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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

 

EFFICIENT MELVIL DEWEY cvr

 

 

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.

 

MELVIL DEWEY int3
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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CELEBRATING WOMEN’S HISTORY MONTH AND MOLLY WILLIAMS

CELEBRATING WOMEN’S HISTORY MONTH

AND MOLLY WILLIAMS,

FEMALE FIREFIGHTING LEGEND

 

A GUEST POST/Q&A BY DIANNE OCHILTREE

 

“Each time a girl opens a book and reads a womanless history, she learns she is worth less.”

~ Dr. Myra Pollack Sadker, researcher, educator, and author of Failing at Fairness: How America’s Schools Cheat Girls (Scribners)

 

 

Molly_By_Golly

 

Knowing our history helps us discover who we are, and where we want to go. But when we don’t know our own history, or ‘herstory,’ this is a difficult task. Not knowing our past can limit our power today, and hinder our dreams for tomorrow. The National Women’s History Project initiated Women’s History Month 35 years ago to address this issue, and their mission remains to ‘write women back into history.’ In honor of Women’s History Month, I’d like to re-visit an author interview focused on a heroic woman whom I am very glad to have discovered and why I HAD to record her story for young readers.



When my picture book, Molly, by Golly! The Legend of Molly Williams, America’s First Female Firefighter, was released, I did several interviews for bloggers. One of the nicest was this one with Debbi Michiko Florence for her blog DEBtastic Reads. It was a pleasure ‘talking’ with her about this book of mine, which went on to win the bronze medal in the 2013 Florida Book Awards, was named to the 2012 ALA Amelia Bloomer Book List for Feminist Literature, and more recently, was included as a 2016 Selection on the Top 100 Recommended African-American Children’s Books by AALBC.com (African-American Literature Book Club).

 

Q: Congratulations on the release of your newest picture book, MOLLY, BY GOLLY! The Legend of Molly Williams, America’s First Female Firefighter (Calkins Creek), fabulously illustrated by Kathleen Kemly.  You first became interested in Molly when you came across her legend while researching another book.  What inspired you to turn this into a picture book?

 

A: First, it was the great spirit of volunteerism that is at the heart of Molly’s legendary tale.  What Molly lacked in experience she more than compensated for with her courage and strength.  It was a great opportunity to inspire future firefighters and other community helpers.  Second, it was a chance to show kids how fires were actually fought in early American times.  I was meticulous in my research of these details, and so was illustrator Kathleen Kemly—the firefighting history experts who double-checked our efforts were equally meticulous—because we all wanted to present as accurate a picture as possible. Kids will certainly get an appreciation for the modern equipment we have today. Third, Molly’s legend was filled with the type of action and emotion sure to inspire fabulous illustrations…which is just what happened!

 

Q: I was fascinated to learn how intensive and exhausting firefighting was in the 1800s! What part of your research for this book surprised you the most? 

A: The biggest surprise was learning that the earliest pumper engines were not transported to the scene of a fire by a team of horses as I’d always assumed—PEOPLE did.  The cobblestone streets were very narrow and bumpy, and it was often easier and safer for humans to maneuver the heavy pumper in tight spots. Also, since there were no paid fire companies at the time, there were no funds for buying, feeding and housing horses to help fight fires.  There were no firehouses as we know them today, either.  The volunteer companies only had equipment sheds for their very basic tools. No “sliding-down-a-fire-pole” fun for these early firefighters!

 

Q: Molly was a cook for firefighters.  You share some delicious-sounding dishes in the book!  What are some of your favorite comfort foods? 

 

A:  My favorite comfort foods:  Pad Thai Noodles, Salted Caramel Ice Cream and Carolina Pulled Pork—but not all in the same meal!  I had a wonderful time researching early American cookery, and just loved the quaint-and-quirky names of dishes that Molly might have fixed for her ‘fire laddies’.

 

 

Author Dianne OchiltreeMolly, by Golly! The Legend of Molly Williams, America’s First Female Firefighter

Written by Dianne Ochiltree

Illustrated by Kathleen Kemly

Calkins Creek/Boyds Mills Press

Ages 7+ / $16.95-Hardcover / ISBN: 978-1-59078-721-2

 

  • 2016 Selection, Top 100 Recommended African-American Children’s Books by com(African-American Literature Book Club)
  • Winner of the Bronze Medal in the Children’s Literature category of the Florida Book Awards
  • 2013 Book Award Honor for Language Arts Grades K-6 from International Society of School Librarians
  • 2012 ALA Amelia Bloomer Book List for Feminist Literature

 

 

 

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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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