Just in time for traveling with your kids this summer, you’ll want to take a look at Lighthouses for Kids: History, Science, and Lore with 21 Activities (Chicago Review Press). Author Katherine House takes an in-depth look at U.S. lighthouses, the children who grew up in them, how they were constructed, the science behind them, and the job of a lighthouse keeper.
Question: Your intrigue with lighthouses shines out of this book. What made you choose this subject for your first book?
Answer: I fell in love with lighthouses as a child, and I still enjoy them. (I grew up in the Washington, D.C. area, and my family used to drive to Maine and eastern Canada for a two-week vacation every summer.) I’ve visited lighthouses along the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, the Great Lakes and New York’s Hudson River. Over the years, I’ve collected more than 100 books about lighthouses, including memoirs written by former lighthouse keepers’ children. Despite all the wonderful fictional picture books and middle-grade novels that are set at lighthouses—and all the lighthouse books for adults–there was little nonfiction for children available. I desperately wanted kids today to know what it was like to grow up at a lighthouse—and the sacrifices that keepers’ families made. It was quite an adventure, and a dangerous profession.
That’s why I wrote the book. If you want to know more about why I like lighthouses, I thought I’d quote an essay I wrote for my web site. I was much more eloquent then than I could be now:
“To me, there are many reasons why lighthouses are magical. I find it comforting to watch the waves ebb and flow, as they have for millions of years. I relish the opportunity to be so close to nature. I like to close my eyes and listen to the pounding surf and the squawks of gulls.”
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve also learned a lot more about the lifestyle of keepers and their families. I’ve come to admire “lighthouses because the act of serving at one required courage, long hours and dedication. Like today’s fire fighters and police officers, lighthouse keepers were public servants who never knew when their job might put their lives in jeopardy. Thanks in part to their hard work and sacrifice, our nation grew and prospered.”
Question: How long did it take you to write this book from inception to publication?
Answer: I hesitate to answer this question because my experience was not typical. For many years, I’ve been a fan of the “for Kids” books by Chicago Review Press, such as George Washington for Kids and Civil War for Kids, which include numerous activities. After CRP published a book about windmills, I thought they might be interested in a book about lighthouses. I even brainstormed a list of potential activities for such a book. Then I talked myself out of submitting a proposal. For starters, I had no time—and no children’s books or articles to my credit. Besides, I didn’t feel that I was qualified to write a book with activities. I hadn’t been a teacher, nor did I have school-age children who could give me a good idea of the types of things kids at different ages could do.
Even so, I continued to be amazed at the number of lighthouse books being published for adults. Clearly there was a market–yet no one was writing nonfiction for children on the subject. In the fall of 2003, I met a Chicago Review Press editor at an SCBWI-Iowa conference. By this time, I had written several history articles for children’s magazines. She and I chatted, and she encouraged me to send in a proposal. It took a few months, but I wrote a proposal that was about 16 or 17 pages single-spaced. In the spring of 2004, the publisher called and said she wanted to buy the book.
Here’s where things get complicated. The book didn’t come out until 2008, but that’s only because there were delays on my end. During the course of the project, my husband and I endured all the scrutiny required for an international adoption, which, as anyone who has gone through will tell you, is very time-consuming. After we sent our paperwork overseas, I found out I was pregnant—and in the midst of a high-risk pregnancy. We put the adoption on hold, and I traveled 500 miles round trip to see a specialist several times during the pregnancy. I also had a 6-year-old son at the time and a monthly newsletter deadline for a former employer. I’m happy to say that my daughter was born in August 2005, long before the book was finished. It helped to have a patient publisher, but I would definitely not recommend writing a book and having a baby at the same time!
Question: You did a great job of relating specific activities to the chapters in your book. How did you create the twenty-one activities included for kids?
Answer: It was the publisher’s decision to include activities; that’s a hallmark of Chicago Review Press’ “for Kids” books. In fact, I was told that the tagline “21 activities” would appear on the cover, so I had to come up with more activities than I originally envisioned. It was very difficult for me to develop the ideas, write the instructions, test them with children, etc. Plus, the publisher—and thankfully so—was a stickler about including educational activities (not too many arts and crafts).
We tried to create a balance of activities. CRP only wanted one recipe, for example. We had a few arts and crafts projects, but we also included science experiments. Some of the activities in the book can be done quickly and easily with items from around the home; others require special things from craft stores. Among the activities in the book: build a lighthouse model that lights up, decorate a seashell picture frame, and make and test your own brass polish. The hard work paid off! I’m happy to say that School Library Journal described Lighthouses for Kids as “noteworthy for the way in which the activities are related to the information in the text.”
I really wanted to include making a kite in the book because I had some great quotes from former lighthouse keepers’ kids about flying kites. But lots of books have directions for kites, so I knew mine had to be different. I wanted to make a round kite that resembled a lighthouse. I was almost laughed out of the hardware store when I asked them about various materials that might be used for a round kite. All of them were too heavy, they said. I left the hardware store and went to a nearby craft store. There, I found inexpensive wooden embroidery hoops that were the inspiration for the lighthouse windsock in the book!
Thanks, Katherine, for all this information about writing Lighthouses for Kids. The kid in me has always enjoyed books like yours that are jam-packed with fascinating facts, nifty photos and graphics to help me understand, and lots of activities I can try. I’m going to try the solar marshmallow roaster on the first hot day.