Picture Perfect–How to Find and Use Images Legally

I have a guest post about how teachers and students can search for and use images for their informational writing projects. It’s here at Melissa Stewart’s blog — I hope you’ll check it out!

Cover Reveal for my Next Book!

I hope you’ll click through to my post at the Nerdy Book Club to see the cover for my new book, which is due out September 5th. I hope you like it!

A Bad Air Day

You may have seen recent news reports about London’s dangerous air quality. 

In light of the current political climate in the U.S., I thought it might be timely to re-post a blog I wrote a few years ago about the history of air pollution here in the United States. It shows pictures of what Pittsburgh and Saint Louis looked like prior to the smoke control ordinances of the mid-1940s. 

The EPA is a vital organization. I fear for its future.

On Friday I blogged about the Donora Death Fog of 1948, and alluded to the city of Pittsburgh’s smoke control ordinances. Pittsburgh’s amazing turnaround will be the subject of today’s blog.

My parents met one another when they were both in graduate school at the University of Pittsburgh, just after World War II.  I knew from having researched sanitation and pollution that Pittsburgh was once a very smoky city, but I didn’t make the connection until just recently that my parents lived there during the smoky time. And I had no idea just how smoky the city actually was. I contacted the University of Pittsburgh Archives Center, and they very kindly gave me permission to reprint these pictures from the late 30s and early 40s. They’re kind of amazing.

What’s incredible to realize is that these pictures were shot during the daytime.

Taken in 1940 at 10:35 am

This one shows a street scene in St. Louis, which is where the smoke control ordinance was first enacted and upon which the Pittsburgh program was based.

According to the University of Pittsburgh website, the smoke control ordinances regulated the burning of coal by locomotives, the steel industry, and individual citizens. The city had been trying since 1807 to control the smoke, but for decades, people believed that heavy smoke in the air indicated high productivity. They also thought smoke was good for the lungs and for the crops. So legislation wasn’t enforced until after World War II.

This final shot is quite extraordinary, and eerily beautiful. The Heinz History Center gave me permission to run it. Remember: it’s daytime.

Downtown Pittsburgh at 9:20 a.m. in the fall of 1945, before smoke control Library and Archives Division, Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania, Pittsburgh, PA

On Wednesday’s blog–the deadly London Fog of 1952.

Santa’s Evil Sidekick

Loyal readers may have noticed that I haven’t been posting very frequently recently. That’s because I have a looming book deadline (January 25th, to be exact). But as it’s the holidays, I thought I’d repost this piece I did a few years ago about the history of Santa-figures in other countries:


As a mother, I freely admit to having played the Santa card when my kids were younger. “Better stop fighting you guys. Santa is watching!” For years, that tactic scared them into submission and good behavior, at least around holiday time. But that type of psychological manipulation is pretty tame stuff, compared with what kids have had to endure in other places and times.

Recently I did a post about the special genre of nineteenth century children’s books that taught morality and manners to children. The general idea behind these books was to scare kids witless in order to get them to behave. Today’s post is a holiday version of that genre; the various European traditions that turned Christmas into a form of Judgement Day. Good kids would get presents. Bad kids got punished in various creative and harrowing ways.

This article in the New York Times breaks down some of these mostly-European Christmas traditions. In Iceland, naughty children were carted off by two thirteenth-century ogres and eaten. In Greece, mean imps jumped onto kids’ backs and forced miscreants to dance til they dropped. In France, Father Christmas (Pere Noel) had an evil sidekick named Pere Fouettard (loosely translated as “Father Spank-you.”)

But for me, at least, the scariest is Krampus. He’s a demonic character from folklore common in Austria, the Netherlands, and Switzerland, with horns, hooves, and a long tongue. According to legend, Krampus joined Saint Nicholas on his Christmas rounds. While jolly old Saint Nick doled out gifts to the good kids, Krampus dispensed coal and swatted the pretty-bad with ruten bundles (birch branches), and then stuffed the especially naughty kids into his gunnysack and hauled them away, presumably to be eaten for his Christmas dinner.


Top: a Greeting Card from the Krampus 1900 via Wikimedia
Middle: Krampus and Saint Nicholas in a Viennese home, 1896,
Bottom: an early twentieth century Krampus card



Holiday Book Fair!

cx4cbgwxuaajg-3Hello, New England friends–

On Saturday, December 3rd, I’ll be signing books at An Unlikely Story bookstore at 111 South Street in Plainville, Massachusetts, along with a bunch of other amazing authors and illustrators. The event is from 11 to 2. There will be crafts. There will be books. I hope you’ll stop in and say hello and support a fantastic indie bookstore! (It’s the one owned by Jeff Kinney of Wimpy Kid fame.)

Here’s where you can find all the details!


NCTE 16 in Atlanta

screen-shot-2016-11-15-at-2-38-46-pmTomorrow I’m headed to Atlanta, Georgia, to spend a couple of days doing research. And then on Friday, November 18th, I’ll be participating in two panels for the National Council of Teachers of English. It’s a fantastic convention, full of passionate book people. Will I see you there?

Rochester Children’s Book Festival

screen-shot-2016-11-07-at-8-37-59-amOn Saturday, November 12th, I’ll be one of many authors and illustrators participating in the Rochester Children’s Book Festival. It’s from 10 to 4 at Monroe Community College, 1000 East Henrietta Road, in Rochester NY. I hope you’ll come by if you’re in the area. It’s a fantastic festival! Here’s the link to the site.

nErD Camp Long Island

screen-shot-2016-10-30-at-10-29-49-amOn Saturday, November 5th, I’ll be attending the second annual nErD Camp Long Island at the Jericho Middle School in Jericho, New York. Teachers, librarians, illustrators and authors will get together for the day for a (free!!) “unconference” to talk about books and teaching and writing.

Then from 2:00 – 3:30 there will be an author “meet and greet.” Check out the list of authors and illustrators who will be attending. I hope if you’re anywhere in the area, you’ll be able to join us!

Shoddy Shoddy

By Tim Green from Bradford (Shoddy & Mungo) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons Nowadays the word “shoddy” means something that is cheap and poorly made and liable to come apart. The origins of the word date back to the 19th century. “Shoddy” (a noun) was a type of fabric made by grinding up old woolen rags and mixing them with fresh wool. (“Mungo” was similar but of somewhat higher quality.) The shredded stuff was re-spun and re-woven into new material. The process was invented in England in 1813. Rag sorters picked through and sorted dirty, grimy rags according to quality and color.  The grinding process created enormous amounts of dust.

Shoddy made clothing much less expensive. But some manufacturers cheated their customers by supplying super-shoddy, er shoddy. During the American Civil War there was a huge demand for woolen cloth for uniforms. Suppliers out to make a quick buck supplied shoddy shoddy that was of such poor quality, soldiers’ uniforms fell apart after a few wearings.

Brady National Photographic Art Gallery (Washington, D.C.) (1858 - ?), Photographer (NARA record: 1135962)


Top: Tim Green from Bradford (Shoddy & Mungo) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Bottom: Brady National Photographic Art Gallery (Washington, D.C.) (1858 – ?), Photographer (NARA record: 1135962)


Eleanor and the Troubadours

I’ve been reading a biography of Eleanor of Aquitaine (1137-1152), which led me to the subject of troubadours.

medieval-musiciansTroubadours were poets and musicians whose art form flourished mostly between the 11th and 13th centuries. They tended to be employed by a wealthy person, often for their whole careers, and mostly in the Provence region of medieval France. The subject of their lyric poetry was often about unrequited love, the love-sick poet pining for an unattainable lady. Every college English major knows this literary convention as “courtly love.”

So what does all this have to do with Eleanor? One of the first famous troubadours was her grandfather, William of Aquitaine (1071 – 1127), who composed some pretty racy verse. This is but one cool fact about one of western Europe’s coolest women ever.

Eleanor would eventually become queen of two kingdoms (first France, then England), and mother of two kings. At fifteen, the fabulously wealthy Eleanor married her first husband, Louis. Soon to be crowned Louis VII, he was a super-religious dullard who worshipped his wife—from afar. His father died soon thereafter, and the couple was crowned king and queen of France.

Eleanor was bored with palace life. To give you an idea of the castle’s lack of creature comforts, a fireplace was installed after she moved in, to modernize it.

She had two daughters as queen of France, but she and Louis became increasingly estranged, and finally the Pope agreed to annul their marriage. Two months later, Eleanor married Henry, Count of Anjou and Duke of Normandy. Two years after that, they were king and queen of England. They had eight children together, but in 1167, they separated, possibly because of Henry’s multiple infidelities. Eleanor moved back to her own turf in Poitiers, and established The Court of Love, where she patronized artists and poets and the arts.

There’s so much more to her amazing life,  but I wanted to focus on the troubadours and Eleanor’s role in their place in history.

Back in the English court, Eleanor had encouraged troubadours, which soon became part of medieval English society. One of the finest troubadours was Bernard de Ventadour, (sometimes spelled Bernart de Ventadorn). Eleanor brought him to the English court, where he composed cool stuff like this. He and Eleanor may also have had a love affair (some historians think it happened after her marriage to Louis ended and before Henry). Suffice to say, when he returned from a sojourn around his kingdom, Henry didn’t seem psyched to see the troubadour settled in at his English court.

Two summers ago I visited the abbey at Fontevraud, where Eleanor is buried. Here’s a patch of loveliness outside the abbey:img_2836

And here’s a picture I took of her, lying next to Henry. I love that she’s depicted reading a book. Their son, Richard the Lionheart, is also entombed there, or at least most of him is. His heart and other entrails were sent to a couple of other cathedrals in France.img_2839

Incidentally, there is a difference between a troubadour and a wandering minstrel. Here’s Monty Python’s example of the latter.