Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Welcome guest author Ruth VanderZee

Ruth portraitPlease help me welcome my guest author, Ruth VanderZee. Ruth has found her passion writing historical fiction.  She has four published picture books which have won numerous awards in the United States, Japan and Great Britain. Please visit  Ruth VanderZee's website to learn more about these touching stories that will pull on your heart strings. 

"Children are amazing. When hand a fractured world created by some adults who make selfish, bad or even evil decisions, many children respond with courage, wisdom and,hope. I've meet some of these children and they are my inspiration."
Ruth VanderZee

I am so excited that you stopped by and shared your writing journey with us and answered a few of our questions.
Look for Ruth's latest book. Woman Meets Jesus: How Jesus Encourages, Empowers, and Equips Women on Their Personal Journey of Faith. 

1. How did you get started writing nonfiction picture books?

(My books might be more accurately considered historical fiction.  I'll talk about that in later answers.)

First of all, let me say that I'm a late bloomer.  I didn't get my bachelor's degree until I was 40 and began writing when I was 50.  So, as I was teaching my Middle School students, I learned what communicated to them when I taught - and it wasn't all my pearls of wisdom!!!  My students responded best when they heard stories.  When they were able to connect stuff they thought was old and unimportant to their own lives.  Stories have the power to do that.  So, when I began writing, I had a Middle School kid sitting on my shoulder asking me to connect historical events to their own lives.  And kids do want to connect.
So with that as a bit of history, I went to Israel with my husband who was studying there in 1955.  On our way home, we traveled through Germany and Austria.  It was then two significant things happened - way out of my control.  First of all we went through the concentration camp in Mathausen, Austria.  That was a chillingly quiet, impacting experience - on many levels.  Later, when we were in Rothenburg, Germany, I "just happened" to sit next to the woman I call Erika in ERIKA'S STORY.  I had a five minute conversation with her.
When I got home and went to my SCBWI critique group, I began to see that this is a story I needed to tell.  And I wanted to tell it in a picture book format even though it didn't seem to be picture book material.
But because that Middle School kid wanted to know more about World War II than what he/she read in history books, I knew they would connect to Erika's Story because it helped them feel something. 

2. There are so many historical/nonfiction books out there, how did you choose the topics to write about?
Each of my stories came to me through the voice of the people who lived them, except for MISSISSIPPI MORNING.  That's why I love to speak to kids about my books because even though I had to fictionalize the stories in order to make them work as stories, they are all based on the real-life experiences of real people.  That speaks volumes to a child.

I met the protagonist of ERIKA'S STORY  sitting on a curb in Rothenburg, Germany.

The story of MISSISSIPPI MORNING came to me through a  homeless black man who visited a friend of mine at his offices in Chicago, Illinois.  I had to change that story to being one of  a young white boy for it to be authentically a story I could write which would connect to my story.

I co-authored ELI REMEMBERS with a friend of mine.  This is the story of Marian Sneider's grandson and the impact it had on her family.

ALWAYS WITH YOU is the story of a woman who I met when I lived in Chicago.  She told me her compelling story as we sat in her living room.

They all were stories which dealt not only with critical social issues but also are stories of courage and hope.

3.What are the current trends/ needs in today's market for nonfiction? Is there a suggested word count?
For non-fiction writing, I would recommend you speak with my friend Elaine Landau who is a prolific nonfiction writer.  Every company who publishes nonfiction has specific requirements, word count, and subject matter they are interested in.
My stories are based on true stories which fall into specific historical settings.  In order to write them as story, however, I have to find the story within the story.  In doing that, and because, in some cases I had to supplement the stories with cultural and historical facts which may or may not have been part of the main character's experience, they are not non-fiction and fall more accurately fall into historical fiction.
4.What advice can you give to writers just starting that will help them in the nonfiction writing process?
Whether your write nonfiction or historical fiction, you have to get the story right.  I, as do nonfiction writers, do a lot of research.  For example, in ERIKA'S STORY I researched train lines through Europe, read extensively on concentration camps and ghettos.  Even if the information is not in the story, it informs the story you are writing. 

For MISSISSIPPI MORNING I traveled to Mississippi, interviewed anyone who would stand still long enough to listen to my questions, met people who informed me of so many idiosyncrasies of the area of which I was writing which I would not have known if I hadn't been there, read books about the area, about the history, about the issues which were going on in the 1930's.

For ALWAYS WITH YOU I even had a journal kept by the leaders of the orphanage in which they recorded what Kim called out in her sleep.  I had footage of the orphanage taken by film makers.  And, of course, I had Kim's own voice who informed much of the story.
I  could not have written ELI REMEMBERS without the intimate family details and cultural sensitivities of his grandmother.

5..How do you know when to give credit for factual information in a story?

In nonfiction, the publisher will require documentation.  No one wants to publish a story historical fiction or nonfiction in which there are cultural or historical inaccuracies.

6.When writing a fictional story about a real people or event do you call it nonfiction in a cover letter?

I guess that would depend on how you are writing the manuscript. For instance, the real people I wrote about are not well known historical figures.  They had real life stories, but I  could not tell their stories in the book exactly as they happened because that does not make for good story telling.  In order to tell the story, I had to fill in details, find information that was not part of the original story, etc. all within the accuracy factor of the time and place. I would call that fiction.

If you are writing about a certain time in Abraham Lincoln's life and have researched thoroughly and are presenting the information as fact, it would be nonfiction.



  1. Thank you for sharing precious writing tips and your story with us Ruth. I enjoyed the interview ladies.

    Looking forward to reading your books, especially Erika's Story.

    1. Jennifer, you will enjoy reading Ruth's books. Happy Reading.

  2. I just LOVE Ruth Vander Zee! and her stories! Be sure to check them out! AND thank you RUTH for sharing!

  3. Super interview, and I found it very interesting to have more understanding with regards the difference between historical fiction and nonfiction. Thank you.

  4. Thank you ladies for stopping by. Ruth is amazing. Check out her books when you get a change.

  5. Thank you Cheryl for asking the type of questions I would have wanted to know the answers to and thank you, Ruth, for giving us insight into writing historical nonfiction. If is definitely one genre I am interested in pursuing...if I can ever find the time!

    1. Donna I think you should go for it. Happy Writing!

  6. Fantastic and fascinating interview!

    1. Thanks for stopping by. I am so honored to have Ruth as my guest author.

  7. What a great interview! My eyes have been opened to a lot I hadn't thought of!

    1. Medea, I'm glad you enjoyed the chat with Ruth. She rocks!