MIGHTIER THAN THE SWORD reminds me, in the best possible way, of an anthology handed out on the first day of middle or high school English. Here were our assignments for the next four months, but many of us tore through the whole book the first weekend, sometimes at the expense of other homework. (Yes, I hung out with nerds!) Like those anthologies, Mightier Than the Sword: Rebels, Reformers, & Revolutionaries who Changed the World by Writing offers both variety and a “Just one more!” format that will keep readers turning pages. The forty-plus writers profiled are an excellent mix of voices both historical and current, and from diverse backgrounds and experiences. Included are not only professional writers of fiction and nonfiction, but also poets, musicians, activists, politicians, scientists, students, letter-writers—demonstrating that, no matter what your goal, writing is a powerful medium to achieve it. And like those anthologies, Mightier Than the Sword offers students and teachers thoughtful questions and prompts to help readers act on the inspiration of these writers’ stories by writing something of their own.
We’re excited to have author Rochelle Melander visiting with us today.
Marianne Knowles: Welcome to Writers’ Rumpus, Rochelle!
You’ve taught writing to young people for many years. How did your students help to inspire this book?
Rochelle Melander: Thank you so much for hosting me! I love your blog, and it’s an honor to be here.
In the early days of Dream Keepers, my writing program for young people, I began collecting and sharing stories of children who used writing to make a difference in their community. I told them the story of 11-year-old Tuba Sahaab, who used her poetry to speak out against the Taliban. Sahaab published poetry in newspapers and on the radio that supported educating girls, feeding and clothing the poor, and creating a peaceful world. The young people loved this story, and I dreamt of a resource that would collect these stories in one place.
Mightier Than the Sword is that book—and it’s dedicated to the young people I work with.
MK: You’ve been a member of SCBWI for over 20 years, and you’ve published 11 books for adults, but this is your first published book for children. Tell us a bit about your journey.
RM: When I joined SCBWI in 1997, I’d already published a book for adults and was under contract for a second one. I had no reason to expect writing for children would be any different.
At the time, my husband and I wrote together—and we quickly landed assignments from Highlights and other publishers. We wrote and submitted picture books repeatedly. We collected boxes of rejection letters, some with kind notes. In a few instances, we came very close.
In the meantime, I was writing books for adults and building a business as a writing coach. I kept writing for young people and, every few years, I would submit stories. After my NaNoWriMo book Write-A-Thon was published (2011), I wrote several middle grade novels. I joined a critique group, revised, and submitted pages and chapters and more. Again, I got close—but no contracts.
At the end of 2017, twenty years after joining SCBWI, I looked at all the projects I’d written and thought about writing—and decided that MIGHTIER THAN THE SWORD was the one project that built on my established platform and would give me the best chance of getting an agent and a contract.
Plus, MIGHTIER THAN THE SWORD fit with my personal mission. Throughout my career as an author-educator, I’ve had a strong mission to engage and encourage children who are not academic stars but who have an interest in being creative.
That mission buoyed me through the rejections. And I had a lot of them! I was delighted to accept a contract from Beaming Books for my first children’s book.
MK: Over forty amazing writers are profiled in this book, even more when you count the sidebar features. How did you choose whom to include? Even harder—how did you choose whom to leave out?
RM: Choosing the people and documents to feature might have been the most difficult part of the project. The book proposal contained 50 profiles and about 100 sidebars. The book has 40 profiles, 5 interludes (chapters on documents and genres), and lots of sidebars (I haven’t counted!). I worked with the editorial team to decide who to include in the top 40. Here are some of the factors that were important to our decision:
- Accessibility and age appropriateness. I wanted to attract and encourage students who do not see themselves as storytellers or writers—so I included politicians, sports writers, scientists, naturalists, inventors, and more on the list. I also wanted to include people who were interesting to middle grade readers and who might be good role models for them.
- Diversity and representation. Children need to see themselves in books in multiple ways. I tried to find people who would be windows and mirrors for a diverse group of young readers.
- Recognizability. Kids love to look at an anthology and recognize names. So even though Ada Lovelace, Anne Frank, and Malala Yousafzai are represented in many anthologies—we included them.
The list changed throughout the writing process. Some of the people who were on the original list were difficult to write about—either because there wasn’t information about them or because they weren’t very nice people—and they got cut. We added writers to the list to provide diversity and representation.
MK: The backmatter has eight pages of sources in small print! That’s a lot of research. Was it easier to find information about some writers than others? Do you have any advice for nonfiction writers for finding information?
RM: I loved doing the research for this book. I learned so much!
As I researched, I learned that cultural bias shapes what kind of information has been developed, published, and repeated over the years. Even though 3–5 writers tell the same story about a person, that story might be untrue. I had to hunt down better information. That was often like searching for lost treasure.
Advice for nonfiction writers:
- Get help. I got a lot of help from my first readers, my editors, sensitivity readers, and experts. Outside readers will help you notice your own bias and dig deeper.
- Use Wikipedia! I have spent years telling students and clients to not rely on Wikipedia. But the articles have amazing footnotes. And if you follow the footnotes, you can find better resources.
- Read academic papers. Sometimes I would find the key to the real story in someone’s dissertation. Their footnotes would point me to the original documents.
MK: How would you like students and teachers to use this book?
RM: I designed the book to be browsable, so that students could page through it, dig into the longer essays that intrigue them, or read a few of the short pieces. I’ve also provided writing and creative exercises, so that students can write about the things they want to change.
I hope that students who love to write will work through the book, putting their own spin on the projects. And I hope that students who are more reluctant about reading or writing will engage with whatever part of the book excites them.
The book covers people who worked in multiple disciplines, and I’d love it if teachers of all subjects would use the stories and exercises in this book to introduce students to people who have made a difference in their field. A biology teacher could read the profile of Maria Merian and then connect the writing exercise, which is about observing a process, to a topic they’re studying. A history teacher could choose several of the stories to discuss different aspects of the Harlem Renaissance or the Civil Rights Movement.
And because the book presents the stories of people who used different kinds of writing, I hope writing and reading teachers will use it as a tool for introducing writing forms like letters, argumentative essays, and protest documents.
MK: What children’s manuscripts do you have in the proverbial drawer? Any plans to bring them out?
RM: Oh, so many! Right now, I’m working on a book proposal for another nonfiction book and revising a middle grade mystery. But I’ve also got five or six picture books, one that’s almost ready to be submitted.
MK: On Twitter, you’re celebrating the birthdays of the writers profiled in your book. How did you come up with that idea? What advice do you have for boosting the social media presence of a new book?
RM: As an educator, I create writing workshops that tie into celebrations like Black History Month, Women’s History Month, and presidential elections. My hope is that Mightier Than the Sword will be a resource for teachers who want to plan lessons around celebrations and social justice causes. Sharing birthdays of the people I profile helps to make that connection. It’s one way I can serve the community and call attention to the book.
In my work as a writing coach, I learned that the best way to approach social media is through mission and service. If you’re a writer, think about your mission and how you serve your community (online and in person). When you approach book marketing as a service, a way of helping people find a resource, it’s a lot easier. And here’s a tip: share things in service of your mission that are NOT CONNECTED to your book. Aim for a ratio of 6 (resources) to 1 (your book).
MK: Is there anything else you’d like to tell our readers?
RM: I hope this book will appeal to writers of all ages. As I researched and wrote this book, I learned so much about being a writer—developing good habits, overcoming obstacles, and being courageous. I hope these stories will inspire all writers, no matter your age, to use your words to change the world.
Thanks again for visiting, Rochelle! And thanks for creating MIGHTIER THAN THE SWORD!
By Rochelle Melander
Illustrated by Melina Ontiveros
Rochelle Melander is a speaker, a professional certified coach, and the founder of Dream Keepers, a writing workshop that encourages young people to write about their lives and dreams for the future. Rochelle wrote her first book at seven and has published 11 books for adults. Mightier Than the Sword is her debut book for children. She lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Connect with Rochelle here:
Writing Coach Website: writenowcoach.com
KidLit Website: rochellemelander.com