• March 2010

Children's Book Author Roz Schanzer Turns History Into Works of Art

By Hope Katz Gibbs
Editor and Publisher
Be Inkandescent magazine

If learning about American history never tickled your fancy, you haven’t read one of Rosalyn Schanzer’s illustrated picture books. Although the stories are written for children in elementary and middle schools, the hardcover books are filled with so many interesting facts and such incredibly detailed artwork that they appeal to all ages.

Take Schanzer’s 2009 title, “What Darwin Saw: The Journey That Changed the World,” published by National Geographic.

Schanzer begins the tale when Darwin was 22 years old and offered the chance to join the adventurous crew of the Beagle, a sailing ship about to begin a five-year journey around the world. In her deliciously illustrated graphic novel filled with quotes from Darwin’s diary, letters, and books, she describes Darwin’s discovery of gigantic fossils and exotic animals.

For the first time, he watches volcanoes explode and earthquakes destroy entire towns. He explores jungles dripping with orchids, climbs mountain peaks, and visits tropical islands surrounded by living coral reefs.

Of the book, The Washington Post wrote: “For her tribute to Darwin’s five-year voyage around the world, Rosalyn Schanzer melds a graphic-novel style, lively illustrations, straightforward narration, and excerpts from Darwin’s journals. The landscapes are gorgeous (the white cliffs of Patagonia’s Atlantic coast, the tortoise-and-lizard-filled Galapagos), the animals expressive, and the amount of information dizzying.”

John Smith Escapes Again!

Also published by National Geographic was Schanzer’s 2006 book, “John Smith Escapes Again!” It was released during the autumn before the 400th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown.

Not only are the illustrations dynamic and engaging, but Schanzer’s story also puts Disney’s version of Pocahontas to shame. Did you know, for example, that as a young man John Smith was tossed into the briny deep and became a pirate? Or that he later became a wretched slave? Or that he didn’t have blond hair — as he did in the Disney version — but a mane of dark-brown locks and a thick beard?

Of course, a brave and beautiful American Indian girl named Pocahontas did rescue the courageous and cunning Smith from certain death, though she was never his girlfriend; she was only 10 or 11 years old at the time. Still, odds are good that Smith, who Schanzer says was perhaps the greatest escape artist of his time, could probably have wiggled his way out of a dangerous situation with the Powhatan Indians all by himself.

Schanzer also discovered other little-known details, including those about Smith’s last trip downriver in Virginia. Smith had fallen asleep with a bag of gunpowder on his lap. In a twist of fate, a fellow sailor apparently lit up a pipe — and a stray spark blew onto the gunpowder, exploding it.

Smith awoke with a start, jumped into the river and put out the flames, but unfortunately, he had to go all the way back to London to get medical treatment. Though he did make a single expedition to New England in 1614, terrible luck at sea and a lack of new backers kept him from returning to his beloved America again.

And that was a real shame, Schanzer says, for it was Smith whose books first kindled the Great American Dream. “He believed that America was the one place on earth where everyone, no matter how lowly their status, could make a better life for themselves if they were willing to work hard,” the author shares. “I have to admit, after spending about a year creating this book, John Smith has become a hero of mine.”

Bringing History to Life

Although falling for her characters isn’t a prerequisite for Schanzer, she is a stickler for getting the details right. When preparing to write and illustrate a book, she puts on her detective hat and doesn’t rest until she lays eyes on nearly every word her protagonists have written themselves, and also the best of everything else written about them. Smith, for example, wrote several books about his adventures. Schanzer also combed through the works of his most scholarly biographers.

Ditto for her other subjects, 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 best-selling story, “How We Crossed the West: The Adventures of Lewis & Clark,” which also won a San Francisco Chronicle Best Book of the Year award, Schanzer tracked down an exact replica of the keelboat used in the famous journey. To do this, she conferred with experts all across the country, including those at Fort Clatsop, the final Western outpost of the Lewis and Clark expedition.

“Other illustrations I’ve seen depicting the Lewis and Clark boats showed canoes made of birch bark, but my research showed that the explorers would never have used any such thing,” she says.

In fact, Schanzer will go to incredible lengths to get everything just right. Consider “Gold Fever! Tales From the California Gold Rush,” published by National Geographic in 1999. Schanzer traveled to every California gold mining site she could find and took more than 600 photos of gold nuggets, saloons, unusual mining equipment, and each odd item or interesting bit of scenery that would help make her pictures both accurate and fun at the same time.

“When I create the images, I want to get every shoe, every party dress, every uniform exactly right for the time period,” she shares, noting that when she looks at other historical books, she gets frustrated if the details aren’t accurate. “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?”

The Heart of a Traveler

Schanzer is never one to pass up 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. Schanzer and her husband, Steve, checked out volcanoes and gigantic marine iguanas in the Galapagos Islands in preparation for her book about Darwin.

Those travels provide a stark contrast to her early jobs. At the start of her career, she sat in a small cubicle, illustrating cards for Hallmark. Then in 1974, shortly before following Steve to Northern Virginia for his job in a think tank, she began illustrating children’s books.

It proved to be the perfect thing to do while raising son Adam and daughter Kim. By 1993, Schanzer decided it was time to craft her own stories.

A Fearless Flier

One of her first releases was “Ezra In Pursuit: The Great Maze Chase,” published by Doubleday. It was the story of a boy and his dog chasing three bank robbers through the Wild West in 1874. By 2000, she was ready to tackle a topic near and dear to her heart. She wrote “Escaping to America: A True Story,” the tale of her Jewish ancestors, who escaped from war-torn Poland in 1921 to seek a better life in America.

“This book featured illustrations of my father, then a young boy, as he struggled to find his way to a new environment,” Schanzer explains. “It was very exciting to get inside of my family’s heads.”

Of that book, noted children’s book review service Kirkus wrote: “Steerage has been described in many books, but never so clearly for this younger age group. Schanzer draws pictures with words as well as with her art.”

Schanzer admits that having an esteemed literary publication pay her such compliments has given a nice little boost to her ego. “I never really considered myself a writer or a historian, but looking back at my body of work, I guess that I am,” she 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.”

About Roz Schanzer

When she isn’t buried inside a dusty history book at the library or on one of her exciting adventures, Rosalyn Schanzer can often be found talking to students in countless elementary and middle schools and at teacher in-services, universities, seminars, and conferences. She is also be available via videoconferencing and webinars.

For more information,

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