Kids, get out your googley eyes. Award-winning children’s author and illustrator Meghan McCarthy is coming to town!
If you don’t know her by name, you may recognize her artwork. Googley eyes are such a signature part of her drawings that she’s included a page of them on her website, www.meghan-mccarthy.com, for kids to print out and “stick places.”
McCarthy, who will be the featured speaker at The Missourian’s annual Run to Read event set for Saturday morning, Oct. 12, also is known for writing “picture book biographies of unexpected subjects” (says Publishers Weekly).
She prefers to describe her books as “nonfiction that’s fun!”
“I was the type of kid who stared out the window while in class,” said McCarthy. “My notebooks were filled with doodles.
“I always tell people that I write books for the little me. There are enough books about Abraham Lincoln and George Washington. There are so many other parts of history that need to be told. If I can get kids interested in history and science and other subjects without them feeling like it’s a chore then I’ve accomplished what I’ve set out to do.”
McCarthy’s first nonfiction book, “Aliens Are Coming, the True Account of the 1938 War of the Worlds Radio Broadcast,” is a perfect example of that. Kids love it, but initially, editors didn’t think it was a winner.
“I had a hard time finding an editor to buy it,” McCarthy told The Missourian in an email interview. “A few editors said that kids wouldn’t find the book interesting because they wouldn’t know about the broadcast. I said, ‘Well they will when the book is published!’ Isn’t that the point of doing any nonfiction book — to inform?”
Since then, McCarthy has educated kids on more than half a dozen other random topics:
“Pop! The Invention of Bubble Gum;”
“The Story of Charles Atlas, Strong Man;” and
“City Hawk, the Story of Pale Male,” the red-tailed hawk that built its nest in an upscale building on Fifth Avenue in New York City; to name a few.
McCarthy’s book about “The Incredible Life of Balto,” the famous dog who led a sled team across Alaska to deliver medicine to a community suffering from diphtheria, is what’s bringing her to Washington. “Balto” is the Youngest Pick in The Missourian’s monthly Book Buzz program for September.
A number of her previous books have been Book Buzz Picks, as well, including her fiction story, “Stealing Back the Mona Lisa.”
Following the Run to Read’s 5K run, 1-mile walk and baby dash, McCarthy will give a presentation on her writing at 9 a.m. at Washington Public Library. She will talk about her books and maybe show some videos and photographs that she used as source material while working on “Balto.”
She also may talk about one of her upcoming projects — a book about the 1904 Olympic marathon.
“I think it would be fun to talk about that a bit since people will be at a race,” said McCarthy. “I’ve been a runner my whole life — starting at the age of about 8 — until I sprained my ankle last summer.
“My dad runs marathons and so does my sister. My sister, in fact, is considered in the elite category. So that’s what got me interested in writing about the marathon. The 1904 Marathon was pretty nutty!”
After her presentation at the Washington Library, McCarthy will head south to Scenic Regional Library in Union for a second presentation of her work at 1 p.m.
There she will focus on her book, “Daredevil, the Daring Life of Betty Skelton,” which was published over the summer. Again, she plans to show some of the videos and research used in writing the story.
The amount of research McCarthy puts into writing her biographies may surprise kids. The finished stories are so polished and smooth that McCarthy makes writing them seem easy.
That’s rarely, if ever, the case with nonfiction, she points out.
“Every book I create has its ups and downs,” McCarthy said, when asked if writing any one of her books was particularly hard or easy.
“Sometimes my editor will ask for changes to my manuscript and I won’t know how to fix the story . . . but I always get through it and the book always turns out better.
“My fiction books were easier to create because I didn’t have to do the research that is required for a nonfiction book. When I wrote a fiction title I could do anything I wanted to it. But I can’t do that with my nonfiction books. Sometimes certain events don’t fit perfectly into the story arch that I have planned but I have to work with it. There is also the process I go through of weeding out the more adult material and figuring out how to make adult content kid-friendly. That doesn’t exist with fiction.”
In a video segment on her website where McCarthy answers questions from readers, there’s a funny moment where she’s talking about one of her upcoming books, about the man who invented earmuffs, and she finds herself trying to explain in simple terms what a patent is. Those are the kinds of challenges she faces in writing nonfiction.
“A lot of things that we think are basic aren’t so simple to explain,” said McCarthy. “Perhaps we don’t understand them as well as we think we do. I have found a way that will hopefully explain what a patent is for kids (if at all possible). I’m going to create a page in my book that shows a glass of Coke, a pile of Legos, an iPod and maybe a Barbie (if I can legally get away with it), and then say that those are all patented products.”
One of the most popular questions McCarthy’s readers ask of her is where she gets her ideas for these unexpected biographies. It’s not necessarily what you would expect.
“I’m not always sure where my ideas come from,” McCarthy said. “The process is an evolution. For example: I was working on a fiction title called ‘Patty and the Big Red Bus’ back in 2004. In it there is a page where the characters go to the circus. That page got me thinking about circuses.
“With the circus in mind, I began thinking about sideshows. I then went to one of the last sideshows left, which is on Coney Island. Then, while searching for sideshows on the Internet I stumbled upon the story of Charles Atlas. He was a fitness guy but in his early years he was a strong man in a sideshow.”
McCarthy, who calls herself a “documentary junkie,” also gets ideas from watching PBS and listening to NPR shows like “Radiolab.”
“Then, when I have a specific topic in mind, Google is a great place to begin my search,” she said. “I wanted to do a book about an inventor, but didn’t know who to write about, so I started word searching ‘inventors’ and ‘unique inventions’ and so on. That’s how I stumbled upon Walter Diemer, the subject for my book ‘Pop! The Invention of Bubble Gum.’ ”
In “Balto,” after the story ends McCarthy includes an extensive description of her “detective work” to get the story right, plus activities that kids can do to understand how stories can change over time and how important it is to find reliable sources of information.
Her website is even more loaded with interactive features for kids to have fun with and learn from. There are coloring pages, drawings of her characters that kids have submitted, reading guides (written by teachers) and a section called “Creativity in the Classroom,” where she shares fun ways teachers are using her books in their classrooms.
McCarthy, who admits that she prefers to write more than she does read, said the secret for her is finding something that really interests her.
“I have always had attention problems,” she said. “As a kid I remember reading the same paragraph over and over and over again and not absorbing any of it.
“If I’m doing research for a book, however, I can plow through material rather quickly. It’s all about interest level.”
For now, McCarthy said her preference is memoirs and other nonfiction, as well as graphic novels. She’s working on one herself about the war to supply electricity in the late 1800s.
“There’s a lot of information people don’t know about Thomas Edison, for example. I hoping my graphic novel will be something both teens and adults will want to read and hopefully they will learn something new in the process,” said McCarthy.
Come Run, Walk, Read
The annual Run to Read will get under way Saturday morning, Oct. 12, at the Washington Public Library.
Registration will begin at 7 a.m.
The 5K run will begin at 8 a.m., followed by the “Block by Block Reading Walk at 8:05. Along the walk there will be oversized pages from McCarthy’s “Balto” for walkers to stop and read.
A Baby Buzz dash for young children will begin at 8:45 a.m.
Registration is $10, which includes a free T-shirt if turned in by Sunday, Sept. 29. Race-day registration will be available, but no T-shirt will be provided.
All participants will be able to select a free hardback book to take home.
Online registration is available at iwantregistered.com (there is an additional $1.50 service charge), or registration forms are available at The Missourian, Washington Library, Four Rivers Area YMCA or at www.emissourian.com (to print out and submit).
Funds raised from the annual Run to Read are used to support local youth literacy efforts.