Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Behind the Books: A Place for Butterflies

When A Place for Butterflies—my very first picture book—came out in 2006, I was over the moon. But I never could have imagined how well it would be received by award committees or how popular it would become with young readers.  And over time, it spawned a series that includes six books.

But as times have changed, so has the plight of some of the butterflies in the book. For some, the situation has improved. For others, unfortunately, it has declined.

By the middle of 2013, my publisher and I were concerned that the book was beginning to seem outdated. At first, I thought the book would go out of print, but then my publisher offered a fantastic solution—a second edition. The art and design would stay the same, but I would have a chance to revise the text. That way young readers could get the most up-to-date information.

I’m very happy to announce that the new edition of A Place for Butterflies is now available. I’ve also updated the educational materials that go with the book to address changes in education, so the new Teachers Guide is aligned to both The Common Core standards and the Next Generation Science Standards. Teachers can also download a song and lots of related activities to do with their students. So in the end, everyone wins.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Deadliest Animals: Building a Book, Part 2

In The Art of Information Writing, Colleen Cruz and Lucy Calkins say:

“The challenge when teaching information writing is to teach children to generate ideas, align them with facts, and weave both facts and ideas together into a text.”

Instead of the metaphor of weaving, I like to compare nonfiction writing to the process of putting together the pieces of a puzzle or constructing a building.
The puzzle pieces are my chunks. They are like building blocks of different sizes and shapes. I play around with them, moving them here and there until they fit together in a way that is clear and logical.
During this process, I usually end up combining some chunks. And I break apart other chunks into smaller pieces. My goal is to create sections and subsections that are parallel and roughly equal in length. When nonfiction writing is well organized, it’s easier for readers to hold the information in their mind and make sense of it as they move from page to page.

Transitions are like glue. They are like the mortar that holds the building blocks together. In The Art of Information Writing, Colleen Cruz and Lucy Calkins say:

“Writing is like constructing a paper chain—each piece must connect logically to the piece that comes before it. One way to accomplish this is with transitional words.”

Transitional words and phrases and sentences maintain a book’s flow. They are the tool I use to move readers from one idea to the next.

Transitions are important, but I try not to fall in love with them. Why? Because I have to be ready and willing to toss them out and try again during the revision process. If an editor doesn’t buy into the structure I’ve chosen for a book, I’ll have to rip apart the manuscript, rearrange the chunks, and craft completely different transitions to tie everything together. Sometimes this is a really hard process. Sometimes I mourn darling transitions that I’m forced to kill. But I have to have faith that making these changes will ultimately result in a stronger manuscript. And that is always my goal.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Friday Fun: Super Silly Science Jokes

Q: Why did the little pebble look so much like the big boulder?
A: It was a chip off the old block.

Q: What did the angry rock say to the sassy soil?
A: Come on! You want a piece of me?

Q: Why does magma move in circles?
A: It doesn’t want to be square.

Q: What did Ruby’s grandmother tell her?
A: Sweetheart, you’re a real gem!

Q: How do mountains hear?
A: With mountaineers.

Looking for more super silly jokes about the weather? Check out Mountains of Jokes About Rocks, Minerals, and Soil.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Behind the Books: Teaching Tools for Writing Informational Text

Back in February, when Feathers: Not Just for Flying was published, I blogged about the book-related resource that I created to go with it—a mini-lesson that consists of the book, a video, and a worksheet.

Educators seem to really like it, so I decided to create another one for Beneath the Sun. This time, the mini-lesson focuses on Vivid Verbs. You can download everything you need to get started from my website.

Please let me know what you think.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Deadliest Animals: Building a Book, Part 1

In The Art of Information Writing, the lesson on beginnings comes in the middle of the book. Colleen Cruz and Lucy Calkins suggest that writers not worry about their beginning at the start of the writing process. They recommend that writers just dive in to whichever TOC section they feel most confident or excited about.

That process probably does work well for some writers, but not for me. I have to start with the opening line and move forward methodically section by section. No matter how long a book is, I always begin with the first line each day. I re-read everything I’ve already written before picking up where I left off the previous day.
That doesn’t mean the first beginning I write is the final beginning. Sometimes it changes a lot. But I need a foundation before I can build the rest of my book.
Most of the time, the beginning of a book establishes its overall structure. For example, the idea that my readers will be surprised about which animals are most deadly is the core of my structure. The cover and the first spread present the attributes of lions that make them skillful hunters. This is what the reader expects. But by the second spread, I’m challenging the reader’s expectations. This piques his/her curiosity.
Then I offer three surprising examples, which sends readers the message that this book is more than they bargained for. By now, kids are hooked.
So then I backtrack a bit, satisfying kids that some of the ideas they brought to the book were correct. Then I move on, sharing example after example, with each one more fascinating and surprising than the last.
The book works because I keep my promise to my readers. Each section presents deadly animals that surprise and delight. All the while, readers are wondering, “What’s the most deadly critter of all?” And when they read the end of the book, the answer doesn’t disappoint.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Friday Fun: Gross Out!

You’ll never guess how wolves use urine. Give up? They use it to communicate.

About once a week, a pack of wolves patrols the edges of its territory. The lead wolf, called the alpha male, pees every few hundred feet. The strong scent sends a message to other wolves: “Go away, or you’ll be sorry.”

For more gross facts about our animal neighbors, check out Animal Grossapedia. But be sure not to read it right after lunch!

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Behind the Books: Beneath the Sun

I’m delighted to announce that yesterday was the publication date for my new book, Beneath the Sun. It’s a summery companion title for my previous book Under the Snow.
Under the Snow came out in September 2009, and a few weeks later, my editor suggested that I write a companion title about how animals survive on the hottest days of the year. So why was the book 5 years in the making?

 Here's the story behind the story. I submitted the book in April 2010. I heard back from my editor in December 2010, and we went through a few rounds of revisions.

When the manuscript was ready, it went to the illustrator. She submitted first sketches in March 2011 and revised sketches in October 2011. Some final art came in during March 2012, but then the illustrator had a family medical emergency and wasn’t able to deliver the rest of the final art until the beginning of October 2013.

After that, things moved quickly and the publisher was able to send the final files to the printer on Halloween. Most picture books take about 6 months to print, and that brings us right up to yesterday’s publication date.

It can be hard to wait so long for a book to take physical form, but I’m thrilled to finally hold it in my hands. Here’s hoping kids like it as much as they like Under the Snow.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Deadliest Animals: Ugh! Outlines

Here’s something that might surprise you. I hate making outlines, and I don’t do it unless I have to (because the publisher requires it). I think it must go back to the way I learned to write in school. Outlines were supposed to be like roadmaps, and you followed them carefully, so you wouldn’t get lost.

But here’s the thing—writing isn’t like driving from Point A to Point B. Sometimes it’s good to get lost in words and ideas and information. Sometimes you stumble upon marvelous things as you blindly try to find you way.
When I share my philosophy with other nonfiction writers, they are very skeptical. They insist that I MUST outline. I must have a general sense of order, at least in my head if not on paper. And maybe they’re right. But if it’s sitting there in one part of my brain, the writing part of my brain must choose to ignore it—at least to a certain extent.
I have to admit, though, that I like the idea that Colleen Cruz and Lucy Calkins suggest in The Art of Information Writing. They don’t talk about starting with an outline. They talk about starting with a Table of Contents (Brownie points for integrating a text feature into an instructional strategy.).
Colleen and Lucy see a TOC as a way to get from Point A to Point B. Not the way. To emphasize this point, they encourage students to play around with their Table of Contents, considering various options. The point is that the same information can be structured in different ways, resulting in radically different books. And some of those books will be more interesting than others.
What I like most about this way of thinking is the idea that no writing plan needs to be set in stone. Writers should stay open minded and take time to consider alternate routes throughout the writing process.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, even though I don’t usually write outlines, sometimes I am contractually required to submit one. And that’s what happened with  Deadliest Animals. Here’s what I sent to my editor:

Table of Contents             

Intro                                           4-5

Mighty Hunters                       6-11

--Polar bear
--Saltwater crocodile
Big and Brutal                      12-17
--Cape buffalo
Scary Snakes                       18-21
--Beaked sea snake

Ferocious Fish                     22-27
--Great white shark
--Puffer fish

No Bones About It               28-33
--Blue-ringed octopus
--Box jellyfish
--Cone shell

Small But Deadly                 34-43
--Poison dart frog
--Cane Toad
--Funnel web spider

Deadliest of All                     44-45
--Mosquito (includes conclusion)
Glossary                                46
Index                                      48

There are a few interesting things to note about this outline.
  1. It’s pretty similar to the final book, which sort of surprised me when I looked back at it. What I remember most about writing the book was my decision to expand the introduction as I wrote the first draft. But because the intro includes the lion, I only ended up cutting one animal (the cane toad) later.
  2. I didn’t provide any details about what the intro would be—the whole idea of readers being surprised. I’m not sure if that’s because I was still working it out in my head or if I decided to keep the approach to myself until the editor could see it fully developed.
  3. This isn’t a very detailed outline. I probably should have submitted something a bit more fleshed out. I think the editor must have trusted me because I’d already written several books for the series. But as they say, all’s well that ends well.


Friday, March 28, 2014

Friday Fun: Super Silly Science Jokes

Q: Why didn’t the teacher ever call on Carcharodontosaurus?
A: She couldn’t figure out how to pronounce his name.

Q: What kind of animal should you never trust?
A: An am-fib-ian.

Q: Why did the reptile lay its eggs on land?
A: Because if it dropped them, they’d break.

Q: Why did Sauroposeidon have a long neck?
A: Because its feet stank.

Q: Why did the Ichthyosaur cross the ocean?
A: To get to the other tide.

Looking for more super silly jokes from long, long ago? Check out Dino-mite Jokes about Prehistoric Life.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Behind the Books: It's School Visit Season

For the last few weeks, I've been crisscrossing New England to visit school after school. Here are some of the highlights.
When I arrived at Falmouth Elementary School in Maine, I was greeted by this beautiful poster. It's a visual montage based on some of my books created by the four talented third-grade students shown here. That poster was the highlight of my week.

I spent three fun days meeting with the students at Downey Elementary School in Westwood, MA. During the writing workshops, students listened closely . . . 
. . . and then they got to work. They're writing was terrific!