I love it when young people review my books. After all, they are written for them! This is a review written by Katharine Olinger. Katharine is already a teenager, but still close to the book’s target age and, as you will see, has great writing skills. This review was published in the November 2012 issue of New Horizons in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and is reprinted here with the editor’s permission.
I appreciate how Katharine pointed out her favorite aspect of the book. This type of reviews helps me to decide what features to emphasize or even omit from future titles. Thank you, Katharine!
A correction for the upcoming Lady Jane book. On page 10, I said that, after Jane, Francis and Harry Grey had two more daughters and two sons. As far as we can tell by the documents available, this is wrong. They probably had one son named Henry before Jane, but he died as an infant, probably in his first year. There is also a possibility that Francis had a son from a second marriage. In any case, Francis and Harry did not have two sons together.
I was given this mistaken information by an expert who has since apologized for the confusion. I also apologize for not checking his information against other sources. It’s a good lesson learned, and this mistake will be corrected at the first available opportunity.
Just to let you know how I work, normally I send my manuscript to at least two leading experts on the specific character I am studying. When they send back their corrections, I insert them. If they seem to disagree with each other, I ask for further explanations.
I have learned from this last mistake that I should check every single correction they send, unless they both send the same one. God willing, the quality and accuracy of these books will continue to improve.
William Boekestein and I share much of the same vision and passion for teaching church history to children. He is the pastor of Covenant Reformed Church in Carbondale, PA, a father of three young and very bright children, and author of three books in a series for children about the stories behind the Reformed confessions (Faithfulness Under Fire, the Story of Guido Bres, The Quest for Comfort, the Story of the Heidelberg Catechism, and the upcoming The Glory of Grace, the Story of the Synod of Dordt). Recently I have had the pleasure to ask him a few questions about his thoughts and plans. Here are his answers.
I have done a similar re-evaluation a few days ago, when my illustrator raised his fees. It was a perfectly legitimate request. No illustrator of his caliber gets as little money as he does. He initially gave me low fees to help me out, but it’s time that he gets proper remuneration, especially since he has a family to support.
I don’t know if this is of any interest to others, but if you have appreciated the quality of the illustrations in the series of Christian Biographies for Young Readers, published by Reformation Heritage Books (RHB), you may want to know how they come about.
First, I must explain the financial side and my arrangement with RHB. Most people are surprised when they find that I have a publisher but I pay for my own illustrations and photos. The reason is simple. RHB is still a relatively small publisher, and the type and amount of photos and illustrations I have envisioned for these books is beyond most editorial budgets. Of course, there are large publishers who have the means to take on this type of projects, but initially they haven’t shown any interest.
When I proposed my first book (John Calvin) to publishers, one very frequent objection was the cost. The first publisher I approached (a rather large Christian publisher) told me that for any company to consider this idea, it would have to be a small paperback book in black-and-white. That’s why the illustrations in my first book are not in color. Eventually, they rejected the proposal even under those terms.
Other publishers made similar comments. One told me that I could not choose my own illustrator, and that they never pay much for illustrations anyhow. I don’t know what thoughts inspired RHB to publish my books in color with a hard cover and an impeccable layout, but they did, and I am grateful for it. By contract, I am paying all expenses related to artwork and photos. Thankfully, they pay upfront and reimburse themselves from my royalties, otherwise I could never afford it.
There are, as I said, some Christian publishers who have the means to invest in high-cost productions, but they have to believe they will get appropriate returns. It has to make marketing sense. Again, at the time of my first proposal, a publisher told me that single biographies for children would never sell. A few others concurred. No explanation was given. They said it was just something they had experienced in the past. On the other hand, non-Christian biographies are selling fairly well. Why?
I am not a marketing expert and I am not ready to study this rather mysterious field, but one reason why children’s biographies which are not specifically Christian in nature sell well may be that they are backed by teachers and school librarians. On Martin Luther King Jr.’s day, for example, thousands of children throughout our nation are directed to libraries to read about this man. Some biographies are read in schools. Left to themselves, typical school-age children roaming through a library might be more prone to pick up a book about Captain Underpants, but parents and teachers often lead them to different choices.
If this consideration is correct, the question is, do parents and Christian-school teachers believe that biographies are important for children, and do they promote them? I think the homeschooling community is doing very well in this respect. My feeling (and I may be wrong) is that other parents and Christian school staff could do better. I have talked about the benefits of teaching Church history to children in another blog post.
This is where my stubborness gets evaluated. Why am I insisting on quality illustrations? Can I lower the standards? Are they really important? The answer boils down to my initial commitment to produce all-around quality books.
My initial motivation for writing this series, as I have mentioned in other blogs, has been the desire to see Christian biographies for children rise to the same standard I had been noticing in children’s biographies in general, which are constantly improving in quality, accuracy, fairness, and visual appeal.
Accuracy and fairness of course take the cake. Until recently, historical accuracy in children’s books has not been a major concern. In the 19th century, most biographies for children were largely fictionalized and had a strong message which took precedence over the actual retelling of facts. Today we see a much greater interest in accuracy, especially in the homeschooling community where these books are often used to supplement a serious study of human history.
Accuracy in Christian biographies is important not only to teach children what really happened in church history, without embellishments, exaggerations, or cover-ups, but also, in my view, as a way to inform non-Christians. I have already quoted Dr. Diarmaid McCullough, professor of the History of the Church at Oxford, as saying, “It seems to me that the history of Christianity is absolutely essential to talk about because there is so much bad history about it, and arrogance, conceit, dogmatism are all based on bad history.” After all, understanding the history of Christianity is essential for anyone who wants to understand Western history and our present time.
To achieve the appropriate accuracy in my books I spend a year studying the subject and consulting experts, who normally read my manuscript and make comments and corrections. Even the illustrations are done under the advice of experts in the field, who have been amazingly gracious in answering all my questions.
Photos are important to show young children that these characters really lived, and we can still see the buildings they saw, the churches they attended, and even some of the furniture or other objects they used.
Art is important to spur the imagination and to keep the attention alive. Besides, since my books are very factual, illustrations give me a way to show what the feelings may have been or how some situations may have appeared to an observer, without having to interrupt my account of facts with too many “maybe’s” or “probably’s.”
It’s true that I could just use lower-quality artwork, which would reduce the costs, but I think it’s too late for that. We have set the standard too high in every way. The only solution is to increase sales to be able to pay the illustrator. I believe the project is important and the products are well done. To increase sales I need to raise awareness, especially in schools and in the homeschooling community. Or we could go back to ancient times, when patrons sponsored artistic and cultural enterprises…
What is true – once again, the events are true. Olympia returned home, sometimes she met Andreas Grunthler, her father got better then worse, John Sinapius took care of him at first and then left for Germany. Finally, Fulvio died, Olympia returned to court and was rejected.
What’s fiction – We don’t know how any of those events really developed. I was especially trying to find how Andreas and Olympia met. In one of her later letters (after their wedding) she said, “I still love you. If I didn’t, I would tell you, just like I used to tell you that I couldn’t stand you.” That gave me a clue. I imagined that during their first meeting she couldn’t stand him for some reason.
What’s true – Again, the events are true. At some point, Olympia realized that she had lost sight of what is really important – the knowledge of God.
What’s fiction – No one knows how that realization came to her. The letter she finds in a drawer is really a letter her father wrote to Curio, but there is no indication that she found it at this point. It’s just a tool I used to develop the story.
What’s true – The main events and what is told about Fanini. The description of the prison is fairly accurate since I have visited the place, but of course I had to imagine how the same prison looked in the 16th century.
What’s fiction – How the events developed and how the characters interacted. I also had to invent a way for Andreas to propose. A friend of mine who is a medieval history major told me that in those days men often proposed in writing, usually to the girls’ father. Since Olympia’s father had died, I imagined that the letter was addressed to her but Andreas asked for her mother’s permission.
What’s true – The poem was really written by Olympia. The traveling plans are true, and Renée really gave some money and a wedding dress.
What’s fiction – How the plans were formulated and presented to Olympia.
What’s true – It’s true that Andreas went to Germany first, and then returned to take Olympia and Emilio with him. It’s also true that Olympia missed him desperately. All letters are from her. The news Andreas gives are also true. The rendition of Psalm 23 is really Olympia’s. It’s also true that they stayed with Georg Hormann and visited the Fuggers (and the main description of the Fuggers and their financial empire is true).
What’s fiction – I had to imagine Olympia’s loneliness, Andreas’ return, and then their trip. I actually used mapquest for parts of it! I had to also contact a Museum in Trento, a city on the border between Italy and Germany, to find how the roads had changed since then (I thank Dr. Giovanni Kezich, director at Museo degli Usi e Costumi della Gente Trentina for his kindness in answering my numerous questions). He was actually the one who suggested Olympia might have met a flock of sheep in transhumance, since it was summer (see photo). I also read Goethe’s Italian Journey, where he talks about his experience crossing the Alps (he went from Germany to Italy and Olympia went from Italy to Germany, but more or less the experience was similar). About Olympia’s meeting with the Fuggers, I don’t know what really happened. I know that she had always wanted to give them her poems, but there is no mention of it after her visit. So I imagined what may have happened…
Photos: 1. Prison cell in the castle of Ferrara, by Massimo Baraldi, wikimedia
2. Sheep transhumance (seasonal migration), by Falken, Wikimedia
Weight of a Flame – the Passion of Olympia Morata
Truth and Fiction (part 2)
Chapter 2 -
What’s true – the description of the castle of Ferrara and the background information about Renée, Ercole, and the Duchy of Este.
Fun fact – some people asked me how to pronounce Ercole. Italians don’t have a separate “er” sound, so you just pronounce the initial “e” as a short English “e”. The accent goes on that “e”. And of course you pronounce the last “e”. Don’t worry about rolling the “r”. If you are totally frustrated, you can call him Hercules, because that’s what the name means in Italian. But then, don’t be offended if I translate your name into Italian next time I see you. All the names of Ercole’s children and tutors are real.
What’s fiction – the whole scene. I don’t know how Olympia spent the first few hours at the castle.
Chapter 3 -
What’s true – Everything the teachers said about Olympia and her talents. The poem is true. It’s also true that some women were saying she needed to forget the pen and pick up some bed sheets.
Fulvio’s suggestions on speech are from a letter to Olympia, including the Tite Tute Tati tongue-twister. By the way, my father taught me the same tongue-twister when I was a child, so I felt a strong connection there.
Olympia’s speech on Cicero’s Paradoxes is recorded and what I have quoted is taken from her actual words.
What’s fiction – Again, the scene and her feelings. We do know that she was sick just before giving the speech, so possibly the tension was there.
What’s true – The background story and the quote of the letter from Calvin to Renée.
What’s fiction – How the events progressed. We have no indication of a conversation between Renée and Ercole that was overheard by Olympia, of a discussion between Olympia and Anne, nor of one between Olympia and Renée on the Mass.
What’s true – It’s true that Calvin mediated in the marriage between Francoise and John Sinapius. All the facts about Lavinia and Paolo, and about Renée’s earlier marriage proposals are true. Olympia’s poem about nuns is by her hand. It’s true that she translated (probably with Anne) two tales from the Decameron. The whole story Curio tells here is true (according to his account of it). Her questions about prayer at the end are also true. We know she discussed these doubts with Lavinia but didn’t work hard to find an answer.
What’s fiction – again, the various scenes. For example, Curio’s tale is true, but we don’t know if Olympia asked him to repeat it for her and her friends.
What’s true – The whole papal visit is true, to the smallest details. Her letter at the end, praising the duke, is also true. This type of letters led me to infer some form of denial about any negative aspects at court.
What’s fiction – We don’t know what the pope said to Olympia (if anything). We also don’t know if Olympia saw her mother and brother in the crowd.
1. View of Ferrara from the top of the castle tower.
2. My kids on the drawing bridge in front of the castle.
3. My kids on a cannon behind the castle. I wonder if kids were allowed to do this back then.
4. A photo of a print in the kitchen of the castle. I think it’s a floor plan.
5. My daughter pretending to be Renée of France in her chapel. The lighting is bad. The marble is white and black.
6. The Castle of Ferrara, by Massimo Baraldi, Wikimedia (all the photos above are mine)