Four-in-One Notebook Special: A Conversation with Capstone Editors and Authors

Capstone develops nonfiction titles for the school and library market. Here The Whole Megillah presents a dialogue with the editors and authors of two titles, A World War II Timeline and Hitler in Paris, which carry Jewish themes.

wwii timeline capstone

Title: A World War II Timeline (Smithsonian, War Timelines series)

The Whole Megillah (TWM):  How do you choose the writer? What qualifications do you look for?
Kristen Mohn, Capstone Senior Editor (KM): Elizabeth Raum is one of my go-to writers for history topics. She delves into the research, makes sure she gets every detail right, and presents it to the reader in a gripping way.

TWM: What advice would you have for writers interested in nonfiction history writing?
KM: Read widely. Having a good core knowledge of history topics is important, and reading on various topics is bound to reveal new book ideas. You may find yourself asking—why haven’t I heard more about this topic? If it interests you, it will be interesting to a young reader, too, if you find the “hook” that will reel them in.

TWM: What draws you to editing children’s books?
KM: It’s all I ever wanted to do. Reading a great book during your developmental years is a transformative experience. When I was young, I remember being in a daze after finishing certain books, knowing that I’d never look at the world in the same way again. To help deliver that experience as an editor is incredibly rewarding.

TWM: What did you like to read as a kid?
KM: Real-life stories. Stories about kids “like me,” or conversely, kids or people whose lives were nothing like mine. It was fascinating to me how many ways there were to live a life. If it really happened to someone, I wanted to read about it.

TWM: Thanks, Kristen. Let’s turn now to author Elizabeth Raum. Elizabeth,  what was your greatest challenge in writing this book?
Elizabeth Raum (ER): World War II encompassed the entire world and took place over the course of six years. The greatest challenge was deciding which dates and events to include in the timeline given the 32-page limit and the reading level. I was also aware that many readers were approaching it without prior knowledge. So I wanted to include major battles, pivotal moments, and the most powerful world leaders, as well as explanatory notes. My job was to make difficult choices. Happily, historians at the Smithsonian concurred with my choices.

TWM: What was your greatest satisfaction? Did anything in your research or writing process surprise you?
ER: A timeline book is like a puzzle. It’s always rewarding to find that the pieces fit together! Although I was aware of the suffering of the Polish and Russian people, I was reminded again of how long those sieges lasted and of the untiring efforts of the Polish Resistance.

TWM: What advice would you have for writers interested in nonfiction history writing?
ER: Visit historical sites, read history, watch documentaries, and frequent museums. That’s where you’ll find the fascinating details and sidelights that make history come alive for young readers.

TWM: What draws you to writing children’s books?
ER: When I was a child, books carried me to times and places I could never have visited in person. I want to do the same for my readers. History is exciting. It’s up to children’s writers to interpret complex events and ideas in ways that children can understand and in a manner that inspires them to read more.

TWM: What did you like to read as a kid?
ER: Like many children, I went through phases. When I was in 4th grade, I read nothing but biographies. By 5th grade, I moved on to historical fiction. I was fortunate that the librarian at my small public library let me browse the adult section, as well as the children’s shelves. I read whatever caught and held my attention. It was a fantastic education!

Title: Hitler in Paris (Captured World History)

hitler in parisTWM: How did you come up with the concept of the importance of photography to history?
Catherine Neitge, Capstone Senior Editor (CN): Here’s a post from our Capstone Connect blog, written by Amber Ross, Capstone’s Product Planner, who came up with the idea for the Captured History series:

“There really is no magical formula to coming up with great books for kids. Sometimes it’s the converging of various thoughts and trends that sprouts a seed of an idea. Like the day I was trudging through state curriculum standards and came upon one that called for students to analyze primary sources, including photographs. I’ve always had an interest in photography, so this piqued my curiosity. I started thinking: What if we asked readers to analyze famous photographs? A book could look at a famous photo and discuss what was happening in the world at the time, the events that led to the photo being shot, the impact the photo had, etc. And just like that, our series was born. (OK, I might have glossed over the actual hours spent toiling over defining the vision for the series and the months editors, designers, and photo researchers spent producing the books, but you get the picture.)”

In an email, Amber goes on to say: “The photo I instantly thought of was Migrant Mother and how cool it would be to do a book on it. Such an iconic image of the Great Depression and a great way to jumpstart a discussion on the topic. They say a picture is worth 1,000 words, and it’s so true—there’s more to most photos than meets the eye, and why not do a series of books to explain all of that?”

TWM: How did you choose the titles? Are there more titles forthcoming in the series?
CN: We started by choosing iconic photos with a U.S. focus: Migrant Mother from the Great Depression, Little Rock Girl and Birmingham 1963 from the civil rights movement, Mathew Brady’s Civil War photos, Lyndon Johnson taking the oath of office after President Kennedy’s assassination, among them. Our most recent books took a worldwide view for an even wider audience: Hitler in Paris, Tank Man, Summiting Everest, and The Blue Marble.

Our two newest books, which will be published in spring 2015, are focused on the West and will feature the brilliant photos of American Indians by Edward S. Curtis and the iconic East and West photo by Andrew Russell of the completion of the transcontinental railroad.

TWM: How do you choose the writer? What qualifications do you look for?
CN: We have a group of excellent writers who have worked on Compass Point Books titles for many years. The Captured History writers have proven themselves to be excellent writers and researchers with a love of history. Don Nardo, who wrote Hitler in Paris, is a historian as well as an author. He is perfect for the Captured History titles and has written many of them, including the award-winning Migrant Mother from the first season.

TWM: With the focus on photography, does this series present any challenges?
CN: Since we are telling the story of the photographer as well as the featured photo, we always include photos of the photographer. Sometimes they are hard to find.

TWM: What advice would you have for writers interested in nonfiction history writing?
CN: The best nonfiction history writers have a passion for history and keep up-to-date on new research. It’s amazing how much new information surfaces.

TWM: What draws you to editing children’s books?
CN: Children’s books should be as interesting, factual, and error-free as books for adults. I draw on my background as a longtime journalist to provide children with just such books. Plus I love history and enjoy working on our books with historical topics.

TWM: What did you like to read as a kid?
CN: I come from a family of avid readers and spent a lot of time at the library as a child. I was a huge fan of Maud Hart Lovelace’s Betsy-Tacy books. I also loved Nancy Drew, books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, all sorts of historical fiction, biographies of famous women, mysteries, and on and on.

TWM: Thanks, Catherine. So now we come to Don Nardo, author of more than 400 books for young readers. Don, what was your greatest challenge in writing Hitler in Paris?
Don Nardo (DN): I’m not sure that “challenge” would be the right word to use here, in large part because Nazi Germany and World War II are two of my areas of special interest as a historian.

However, as I do in all my nonfiction books, I had a distinct aim in mind when approaching the project. This was to tell the story on two levels—the first one being a general overview of the events and personalities involved, structured fairly simply in order to acquaint our young readers with information that it is assumed they are not yet familiar with. The second level is an undercurrent of sporadic details that are little known or unknown to all but a few scholars and World War II buffs. The details are fascinating, striking, ironic, disturbing, and/or compelling in some other way. This undercurrent of little-known, intriguing material is what makes such a book interesting and absorbing on the one hand, and unique from all other books on that topic in the market on the other hand.

TWM: What was your greatest satisfaction? Did anything in your research or writing process surprise you?
DN: My greatest satisfaction in writing this and my other history books for young people has been the knowledge that I am providing a large series of history texts that exist in libraries across the country and that can be referenced by both young people and adults who are looking for accurate, up-to-date, and entertaining examinations of various areas of human history. I can’t say that anything surprised me during the research, but that is likely because I was already conversant with this material. Still, when writing books in historical areas that I know less well, I frequently find facts that do surprise me.

TWM: What advice would you have for writers interested in nonfiction history writing?
DN: The person should have either of two things (or both, hopefully). First, he or she should have at least one subject area—whether it be a historical one, a scientific one, a literary one, or whatever—in which he or she is very conversant. Editors often look for writers who are knowledgeable in the subject areas of books that they are planning to do. Second, the person should become as proficient as possible in doing research. Many people have little notion of how important that is. There are dozens of skills and tricks that one can learn that will make him or her a more skilled researcher. One major reason that I have been able to make a full-time living as a nonfiction writer for a quarter of a century is that I write books fast; and in large part that is because I’m highly skilled in doing research. In a related vein, the person needs to be well-organized too.  (Often, that’s half the battle!)

TWM: What draws you to writing children’s books?
DN: In my case, I did not set out to write young adult and children’s books. Back in the 1980s I was writing screenplays and teleplays, including work for Warner Bros. and ABC TV. (I already had a degree in history, but at the time I only rarely accepted history-writing assignments.) One day I got a call from a packager/publisher in Boston (about 60 miles from where I live) who said they saw my name on a list of good writers in the region. They explained that they were in the midst of turning out a new American history text for junior-high level and they were in desperate need of a writer with a background in history to write four of the book’s chapters. It took me about three days to do each chapter and the pay was good, so I had no regrets. To my surprise, however, a mere month later, I got a call from a publisher of young adult books in California, who offered me a book. The publisher liked the manuscript so much, they asked me to write two or three more, and before I knew what hit me, I was getting calls from other publishers in the young adult and children’s nonfiction markets. Soon I was turning out 15 to 20 books a year for those markets and always booked ahead with projects. In a sense, I became hooked, partly because there was plenty of work, but more so because I saw an opportunity. I decided to make a mission of providing reliable, accurate, up-to-date history texts for young people.

TWM: Thank you—Kristen, Elizabeth, Catherine, and Don—for a great interview! 

Submitting to Capstone

We are always looking for new history writers! Writers can submit the following: a resume, cover letter, up to 3 writing samples. Mail them to: Editorial Director, Capstone Nonfiction, 1710 Roe Crest Drive, North Mankato, MN 56003.

We also have this info outlined on our submissions page

Book Giveaway in return for your comments

Be one of the two first responders to this post and receive a free copy of the A World War II Timeline or Hitler in Paris. One of each title will be awarded.

About Barbara Krasner

History writer and award-winning author Barbara Krasner writes Jewish-themed poetry, articles, nonfiction books, and novels for children and adults.
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5 Responses to Four-in-One Notebook Special: A Conversation with Capstone Editors and Authors

  1. What a fascinating post! Thanks so much for this. I learned a great deal that will be very helpful to me.

  2. Very informative Barb! I liked the words of wisdom from author & editor.

  3. Nadine Lipman says:

    Before I retired as a children’s librarian, I always ordered books from Capstone, knowing that they would circulate well…because they were of interest to students and well-written/researched.

  4. One of the best “Megillahs” ! Intelligent, informative – opens up a whole new area for writers with an historical bent.

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