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The Story behind Penny's Books

On Writing Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony | On Writing Rosie the Riveter | On Writing Corpses | On Writing Girls | Adventures in Nonfiction |

On Writing On Writing Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony: A Friendship That Changed the World

Originally published: “Get to the Point,” a blog from Macmillan, May 2, 2011

Fittingly, I think, the idea to write a book about a friendship originated during lunch in 2006 with Christy Ottaviano, my longtime editor, who is also a friend. We had just wrapped up our negotiations for my social history, Thanksgiving: The True Story, (Holt 2008), and Christy wanted to celebrate. It turned out, she also wanted to me to write a biography. We tossed around names, including Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, and parted with the understanding that I would continue brainstorming ideas. I did consider other subjects, but kept coming back to short, rotund, vivacious Elizabeth, a scintillating thinker, prolifically influential writer, fearless orator, and the married mother of seven children, and tall, angular, austere Susan, an indefatigable doer, an organizer and planner extraordinaire, principled pragmatist, and an unmarried former teacher. In particular I was intrigued by their fascinating friendship that fueled their fierce fight for women’s rights, a fight they relentlessly waged despite fierce opposition, daunting conditions, scandalous entanglements, and betrayal by their friends. Their friendship lasted fifty-one years, and, as Susan once wrote they were “busy through every one of them stirring up the world to recognize the rights of women.” They didn’t always agree, and, at times, they were at odds. Nevertheless, Elizabeth once wrote, “Nothing that Susan could say or do could break my friendship with her and I know nothing could uproot her affection for me.”
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On Writing Rosie the Riveter: Women Working on the Home Front in World War II
Excerpt from Speech, Book Launch Event, Nontraditional Employment for Women, March 30, 1995

Writing the true story of Rosie the Riveter: Women Working on the Home Front in World War II was an intense experience for me: in part, I think because I was born in 1944 and grew up in the 1950s post-war America—a time of cultural amnesia about the role of women during World War II. A time when stories about women war workers in popular magazines were replaced with stories about women homemakers. A time when parades and statues honored men in military uniforms not women in overalls. A time when movies featured bloody battles not dangerous defense jobs. (And, yes, the jobs were dangerous: in 1944, the Office of War Information reported that since Pearl Harbor 37, 600 workers died in industrial accidents, 7,500 more than military dead; 4, 710, 000 temporarily or permanently disabled, sixty times the number of military wounded and missing. I grew up during a time when I never heard the popular World War II song “Rosie the Riveter” with the line: “She’s making history working for victory.”
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On Writing Corpses, Coffins, and Crypts: A History of Burial
Speech by Penny Colman at an event celebrating the publication of Corpses, Coffins, and Crypts: A History of Burial, November, 1997

I am particularly happy to have my sister Cam here from San Jacinto, California, and my brother Kip here from Jamestown, New York. The last time I saw them was in June when our mother died. We had learned that she had cancer in mid-February. At that time, I was in the final stages of completing Corpses, Coffins, and Crypts: A History of Burial. I was compiling the end matter, tinkering with the text, taking photographs, writing captions, keying the photographs into the text, checking and double-checking information. So the news of my mother's illness catapulted me into a situation where I was dealing with my mother's dying and death at the same time that I was working to bring this book-a book on corpses, coffins, and crypts-to life.

Needless to say, those months were very intense. At one point, I said to my son Stephen, "This is the wrong book to be working on now." When he replied, "Actually it is the right book," I was startled. But as we tended to my mother's dying, death, and burial, I realized that Stephen was right. He was right because after researching and writing Corpses, Coffins, and Crypts: A History of Burial I was full of useful information and I had gained a measure of calmness about death and the burial process that I shared with my family as we dug her grave, provided our own urn for her cremated remains, and had a funeral procession with a Dixieland band and a fire truck. My mother did not live to see the finished book, but she did see the page proofs of Chapter 8 that opens with the story about her painting of Lazarus that she painted after my father's death many years ago. Although she could not speak, she could smile, and smile she did.
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On Writing Girls
Speech by Penny Colman at an event celebrating the publication of
Girls: A History of Growing Up Female in America,
March 2000

The idea for this book came to me on May 24, 1994, at about 1:21 p.m. I was standing on the corner of Broadway and Twentieth street when the words—Girls! A History of Growing Up Female in America—suddenly popped up in my brain. Now, it is not unusual for words, ideas, and images to spontaneously show up in my brain. Some leave soon, some stay. Some are useful, some are not. Some make me laugh, some depress me. Others inspire me. The words—Girls: A History of Growing Up Female in America—electrified me.
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Adventures in Nonfiction
Article from Penny Colman’s presentation at the National Council of Teachers of English convention, Baltimore, Maryland, November 2001.
Originally published: Journal of Children’s Literature, Vol. 28, No. 2 Fall 2002, 58-61.

Editors (Pat Austin and April Whatley, editors of Journal of Children’s Literature): Your body of work has made such a contribution to the field of children’s literature, particularly in the arena of books about women. What led to your interest in writing nonfiction?

Penny Colman: When I was eight years old, my mother got a job as a photojournalist at a newspaper in Warren, Pennsylvania, a small town tucked between two rivers at the edge of the Allegheny Mountains in the northwest corner of the state. Occasionally, I got to go with her as she pursued real-life stories, and that is how I learned that there are adventures in nonfiction-adventures that ranged from interviewing Pete Pepkey, the saddlemaker, to covering the annual field day and watermelon-eating contest at a state mental hospital, to checking out the rumor that a group of gypsies were camping in a nearby state park.
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