Friday, May 26, 2017

In the Classroom: School Visit Magic

Doing school visits is one of my favorite parts of being a science writer for kids because it gives me an opportunity to connect directly with my readers.

Kids are so honest. They say what they think.

Kids are so curious. They have a million questions.  

And they’re always making connections. Surprising, thoughtful connections. They help me see my books and my writing process in new and different ways.

Once in a while, when teachers and librarians have worked together to prepare students really well, I end up having incredible conversations with children about nonfiction books and writing. That’s what happened on Wednesday at Osborn Hill Elementary School in Fairfield, CT.

During my final presentation of the day, a second grader in Mrs. Cashel’s class asked an insightful, probing question about my book When Rain Falls:

“Would you say that book is narrative nonfiction or expository nonfiction?”

Why is that such a great question? Because there’s no clear cut answer. In fact, not long ago, I listened in as two skilled, experienced literacy educators from Maine debated this same question about my book Under the Snow, which is a companion title to When Rain Falls and has the same format. Each of those educators made convincing arguments to support her point of view.

While most nonfiction books for children can clearly be classified as having either a narrative or an expository writing style, some fall into a gray area. In the case of When Rain Falls and Under the Snow, wordless art on the endpapers and title page act as bookends that create a quasi-storyline surrounding an expository center that describes how various animals behave during a rainstorm or a cold, snowy winter.  

So how did I answer that child’s question? By facilitating what turned out to be an astonishingly sophisticated conversation in which the primary students discussed many of the same points as the literacy educators. In the end, the children concluded that there really was no right or wrong answer. Brilliant!

Note: After the children left, I asked how they were able to have such a rich, thoughtful discussion. I discovered that their ELA curriculum is a modified version of Columbia University’s Teachers College Reading & Writing Project’s Unit of Study program. Earlier in the year, they had studied the difference between narrative nonfiction and expository nonfiction. Like me, the teachers were thrilled by the children's level of thinking and articulation and at how well they applied their prior knowledge.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Behind the Books: Concept and Connection

I began this blog back in 2009 as a way of exploring the intersection of science and literacy for children. I hoped to find a community of like-minded authors and educators. I hoped to participate in discussions about the kinds of science books we were creating for children and how we might be able to do it better.

Back then, I’d never heard anyone talk about the craft of nonfiction writing, but I had a fledgling sense that there were ways science writers could dig deeper and offer more to young readers. I yearned to understand my writing process better and to grow in new directions. And thanks to this blog and social media and conferences for writers and educators, I’ve had illuminating conversations that have helped me understand the breadth and depth of nonfiction writing for children and discover how the kind of writing I’m most passionate about fits into the overall picture.

Today I know that most of my books are expository nonfiction. They inform, describe, or explain, rather than tell a true story. Some are “data” or “fast fact” books that focus on presenting fascinating information, while others are “fact plus” books that aim to put the information into context by discussing overarching ideas. In other words, they present facts and explain them.

I’ve also learned nearly all nonfiction books for children can be classified in one of four categories (survey books, life stories, concept books, and specialized nonfiction), and that most STEM picture books, including all the ones I’ve written so far, are concept books. Recognizing and naming the concept of a book before I begin writing is now an important part of my process.

I’ve also come to see that for a STEM picture book to shine, it needs to hook the reader, and that only happens when a child can easily make a connection between the concept and his/her daily life.

Kids love No Monkeys, No Chocolate because they’re intrigued by the idea that we depend on monkeys (and many other creatures) for our favorite dessert. That’s the relatable lens I use to show readers the concept—that everything in the natural world is intertwined, including us.

As children read Feathers: Not Just for Flying, they feel connected to the many different ways birds use their feathers because I compare these amazing natural objects to familiar human-made objects.

We all know that kids are naturally curious and have a limitless supply of questions about the world and how it works. Can an Aardvark Bark?, due out in June, celebrates this with a lively question-and-answer text structure intended to engage readers as they explore the book’s concept—that a range of animals make similar sounds, but for different reasons.

For me to endure the long and sometimes frustrating journey from inspiration to publication, I need a connection too—a personal connection.

My personal connection to No Monkeys, No Chocolate traces back to the glorious woodland walks my father, brother, and I took when I was young. That’s when I first discovered how living things are related to one another and their environment. During those walks, our father’s enthusiasm for nature rubbed off on us, so in many ways No Monkeys, No Chocolate is a tribute to him.


Feathers: Not Just for Flying was inspired by a single sentence in a magazine article: “Hummingbird eyelashes are the smallest feathers in the world.” This simple fact blew my mind, fueling a flurry of questions. Birds have eyelashes? And they’re made of feathers? How else do birds use their feathers in unexpected ways? That last question is the underlying concept of Feathers.

For this book, my personal connection is my deep admiration for a college friend who was endlessly fascinated by birds and took me bird watching many times. As I worked on the book, I kept thinking of him.

As I described on Alyson Beecher’s blog, Kidlit Frenzy, Can an Aardvark Bark? was inspired by a question my nephew, Colin, asked me during a family trip to Disney World. In this case, my personal connection to him motivated me to find a concept worth exploring in my mountain of research. Without Colin’s interest, I doubt I would have spent four years searching for just the right way to present the information.

Of course, my journey as a writer is far from over. I still have plenty to learn. But at least for now “concept and connection” serves as my mantra. It’s what guides me from each fledgling idea to a manuscript that’s ready for an editor’s eyes.

This post is adapted from a piece originally written for Beth Anderson’s blog.

Monday, May 22, 2017

A Sneak Peek: Pinocchio Rex and Other Tyrannosaurs

I’m so excited about this book, which is schedule for publication in November, because it shows tyrannosaurs in a whole new way.

Who knew that 100 million years before T. rex ruled the land, its
ancestors were the size of, well, us?

And who knew that dozens of different kinds of tyrannosaurs roamed the earth, living just about anywhere you can think of?

The answer to both of these question is . . . Steve Brusatte, one of the world’s leading experts of tyrannosaurs.

After reading an article Steve wrote in the May 2015 issue of Scientific American, I quickly wrote a book proposal and emailed my editor to see if she was interested.

The answer came the next day. YES!

Then I had another great idea. What if I asked Steve Brusatte to work with me? That way I’d have direct access to all the latest research. My editor was onboard, so I sent him an email.

The answer came the next day. YES!

Working with Steve has been a joy. He’s so knowledgeable and so enthusiastic.

Together, we’ve created a book that offers an up-close look at Pinocchio rex, a fascinating newly-discovered dinosaur (with a long snout). But that’s not all. The book also reveals the little known history and development of the entire tyrannosaur family.

When I saw Julius Csotonyi’s amazing, lifelike sketches in August 2016, I was thrilled.
Not only were they scientifically accurate, I loved his style and I knew kids would too.

And when the final art arrived in April 2017, I was blown away.


Just look at how cool it is!

Seriously, young readers are in for a treat. I can hardly wait to see the printed book.
 

Friday, May 19, 2017

In the Classroom: Should I Go Deeper? Making Decisions About Nonfiction Reading

Franki Sibberson
Not long ago, author Laura Purdie Salas brought this great article to my attention. I’m grateful to Franki Sibberson for writing it because it made me think about how I write books in a whole new way. I love it when that happens!

While narrative nonfiction is all the rage these days, more and more, teachers are exploring and thinking deeply about expository nonfiction—writing that informs, describes, and explains.

In this recent post on the Nerdy Book Club blog, I discussed some major benefits of exposing young readers and writers to a diverse array of finely-crafted expository literature. But I had never considered that some of these books can also help students develop online reading skills. After all, the Web can be a bottomless pit of information unless students learn to stay focused on their specific needs for a search.


As Franki astutely observes, books like The Animal Book by Steve Jenkins, When Lunch Fights Back by Rebecca Johnson, and my own book Feathers can be accessed in a variety of ways, and students can decide how much or how little to read. In some cases, seeking just a general overview may be the most productive reading strategy, but in other cases, a child’s personal interest or a school assignment will cause them to dig deeper.

I love the idea that children can read these books with intention, dip in and out, moving back and forth, making their reading experience exactly what they wish it to be.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Behind the Books: Guiding Students Through the Nonfiction Researching and Writing Process

A few weeks ago, I stumbled onto this post by Laura Perle (@VennLibrarian), Library Director at Milton Academy in Milton, MA, and found a link to a FANTASTIC kid-friendly graphic that outlines the steps of the nonfiction research and writing process, from choosing a topic all the way through creating a bibliography.

I know it's a little hard to read here, but check out this full-size version.

Don't you just love it? It’s absolutely perfect for students who are working on nonfiction reports or projects. And it could easily be simplified for younger children.

Not only is the graphic available on the school’s website, allowing students to access a variety of helpful web links for further information, Dr. Perle and her colleagues also used it to create bookmarks that students can use as a guide anytime, anywhere. What a terrific idea!

Monday, May 15, 2017

A Sneak Peek: Droughts

Droughts will hit bookstores across America on August 1, and it’s not a moment too soon.
 
When I started writing Droughts in March 2015, I thought: "This book will be great for kids in California. Drought is a big problem in the Western U.S."
 
But by the time I reviewed the sketches by Andre Ceolin in May 2016, there were hints that climate change was about to make drought a problem in other sections of the country too.
 
In July, officials in my small Massachusetts town announced a ban on all outdoor watering. As the weeks passed, soil dried out. Plants turned brown. Large tree branches started to sag. 
 
As I reviewed the final art in October 2016, drought was affecting towns and cities in New Hampshire, Maine, New York, Georgia, Mississippi, Louisiana, Tennessee, South Carolina, and more. By then, I knew the book would be a much needed resource for early elementary readers across our country and around the world.

Friday, May 12, 2017

In the Classroom: Point of View in Expository Literature

I've discussed point of view in nonfiction writing many times before on this blog, most recently here. But today I'm suggesting an activity to introduce your students to first, second, and third person point of view in finely-crafted expository texts.
 
First, read aloud and discuss portions of The Most Amazing Creature in the Sea by Brenda Z. Guiberson, Bone by Bone by Sara Levine, and Swirl by Swirl: Spirals in Nature by Joyce Sidman. After organizing the class into small groups, give each team a packet of sticky notes and three to five expository books with various points of view.

Here are some suggestions:
--I, Fly by Bridget Heos
--Creature Features by Steve Jenkins

--If You Hopped Like a Frog by David Schwartz
--Never Smile at a Monkey by Steve Jenkins
--Pink Is for Blobfish by Jess Keating
--Tiny Creatures by Nicola Davis

Then invite students to classify the books by point of view and label each one with a sticky note.

When the teams complete this task, encourage each group to rotate to a different table, leaving their books behind. Students should review the books at their new table and discuss how the previous group classified the books. If they disagree with the previous group, they should add a second sticky note explaining their rationale.

Repeat this process until each group has reviewed all the books. Then have a brief class discussion about books that have multiple sticky notes on them.

CCSS.ELA—Literacy.CCRA.R.6:  Assess how point of view or purpose shapes the content and style of a text.