Vicki Wittenstein Writes Non-fiction That Counts

This week we’re lucky to welcome my good friend and VCFA classmate Vicki Wittenstein to the Tollbooth.

profileVicki is an author whose passion has lead her to write brave and amazing books. I’m proud to call Vicki a dear friend and Vermont College classmate. But more than that, I’m grateful to consider Vicki a mentor, an example on how to approach topics that matter and to create great books that will make young people think… and maybe even change lives. Vicki’s newest book, Reproductive Rights: Who Decides? will be in bookstores everywhere on March 1, next week.

Like her earlier non-fiction, For the Good of Mankind? The Shameful History of Human Medical Experimentation and her first book Planet Hunter, this new book is destined for great things- I foresee many accolades and awards. Well, it’s not a stretch. The book is already wracking up fabulous reviews, including a starred review from Booklist who said “Though slim, this volume packs a wallop.”  And School Library Journal who said “Well written and impeccably researched, this volume will appeal to budding activists and feminists and to those concerned about human rights.” They’re the experts, but take it from me– this is an important and exceptionally well researched and written book that really makes a difference.

Without further ado let’s talk to Vicki! Tell me a little about your progression as an author?

Even as a young girl, I loved to read and write. But in my family of lawyers and doctors, academics were stressed rather than creativity, so I never seriously considered becoming a writer. The political activism I experienced in college in the 1970s inspired me to take a hard look at a variety of issues, including civil liberties, individual rights, racism and sexism. I decided to attend law school in large part to learn how to advocate for these rights. Years later, when I was an Assistant District Attorney in Manhattan and a young mother, I began to think about writing for children, mostly as a way to connect with my own kids. I wrote short stories, enrolled in a writing seminar, and joined a writer’s group. Everything changed in 1998 with a newspaper headline about Shannon Lucid, the astronaut who broke records by spending six months in space on board the international space station Mir. I was telling my young son about Lucid’s accomplishment when I thought, Hey, shouldn’t all kids know about Lucid? Why not write about her? Lucid became the subject of my first published article for children, “Dr. Shannon Lucid: Space Pioneer,” in Highlights for Children. I continued to submit articles to magazines, went back to school to obtain my MFA at Vermont College of Fine Arts, and published my first book, Planet Hunter: Geoff Marcy and the Search for Other Earths (Boyds Mills Press 2010). I still write fiction, but for the moment I am challenged by the research and writing of nonfiction.

ReproductiveRightsSo you’ve published books about undiscovered planets, medical testing and now reproductive rights. What is it about cutting edge topics that attract you?

I want to impact teens as much as possible. And cutting edge topics—particularly the societal issues discussed in Reproductive Rights and For the Good of Mankind?—force teens to confront important subjects facing Americans today. The need to understand these issues through an historical lens grows even more critical against the backdrop of political campaign rhetoric, media hype, and frequently false information, generated in the news. For example, in the area of reproductive rights, history can provide a roadmap for students to compare the struggle to fight for birth control centuries ago with the legislative restrictions on reproductive rights today. With a view to the past, students can discuss the roles political leaders, social norms, and economic issues play in determining how women and their families think and act on birth control issues. Historical data can help teens analyze this information and formulate their own opinions about availability of, access to, and funding for contraception, sex education, and abortion, as well as the new frontier of genetic and reproductive technologies. These issues are even more critical in light of the campaign for president and the opportunity to appoint a new Supreme Court justice. And as the next generation of parents and leaders, teens are the group who will be most affected by the laws our governments adopt and the individuals we choose to lead. I hope my book helps empower them to stand up for what they believe in and to protect reproductive freedom.

Have you encountered resistance from gatekeepers? Do you think there are more or less barriers to “edgy” topics in YA nonfiction than fiction? Have you encountered any resistance and if so how have you addressed it?

So far I haven’t encountered strong resistance from gatekeepers. One blogger did write that she was reluctant to buy the book for her middle school library (but called it “essential” for high school) because sex education was not discussed at her school. I expect some educators, fearful of parent reactions (particularly in more religious and/or politically conservative communities) may shy away from recommending the book. But I hope not. The hot-button issues surrounding abortion overshadow some of the central reasons why reproductive rights are so important, such as contraception, pregnancy and childbirth care, family planning, cancer screenings, and the like. I do think that gatekeepers seem to more readily accept edgy YA fiction than nonfiction. Perhaps this reflects the very nature of fiction itself—that the fictitious events and people are portrayed through the eyes of an imagined main character—whereas nonfiction, in its exploration of real life events and people, reveals factual truths that people may be uncomfortable with.

How did your background prepare (or not prepare) you for writing about science topics?

My legal background is a tremendous help in writing about science topics and nonfiction in general. In law school and in legal practice, I learned to back up information with several references, analyze both sides of an issue, and write clearly and concisely. I also learned that original or primary sources are always the most accurate, and that a phone call or an interview with an expert nearly always points you in the right direction and clarifies what you are most confused about. I am not a scientist (I majored in American Civilization in college), so for both Planet Hunter and For the Good of Mankind? speaking to scientists was vital to my understanding of astronomy and human medical experimentation.

What tips do you have for aspiring YA non-fiction writers?

Stick to the facts and don’t introduce your opinion, particularly when you are writing about an edgy topic. If you inject a bias, you will turn off readers who may share a different opinion, which defeats the purpose of letting students analyze and critique the issues for themselves. For example, in writing the chapters on abortion, I always stated both the pro-choice and the pro-life positions on various legal restrictions, such as laws mandating pre-abortion counseling, ultrasounds and waiting periods from the time a woman first meets an abortion provider and has the procedure. I was careful to define what it meant to be either pro-choice or pro-life, and to describe the political tactics on each side. The bottom line: it takes a lot of work to be impartial and unbiased, but it’s also essential.

How inspiring, Vicki. You’ve given us a lot to think about– just like your books! Thanks so much for visiting the Tollbooth, Vicki.

Thanks for having me, Tami!

You can read much more about Vicki and her books on her website at http://vickiwittenstein.com/.  She has lots of downloadable materials, too- teachers guides, videos, articles on similar topics, you name it! And you can catch Vicki the rest of the week all over the net. Read more at tomorrow at Unleashing Readers,  Thursday at The Pirate Tree and on Friday at Teach Mentor Texts.

Do you have questions about non-fiction for young people, edgy issues or anything else? Ask them in the comments here and Vicki will give you answers!

~tami lewis brown

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About Tami Lewis Brown

Tami Lewis Brown lives in one of the oldest houses in Washington, DC. It is (mostly) ghost-free. She escaped from a career as a trial lawyer to obtain an MFA in Writing For Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. And she’s the author of the forthcoming RADIANT MAN along with SOAR, ELINOR! and THE MAP OF ME, all published by Farrar Straus and Giroux Books for Young Reader.