Each month, we ask one distinguished author or illustrator to write an original post that reveals insights about their process and craft. Enjoy!
by Elizabeth Partridge
When I’m working on a book, there’s a perfectly balanced moment when anything seems possible. It comes as I’m well into the research, bursting with ideas and dreams and enthusiasm. Once I start writing, it’s not long before I crash. Reality sets in fast: not everything that fascinates me is going to fit between the covers of a book.
My latest book, Marching for Freedom: Walk Together, Children, and Don’t You Get Weary (Penguin 2009), is on a deceptively complicated subject: the 1965 march for the vote from Selma to Montgomery. I tried hard to squeeze a huge amount in about segregation and civil rights, and Martin Luther King Jr. and the other leaders of the march, but finally I had to rip out paragraphs, even chapters.
I call this stage “leaving grandma’s rocker by the road,” a tribute to all the women on wagon trains who abandoned beloved pieces of furniture en route to a new life in California. Painful. Necessary for survival.
In Marching for Freedom, I wanted to include a map of the 54 mile route from Selma to Montgomery. It was only one short piece of Highway 80 in Alabama. Not very exciting. But every mile was walked by foot. At the eleventh hour I pulled the map in favor of an irresistible photograph. But still. The map was grandma’s rocker.
Then serendipity struck. While my book was being printed, I discovered Google Lit Trips. Jerome Burg, a retired English teacher who wasn’t ready to be put out to pasture, had come up with an amazing idea: he could use Google Earth to map out a book’s story journey for students. He and a small army of volunteers put together Lit Trips from Robert McCloskey’s Make Way for Ducklings to John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath.
When I contacted him, Jerome was enthusiastic about putting together a Lit Trip for Marching for Freedom. Serendipity struck again: Jerome and I live near each other. We could do the work shoulder to shoulder.
Google Map image from the Marching for Freedom Lit Trip
We marked important places on a real-time map–the jail in Selma where kids were locked up, the Edmund Pettus bridge, and Mack’s Café where Jimmie Lee Jackson was shot. We noted every place the marchers spent the night when they finally made the five day march to Montgomery. At each spot we added pop-up windows. Suddenly I had more empty white-space, begging for content!
We filled the windows with quotes and photos, and embedded videos. In “Thinking About the Story… “ we put several questions, beginning with an easy one, and ending with a complex one. Jerome taught me a savvy teacher’s trick: don’t ask any questions that can be answered with a yes or no. Make ‘em think. And the second section, “Learning More About the Story…” was where we linked to websites full of more information. At some markers, we added an author’s note with backstory.
Detail image from the Marching for Freedom Lit Trip
The windows gave us room to explore topics I hadn’t even dreamed of covering in the book. We did one window on the symbolism and importance of the American flag to the marchers, another on the history of the denial of the vote to women and African Americans.
Once all the content was in place, Jerome programmed the way users “fly” from one place to another. They could move around Selma, travel with the marchers to Montgomery, head up to Washington DC for the signing of the Voting Rights Act.
And me? I made it to California with everything I love in my covered wagon, and then some.
Check out our Google Lit Trip and let us know what you think. We’re eager to hear how it works for you and your students. Elizabeth AT elizabethpartridge DOT com
This material may not be used without the express written consent of Elizabeth Partridge.
Photo provided by Elizabeth Partridge, 2009
Hear Elizabeth Partridge tell the story of her name, including how she came to be named after her mother …