I love history, especially when I can learn something new about it that I’ve never heard before. That is exactly what today’s picture book was for me.
Jane Kurtz was born in Portland, Oregon, but when she was two years old, her parents decided to move to Ethiopia, where she spent most of her childhood. Jane speaks about being an author at schools and conferences and such places as Uganda, Nigeria, Kenya, France, Germany, Romania, England, Indonesia, Cambodia, the Philippines, and Japan. She helped start Ethiopia Reads, a nonprofit that has opened the first libraries for children in Ethiopia. She is the author of many books for children, including What Do They Do with All that Poo? illustrated by Allison Black, Do Kangaroos Wear Seat Belts? illustrated by Jane Manning, Anna Was Here, and the American Girl book Lanie. You can learn more about her at her website or follow her on Twitter or Instagram.
THE BONE WARS is a mesmerizing look at the history of paleontology in America. When I was at the British Museum of Natural History, I learned a couple of facets of their history surrounding the discovery of dinosaurs that I had never heard before. I assumed from the title that this book might be about that. But NO! Boy was I wrong! It’s about the love-hate relationship between two prominent American paleontologists in the 1800s and how that impacted the discovery of dinosaurs in America. I couldn’t help but be fascinated with this feud given the absolutely brilliant framework Jane Kurtz’ writing provided, and the illustrations which Alexander Vidal chose to make “historically accurate” with drawings of dinosaurs as they were imagined to be in the 1800s. Fascinating doesn’t begin to cover it. I was enthralled with every bit of this book and I suspect you will be too.
Me: Can you tell us a little bit about your writing journey? When did you start writing stories? What brought you to this picture book?
Jane: My first picture book, Fire on the Mountain (Simon & Schuster), is still in print many years after it was published. That one was inspired by a story I heard when I was a child growing up in Ethiopia, and for many years, my picture books were stories. In fact, I tried writing a picture book story that featured two siblings playing dinosaurs (inspired by my children’s fascination with the amazing creatures). I, myself, had visited Dinosaur National Monument when I was seven years old and had walked out of the gift shop with a tiny Brontosaurus in my pocket that I treasured for years. The door didn’t open for me to write about dinosaurs, though, until nonfiction picture books became popular with lots of families and educators. First, I published a ready-to-read nonfiction book called Mr. Bones: Dinosaur Hunter about Barnum Brown who found the first T Rex skeleton. Then I published a nonfiction picture book about a scientist who studies dinosaur coprolites (poo). This is my third nonfiction dinosaur book, and I couldn’t be more delighted to be in a dinosaur phase of my writing life.
Me: What was it about the lives of O.C. Marsh and Edward Cope and this interesting piece of history that first grabbed you and made you want to write about it?
Jane: The key was that little Brontosaurus treasure. Decades later, I came upon a nonfiction book for adults written by a man who also loved Brontosaurus and wanted to trace why most scientists now think no such dinosaur ever existed. The confusion over Brontosaurus goes back to O.C. Marsh who was studying strange bones coming out of the ground in places like Colorado and Wyoming and naming new dinosaurs as fast as he could (to beat Edward Cope in their epic rivalry). I was a competitive child, myself (as my sisters would gladly tell you), and I know what it feels like to be fiercely determined to be first. I guessed plenty of young readers today would be able to relate—and would be as interested as I was in how the global love of dinosaurs got started.
Me: I’ve never seen a historical picture book start with a frame set in the second person point of view. And yet (no spoilers given) it works to perfect advantage here with your brilliant ending! What gave you the idea to do that? How many revisions did it take for this story to get to this incredibly polished work of art?
Jane: Sooooo many revisions! I’m on the faculty of the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Children’s and YA Literature, and my students and I read voraciously to learn more about the craft we love. I always stress how hard it is to find a dazzling beginning and ending for a picture book and how many tries it often takes. Sometimes years of work. A student of mine wrote an essay about the use of second person in nonfiction. I was struggling with how to craft a satisfying ending for a true story that ended—for both men—in disaster, and I thought, let me try that! It’s always thrilling when I move from something that feels like it has no solution to the sensation of “I got it!”
Me: I love that! There are so many pieces to this story that I imagine I could easily lose myself in the engrossing research. Did you have to do a lot of research for this story? Can you tell us a bit about that process for this story? How did you pick and choose what to include?
Jane: Luckily for me, my love of writing is firmly based in a love of reading, so it never felt like a tedious slog to read about dinosaurs. One thing about nonfiction picture books is that I have to learn far more than I will ever be able to include in the pages of a short book—because I have to understand the big picture. In this case, I had to put myself into a time long past when the first almost-complete dinosaur skeleton to be discovered anywhere in the world had recently come out of the ground. The word scientist was barely in use. (The professor who came up with it also considered other possibilities including a German word: naturforscher.) What did people who were alive at that time–with their curious minds–make of what they were seeing? How did they puzzle out how scattered bones might fit together? What mistakes got them off track? Once I figure out the point I want to make—the focus of my story—a more concentrated research hunt is needed to find the right details. I always want to include more than I have room for (I’m thankful for editors and other readers who rein me in), but I tried to keep the focus firmly on the intense competition between two brilliant, stubborn men.
Me: In a time when SEL picture books are selling like hot cakes and teaching young readers about kindness (etc.), why did you want to focus on a piece of history that involved a vicious scientific feud? What was it about this story that you wanted to share with young readers?
Jane: I think it doesn’t do any good to pretend that ferocious human emotions don’t exist or are easy to deal with. When my granddaughter was younger, she told me, “I hate to lose.” I told her, “Well, that’s not too surprising because your daddy hated to lose, and so did I when I was a kid.” Any time I’ve been flooded with intense emotion, scolding hasn’t done a thing for me. Being seen helps. A touch of affectionate humor is often just right. I would hope a book like this one can help start conversations about how humans often behave when we feel there isn’t enough to go around. When each side is passionately determined to end up with all the goodies.
Me: That is wonderfully put! Alexander Vidal’s illustrations in this book are pitch perfect. I love that he tried to keep the dinosaur pictures true to the era of discovery (not as we have seen them illustrated these days). Did you have any illustration surprises? Any favorite illustrations?
Jane: The biggest surprise was the stegosaurus standing on its hind legs with those sharp points running down its spine. I’m delighted he found that image, which was how an artist interpreted O. C. Marsh’s initial idea of what kind of dinosaur had left behind a few of its bones (found in Colorado)—a plate, some vertebrae, and a few teeth and other bones that later proved to belong to other dinosaurs. Marsh thought stegosaurus (as he named the new dinosaur) must be something like a turtle, living mostly in water. When it came onto land, he assumed it walked on its hind legs. A scientific illustrator tried his hand at showing this new dinosaur. The picture appeared in a French science magazine and then was re-used by Scientific American in 1884. I didn’t know that little story until I saw some of Alexander Vidal’s work.
Me: What an amazing discovery! Any advice for other new picture book writers?
Jane: I think the secret of having a long writing life of any kind is being bold and brave enough to believe you have something to say worth reading but humble enough to be a lifelong learner. Few of us are inventive enough to dazzle readers with a whole new craft element, just as few scientists do work that comes out of nowhere. But we can be part of a lively community of writers. We can keep reading and studying what other artists have tried, keep experimenting, keep being willing to fail and start over again and again. I wrote about how dinosaur scientist Karen Chin followed wonder and curiosity all her life, and that’s my other advice. Stay curious!
That is great advice Jane. Thank you for stopping by my blog today.
Dear readers, this book releases tomorrow. If you are a history buff, like me, this is a picture book to look out for. It’s a compelling read about the dinosaur race in America with a rivalry between the two most preeminent American paleontologists who were keen on out-doing each other every step of the way. You won’t want to miss it!