Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Predator Face-Off!

If you teach grades 1-3 and are looking for a high-interest mentor text for investigating text features, you may want to check out Predator Face-Off! Today is the book's official release date. Hooray!

Predator Face-Off! also has a strong compare-and-contrast text structure, so it's perfect for introducing the idea that writers can organize information in different ways, depending on their purpose.

I wish I could take credit for this book’s fun title, but it was the brain child of my editor—Shelby Alinsky. In early 2016, she shared the title, asked me to develop the idea, and make a pitch.

At the time, I was doing a week of school visits in upstate New York, so I asked the kids for their ideas. And boy, did they take my request seriously. They started brainstorming with gusto.

Thanks to those thoughtful young pre-writing wizards, the book compares three predators that belong to different animal groups (fish, mammal, reptile), live in different environments (ocean, savanna, forest), and hunt in different ways. I’m delighted to welcome this book to the world.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

SCBWI Handout: Writing STEM Picture Books

3 Tips to Get Started

Starting with a Question

Making a Personal Connection

Hooking Your Readers

6 Key Elements of Nonfiction Writing
Writing Style
Text Structure



Point of View
If you’re writing a Life Story . . .
  • Narrative writing style
  • Probably sequence (chronological) structure
  • Probably running text
  • Voice reflect personality of subject
  • Third-person narration (first-person controversial)

If you’re writing a Concept Book . . .
  • Probably expository writing style
  • Sequence, compare & contrast, Q & A, cause & effect, problem—solution, or invent your own
  • Think carefully about text format
  • Voice reflects topic and approach
  • Third-, second-, or first-person narration

Monday, June 12, 2017

Just One More Day!

Tomorrow is the official release date for Can an Aardvark Bark?, a book I’m super excited about because it’s illustrated by uber-talented Caldecott Honoree Steve Jenkins.

Today seems like the perfect time to take one more look at the book trailer.

I can’t thank Mrs. Keith, the school librarian at Marguerite E. Small School in West Yarmouth, MA, and all the third graders in Mrs. Zabielski’s class enough for their help in creating this fun video.

Here's a great picture of the students just after I gave them all their own autographed copies of the book. Ahead of the publication date. Shh! 

Friday, June 9, 2017

In the Classroom: 12 Techniques for Writing Nonfiction

Recently, I came across this terrific visual aid created by the clever folks at the Teachers College Reading Writing Workshop (@TCRWP). I think your students will find it helpful.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Behind the Books: A First Draft Isn’t a Mistake

When I present the school visit program, Creating Nonfiction: Researching, Writing, and Revising, I show the image above and ask students what all those red marks are on my rough draft. Of course, the answers I’m looking for are “edits” and “revisions,” but sometimes students say “mistakes” or “things that need to be fixed.” And this really bugs me.

What I tell them is that writing isn’t like math. In math, if I said 2 + 2 = 5, then I’m wrong and I need to fix the mistake. But in writing, there is no right or wrong, and a rough draft is an important first step.
Revision is about improvement. It’s about taking something that’s okay and making it extraordinary. A first draft is important because you can’t improve something that doesn’t exist

And then I tell them that, for me, revising a manuscript is like renovating a home. This is a comparison they really seem to get.

Monday, June 5, 2017

60 STEM Summer Reads to Encourage Outdoor Exploration

It’s not quite summer vacation here in Massachusetts, but I know that many kids across the country are already done with school for the year. Here are some great books that they might enjoy reading over the next couple of months.

A Beetle Is Shy by Dianna Hutts Aston

Bird Talk by Lita Judge

Beneath the Sun by Melisa Stewart

A Butterfly Is Patient by Dianna Hutts Aston

Coyote Moon by Maria Gianferrari

The Curious Garden by Peter Brown

Daylight Starlight Wildlife by Wendell Minor

Feathers and Hair: What Animals Wear by Jennifer Ward

Flip, Float, Fly: Seeds on the Move by JoAnn Early Macken

Frog Song by Brenda Z. Guiberson

Grand Canyon by Jason Chin

A Grand Old Tree by Mary Newell DePalma

The Hidden Life of a Toad by Doug Wechsler

If You Find a Rock by Peggy Christian

If You Were the Moon by Laura Purdie Salas

I Took a Walk by Henry Cole

Just Ducks by Nicola Davies

Just One Bite by Lola M. Schaefer

A Leaf Can Be by Laura Purdie Salas

Look Up! Bird-watching in Your Own Backyard by Annette L. Cate

Mama Built a Nest by Jennifer Ward

Monarch and Milkweed by Helen Frost

My First Day by Steve Jenkins & Robin Page

My Light by Molly Bang

Mysterious Patterns by Sarah C. Campbell

No Two Alike by Keith Baker

An Oak Tree Grows by Brian Karas

On Meadowview Street by Henry Cole

Outside Your Window by Nicola Davies

Over and Under the Pond by Kate Messner

Pedal Power by Allan Drummond

Planting the Wild Garden by Kathryn O. Gailbraith

The Promise by Nicola Davies

The Raft by Jim LaMarche

Raindrops Roll by April Pulley Sayre

A Rock Can Be by Laura Purdie Salas

A Rock Is a Lively by Dianna Hutts Aston

Round by Joyce Sidman

Roxaboxen by Alice McLerran 

The Salamander Room by Anne Mazer

A Seed Is Sleepy by Dianna Hutts Aston

Shell, Beak, Tusk by Bridget Heos
The Snail Spell by Joanne Ryder

Secrets of the Garden by Kathleen Weidner Zoehfeld

Song of the Waterboatman by Joyce Sidman

Squirrels Leap, Squirrels Sleep by April Pulley Sayre

Step Gently Out by Helen Frost

Sweep Up the Sun by Helen Frost

Swirl by Swirl: Spirals in Nature by Joyce Sidman

Sun Dance, Water Dance by Jonathan London

Trout Are Made of Trees by April Pulley Sayre

Vulture View by April Pulley Sayre

Water Can Be by Laura Purdie Salas

Weeds Find a Way by Cindy Jenson-Elliott

When Rain Falls by Melissa Stewart

Where in the Wild by David Schwartz

Where Once There Was a Wood by Denise Fleming

Who Was Here? Discovering Wild Animal Tracks by Mia Posada

Wolfsnail: A Backyard Predator by Sarah Campbell

You Nest Here with Me by Jane Yolen and Heidi E.Y. Stemple

Friday, June 2, 2017

In the Classroom: Writing Informational Leads

I’m always excited to share great ideas for teaching nonfiction writing, especially when they involve using one of my books as a mentor text. J

Recently, California kindergarten teacher Jamie Lanham (@MrsJacksonSDGVA) posted this fantastic anchor chart on Twitter. It focuses on how nonfiction writers can “hook their readers” with a fun, informative beginning.

I recognized her example right away. Those are the opening lines of my book Snakes.

And look at what her students produced after discussing the opening. Fantastic! Can you guess the answers to their riddles?

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Behind the Books: The Moment of Rest

Recently, I was cleaning out my files and found an article I had ripped out of the November 2015 issue of Delta Sky magazine. It was an interview with Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator of the hit Broadway show “Hamilton,” and I had underlined this quotation:

“. . . a good idea doesn’t come while you’re doing a million things. The good idea comes in the moment of rest. It comes in the shower. It comes when you’re doodling or playing trains with your son. It’s when your mind is on other things.”

I couldn’t agree more. Over the years, I’ve learned that when I’m struggling with a manuscript, the best thing I can do is switch to a different project. (That’s the only antidote for writer’s block.)

I know from experience that a solution will come in its own time. All I have to do is
(1) be patient
(2) be ready

Because most of the time, the solution pops into my mind when I least expect it—while taking a walk, while driving, while drifting off to sleep, or, as Miranda says, while taking a shower.

Why do solutions come at such inopportune times? Because some part of my brain works on the problem while I continue on with my life and, eventually, it comes up with an idea. But that idea can only enter my conscience mind in those rare moments when I allow my thoughts to roam freely.

And when that moment comes and the solution pushes its way through, I have to record it before it floats away.

That means interrupting my walk and hurrying home, pulling the car to the side of the road, getting up out of a warm, cozy bed, and hopping out of the shower—naked and soaking wet—and dashing to the nearest notebook.

Kids are no different than me, which is why I think young writers should have a folder with several pieces of writing. On any given day, they should be able to choose which piece to work on. And as I’ve discussed before on this blog, all writers should let their rough drafts “chill out” before they dive into revisions.

Thinking is a critically important part of writing, and deep thinking takes time and a healthy respect for moments of rest.

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.