Behind the Scenes at the White House: A Q&A with Nonfiction Author Katherine L. House
I found myself sitting next to nonfiction author Katherine L. House when I attended a workshop at the Highlights Foundation this past October. I was taken by the subjects of Katherine’s books, lighthouse and politics, two things that interest me deeply. Katherine had her most recent book, The White House for Kids: A History of a Home, Office, and National Symbol with 21 Activites, with her at dinner. Maybe it’s because I lived down the street from the White House when I was in college or maybe it’s because I volunteered in the White House Office of Women’s Initiatives and Outreach for over a year, but I was captivated by the amount of information in this text. It’s not your typical White House for children kind of book. This book is rich with photographs, history, and information about the presidents. But it’s not just me who feels this way. The Children’s Book Council and the National Council for the Social Studies included The White House for Kids on their 2015 Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People List.
As a result, I wanted to interview Katherine so you can learn more about her and this incredible resource, which I hope will find its way into your classroom.
SAS: Have you always been a writer? What are your first memories of writing?
KH: I have been a writer for a long time, although I never thought I would be lucky enough to write for a living. I remember writing poems in elementary school. My parents still have one that I wrote about a summer vacation destination. I typed it up, cut it out and used decoupage glue to attach it, along with a post card, to a piece of wood. (This story, unfortunately, gives you some idea how old I am.) It still hangs in the kitchen of my parents’ house.
Later on, I took journalism in 8th and 12th grades and worked on my weekly college newspaper all four years. Two years after I graduated, I was very fortunate to land a job as an editor of a trade magazine. I worked there for 10 years, which gave me daily writing, proofreading and editing experience. When my now-teenager was born, I quit working full-time. I still do freelance business writing, along with writing for children.
SAS: You grew up outside of Washington, DC, which I assume piqued your interested in the White House. Besides being a kid who lived inside of the Beltway, what interested you in writing a book about the White House?
KH: Yes, growing up in Arlington, Va., definitely piqued my interest in the White House. I remember watching inaugural parades on TV (to avoid the crowds) and driving by the White House many times. Some years, we went downtown to see the National Christmas Tree on the White House grounds. I vividly recall seeing a president get out of his motorcade once, and, of course, we often drove by Arlington National Cemetery. When you drive near there, especially at night, you can see the eternal flame from President Kennedy’s grave, so there were many reminders of the presidents throughout my childhood.
Once I moved away from the area, I became fascinated by stories of presidents’ everyday lives, particularly as recorded by people who worked for them—cooks, maids, and social secretaries. And because I remember hearing about presidential children when I was growing up, I was intrigued by their lives, too. It seemed to me that many books (including some for young readers) focus on the glamorous side of life in the White House. I wanted to illustrate the pros and cons of living there, as well as the human side of our presidents. At the same time, I thought it was important to share the perspectives of people who work at the White House.
SAS: Tell us about your research and writing process.
KH: Every writer has a process that works for them. That doesn’t mean it’s the right way or the only way. For me, starting the research involves tons of reading. In many cases, that means flipping to the back of a book and reading the bibliography and source notes. I believe it’s very important to give young readers our best research, not the same old stories that have been rehashed—and may not even be true. For this reason, I try to track down primary sources whenever possible. That’s pretty easy when it comes to the White House because so many presidents, first ladies and their children have left some type of record that has been saved—from letters and diaries to family photos, memoirs, and, more recently, videos. I also relied on articles in The Washington Post and New York Times, as well as books written by friends and co-workers of the first families.
I still take notes on file cards, just as my mother taught me. (I dutifully record page numbers and sources in the margins of the cards.) This way, I can rearrange, sort and group the cards by theme in large file boxes. And when I begin writing, I can rearrange them yet again, depending on how a certain chapter or section takes shape. File cards are very portable; I can take them places I don’t take my computer. They have another advantage. Like most people today, I spend a lot of time staring at a screen, so it’s refreshing to have a paper copy to read from.
SAS: There are so many fantastic photos in White House for Kids. As I glanced at the photo credits, it looked like you got many of them from the presidential libraries, the White House photo library, and the Library of Congress. How did you decide upon images to use since there are millions from which to choose? Also, can you talk about how particular photos enhanced the content for readers?
KH: Thanks, Stacey. As you thought, it was extremely difficult to narrow down the photos, and there were many outstanding ones that I could not include. The process was so difficult that I went to Chicago and met with my editor to review some of the possibilities and get her input.
In general, I wanted to include images from as many time periods as possible. I also wanted to feature photos that readers had not seen again and again (to the extent possible.) Since my book is for young people, I tried to find as many images that featured children as I could. Sometimes that meant finding one of a first kid; other times it meant seeking out photos of children visiting the White House.
As I searched for images, I was reminded that our presidents (mostly middle-aged and old white men) do not look like many of the children who will read my book. So, whenever I could, I looked for pictures that potential readers would relate to, such as the Girl Scouts in wheelchairs meeting President Reagan and a young boy talking to President Clinton during an event marking the end of Ramadan.
Finally, I wanted images that showed presidents being presidential (doing their job) as well as pictures of them relaxing and leading everyday lives. I hope that many of the photos in the chapter about the president’s job help teachers demonstrate what presidents do and how hard their jobs can be. I immediately think of the photo of LBJ overcome with emotion after listening to a report from his son-in-law, who was fighting in Vietnam. Photos showing presidents communicating with the public and the press (FDR in front of microphones and Truman talking to reporters at the end of World War II) convey this important aspect of the president’s job. Others, such as the one of President Obama in the Situation Room, clearly show how tense the job can be, as well as the importance of working with many advisers.
SAS: I loved the activities in your book. (My favorites were creating the garden stepping stone, Hooverball, and recording the day from a pet’s perspective.) Tell us more about ways you envision teachers carrying out some of these activities in the classroom.
KH: I hope teachers can find many ways to use the activities in their classrooms. Before coming up with the pet’s perspective activity, I knew I wanted to include some type of writing prompt or activity in the book. I also knew how wildly popular pets are. After reflecting on some children’s fiction books that are told from a dog’s perspective, it hit me. Readers could write about their day from a pet’s perspective (or that of a fictional animal or a friend’s pet), just as Millie Bush had written about her life in the White House.
The activity to design a 21st century presidential complex could be part of a curriculum about architecture. It could also be incorporated into art class. The Hooverball activity would be perfect for P.E. or a class picnic or field day. I am especially fond of the activity, “Why is the President’s House White?” By using a block of floral foam and water-proof paint, educators can do a simple activity to demonstrate the downside of building with porous stone—and the reason the White House was painted white. This might be useful for anyone talking about building materials or geology. And it dispels the myth about the White House being painted white after the War of 1812.
SAS: How do you envision teachers will use your book to help kids learn more about the craft of informational writing?
KH: I’d be thrilled and flattered if teachers use my book as a mentor text. For starters, I think teachers could use The White House for Kids to discuss organization and structure. Some people are surprised to discover that the book is not arranged chronologically, as so many history books are, but by theme. Even within each chapter, I chose to group like topics together, rather than going year by year. I tried very hard to find a lively, detailed anecdote to open each chapter. (Readers will be the judge of whether I succeeded.) By studying the beginnings of each chapter, students might get ideas about how to get others interested in their topics.
For example, the editor wanted me to begin the book with the chapter about the building of the White House, a logical starting point. But I lamented that some of the facts about the construction of the White House, early Washington, D.C., etc., were some of the driest I had to work with. I thought for a long time about this and realized I had a “Wow” story involving the building, but it didn’t take place until the mid-20th century. At that time, the building was in disrepair, and the Trumans had to move out while the interior was gutted and rebuilt. Aha, I thought. I opened the chapter (and the book) with a description of their return to the White House after the renovation was complete, using specific details, such as the fact that the president was tanned (he had been on vacation) and a cherry tree had been planted earlier that day. Then I explain why they moved out. The rest of the chapter explains how the building came to be, how it was built, etc.
Teachers can also use the book’s many sidebars, activities, photographs and photo captions to demonstrate text elements. There is a time line at the beginning of the book and extensive back matter at the end. The book includes a selected bibliography, and source notes appear on my web site, www.KatherineLHouse.com. Readers can find many examples of quotations and study how I incorporate them into the text. When I was young, I remember quoting large chunks of text when I wrote reports. In The White House for Kids, there are plenty of places where short quotations (only a few words) help illuminate someone’s feelings or personality or help establish time and place.
KH: I can’t say that I have specific rules and rituals, although writing often involves caffeine and dark chocolate! Often, it seems, writers find a certain time of day that turns out to be most productive for them. I prefer mornings after my children go to school.
As far as a writing rule or advice, I think it’s important for teachers and parents to encourage writers of nonfiction to choose topics that they are passionate about. What are they interested in? What would they like to learn more about? What about the world fascinates them? Scares them? Puzzles them?
SAS: What are you working on now?
KH: I’m trying my hand at a nonfiction picture book about the White House, as well as a rhyming picture book for preschoolers. I have more ideas than I have time, so it’s always a challenge to juggle multiple projects. Most of my topics are related to U.S. history. I am especially intrigued by stories of strong women and little known events.
This giveaway is for a copy of White House for Kids by Katherine L. House. Many thanks to Chicago Review Press for donating a copy for one reader. For a chance to win this copy of White House for Kids, please leave a comment about this post by Thursday, February 19th at 11:59 p.m. EDT. I’ll use a random number generator to pick the winners, whose names I will announce at the bottom of this post, by Sunday, February 22nd. Please be sure to leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment, so I can contact you to obtain your mailing address if you win. From there, my contact at Chicago Review Press will ship your book out to you. (NOTE: Your e-mail address will not be published online if you leave it in the e-mail field only.) If you are the winner of the book, I will email you with the subject line of TWO WRITING TEACHERS – WHITE HOUSE FOR KIDS. Please respond to my e-mail with your mailing address within five days of receipt. Unfortunately, a new winner will be chosen if a response isn’t received within five days of the giveaway announcement.
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Thank you to everyone who left a comment.
I used a random number generator and rissable’s number was selected. Here’s what she said:
I remember always being fascinated by the children living in the White House and now by the First Ladies. What a great way to inspire inquisitiveness in young readers about our country’s most famous house! I love Ms. House’s ideas about how to use her book as a mentor text.