Saturday, May 24, 2008

Historically speaking with Rosalyn Schanzer

If American history has never tickled your fancy, you haven't read one of Rosalyn Schanzer's illustrated picture books.Take "John Smith Escapes Again!" which National Geographic Society in 2007 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown.

Setting the record straight Author and illustrator Rosalyn realizes her historically accurate version of Smith will raise a few eyebrows among fans of Disney's Pocahontas. "Many people don't know, for instance, that as a young man John Smith was tossed into the briny deep and became a pirate," she explains. "Later he became a wretched slave, and he didn't have that platinum blond hair—as he did in the Disney version—but a mane of dark brown locks and a thick brunette-colored beard."
Of course, a brave and beautiful Indian girl named Pocahontas did rescue Smith from certain death, though she was never his girlfriend.

Diving deep Rosalyn says she loves to discover little-known details about all of the historical figures she writes about — including King George III and George Washington (for her 2004 title, "George vs. George: The American Revolution as Seen from Both Sides," published by National Geographic) and Benjamin Franklin (in "How Ben Franklin Stole the Lightning," published in 2003 by HarperCollins). In her 1997 bestselling book, "How We Crossed the West: The Adventures of Lewis and Clark," a work that won a San Francisco Chronicle Best Book of the Year—Rosalyn had to track down an exact replica of the keelboat used in the famous journey. To do this, she conferred with experts at Fort Clatsop in Oregon, the final western outpost of the Lewis and Clark expedition.

Getting it right "When I create the images, I want to get every shoe, every party dress, every uniform exactly right for the time period," Rosalyn says, noting that she gets frustrated when she glimpses inaccurate details in other historical books. "I think it is the job of a historical illustrator to exactly replicate all the little things. Otherwise, how will kids know what life really looked like all those years ago?" And Rosalyn is never one to pass on taking a great trip. Her thirst for a good adventure has taken her to Belize where she swam with sharks, to Alaska where she kayaked with whales and to the Amazonian jungles of Peru where she fished for piranhas.

Defending Darwin And in February 2007, Rosalyn and her husband Steve checked out volcanoes and gigantic marine iguanas in the Galapagos Islands. She currently turning his life into a new book, "What Darwin Saw: The Journey that Changed the World," due out from National Geographic next year.

History in the making Rosalyn's adventures provide a stark contrast to her early day jobs. In the start of her career she sat in a small cubicle illustrating cards for Hallmark. Then in 1972, shortly before following Steve to Northern Virginia for his job at a think tank, she began illustrating children's books. It proved to be the perfect thing to do while raising her two children (her son Adam is now 33 and daughter Kim is 28). In 1993, Rosalyn decided it was time to write her own stories.

The author / illustrator says "Ultimately, I just want to make the books so much fun and so interesting that my readers will get caught up in the story. I'd like to bring the past to life, and if I can, then I'll consider my work to be a success."

Rosalyn Schanzer is available to speak to students at schools, women's groups, and other gatherings about her books and what life is like as an author / illustrator. For more information visit