Wednesday, April 26, 2017

It's School Visit Season

Each year I spend most of April and May traveling to schools to talk about they joys and challenges of nonfiction writing. I love speaking with students because they are both enthusiastic and honest.

Their feedback helps me understand what I'm doing right and what I could do better in future books. Most of all, they remind me how much kids love nonfiction.

Here are some of the highlights so far.



Monday, April 24, 2017

Teaching Science with Kidlit

NGSS PE 5-PS3-1. Use models to describe that energy in animals’ food (used for body repair, growth, motion, and to maintain body warmth) was once energy from the sun.

Try these book pairs:
For more suggestions and full lessons, check out Perfect Pairs:

Saturday, April 22, 2017

NESCBWI Handout: Got Motivation?

You’ve probably heard that the secret to completing a manuscript is as easy as BIC—Butt in Chair. But with such busy lives, it can be hard to find the time and, more importantly, the motivation to stick to the writing goals we set for ourselves. How can we make writing a top priority day after day, week after week, month after month—until our manuscript is finally done?
Here are some tips and tools to stay motivated as you pursue a writing life.

Don’t think about achieving success or being successful. Don’t compare yourself to others who you think are more successful. That kind of thinking is toxic. No one ever thinks they are successful.
It’s better to focus on motivation. Because:

1. We can control it.

2. It helps us remember that we’re on a journey.

3. It lets us know when something is wrong.

Know the Why: If you aren’t clear on why you’re doing something, it’s easy to give up. Take the time to figure out why you’re doing what you’re doing and how it benefits you, your family, and your community.

Motivation has three main components:

1. Focusing on your BIG dream.

2. Setting goals.

3. Staying positive.

Here's each step in greater detail:

1. What is your BIG dream is? Write it down. Create a vision of what you want your life to be. A vision board can help. Lots of people swear by them. 

I use an idea board instead of a vision board. It works better for me. It’s a place to store and keep track of ideas for future books and marketing plans. Looking at what’s up there helps me set priorities quickly.
Want to know more about my idea board? Watch this video of my nieces giving a tour of my office.

Be sure to rehearse your BIG dream. Daydream as you drift off to sleep, while in the shower, while walking the dog, etc.

2. Set 4-5 goals per year. They should be specific, achievable, and measurable. Write them down in the following format: By ____ (date), I will ______.

If you only have one or two goals, it may help to break them into smaller steps.

If you have so many goals that you feel paralyzed, you have created a to-do list, not goals. Think bigger picture and try again.

If addressing writer’s block is one of your goals, try switching to a different writing project when you feel stuck. Getting stuck is a natural part of the process, but you can stay productive if you devote your time and energy to a different project.

If you’re wondering how to prioritize your goals, listen to your heart. Which goal are you most passionate about?

I post my goals in the upper right-hand corner of my idea board and look at them every day. You can see my goals in the photo above. I usually write them on the back of a receipt. No reason to waste paper.

Think of your goals as an action plan.

Once you have a plan, stay the course. Every time someone asks you to do something or you have an opportunity, ask yourself: Does this serve one of my goals? Does this serve my BIG dream?
Find a friend to help you stay accountable. A buddy can:

—Help you set deadlines

—Act as a sounding board

—Highlight your blind spots

—Be a cheerleader

—Celebrate successes (big and small)

3. To stay positive:

—Surround yourself with upbeat, constructive people.
—Focus on what you can control.
—Commit to improving your mindset.
Go forth and contribute. You can make it happen.

NESCBWI Handout: What the Heck is an Informational Book?

The line between fiction and nonfiction is blurrier than ever before. With terms like "informational book," "creative nonfiction," and "informational fiction," how are writers supposed to know what works and what doesn't when presenting true or mostly true information to children? This practical presentation explains the terminology and discusses how children's book creators are playing with format, point of view, voice, structure, and other elements to present information in exciting new ways.

These posts explain the origin and meaning of the terms we use to describe and discuss nonfiction books as well as books that contain a blend of fiction and nonfiction:


For even more background information about informational text/books, creative nonfiction, and informational fiction, check out these excellent resources:

Saturday, April 15, 2017

A Treat for Vacation Week

Here's the book trailer for my new book, Can an Aardvark Bark?, illustrated by Caldecott Honoree Steve Jenkins. The official publication date is June 13, but it's available for pre-order now. 

Friday, April 14, 2017

Nonfiction Joy: Passion and Process

Thanks to rock star educator JoEllen McCarthy (@JoEllenMcCarthy), I had an opportunity to chat about nonfiction writing with uber-talented authors Sarah Albee and Loree Griffin Burns last Saturday as part of the Educator Collaborative's Spring Gathering (#TheEdCollabGathering).

If you didn't get a chance to catch our program live, I have great news. It was archived here, so you can watch it at your convenience. We discuss choosing a topic, research, experiential learning, text structure, the revision process, pairing fiction and nonfiction, voice in nonfiction writing, nonfiction genres, crafting language, and why find joy in our work every day. Enjoy!

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Behind the Books: A Place for Bats in the Classroom

I’m so excited that a new, updated edition of A Place for Bats became available on April 1. As with the original version, there are all kinds of ways you can use it in the classroom.

For starters, there’s a Teacher’s Guide that makes connections to a wide variety of Next Generation Science Standards and Common Core standards as well as additional activities.

You can also share one or two spreads of A Place for Bats to support NGSS PE K-ESS3-3 for K students or read the whole book as part of a lesson that addresses NGSS PE 5-ESS3-1 for grade 5 students.

This book is also great for Reading Buddies programs. For more information, read this article and look at the materials on my Reading Buddies pinterest board.

A Place for Bats is chockfull of text features. These resources can help you use the book to create lessons that focus on nonfiction text features.

The main text of A Place for Bats has both a cause & effect text structure and a problem-solution text structure, while many of the sidebars compare past human activities that hurt bats to current more bat-friendly activities. That makes it a great mentor text for students learning about nonfiction text structures. These resources can help you use the book to build lessons that look at nonfiction text structures.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Teaching Science with Kidlit

NGSS PE 5-LS1-1. Support an argument that plants get the materials they need for growth chiefly from air and water.

Try this book pair:
For more suggestions and full lessons, check out Perfect Pairs:

Friday, April 7, 2017

In the Classroom: Voice in Expository Literature

I've discussed voice in finely-crafted nonfiction mentor texts many times before on this blog. But today I'm suggesting an activity to give your students experience experimenting with voice in their own nonfiction writing.
To get started, find an interesting or surprising photograph of an insect and project it on your classroom interactive whiteboard. Here are a few possibilities from my personal photo archives. Feel free to use them:

Invite your student to do the following:

  1. Write one sentence about the insect.
  2. Re-write the sentence as a boring teacher would say it.
  3. Re-write it as a cartoon character would say it.
  4. Re-write it with alliteration (repetition of first consonant) or assonance (repetition of vowel sounds).
  5. Re-write it as a bus driver would say it.
  6. Re-write it as poetry.
  7. Re-write it with onomatopoeia (a sound effect).
  8. Choose your favorite sentence and revise it.
Encourage student volunteers to share their writing. Then repeat the activity with a different photograph.
CCSS.ELA—Literacy.CCRA.R.4: Interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text, including determining technical, connotative, and figurative meanings, and analyze how specific word choices shape meaning or tone.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Helping Students Overcome Their Biggest Nonfiction Writing Challenges

Today SarahAlbee and I are leading a 90-minute session at the Massachusetts Reading Association conference. We will begin by asking the classroom teachers, librarians, reading specialists, and literacy coaches in the audience to share the most common nonfiction writing challenges their students face, and then we will suggest solutions. We will also invite audience members to share their own creative ideas with one another.

Based on our experience offering a similar session at nErDcamp Long Island last fall, the links below address some of the topics we expect to discuss:

Why Kids Copy their Research Sources, and How to Break the Habit

Adding Voice to Nonfiction Writing

Why Middle School Students Think Research Is Boring

Convincing Students to Revise

Teaching Nonfiction Text Structure

Organizing Information When Writing Nonfiction

When Students Have Trouble Choosing a Topic

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Behind the Books: A Place for Bats

This is the fourth book I’ve revised and updated in the A Place for series. The original edition of A Place for Bats was published in 2012, and it’s hard to believe how much has changed for these furry fliers since then.
As I plunged into the research last winter, I realized that both the text and the artwork would need significant changes.

One bat had a brand new name—the tricolored bat. Two of the bats had overcome the challenges discussed in the first edition, but were now facing new dangers. The new edition also includes the latest information about what causes white nose syndrome and describes the benefits of installing bat escape ramps in livestock watering troughs.

In the end, much of the book’s text was rewritten and illustrator Higgins Bond painted three new illustrations.

With so much work to do, we all worried that the book wouldn’t make it to the printer in time for Spring 2017 publication. But thanks to a whole lot of hard work, late hours, and teamwork, we did make our deadline, which means the new edition of A Place for Bats went on sale on April 1. Hooray!

How can you use this book in the classroom? Find out next week.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Teaching Science with Kidlit

NGSS PE 4-ESS3-1. Obtain and combine information to describe that energy and fuels are derived from natural resources and their uses affect the environment.

Try these book pairs:

For more suggestions and full lessons, check out Perfect Pairs:

Friday, March 31, 2017

Nonfiction Pre-writing: An Authentic Example

A few weeks ago,I wrote a blog post called Why Kids Copy their Research Sources, and How to Break the Habit and was blown away by the response. So many teachers told me it was incredibly helpful. I also received some great comments from fellow children’s book writers.

Award-winning science poet Leslie Bulion had this to say:

Nonfiction authors often describe their research process and their writing process, but we don’t usually hear about what comes in between, so I asked Leslie if I could interview her to explore the details of her pre-writing process. Luckily, she said yes.
MS: What’s your first step when you begin a new book?
LB: Each of my science poetry collections starts with one big idea. For example, the big idea for my next book, Leaf Litter Critters (coming in 2018), was to take readers on a tour through what scientists call the “brown food web.” So I needed to learn how the critter-eat-critter world of Earth’s busy decomposer-recyclers works.
I began my research by reading widely about soil and leaf litter communities. When I had a basic understanding of the topic, I returned to the readings I’d found most helpful, and took notes about the many organisms and their brown food web jobs—i.e. which critters start the process (primary decomposers) and how each paves the way for the next level of decomposers to move in and get to work.

Using those notes, I made a list of critters I wanted to write poems about. My choices needed to represent all levels and interactions in the brown food web, and a mix of familiar critters and those that readers may not have met...yet...

MS: Can you tell us about one of the critters on that list?

LB: Here’s a fun example: the nematode. Since I was interested in how these (mostly) microscopic roundworms fit into the brown food web, I researched where they live, what they eat and what eats them. I found information in books and scientific articles. I also watched videos and observed nematodes flipping around in soil and water samples under my own microscope. I took LOTS of notes.

Here are my nematode notes from Life in the Soil by James B. Nardi (Univ. of Chicago Press, 2007):
--“Nematodes graze on bacteria and fungi. They are predators, omnivores, plant feeders (those have stylets). They live in soil water films, or within roots- those are parasitic.
--Every kind of soil.
--Go dormant in hot dry conditions.
--Nitrogen cyclers.
--Different mouth structures.
--Bacteria eaters have lots of lips, narrow mouth, vacuum from soil pores.
--Root feeders—piercing spears ram into roots to tap plant.
--Gulp with a muscular esophagus.
--Springtails eat them, so do tardigrades and mites.
--Larger nematodes predators of nematodes, tardigrades, rotifers, protozoa—lips (up to 6) grinding plates just inside.
--Fungus traps nematodes with a noose—strangler fungi!
--Some fungi have sticky spores that latch onto nematodes—fungal hyphae fill the nematode and digest its contents.
-- Some fungi produce pheromone and work like flypaper for nematodes and rotifers.”

Here are my notes from the video “Nematode Movement," which had a terrific narration:
--“Whip like, coil to change direction almost 360.
--Pressure against cuticle to move.
--Longitudinal muscles only.”

MS: What did you do next?

LB: I asked myself this organizing question: Which “juicy science story” will I tell?

This helped me focus my thinking about nematodes. After all, a poem is not an encyclopedia entry, and the science notes I write to accompany my poems are quite specific.

To answer this question, I took notes on my notes. My goal was to synthesize and condense the information I’d collected and mine the most fascinating bits until I found my “juicy science story.”

From Life in the Soil:
--Nematodes graze on bacteria and fungi, plant feeders (stylets).
--Lots of lips, narrow mouth, vacuum from soil pores.
--Piercing spears ram into roots to tap plant.
--Lips (up to 6).
--Fungus traps nematodes with noose—strangler fungi.

From the video:
-- Whip like, coil to change direction almost 360 degrees.

In my own investigations, I loved watching nematodes in motion!

As I read over these notes and those from other sources, I decided that my poem would tie the nematode’s flicking, whip-like motion to its eat-and-be-eaten relationship with “strangler” fungi. That was my juicy science story.

MS: Was that the end of your pre-writing process?

LB: No. Next, I asked myself a second key question:

Which powerful words associated with this topic might spark an idea and make my writing POP? 

To answer this question, I did another round of taking notes on my notes. The result was a list of power words/ideas filled with action, imagery, music, or humor potential:

water films
layers of lips
glassy roundworms
soil spaces
piercing spears
strangler fungi

Finally, I was ready to write.

MS: Can you tell us a little bit about that process?

LB: I played around with my word collection and said the words aloud. Sometimes I walked as I spoke, using my body to feel the rhythm. The short “i” sound in the word whip seemed to evoke the nematode’s short, quick movements.

Whip led me to flip, slip, lips, flick, quick, sticky, and tricky, which then led to trap, attack and finally a fun rhyme—snack. That’s when I knew where I was headed. Here’s the final poem: