the Latin School of Chicago. His collection of short fiction, The Logic of a Rose, Chicago Stories, won the G.S. Sharat Chandra Prize for Short Fiction. Billy's first poetry book, Meanwhile, Roxy Mourns (EM Press), will be out this spring.
Simone Muench is poetry editor of ACM, an assistant professor at Lewis University and author of two books of poetry, The Air Lost in Breathing (Marianne Moore Prize, Helicon Nine, 2000), and Lampblack & Ash (Marianne Moore Prize, Helicon Nine, 2000).

She has a collaborative chapbook, Sonoluminescence, with Bill Allegrezza (Dusie Press, 2007). Her poems have appeared, or will appear, in Iowa Review, Denver Quarterly, and the anthology The City Visible: Chicago Poetry for the New Century. She directs the writing program at Lewis University, serves on the advisory board for Switchback Books and is an editor for Sharkforum.

New Books

New nature book
Joel Greenberg has edited Of Prairie, Woods, and Water: Two Centuries of Chicago Nature Writing (April 15, University of Chicago Press), an anthology of local nature writing from 1721 through 1959.

Greenberg is well-known in conservation circles (he's a diehard birder and the author of A Natural History of the Chicago Region), and the book includes such excerpts as a pioneer's hilarious notes on life in the Kankakee marsh, Theodore Drieser's poignant plea for conservation of the Tippecanoe River and infamous murderer Nathan Leopold's description of a pet robin he kept in prison.

New Members

Bonnie Dobkin is a former high school English teacher and now is an editorial director for language arts books. She is author of Dream Spinner (2006, Flux), which was selected for the Book Sense Autumn 2006 Children's Pick List. The School Library Journal said, "The tapestry world is vividly imagined, and the beautiful-fantasies-turned-ugly theme is gripping."

Her next book, Neptune's Children (Walker Books for Young Readers), is due out on April 29. It is about a day at an amusement park that turns deadly when a worldwide biological attack kills every adult, leaving behind the kids to fend for themselves. She lives in the Chicago area with her husband and three sons.

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