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A Q+A with Author Alexis O’Neill about Melvil Dewey

AN INTERVIEW WITH ALEXIS O’NEILL

Author of

The Efficient, Inventive (Often Annoying)

Melvil Dewey

 

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I’m thrilled to have Alexis back on GRWR to talk about her latest picture book biography and the quirky visionary she chose to write about.

BOOK SUMMARY:

Melvil Dewey’s love of organization and words drove him to develop and implement his Dewey Decimal system, leaving a significant and lasting impact in libraries across the country.

When Melvil Dewey realized every library organized their books differently, he wondered if he could invent a system all libraries could use to organize them efficiently. A rat-a-tat speaker, Melvil was a persistent (and noisy) advocate for free public libraries. And while he made enemies along the way as he pushed for changes–like his battle to establish the first library school with women as students, through it all he was EFFICIENT, INVENTIVE, and often ANNOYING as he made big changes in the world of public libraries–changes still found in the libraries of today!

Buy the book from your local independent bookseller.

The Efficient, Inventive (Often Annoying) Melvil Dewey
Written by Alexis O’Neill
Illustrated by Edwin Fotheringham
(
Calkins Creek; $18.99, Ages 7-10)

 

INTERVIEW:

Good Reads With Ronna: It’s like the history of Melvil Dewey has been hiding in plain sight all these years. I never gave much thought to his decimal system of book organization for libraries, and definitely never figured it out. What sparked your curiosity into the man and his contributions? 

Alexis O’Neill: I hadn’t given him much thought either, Ronna, until a librarian friend sent me a funny video she used to help teach kids the Dewey Decimal System. That made me realize I didn’t know a thing about the inventor of this seemingly ubiquitous system.

 

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Interior spread from The Efficient, Inventive (Often Annoying) Melvil Dewey, written by Alexis O’Neill and illustrated by Edwin Fotheringham, Calkins Creek ©2020.

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GRWR: Apart from what Melvil Dewey is most famous for, what other ideas did you discover during your research phase that he championed which have impacted our lives? 

AON: Dewey really championed education for all. He was concerned about rural Americans as well as the waves of new immigrants having easier access to information. He also was a proponent of the Simplified Spelling movement, a precursor to today’s texting – getting rid of vowels and extra letters in words that hindered or were unnecessary to pronunciation – like “tho” for “though.” He chopped “Melville” down to “Melvil” but when there was an outcry, was convinced not to change “Dewey” to “Dui.”

 

GRWR: Let’s talk about Dewey’s dream of a librarian school at Columbia College where he was the chief librarian. Trustees did “not want women on their campus.” So how did he succeed?

AON: He got around them by following the spirit of the law and not the letter of the law. When Columbia College Trustees refused to have women on campus, Dewey bent rules to his needs: he opened his School of Library Economy in a storeroom over the chapel across the street. The entering class had seventeen women and three men.

 

GRWR: Dewey is referred to in the jacket flap as “EFFICIENT, INVENTIVE, and often annoying.“ Can you describe some of his quirky character traits?

AON: Even if Dewey had no fatal flaws (and he indeed had them), I still don’t think I’d be able to stand being in the same room with him for very long. He talked incessantly and rapidly. While the average American speaks at about 100-130 words per minute, one of Dewey’s students clocked him at a rate of 180 words per minute. When he tried to convince others about one of his ideas, he was like a dog on a bone. From a very young age and throughout his life, he obsessively kept lists of things such as his height, weight, assets, and more. And he fixated on the number 10, thus decimals. He wrote, “I am so loyal to decimals as our great labor saver that I even like to sleep decimally” (in other words, 10 hours a night.)

 

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Interior spread from The Efficient, Inventive (Often Annoying) Melvil Dewey, written by Alexis O’Neill and illustrated by Edwin Fotheringham, Calkins Creek ©2020.

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GRWR: Melvil approached every endeavor and encounter in his life at 100 mph. The train visuals speeding through the pages of your story perfectly convey this energy. Do you think he moved at this pace because he had so much to accomplish in his lifetime that was predicted to be short after he inhaled smoke during a fire in his youth? 

AON: Dewey grew up in a deeply religious, restrictive household. He was always concerned with wastefulness and a desire “to leave the world a better place than when I found it.”  But when he was recuperating from a fire at his school as a teen, this desire became an obsession as did his preoccupation with efficiency.

 

GRWR: There are a lot of words printed in bold throughout the book. You also ask young readers several questions throughout it as well. Can you explain why? 

AON: I wanted readers to come along with the book’s narrator on a breathless ride in “real-time” as Dewey’s driving energy rushes through the years. I used present tense, direct questions, and bolded words to make the narrative voice break the fourth wall and emphasize the surprise the narrator feels while making observations about Dewey.

 

GRWR: What made Dewey fall out of favor in the public’s eye?

AON: A couple of decades into his career, Dewey was exposed as a racist, anti-Semite, and serial sexual harasser. He had created the Lake Placid Club that specifically excluded people of color, Jews, and other religious groups. And there had been justified complaints for years in the American Library Association, a group he helped found, about Dewey’s serial harassment of women. For his actions, he was censured by the NYS Board of Regents for his discriminatory practices, forced to resign from his positions as State Librarian and director of the library school, and ostracized by the ALA.

 

GRWR: How do you reconcile Dewey’s love of books and reading driving his initial motivation to help immigrants and those who cannot afford books with his bigoted views of Jews and others? 

AON: I really can’t reconcile or explain this.

 

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Interior spread from The Efficient, Inventive (Often Annoying) Melvil Dewey, written by Alexis O’Neill and illustrated by Edwin Fotheringham, Calkins Creek ©2020.

 

GRWR: Is it hard to write about someone whose personal views you may not necessarily like or agree with? 

AON: Dewey’s goal was to make the world a better place. So the question is, did his classification system make the world a better place? I believe it did. It expanded educational opportunities for the general public by making access to information more efficient. There are countless examples of artists, scientists, and others whose negative personal behaviors are hard to reconcile with their contributions, but their contributions have made significant, positive differences in so many lives.

 

GRWR: You used to write fiction and of late have switched to nonfiction kidlit, primarily biographies. What about writing fact-based stories appeals to you? And what do you think kids like about them? 

AON: I still write fiction, but I love American history! Early in my writing career, I wrote many articles for Cobblestone Magazine, and doing the research was a kick. Like me, I think kids are excited to know when something is real. Some facts–especially in history or science–just take my breath away.

 

GRWR: Where do you turn to for story inspiration? 

AON: Footnotes in books, articles, videos – lots of things spark ideas for stories. I never know where the next spark comes from or if it will flame into a book.

 

GRWR: If you’re able to divulge this info, what is on your radar for your next picture book? 

AON: Right now, I have a couple of fiction picture books circulating, and I’m working on a middle-grade nonfiction project. After so many years of writing “tight,” doing long-form work is challenging. I keep wanting to cut words!

Thanks for this opportunity, Ronna!

GRWR: What a treat it’s been to have you back here to share your insights about Melvil Dewey, Alexis. I will never look at those numbers in the library the same way again!

 

AON Headshot by SonyaSones
Author Alexis O’Neill photo courtesy of ©Sonya Sones.

BIO:

Alexis O’Neill is the author of several picture books including The Recess Queen, the winner of several children’s choice awards, and The Kite That Bridged Two Nations, a California Young Reader Medal Nominee. Her new picture book biographies are Jacob Riis’s Camera; Bringing Light to Tenement Children and The Efficient, Inventive (Often Annoying) Melvil Dewey. Alexis received the California Reading Association’s award for making significant and outstanding contributions to reading throughout California and is an instructor for the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program.

 

 

Website: www.alexisoneill.com

Facebook: www.facebook.com/alexis.oneill.9

Twitter: @AlexisInCA

Instagram: @Alexis2017

 

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An Interview with Author Alexis O’Neill About Picture Book Bio Jacob Riis’s Camera

 

AN INTERVIEW

WITH AUTHOR ALEXIS O’NEILL

 

RIIS Cover from BMK

 

 

JACOB RIIS’S CAMERA: BRINGING LIGHT TO TENEMENT CHILDREN

ILLUSTRATED BY GARY KELLEY

(Calkins Creek/Boyd Mills & Kane; $18.99, Ages 7-10)

I’m so happy to share this interview with popular SoCal author, Alexis O’Neill. Her new picture book biography introduces Jacob Riis, a determined New Yorker born in Denmark, to a new generation of readers. It’s hard not to feel as though you’ve traveled back in time as you learn about Riis, who is best known for his moving photographs of the plight of the poor tenement dwellers in the late 19th century and early 20th century.

SUMMARY

In Jacob Riis’s Camera, a penniless immigrant, who becomes a reporter and social activist, uses new flash powder technology to illuminate desperate tenement living conditions and brings about changes for children and their families.

INTERVIEW

GOOD READS WITH RONNA: Did you happen upon Jacob Riis’s photos one day and find inspiration to write this picture book or did you intentionally set out to write his story?

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Interior illustration from Jacob Riis’s Camera: Bringing Light to Tenement Children written by Alexis O’Neill and illustrated by Gary Kelley, Calkins Creek ©2020.

ALEXIS O’NEILL: I’ve always been interested in photography and photographers. I used to live pretty much with a camera in my hand, and when I lived in central New York, I belonged to the Syracuse Camera Club, one of the oldest in the nation. I met Riis’s photos when I was researching child labor issues for other projects. Then later, I read his autobiography, The Making of an American. He wrote so vividly and personally that I felt as if he were right beside me, chatting with me in my living room. That’s when I knew I wanted to write a book about him.

GRWR: Despite my familiarity with Riis’s haunting b + w photos, I had no idea how influential he had been during his lifetime. What fact or facts about Riis surprised you the most?

AON: I was really surprised that Riis didn’t consider himself a photographer. In fact, he later carelessly tossed his glass plate negatives into his attic. Then, just before a wrecking ball was about to destroy the family home, the images were rescued, thanks to photographer Alexander Alland, Sr., and donated by Riis’s son, Roger William, to the Museum of the City of New York.

GRWR: Riis was a champion of the poor as early as his youth in Denmark. What impact would you say his photos have had on the way this segment of our society is treated?

AON: Riis’s photos were revolutionary. They inspired accountability and gave documentary evidence that helped force compliance of landlords with sanitary and building regulations.

GRWR: How big a role did Riis’s immigrant background play in his career?

AON: Like most immigrants, he had a driving work ethic. He was an educated Dane with carpentry skills, but he had a hard time finding work in America. He did all kinds of menial tasks in order to survive. He experienced homelessness and hunger. He experienced injustices and wanted to fix themnot just for himself, but for others.

 

RIIS Tenement Neighborhood
Interior spread from Jacob Riis’s Camera: Bringing Light to Tenement Children written by Alexis O’Neill and illustrated by Gary Kelley, Calkins Creek ©2020.


GRWR:
Is there a particular photo of Riis’s that particularly resonates with you?

AON: To me, his most heartbreaking photo is “The Baby’s Playground.” A toddler with a shaved head and filthy dress stands in front of an overflowing public sink at the top of a dark staircase that has a railing held together with rope. The wall behind the baby is coming loose. No child should have to live like that.

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Interior illustration from Jacob Riis’s Camera: Bringing Light to Tenement Children written by Alexis O’Neill and illustrated by Gary Kelley, Calkins Creek ©2020.

GRWR: Obviously this nonfiction bio involved a lot of research. How did you choose what to include or leave out when his rags to not-so-riches-but-fame story is so fascinating? Was there a portion or time period of his life that was most difficult to nail down?

AON: Riis’s relationship with his Danish sweetheart was complicated, so I treated that with a broad brush stroke.

GRWR: Why do you think no professional photographer had captured the lives of shelters and tenement dwellers prior to Riis?

AON: At the time, most photographers made pretty portraits or, like Matthew Brady, recorded historical events. Riis, in contrast, showed the underbelly of life. I think that when Riis read about the invention of flash powder, it came at the right time for him. Photographs taken with this new technological tool helped him convince officials to make changes in the tenements.

RIIS Five Cents a spot
Interior illustration from Jacob Riis’s Camera: Bringing Light to Tenement Children written by Alexis O’Neill and illustrated by Gary Kelley, Calkins Creek ©2020.

GRWR: Do you attribute Riis’s success to his talent as a photographer, his perseverance, good timing or all three?

AON: I believe Riis’s success can be attributed to his determination and tireless work to tell a complete story of the social injustice experienced by impoverished city inhabitants. He lived during a time of great interest in social reform.

GRWR: As a former New Yorker and lover of NYC’s Tenement Museum, I’ve always admired Riis’s photos. Why do you think his accomplishments are not better known today?

AON: Riis’s photos continue to impress people, and his contribution was unique. In his advocacy for improving substandard housing, he was one among many of his contemporaries who also advocated for changing laws on child labor, suffrage, public health, housing, and schools.

GRWR: What’s one of your favorite illustrations by Gary Kelley in your book?

AON: I love Gary’s illustration of Jacob giving a lecture and pointing to his photograph of a tenement mother holding her swaddled infant. As he talks, Jacob gestures to the poignant image. This image makes me wish I could have heard Jacob in person!

BIO

AON Headshot2 by SonyaSones
Alexis O’Neill, photo by ©Sonya Sones.

Alexis O’Neill is the author of several picture books including The Recess Queen, the winner of several children’s choice awards, and The Kite That Bridged Two Nations, a California Young Reader Medal Nominee. Her new picture book biographies are Jacob Riis’s Camera; Bringing Light to Tenement Children and The Efficient, Inventive (Often Annoying) Melvil Dewey (due Fall 2020). Alexis received the California Reading Association’s award for making significant and outstanding contributions to reading throughout California and is an instructor for the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program.

Website: www.alexisoneill.com

Facebook: www.facebook.com/alexis.oneill.9

Twitter: @AlexisInCA

Instagram: @Alexis2017

Thank you so much, Alexis, for sharing your insights about Jacob Riis and giving us the inside scoop about your new picture book biography, Jacob Riis’s Camera. It’s so great to know how many children will now have a chance to learn about Riis’s important contributions to society.

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Charlotte S. Huck Children’s Literature Festival

20TH ANNUAL CHARLOTTE S. HUCK
CHILDREN’S LITERATURE FESTIVAL 2016
SPECIAL OFFER FOR GRWR READERS

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It’s Charlotte S. Huck Children’s Festival time! Do you have an interest in illustrating or writing children’s books? Do you want to learn from some of the greatest children’s book creators of our time? Do you just simply love all things kidlit? Then please join me at the Charlotte S. Huck Children’s Literature Festival on February 26 and 27th to celebrate 20 years of children’s literature on the University of Redlands campus. Hear and meet with award-winning children’s book authors and illustrators including Debra Frasier, Marla Frazee, Mike Graf, Kevin Henkes, Linda Sue Park, Jerry Pinkey, and Janet Wong. Check out an exhibit of children’s book art and even try your hand at your own craft at small group workshops.

PinkneyLittleRedHenWe’re thrilled the Charlotte S. Huck Children’s Literature Festival has offered Good Reads With Ronna readers an exclusive $25 discount! All you need to do is download the printable registration form here, indicate on the “three together” option that you’re registering as one person with the code “Ronna” and then enclose a check for $175 and mail to the address given below. In other words, the usual three attendee requirement has been waived for Good Reads With Ronna readers (also the Feb. 5 due date has been waived for GRWR readers). The $175 fee is for the total conference which includes three meals, snacks and the entire program, Friday and Saturday. If you plan to only attend one day, you will need to pay that one day fee and there is no discount in that case. Registration closes on February 12th. Check here to see more details about the special hotel discounts in Redlands the festival has arranged. Hotel space is filling up so don’t delay!

 

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All of the events take place on campus. Registration, meals, check-in, and the general session will be held in the Orton Conference Center on the Redlands’ campus.

More info …
Check out photos of the 2015 Festival on the Charlotte Huck Facebook page here. Like the page and stay in the know about upcoming Festival events and information.

For more information: Contact Festival secretary Colleen Quesada at 909-748-8791 or email festival coordinator Marjorie Arnett.

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Please mail completed registration forms and payment here:

The Charlotte S. Huck Children’s Literature Festival
University of Redlands School of Education
P. O. Box 3080 1200 East Colton Avenue
Redlands, CA 92373-0999
Attention: Colleen Quesada, Office Manager SOE

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The Kite That Bridged Two Nations by Alexis O’Neill

Windy Days Not Required …
To Enjoy This Story Based On Actual Historical Events

Did you know that April is National Kite Month (officially March 29 – May 4, 2014)? I didn’t until author Alexis O’Neill told me. So what better time than now to review her latest picture book, The Kite That Bridged Two Nations (Calkins Creek, $16.95, Ages 8-11) written by Alexis O’Neill with illustrations by Terry Widener? Just like us on Facebook and/or Twitter and let us know you did for an entry into the giveaway. Scroll down to the comment form to enter and please give us your mailing address in the comment section. Giveaway ends midnight PST on Tuesday, June 3rd. A winner will be chosen by Random.org and notified via email on Weds. June 4, 2014. Good luck!!

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The Kite That Bridged Two Nations: Homan Walsh and the First Niagara Suspension Bridge by Alexis O’Neill with illustrations by Terry Widener, Calkins Creek, 2013.

As a former New Yorker and a fan of Niagara Falls, I was eager to read O’Neill’s book to find out more about The Kite That Bridged Two Nations: Homan Walsh and the First Niagara Suspension Bridge. Perhaps, I wondered, I once even crossed its replacement, The Whirlpool Rapids Bridge, when I visited Niagara Falls long ago. I first heard O’Neill read from this fantastic true tale at an SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) conference and marveled at her meticulous research and attention to detail. The free verse she chose to use in the picture book, along with having an older Walsh as narrator looking back on this historic event from his childhood, made it very accessible. I think that’s a big part of what makes this nonfiction story come alive for readers.

Homan Walsh is a 16-year-old who gets the “itch to fly a kite” when he feels the wind blowing just right. In fact, his love of kite flying as well as his uncanny ability to read the wind, has made him one of the best kite fliers around. Widener draws us into the locale of the story with illustrations of Walsh so close to the edge of cliffs along the Niagara that we just have to read on first and foremost to make sure he doesn’t fall. Plus, put on some wool socks because Widener’s frosty, snow covered Niagara scenes will pull you into the pages, bundled up right beside Homan as he braves the cold winter clime to fly his kite. When a handbill announcing a kite-flying contest catches his eye, he’s determined to win the …

$10 PRIZE TO THE FIRST BOY WHOSE KITE STRING SPANS FROM AMERICA TO CANADA

Young Walsh builds his own kite which he names Union with “a thousand feet of string to reach across the gorge.” And though I knew the story had a happy ending, I still found myself rooting for Walsh. In the end pages O’Neill notes she could not substantiate Homan Walsh’s tense relationship with his father as depicted in the book, however her research did indicate he lived apart from his family. So when his second kite-flying attempt to span the gorge proves successful, Walsh wins not only the contest, but the admiration and approval of this father.  He’s also laid the groundwork upon which engineer Charles Ellet, Jr. could string his cable to build a suspension bridge between the two countries.

As if the story alone were not good enough which it most certainly is, O’Neill seems to have read my mind and in the back matter of the picture book she answers the many questions I would have asked her in person. Included are an informative Author’s Note, a Timeline and Selected Sources and online links. Thanks to Alexis O’Neill for taking this seemingly little known story of Homan Walsh out of the archives and into our lives.

I encourage you to also check out this terrific interview with author O’Neill to get her personal account of how The Kite That Bridged Two Nations came to be written.

– Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

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