School Visits: Making History Come Alive

Albuquerque, New Mexico is celebrated for its red and green roasted chilies, fall hot-air balloon festival, and 120 years of microbrew pubs. It’s also where technology visionary Bill Gates got his start, which is why I was recently in the city—visiting schools and talking to students about my new picture book biography “Think Smart, Be Fearless: A Biography of Bill Gates,” just out from Sasquatch Books.

In 1975, Gates was a pre-law student at Harvard when he and Paul Allen spent eight weeks writing and selling a modified version of BASIC software to Ed Roberts of Micro Instrumentation and Telemetry Systems (MITS) in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Roberts had designed and built the Altair 8800, a small personal computer kit and was marketing it to “hobbyists” for about $400. The Altair had no keyboard, no screen, 4kb of memory (compared to today’s smartphones which have about four million times that amount) and most importantly, no software to tell it what to do, draw, or count.

When Gates and Allen wrote the software for the Altair 8800—and it worked!—Roberts bought it on the spot. With the grudging support of his parents, Bill took a leave of absence from Harvard and cofounded “Micro-soft” with Allen, which they ran in Albuquerque for several years until moving the company to Bellevue, WA in 1979.

The first to third graders in the three schools I visited in Albuquerque knew none of these little details, but thanks to the efforts of their excellent librarians, they recognized the name Bill Gates and knew he had accomplished something important in the city where they lived.

What I love the most about visiting schools and talking to students about the topics of my books—whether it’s anti-bullying, orca pods, or Bill Gates—is how wonderfully open and ready they are to absorb and learn new things. Yes, writing about the life of Bill Gates for children is an ambitious project. But here’s a secret—and the kit-lit writers out there already know this—children’s books are all philosophy books in disguise.

I believe kids are inspired by big ideas, big stories. Even when they don’t understand all the details or the minutiae, the core ideas still resonate with them. At age eight, they may not fully understand the abstract concept of philanthropy or how Gates has made a commitment to give away 95% of his wealth in his lifetime, but when we talk about it in terms of having one dollar bill in your pocket, they get the “big idea” that if they made that commitment, it would mean they’d be giving away 95 cents and keeping only 5 cents. To me, that’s the power of storytelling.

Talking to kids about the life and accomplishments of Bill Gates is so much fun because it means we can talk about technology, philanthropy, fitting in (or not fitting in), following your dreams and more! Here’s a sample of some of the great questions they asked.

Why did he name the company “Microsoft”?
How did Bill Gates get to be so smart?
Were his parents mad at him for leaving school?
Why didn’t he stay in Albuquerque?
Is he with you here now?
Is everything in your book, even the silly parts, true?
Were the old computers as big as my desk?

The respective librarians chimed in with some questions of their own about primary sources, and what we can learn from reading about the lives of accomplished people, but my favorite experience from my Albuquerque visit has to be the story of one fourth grade boy. When it was announced that I’d be visiting his school, this student requested special permission to be excused from his math class to listen to my presentation. His librarian shared with me that he had been visiting the library for the last two years “asking if there were any new books on Bill Gates.” Before my talk began, he marched right up and introduced himself. Was this the book, he asked? Did it tell the story of the whole life of Bill Gates? Could he see it? Could he see it NOW? I wrote him a special note in the copy of his book that he was taking home. It was truly a moment to warm my heart, that I’ll always remember.

Visit bonus: I saw a roadrunner.

Thank you Albuquerque Public Schools and Manzano Day School for hosting me! And special thanks to Bookworks, Albuquerque for planning and helping me with book sales.

Happy Birthday Think Smart, Be Fearless!

Happy Birthday to me!

My new children’s book biography THINK SMART, BE FEARLESS: A BIOGRAPHY OF BILL GATES is out today from Sasquatch Books!

This is such a positive story to research and write. Thank you to everyone who helped make it happen. I look forward to sharing it with you. Kids and families welcome!

University Book Store, Seattle on Saturday, October 19, at 1:00 pm.
Phinney Books, Seattle on Saturday, November 16, at 3:00 pm.

Think Smart, Be Fearless Book Launch!

My new children’s book biography THINK SMART, BE FEARLESS: A BIOGRAPHY OF BILL GATES
will be out on Oct 15th from Sasquatch Books and is available now for pre-order from your local bookstore.

How do fearless ideas begin? Travel along with young Bill Gates on his life’s journey full of curiosity, discovery, hard work, and most important, fearlessness—the inability to see limits. The book invites young readers to pursue their passions and awaken a sense of ambition and responsibility for others as they grow.

I’ll be doing two Seattle launch parties and I would love to see you there!
Kids and families welcome!

University Book Store, Seattle on Saturday, October 19, at 1:00 pm.
Phinney Books, Seattle on Saturday, November 16, at 3:00 pm.

Women Writing the West

If you’re looking for a great YA read, I want to share with you Becoming Beatrice—a wonderful book written by a my fellow Whidbey Writers Workshop MFA alum Frances Wood. The book was just selected as a 2019 WILLA Award finalist! Named in honor of WIlla Cather, one of this country’s foremost novelists, the annual award is selected by librarians and honors outstanding literature featuring women’s stories set in the west.

Becoming Beatrice is a beautifully written historical fiction novel that is intimately relevant for readers today. The
conflicts and challenges that Wood’s determined protagonist Beatrice faces—racism, gender equity, and the timeless urge to determine one’s own destiny—give this story an immediacy that will certainly capture the attention of today’s teens who are valiantly struggling to find their own place in the world. 

Buy this book for your favorite teen.

Ridiculous Riches

This summer I was invited to participate in a great writer-artist collaboration.

Signs-of-Life-2018For the past 14 years, Facèré Gallery in Seattle presents Signs of Life, a combined contemporary jewelry art exhibition and literary journal featuring the work of nine jewelry artists and nine published writers, culminating in an exhibit and a publication celebrating both literary and jewelry arts.  Each writer is given an image of a piece of work by one of the jewelers, and asked to respond with a piece of short fiction, poem or essay. The only restriction is that the writer not write about jewelry.

I was so happy to be included and pleased to be able to share my short fiction story here with you (PDF link), inspired by our Northwest landscape and jeweler Melinda Risk, whose beautiful work you can explore more of here.

This year’s full list of  jewelry artists include Jenine Bressner, Daniel DiCaprio, Kirk Lang, Maia Leppo, Tara Locklear, Megan McGaffigan, Kranitzky & Overstreet, Melinda Risk, and Liaung-Chung Yen. Writers include Claudia J. Bach, Ellen Wade Beals, Stuart Greenman, Holly J. Hughes, Matthew Nienow, Roz Ray, Molly Thornton, and John Mark Tucker and yours truly. The full publication is available from Facèré Gallery.

Reprinted with permission of Facèré Gallery.

 

The Stories that Remain

The island of Ortygia is both the symbolic and literal heart of Siracusa (Syracuse), the largest city on the eastern coast of Sicily. The streets are rich in medieval and Baroque palaces, one of the most light-filled piazzas in Italy and equally poetic wrought iron balconies bright with flowers and linen fluttering in the wind.

And water.

Ortygia is a small enough island that almost every turn opens out onto views of the Ionian sea, and the few enclosed narrow lanes that do exist seem to compensate. One of the city’s two main piazze features the Fonte Artusa (Arthusa Fountain), depicting the nymph Aretusa who, when pursued by the river god Alpheus, took refuge on the island of Ortygia and hid by changing into a spring. Though surrounded by the sea, the island’s drinking fountains built into walls run with fresh water.

Ortygia’s second public gathering place, Piazza d’Archimede (Archimedes Piazza), tells the story of the famous geometrician Archimedes who was born in Siracusa in 287 BC. Archimedes was so absent-minded that he would frequently forget to eat, drink and bathe. His servants needed to drag him to his bath, and it was there where he discovered his principle: any body immersed in water loses weight equivalent to the water it displaces. So delighted by this discovery, he jumped out of the bath and ran naked through the streets of Ortygia shouting “Eureka!” (I have it!)

Archimedes was also instrumental in defending Siracusa against the Romans by setting fire to the enemy fleet by focusing the sun’s rays with a system of mirrors and lenses. His concentration was so great that when the Romans succeeded in entering the town anyway by surprise, he didn’t hear them and a soldier ran him through with his sword.

Words

Words are on my mind. That might not seem surprising coming from a writer, but this time the concept feels broader than usual.

I’m traveling in Italy, partly for pleasure but mostly to participate in Bread Loaf in Sicily—a writing program that takes place in the far northwest town of Erice. Travel to any country where you’re not a native speaker can’t help but get you thinking about words, and these past days that I’ve spent in Palermo and Siracusa have heightened that sensitivity.

When we speak our native tongue, it’s so easy to take for granted that we can make ourselves understood—well, at least if we’re not discussing politics these days or other controversial topics. But even with a rudimentary working knowledge of another language, that baseline pretty much disappears. My Italian is improving, yet my most productive and satisfying conversations seem to occur with the small children of the owners of albergos where I’m staying.

At breakfast, I listen jealously as my hotel hostess seamlessly shifts from Italian to English to German to French. I think about so many writers who have written in more than one language—to someone in the midst of linguistic struggles, an unimaginable prospect. I think about my own Polish grandfather and the many U.S. immigrants who must make a new life with a new language—a necessary undertaking rather than an avocation.

And yet there’s something so alluring and powerful about words I cannot read. The posters, graffiti, even the shop and restaurant signage. Maybe it’s my background as a visual designer that lets me look at these as something intangible and beyond meaning. Something absolute, which lifts the burden of significance and allows me to simply enjoy their secret beauty.