Penny Colman

Penny Colman

Penny Colman is the author of many nonfiction books, including Corpses, Coffins, and Crypts, Elizabeth Cady and Susan B. Anthony, and Rosie the Riveter. She lives in Englewood, New Jersey.


  • Penny Colman

Q & A

What is the biggest misconception people have about the history behind the holiday?

The biggest misconception about the holiday is that the first Thanksgiving dates back to 1621 when the “Pilgrims and Indians” shared a feast. Another misconception is that President Abraham Lincoln established Thanksgiving as a national holiday.


What was the most interesting fact you uncovered in your research?

The most interesting fact I uncovered in my research is that there are at least twelve other claims for the “first” Thanksgiving—two in Texas, two in Florida, one in Maine, two in Virginia, and five in Massachusetts


Discuss your approach to researching this book. Any surprises along the way?

I started my research for Thanksgiving: The True Story by listing everything I needed to know--topics, ideas, issues, people, events, etc.--and identifying where I was going to find out what I needed to know—archives, libraries, historic sites, museums, my extensive collection of source material, online resources, experts. (Of course, what I thought I needed to know at the beginning of my research process expanded as I delved into the subject!) I built a bibliography and webliography. As with all my projects, I set up a filing system to manage what I knew was going to be massive amounts of complicated material.   I developed a “Thanksgiving Survey” and accumulated a variety of sources--firsthand reports, Native American accounts, Thanksgiving proclamations by governors and presidents; poetry and folk songs; magazines, including Godey’s Lady’s Magazine, Harper’s Weekly, and The Youths’ Companion; newspapers, such as the New York Times, Washington Post, and Christian Science Monitor; journal articles by historians and social scientists; historic markers, online museum and library exhibits. I consulted with experts, in particular I had fascinating conversations with David Lewis-Colman, one of my sons who is a history professor.


My research revealed many surprises such as uncovering the origins of Thanksgiving in two very old traditions and Sarah Joseph Hale’s key role in establishing Thanksgiving, learning about the emergence of the “Pilgrim and Indian Story,”  discovering Fantasticals and Ragamuffins, and reading about the brouhaha in 1939 when President Franklin Roosevelt changed the date for Thanksgiving.


Talk a little about your survey pool and how this information informed your writing.

To get a sense of people’s beliefs, traditions, and menus, I created a “Thanksgiving Survey,”  an informal information gathering technique inspired by my days as a journalist when I wrote round-up articles for magazines.

I mailed my survey to an eclectic group of people—teachers; librarians; members of the American Society of Journalists and Authors; alumnae of Western College for Women, now part of the Miami University; middle school students in Florida and high school students in Cleveland, Ohio, etc. One hundred thirty-eight people, more than 50 percent of the people I sent it to returned my survey. They ranged in age from twelve to eighty-nine years old and were racially and ethnically diverse. Women, men, girls, and boys responded from Maine to California, from Florida to Minnesota. Their responses were a rich source of information and quotations that I wove into my narrative.


Does your teaching experience affect how you choose topics for your books, as well as how you write them? Briefly explain.

Teaching teachers gives me first-hand information about what teachers and students need and love—nonfiction books about real people, real events, real ideas illustrated with photographs!  Hands-down that is what teachers tell me, at the same time they describe the paucity of nonfiction books.  When I do school visits and give speeches, school librarians echo that too.  As for how I write, my teaching confirms that readers want what I aim to create--fascinating, accessible, page-turning nonfiction books.  Wherever I settle in to write a book (and I’ve moved from the 3rd floor, 2nd floor, to the basement with windows in my old house), I tape a piece of fat-lined, yellowed notebook paper with bent corners by my computer with these words by the Pulitzer-prize winning nonfiction writer Barbara Tuchman: “Whether in biography or straight history, the writer’s object is—or should be—to hold the reader’s attention . . . .want the reader to turn the page and keep on turning to the end. . . . absorbed in tale and wondering what happens next. Accomplished only when the narrative moves steadily ahead.” Note: Years ago when I copied this I double-underlined “hold the reader’s attention.”


If you had to sum up the Thanksgiving holiday in a sentence, how would you best represent it?

Thanksgiving is an open-ended holiday that deals with universal themes.


Do you think the Thanksgiving holiday is more important to Americans today than it used to be? Do you think it will be as important a holiday fifty years from now?

Once Thanksgiving got off the ground after the Civil War, it has always been an   important holiday for Americans.


Yes, Thanksgiving will be an important holiday fifty years from now. A holiday that celebrates universal ideals—giving thanks, gathering with family and friends, feasting--Thanksgiving is uniquely suited to thrive in a kaleidoscopic country like the United States of America.  


Discuss the photo research involved in this book and how you chose the pieces to include.

I look for images in old books, magazines, and newspapers; in picture collections in museums, archives, libraries; and in on-line collections. I am particularly interested in primary source documents and in images that have not been widely reproduced or reproduced at all. I contact historical organizations and individuals. For example, for Thanksgiving: The True Story, I contacted the El Paso Trail Association to locate a picture of the 1598 reenactment of the “first thanksgiving.” (p. 13)  After I spotted a picture of the turkeys who were adopted instead of eaten for Thanksgiving in a magazine in my dentist’s office, I got permission to use it from Farm Sanctuary. (cover and p. 109)


Oftentimes, I’ll “see” an image in my mind or imagine something that I’d like to include in a book. That is when I set off with my camera. For Thanksgiving: The True Story, I attended Chusok, the Korean harvest festival (p. 26). I drove to Newport, New Hampshire, to photograph the historic marker to Sarah Josepha Hale (p. 42).  I visited  the Sarah Josepha Hale Room,  Richards Free Library in Newport, and photographed a less than pristine copy of the November 1865 issue of Godey’s Lady’s Book to give readers a sense of the wear and tear of history (p. 47).  To convey the fact that history is everywhere (and because I like to include a few quirky images in my books), I photographed street signs in Weymouth with the names Pilgrim, Squanto, Massasoit. (p. 23) 


I do picture research as I am writing the text because I am a very visual writer. There are always more images than can possibly be included in a book.  How do I choose?  Here are my criteria: each image must serve one of more of the following purposes: it augments or clarifies the text, adds emotion, elicts curiosity, adds complexity or nuance, provides evidence, or creates a particular aesthetic. One of my all time favorite examples of an image that provides  evidence appears in Thanksgiving: The True Story. It is a 1911 postcard I bought from a dealer that illustrates how merchants were trying to extent the Christmas holiday buying season. (To see what I mean check pp. ii and 107)


What do you hope your readers will take from the book?

I hope readers will take from Thanksgiving: The True Story the understanding that the true story is fascinating and provocative and a very cool thing to know about!”


What is your favorite way to spend your Thanksgiving? 

My favorite way to spend Thanksgiving is with my family and friends talking about ideas and issues, playing games, and eating turkey, stuffing, sweet potato casserole, string bean casserole, cranberry sauces, my grandmother’s dill bread, pumpkin pie and chocolate torte, and exciting new dishes that people bring!




Penny Colman

Every year on the fourth Thursday of November, Americans celebrate with a Thanksgiving meal. But what is the origin of this tradition? Did it really begin when the Pilgrims and Native Americans...


In the Spring of 1851 two women met on a street corner in Seneca Falls, New York—Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a thirty-five year old mother of four boys, and Susan B. Anthony, a thirty-one...


Adventurous Women

Penny Colman

The adventures of eight inspiring women of the twentieth century.Mary Gibson Henry risked her life following her passion for new botanical species. During the Civil War, Katharine...


Corpses, Coffins, and Crypts

Written by Penny Colman

Drawing on extensive historical and anthropological research, personal accounts, and interviews with people who work in the funeral industry, Penny Colman examines the compelling subjects of death...