Guest Post: Barb Rosenstock & THE GREAT LAKES + Book giveaway!

Stories Close to Home

“Write what you know,” the advice goes. 

Instead, for years I wrote what I didn’t know. I’ve found most of my nonfiction topics by traveling (physically or through primary research) far away from my home. Searching for unusual stories (or unique takes on known stories,) I wound up with books set on the east coast, the west coast, the south, and in Canada, India, Bermuda, France, and Russia.

But the actual physical writing was often done sitting at desks in Illinois, smack in the middle of the country. From one desk, I can see the Chicago skyline and Lake Michigan beyond. It’s a beautiful view…one I typically ignored while staring into space fussing over my latest picture book biography set in a time or place that I had not personally experienced.  

We humans tend to ignore the commonplace—our everyday people: partners, children, coworkers; our everyday actions: showering, tying shoes, pouring cereal; our everyday places: neighborhoods, schools, towns. I was born in the city of Chicago less than a mile from Lake Michigan and have lived within ten miles of that lake my entire life. Lake Michigan was part of the background like clouds or grass or backyard swings. Did I know it was there? Sure! Had I spent much time thinking about the massive body of water that I saw almost as often as my own face? Nope.

In 2017 I ran across an adult book, The Death and Life of the Great Lakes. Its Milwaukee-based author, Dan Egan, details the past, present, and future issues facing the Great Lakes, including Lake Michigan. As will often happen (I call it Writing Karma,) just as I finished Egan’s book, a teacher at a school visit mentioned how the only trade book she could find about the Great Lakes was the old (1941) Caldecott Honor (and culturally inappropriate) children’s title, Paddle to the Sea. I shrugged, “Maybe I’ll write a biography of the Great Lakes!” “That would be GREAT!” she practically shouted.

Wait! Could a person write a biography of a place? Are the Great Lakes a place or are they objects? Or are they more alive than either category suggests? If you could write their life story, where would it begin? Folks that live in the Great Lakes region tend to be non-braggy types. This extends to a long history of not teaching the kids who grow up here how proud they should be that “the continent’s most valuable resource,” (Folger, Tim, National Geographic, Dec. 2020, p. 41) shimmers right outside their doors.  The only thing I learned in school was that the Great Lakes had something to do with glaciers; but what exactly, I couldn’t recall. 

I took out a few books (dozens, then more dozens) on city histories, native culture, industry, immigration, fish, rivers, shipwrecks, pollution, protests, and yes, glaciers.  From super readable, The Five Sisters: 299 Things Every Great Lakes Buff Should Know, through specialized, A Field Guide to the Valuable Underwater Aquatic Plants of the Great Lakes, to the incomprehensibly technical, The Great Lakes: An Environmental Atlas and Resource Book.  After I familiarized myself through books and articles, I started contacting experts on separate topics. The rock people talked about rocks. The fish people talked about fish. The people from individual states talked about their states. I took notes and was given more to read. I went on a few field trips (a BIG benefit of “write what you know” the research remained close to home.) 

The life story of the lakes was more complicated than I’d originally considered, there were hundreds of topics, thousands of facts—

The Great Lakes surround the largest freshwater sand dune system in the world. The Great Lakes are dangerous, more than 6,000 ships have been wrecked with an estimated 30,000 deaths. The land around the Great Lakes still rebounds from the ancient glaciers. Approximately 120 bands of Native Peoples have occupied the Great Lakes basin over the course of history. The highest recorded wave on a Great Lake was 29 feet in 2017. One invasive sea lamprey kills about forty pounds of Great Lakes fish each year. In 1870, immigrants (Italian, Irish, Polish, Greek, Lithuanian, Chinese) made up a larger proportion of Chicago’s population than any other place in North America. Every year more than 22 million pounds of plastic ends up in the Great Lakes. The surface area of Lake Superior is larger than Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and New Hampshire, combined! 

I began drafting with the intention of writing a birth-to-death biography of these five amazing, living lakes. The early potential structures of this work in progress were awkward at best. I have a draft called Great Lakes: Old and Young that worked (or didn’t work) as a past/present comparison format covering glacial prehistory to present day. I have a draft called, The Great Lakes Go On which was like a (BORING!) travelogue through each lake. I started one poetic draft, “The old Earth turns…385 million years ago…” But, if I thought a picture book could cover that much ground, I was kidding myself. My books never come together without a structure, a “So What,” a reason for a kid to learn about my topic and a way for a kid to think about it in an organized manner. This Great Lakes project (my first in a more expository style) was falling apart from facts without a solid structure on which to hang them.  

And then, I talked to a water person. Well, honestly, two water people, many months apart. They both said a similar thing in very different ways.  First, I interviewed a Milwaukee city employee about drinking water filtration systems (oh my, was I in the nonfiction weeds or what?) He said something like, ‘if you drink the water from the Great Lakes, you ARE the Great Lakes.’  Much later, I spoke to Great Lakes water educator and Ojibwe water walker, Kathleen Smith. She spoke of the Great Lakes as a living relative and how caring for the water was caring for family.

Water. How did it take me so long to see that the book should just be about water? The water out my window. The water that has sustained my entire life. The water that flows through me and to people in seven other states and two Canadian provinces, and back, hopefully forever. My water. Where did that water come from? Has it changed over time? What is it used for? How can we care for it like a big Great Lakes family?  

Though we can argue about whether a book about lakes can be called a biography, the process worked exactly like a picture book biography in that it required a super narrow focus about a living system. To get down to really writing it, I needed to ‘forget’ all my research. My story wasn’t in the cities, immigration, rocks or weather, no matter how much ‘wasted’ reading time I’d already put in. I focused on a single question: What makes the Great Lakes different? The answer: Freshwater.  The focus dictated what stayed in the manuscript. The job of an author it to honor that found focus; and wrestle a story into shape.

Even with a tight focus, it required a LOT of wrestling. I was covering 100,000 square miles of water, representing eight states, two countries, a bunch of government agencies and non-for-profits, and the work of a dozen experts (and another dozen or so who were contacted for one minor thing or another.) 

I spent way more time asking myself questions than I did putting words on paper. I was really concerned about how to bring kids into the story.  How was I going to help a kid reader care about water, something they (and we) mostly take for granted? 

I only knew what I didn’t want. I didn’t want to focus solely on the Great Lakes’ problems (what I call the “We Screwed Up” book series for kids.) I didn’t want to preach. Yet, I didn’t want facts overwhelm the feeling of wonder I was attempting to convey. I wanted children to identify with the water and value it, almost like a favorite person. Could readers BE one of the snowflakes that made up the enormous glaciers? Could they BE a drop of water going over Niagara Falls? 

Writing in the second person was the solution (and yes, I did have to look up exactly what ‘second person’ was, because some of us can’t remember that, or how to use a comma!) The book’s “you” questions and statements wound up doing the work of drawing readers in. “Can you find them on this map?” “If you were a snowflake back then, you were in luck…”  “If you were a drop of water…”  “You’d find yourself pushed along…” “Is your trip over?” Using second person got the reader inside the story of the freshwater that makes up more than half of their own bodies. In the book, YOU are the lakes, and if you are one of the 40 million people (roughly 20 million kids!) who drink from the Great Lakes every day, it’s also a central fact of your life, YOU are the lakes, the lakes are YOU. 

Still, leaving out 90% of my super fascinating facts was hard, but being paired with illustrator Jamey Christoph made it less so. I’ve learned to trust illustrators as writing partners. Jamey was able to visually add back in a good part of the information I had to leave out. He used the endpapers (the endpapers!) to detail some of the human history. In the interior spreads, he brilliantly illustrated glaciers, rocks, dunes, weathering, currents, cities, plus varied people, fish, and plant life of the Great Lakes while my words stayed focused on freshwater.  

After a dozen years of writing for children, this book taught me something brand new—unique stories are not always far away. There is a lot of good in the advice, “Write what you know.” Look at what is around you. Look at it again. Look at it as a kid might. Whether it’s clouds, grass, swings…or water. It means something to you already. You may know all kinds of things about it that “outsiders” do not. An unusual story, a saleable story may be nearby.

I have a new book. It’s called The Great Lakes: Our Freshwater Treasure. It’s about water. The water that is inside me. The water I never noticed. The water that was right outside my window, waiting for years for me to tell its story.

Leave a comment below for your chance to WIN a copy of THE GREAT LAKES!

Barb Rosenstock has written multiple award-winning nonfiction and historical fiction picture books including the Caldecott Honor title, The Noisy Paint Box. Her latest book, The Great Lakes: Our Freshwater Treasure has received starred reviews from Booklist, which called it “stunning…” and School Library Journal which recommended it as a “must buy…” She lives near Chicago with her family. For more information including educator guides and text sets, visit www.barbrosenstock.com

WINNERS! The two winners of Jill Esbaum’s BIRD GIRL from last month’s post are Elise Destine and Claire Bobrow. Congratulations!


Jill Esbaum

Jill Esbaum has been picture book crazy since her 3 kids were little, and especially so after her first was published in 2004 (Stink Soup). Recent titles: Stinkbird Has a Superpower, Jack Knight's Brave Flight, Where'd My Jo Go?, Frog Boots, How to Grow a Dinosaur, Frankenbunny, If a T. Rex Crashes Your Birthday Party, Elwood Bigfoot– Wanted: Birdie Friends!, Teeny Tiny Toady, I Am Cow, Hear Me Moo!, and more. Coming in 2024: Parrotfish Has a Superpower (a Junior Library Guild Gold Standard Selection) and Bird Girl: Gene Stratton-Porter Shares Her Love of Nature with the World (another JLG Gold Standard Selection). She's also the author of many nonfiction books for young readers, as well as an early graphic reader series, Thunder & Cluck. Learn more at http://jillesbaum.com.

72 Comments:

  1. I, too, grew up in Illinois by Lake Michigan. My summer birthday parties with friends and family were always held at the beach. I walked beside it on my way home from high school. A college friend , on her first visit to any of the Great Lakes, marveled that you couldn’t see across Lake Michigan-her experience of a “lake” being of a smallish thing.
    I would absolutely love to have a copy of your book😎

  2. Jane Heitman Healy

    My husband & I are crazy about the Great Lakes! I look forward to reading and sharing this book!

  3. Lindsay Moretti

    Growing up on the shores of Lake Superior, I have to agree the water very much becomes a part of you! I am thrilled you took on the big job of writing about the Great Lakes – looking forward to reading it! Thanks for sharing your journey.

  4. Oooo! This is a book for every classroom, library, and home.

  5. I cannot wait to read this book. I am from the east and I do not know the Great Lakes well.

  6. What a fascinating book journey! Thank you, Barb, for sharing it, and thank you, Jill, for featuring it here. Nonfiction writers (and many fiction writers too) do SO much work researching, writing, rewriting, rethinking, revising, and reimagining. Much of that never gets seen or appreciated by readers. But other authors know and appreciate and applaud. BRAVO!

  7. Barb, what an accomplishment! As a Lake Superior sister, I applaud the topic and you! Congratulations, and thank you.

  8. Debra Kempf Shumaker

    Oh my. I grew up in WI about 20 miles away from Lake Michigan and would never have considered a PB “biography” on them but this sounds brilliant and amazing! I cannot wait to read it. Thanks for an enlightening and inspiring post!

  9. As a Minnesotan, the land of 10,000 lakes, I look forward to reading your book! I’m thankful our library has it! Congratulations, Barb!

  10. Cindy Rivka Marshall

    Thanks for writing about your process and how you arrived at using second person to make the book more interactive. Insightful!

  11. As a Clevelander and someone who loves Lake Erie, I’ll for sure be getting this–not only for me but for my grandkids who live here too.

  12. Charlotte Sheer

    Barb, such a fascinating writer’s journey! It’s inspiring to read how you refocused your years of extensive research into a fresh, unique look at the Great Lakes not just as valuable natural resource with a history, but as a living ‘being’! Bravo! Looking forward to reading it!

  13. I left in the Chicago west suburbs – could not love the lakes more! Hope this inspires tourists and families to see them.

  14. Stefanie Raszler

    Oh, this sounds amazing! Thank you, too, for the nonfiction-writing inspiration!

    • You are so welcome! Remember what feels inspiring now was totally frustrating when the actual drafting was taking place. It’s all part of the process (I tell myself every day!)

  15. As a Michigan girl, I love anything to do with the Great Lakes! Looking forward to reading this.

    • Us Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York girls ALL love our lakes and need to get more involved in making sure they are here for everyone, forever! Thanks Cheryl!

  16. It’s amazing how you wrangled all that research into a fascinating picture book! Congratulations, Barb, what a feat!!

  17. So cool! Thanks for sharing!

  18. Congrats, Barb, on the new book! Can’t wait to read about the water outside your window.

  19. Oh, very cool! I live far from the Great Lakes, but passed between them on our way home from Montreal. AMAZING! They are so huge! And important! We did not get time to play, but I really want to see more. Congratulations on your new book!

  20. So true, we take these lakes for granted. Oceans seem to get all the attention. I look forward to reading your book and sharing it with the students at school.

    • They are not lakes, right Heather, they are seas, connected seas and the more the climate changes the more we are going to rely on them. Great Lakes Forever! And please drop me a line and let me know what your students think!

  21. Barb, thank you for this look into your process of writing such a beautiful book about a topic that felt so BIG. Congratulations!!! You found your focus. I love that. Your opening is captivating and the illustrations are so beautiful. I was a mere child when I visited Niagara Falls but I’ve never forgotten the mist, the rainbow, and wanting to keep a piece of it in my pocket. I would love to win your beautiful book!

  22. Barb, this is a fantastic article! You were one of those people who opened my eyes to how NF should be written, and this is another powerful insight from you, the guru! Really looking forward to this book.

  23. Robin Brett Wechsler

    As a nonfiction and nature fan (and someone who went to college along the shore of Lake Michigan) I love the idea of this book, Barb, and learning what it took to write it. It sounds and looks amazing. Congrats!

  24. danielle hammelef

    As a life-long Michigan resident, I must read this exciting and unique book. I love both the topic and focus of this book. Thank you for sharing all the research you did before writing–truly amazing–and I hope you find more books out of all that research.

  25. Having been a resident of Milwaukee and Chicago, I for almost the entirety of my life have lived very close to Lake Michigan, sometimes taking it for granted like the years I spent routinely running along its shore. This book sounds great. I can’t wait to share it with my grandson, a current Milwaukee resident who is just beginning to enjoy the lake.

    • Get that grandson to be bragging about “his lake” the rest of his life! He is MADE of the water in that lake. P.S. My grandkids live in Milwaukee too! Thanks for reading and commenting.

  26. What an interesting and illuminating article on finding the way in to this story! Loved so many things here, from the “biography of a place” mindset to the “non-braggy” thing — so true, the hidden-in-plain-sight cultural reasons for certain absences — to caring for water being caring for family. I recently re-read “Paddle to the Sea” after many, many years. Now your book is on my list. Thank you, Barb.

    • Right? We all have those things we take for granted or think “why would anyone care about that?” And Paddle to the Sea was a great book for its time, and now, well, it’s time for something new. I hope you like The Great Lakes when you read it, please let me know.

  27. Amazing! Just off the top of my head I can think of a couple fistfuls of people who need this book! Many of them grew up Great Lakes-side and another works tirelessly for non-profit Water For People. I thoroughly enjoyed each little pearl of wisdom (and wit) in your article. I’m a Colorado girl but was a Buffalo girl for my first eight years and treasured those family outings on Lake Erie. Water is magic (with a whole bunch of science mixed in:) Can’t wait to read it! Congratulations!!!

    • Fistfuls? Well, let’s hope so! Water for People is a great organization. Lake Erie is an amazing body of water, and with tends to be one of the overlooked of the five sisters. Thanks for reading the post!

  28. I love the Great Lakes, especially Lake Superior. While I didn’t grow up near it, I spent many summers visiting family in Minnesota and the north shore is still my favorite place to vacation.

  29. “Unique stories are not always far away” – yes! Hard to see them, hear them and know them at times but they can be there! Congratulations on the book and the breakthrough to find the solution!

  30. I grew up in Toronto and was less than 30 minutes from lake Ontario. The Great lakes have always been special to me. Can’t wait to read your latest book. Wonderful post – loved your journey to write this one.

  31. Pamela Harrison

    I also live in Illinois and have visited Chicago and it’s wonderful lake many times. The process taken in order to write this book is fascinating. What a huge journey you traveled as you experimented with your focus in telling this story! I can’t wait to read your new book! Congratulations, Barb!

  32. This was such a wonderful interview. Your book sounds amazing and so wonderful to share in the classroom.

  33. I’m thrilled to see this book! As a newbie to Michigan, I’ve developed a passion for the Great Lakes and their incredible qualities, importance, and uniqueness. I would say most people have no idea how amazing they are; I certainly didn’t until I lived here.
    Congrats on working through your body of research to craft a story kids will love reading!

  34. What a wonderful post, Barb! So interesting to see the process and decisions behind the book. My parents lived on the coast of Lake Michigan for 35 years, and my kids’ summers were spent in dunes and water. I loved the moods of the lake, which were many. Kathleen Smith’s quote — ‘if you drink the water from the Great Lakes, you ARE the Great Lakes.’ — will stay with me.

  35. Oh, my, Barb, you had me at the cover! You did a fabulous job wrestling out the story you wanted to tell from all the research you did. Impressive!…I was born in Chicago, too, on the southeast side and frequently visited Calumet Park.

  36. As a Utahn watching the life and death of struggle of our great lake, I am very excited to read this and learn from you! I have always been a big fan of your books.

  37. Ah, the simplest advice (“write what you know”) that I’ve been ignoring too. Thanks for giving me something to think about!

  38. Jilanne Hoffmann

    When I was a kid, we took a ferry across Lake Michigan from Illinois to Michigan and then drove across to Canada at Sault St. Marie and drove around the Lake Superior. That water was sooo cold! All this to say, it was a memorable trip for a 10-yr-old. And I can’t wait to read this book! Congrats on finding the structure!

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