I had a great conversation recently with Vicki Oransky Wittenstein (above), whose latest book for TFCB–Reproductive Rights: Who Decides?–has just come out for the Spring 2016 season. It is a Junior Library Guild selection and garnered a Booklist starred review, in which it was noted that “this volume packs a wallop, taking an exhaustive look at the history of human reproduction and the prevention thereof. . . . Wittenstein leaves no stone unturned. . . . [An] impressive resource.”
1.You started your career as an attorney. How did you end up becoming a nonfiction writer? How did you come to write specifically for the YA audience?
I grew up during the 1960s and 1970s when people were just awakening to the need for civil rights for minority groups and women. Across the nation, people were actively fighting for these rights. When I was in college at the University of Pennsylvania, I worked for various rights groups, including a women’s law center in Philadelphia and an education rights project in Newark, New Jersey. I also co-chaired one of the first conferences about domestic violence in Philadelphia. My passion for and support of issues about equality and individual rights led me to Cornell Law School, and then to work as an Assistant District Attorney in Manhattan, where I helped many families tangled in the criminal justice system. After my children were born, reading aloud at night became an important family activity. I quickly became aware of the dearth of good books for children and young adults, particularly the lack of engaging nonfiction about important societal issues. As a young girl, I had been a big reader and had even dreamed of a career in writing, so I thought, Why not try to fill this gap? I joined a writing group, began writing articles for children’s magazines, and about ten years ago, I went back to school for a Masters in Fine Arts (MFA) in writing for children and young adults. I lean mostly toward writing for the YA audience because of my belief that teens are a sponge for information. If facts are presented in an engaging way, they are excited and willing learners and can impact the world.
2. What is exciting for you about researching and writing nonfiction? Were there special challenges in writing Reproductive Rights?
I love research because I love learning. That’s the spark that fires me up. The process is fascinating. One small kernel of information leads to another, which opens a door to brand new information to explore. For example, in Reproductive Rights, I had never heard of Anthony Comstock. In 1873 he almost singlehandedly lobbied Congress to enact an anti-obscenity law that caused most states to outlaw the sale and possession of items used for contraception and abortion. In many states, the laws were so strict that people couldn’t even talk about these subjects. Studying about Comstock led to an understanding of the importance of people like Margaret Sanger, Mary Ware Dennett, and other birth control advocates, who struggled to achieve women’s rights to contraception. (It wasn’t until 1965 that in Griswold v. Connecticut the US Supreme Court overturned the Comstock laws and granted married couples a constitutional right to use contraception.) It was a sort of eureka moment when I realized how much history repeats itself in the area of reproductive rights: whenever women have gained more reproductive freedom, there have been movements to curtail it. So reading about Comstock led to a broader understanding of the topic. One of the most difficult challenges in writing Reproductive Rights was to stick to the facts as much as possible. I think when you are writing about an issue that receives hot-button reactions, it’s best to keep to the facts, write about both sides of the issue, and let readers form their own opinions. Wherever possible, I revised the manuscript to present a calm, impartial view. I also wanted readers to see that reproductive rights are so much larger than just abortion rights. Important pieces of the reproductive rights discussion also include the right to sex education, cancer screenings, and family planning as well as information about pregnancy, childbirth, and maternal mortality. These rights also include a discussion of new reproductive technologies, such as the ability to select for sex or to create so-called “Designer Babies.” The other difficulty I faced during revision was sorting through the constant flow of media coverage, keeping up to date on new state laws and court cases, and reading the volumes of opinions expressed by lawmakers, nonprofits, and policy-making groups. No sooner had I finished a draft than I learned about a new state law or issue that I thought should be included in the book. I was continually shaving down sections of the book to allow for new information.
3. Did you have any particular mentors or role models who have helped you in your life as a writer? Who were they and how did they contribute and support you?
I will never forget my tenth grade English teacher, who encouraged me to write short stories. My writing group friends were very supportive and helpful as I journeyed forward to publish my first articles. Also, the faculty and my colleagues at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, where I received my MFA, have been a constant cheering squad.
4. For teens who are interested in writing, what tips would you offer them?
Read, read, read and write, write, write! Also, find other people who enjoy writing or who you think are good at critiquing, and share your work with them. Try really hard not to take comments too personally and work at developing a thick skin when it comes to negative comments (easier said than done!).
5. What are some of your favorite books, fiction or nonfiction, that you have read or are reading for pleasure?
This is a tough question because I am always reading! Right now I’m reading two YA nonfiction books, Jim Murphy’s Breakthrough! How Three People Saved “Blue Babies” and Changed the World Forever, and Candace Fleming’s The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion, and the Fall of Imperial Russia. I’m also reading an adult nonfiction book (that could easily appeal to YA readers), Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, by Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik, which is about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. I just finished a book that had been on my nightstand seemingly forever: The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak. It is a fabulous read for anyone desiring an engrossing, emotional, and powerful story abut a young girl during World War II. One of my favorite books of all time that I hold near and dear to my heart is Charlotte’s Web, by E. B. White. I always cry at the end.
6. Can readers learn more about you online? Where?
Please visit my website VickiWittenstein.com, my Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/VickiOranskyWittenstein/, or follow me on Twitter @VickiWitt. See you there!