Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Behind the Books: Gross and Goofy Body

Hey, guess what? The first six books in my Gross and Goofy Body series are now available. Here are the titles:

The Eyes Have It: The Secrets of Eyes and Seeing
Blasts of Gas: The Secrets of Breathing, Burping, and Passing Gas
Up Your Nose: The Secrets of Schnozes and Snouts
Pump It Up: The Secrets of the Heart and Blood
It’s Spit-Acular: The Secrets of Saliva
Now Hear This: The Secrets of Ears and Hearing
And here’s a series description:
The lively, conversational tone and blend of photos and cartoon-style art make Gross and Goofy Body a perfect blend of fun facts and serious science learning. These titles are irreverent enough to captivate young readers, yet authoritative enough to win the praise of teachers, librarians, and parents.
There will be twelve titles in all. The other six are schedule for release in 2010.

Originally, I had no intention of creating such a large series. I just wanted to write a single book.

It all started when I read an article in Natural History magazine in 2004. It was about all the amazing ways animals use spit—to build homes, to attract mates, to heal wounds. I was fascinated and knew kids would be too.

So I did a ton of research, wrote some sample spreads in a fun, irreverent voice and sent them to a few publishers. Over the next few months, the rejections piled up.

“Great idea, but not right for us.”

“There are too many gross books on the market.”

“The information is too educational.”

“Is spit really interesting enough to support a whole book?”

I couldn’t argue with most of these comments, after all every editor is entitled to his or her opinion. But I could address the last comment. All I had to do was write the whole book.

So that’s what I did. But the editor still had her concerns. Drat!

So I put the manuscript, It’s Spit-Acular: The Secrets of Saliva, on the back burner.

But a funny thing happened. I had mentioned my book idea to a lot of people—adults and kids. And they kept asking about it. They also kept sharing whatever gross, goofy, weird, or wacky body facts they came across.

I wrote all these facts down in a notebook. I didn’t know why I was doing it, but I kept on writing them down.

Then one day I realized I could probably write a series of books. Maybe even one for each body system. I sat down to make a list, and I ended up with twelve solid titles.

Hmmm. Could I sell a whole series?

While I was pondering that idea, I received some great news. Before I tell you what is was, you need a little background.

When I said I put It’s Spit-Acular on the backburner, what I meant was that I stopped submitting it. But I didn’t just stuff it in a drawer and forget about it. No way. I entered it in the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Nonfiction Research Grant contest.

And guess what? I won.

That gave me the courage to start sending out the series proposal. And not long after that, I received an offer from Benchmark Books/Marshall Cavendish. Hooray!

I used the SCBWI grant money to subscribe to a medical research database at a nearby teaching hospital. The articles from that database formed the foundation of my research, but some of the most gross and goofy facts and ideas in the books came from my notebooks.
Some people say it takes a village to raise a child, and that may be true. It certainly took a village to gather the all cool facts and figures in my twelve Gross and Goofy Body books.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Good Morning, Maple!

I’m already starting to pay more attention to my tree, and that’s exactly what I was hoping would happen. This morning I decided to look at it from a different point of view.

When I lie on the ground, I see the tree—and the world—a little bit differently. See all that sunlight filtering through the leaves? Pretty cool, isn’t it? Believe it or not, it’s even more beautiful than it looks in this photo. For some reason, the camera can’t capture the light as it truly looks.

Want to see for yourself just how amazing the view is from the ground up? Go lie down under your favorite tree and take a look. Then try taking your own photo or make a drawing. You might even want to describe what you see in words.

It’s fun to look at things in a whole new way.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Friday Fun: Take a Look!

I spotted this rock at Mount Wachusett in Princeton, Massachusetts. Ask your students or children what they think caused it to split in half.

Email their answers along with their name and address here by December 1. All correct responses will be entered into a drawing to win an autographed copy of an age-appropriate book.

Have you or your students seen something amazing or unexpected in the natural world? Email me a photo and description and it may be used in a future contest.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Behind the Books: Turning Stucture on Its Head!

When I begin writing a new book, I usually start off using one of the traditional structures I discussed here. But somewhere in the back on my mind, I’m thinking, thinking, thinking.

I’m plotting, scheming, wondering—how can I make the ordinary into something extraordinary? How can I surprise and delight my readers? How can I give them something special that will make my book and it’s content—after all, it’s always about the content—more appealing and more memorable.

That’s the question. That’s the challenge. That’s the puzzle to solve, and I love solving puzzles.

I’m not the only author asking these questions. With the Internet now being the place kids go for straightforward information, all nonfiction authors are looking for fresh, innovative ways to convey important true ideas. Here are some great techniques some authors (and illustrators) have used recently:

Frog in a Bog by John Himmelman is a circular story. It begins with a frog jumping off a fern and ends with a frog (presumably the same little critter) jumping onto a fern. In between, we are treated to a chain reaction of events that involves many different creatures living in the bog.

My own books A Place for Butterflies and A Place for Birds feature layered text. What is layered text? Multiple levels of text, usually distinguished visually by size and font, on each double-page spread.

In my books, the larger, simpler text that runs across the tops of the pages provides general information and can stand on its own. The repetitive endings add lyricism and help reinforce the idea that we can work together to save our world’s wild life and wild places. The smaller text presented in sidebars provides additional details to round out the presentation. By reading an entire spread, students gain a clear understanding of the effect their actions can have on the natural world.

Mosquito Bite by Alexandra Siy uses photos and text to interweave two storylines. One features a group of children playing hide-and-seek, and the other gives us a close-up look at a mosquito’s life cycle and behavior.

Where in the Wild? Camouflaged Creatures Concealred . . . and Revealed by David Schwartz, Yael Schy, and Dwight Kuhn is a feast for the eyes and ears. Playful poems offer clues about barely-visible animals doing their best to conceal themselves. Kids love searching for the mystery creatures. Some they’ll spot, and some they might now. But no worries, all they have to do is lift a gate-fold to view the same photo with the background obscured so that the animal is easy to see.

How Many Ways Can You Catch a Fly? by Steve Jenkins and Robin Page
This book is all about animal adaptation, but the content is presented as a fun, innovative Q & A format. Some spreads ask a thought provoking question, such as “How many ways can you snare a fish?” The following spread provides brief, clear descriptions of how a variety of animals accomplish the task. Jenkins and Page did a remarkable job of selecting animals with unique adaptations and organizing them into categories to create the book’s game-like feel.

Team Moon by Catherine Thimmesh
This book perfectly integrates text, photos, and design to create a stunningly beautiful book that is rich in information. Dozens of books have been written about the moon, but this one is special because it looks at the hundreds of people behind the scenes. The author did extensive research to gather their stories and did and excellent job bringing the uncelebrated heroes to life.

Wow, I'm feeling inspired. Time to go to work.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Good Morning, Maple

So let’s start with an obvious question. How do I know that tree right outside my office window is a maple tree?

Easy answer. I grew up on a 10-acre parcel of land in western Massachusetts. On the other side of the road, there was a national forest. I literally grew up surrounded by trees, and my dad taught me how to identify them all—red maple, sugar maple, silver maple, red oak, white oak, red pine, white pine, sassafras, black birch, white birch, and many more.

This is a great thing to do for your kids because their brains are like sponges. They soak stuff like tree identification up and remember it their whole lives.

Thanks to my dad, I can recognize almost any tree in Massachusetts. But when I went to Costa Rica a few years ago, I had a lot of trouble remembering the names of the trees I saw there. My memory banks just aren’t what they used to be.

So how did my dad teach to identify trees? First, look at the leaves. Here’s what a Norway maple leaf looks like. They are 4 to 7 inches wide, and have five main sections, or lobes with fairly large “teeth” along the edges. You can see that some little critters have been gnawing on some areas of this leaf. I wonder who they are?

Some of you may have Japanese maples in your yards. The leaves look very different, don’t they? For maples, the leaves usually tell you all you need to know. But for trees that are a little more tricky, you can also look at the bark for help.

I recommend getting a good tree identification guide at the library and heading out into your schoolyard or neighborhood to see what’s there. Then take the kids out and have some fun.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Friday Fun: Five Gross & Goofy Body Facts

  1. Horses often greet one another by touching snouts and gently blowing air into each other’s noses.
  2. A tapir uses its trunklike nose to grab plants and put them in its mouth.
  3. How does a male gavial attract a mate? By making buzzing sounds with the large knob on the end of its snout.
  4. Special sensors on the tip of the elephant fish’s strange-looking nose help it find clams and other tasty treats buried in the sandy seafloor.
  5. A pig uses its snout like a bulldozer. As it roots around in the dirt, scent sensors in its nose pick up the smell of mushrooms, insects, and other tasty treats.

    Looking for more Gross & Goofy Body facts? Check out my new book Up Your Nose: The Secrets of Schnozes and Snouts.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Behind the Books: “Building” a Book

It’s a great time for nonfiction. We can be wilder and more creative than ever before. Because the Internet makes straightforward facts so readily available, it pushes children’s nonfiction authors to go farther and deeper in our research and our writing.

Nonfiction writing has three key elements: structure, voice, and word choice. I’ll talk about voice and word choice at some point in the future, but today will be all about structure, which encompasses organization, format, and design.

Let’s start off by considering some traditional options for organizing text. I’ve relied on all of these in books I've written in the past, though I wasn’t necessarily aware of what I was doing at the time. For many years, I took an organic approach to organizing. I just did what felt right without thinking much about it.

1. Intro

This is a good approach when you are discussing a bunch of different things, and each is roughly equivalent in importance. I have used it in many books, including Seals, Sea Lions, and Walruses. This is also the approach used in all DK's Eyewitness Books and taught in most schools. Foor the most part, using this structure will get students top scores on NCLB-mandated state assessment tests.

2. First this happened
Then this happened
Finally, this happened

This scheme can work well for biographies and historical overviews as well as book es about an animal’s lifecycle. I used it in my book Classification of Life.

3. Hook
Introduce and define subject
Give examples
Compare to other things
Connect it to big picture

This is basically what I learned in journalism school—and used to write Life in a Lake. Of course, reporters have their own special lingo. Instead of “hook,” we used the term “lede”, and instead of the very clunky “introduce and define subject” we used the phrase “nut graph”. The nutgraph tells a reader what he/she is about to read. In the heyday of newspapers, it was important to put this information right up front because (a) people might not read much farther into the story and (b) reporters didn't know in advance how much space would be devoted to their story. They had to be prepared for the end to get lobbed off during layout.

Wow, this post is already getting pretty long, so I think I’ll make you wait until next week to find out how I think about structure now. For the last few years, I've been putting a lot of time and effort into turning these traditional structures on their heads. So have other authors. Stay tuned to find out more!

Monday, September 14, 2009

Good Morning, Maple

This is my office. See the window over on the right?

This is the maple tree that grows right outside that widow. I’ve watched it go through all its seasonal changes for the five years we’ve lived in this house.

This year, I’m going to record and write about those changes. Every Monday I’m going to take a picture of the tree and write something about it here on this blog.

I hope my year-long observation project will inspire kids to do something similar. To make that easier, I’ll sometimes include fun activities that you can do with the kids—and the trees— in your life.

Thoreau spent a year at Walden Pond recording its changes, so why not do the same with the tree right outside my window? It should be fun.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Friday Fun: A Perfect Pair

Different students enjoy different kinds of books and learn in different ways, so pairing fiction and nonfiction books can be a great way to introduce and reinforce science concepts.

Text-book explanations of the scientific method can be dry, vague, or even confusing, but the books below bring the concept to life by showing the scientific method at work in vivid and compelling, real-life situations.

Ninjas, Piranhas, and Galileo by Greg Leitich Smith + Lucy Long Ago: Uncovering the Mystery of Where We Came From by Catherine Thimmesh
Using a diary format in which each chapter of Ninjas, Piranhas, and Galileo reveals part of the story from a different character's perspective, Smith presents a fresh, witty tale in which three seventh graders face a tough year at their exclusive Chicago charter school. Not only are Elias, Shohei, and Honoria caught in a love triangle, they must deal with out-of-touch parents, and the pressures of school science fair.

Honoria is a serious participant in the fair and has undertaken the extraordinary task of trying to teach a pair of piranhas to prefer bananas over meat. When Elias stumbles on the brilliant plan of reproducing one of his brother's award-winning experiments, Shohei begs to be his partner. But the plan backfires and lands Elias in Student Court. Honoria's brilliant strategy for Eli's defense means a crisis of conscience for Shohei, who will have to admit that he has copied his experiment's results. Can their friendship survive?

Lucy Long Ago is an exceptionally accessible introduction to the mystery of human origins. Enhanced with stunning photos and computer-generated artwork, the text clearly explains how scientists asked questions and systematically went about answering them in their quest to learn about a 3.2 million-year-old hominid skeleton—known as Lucy—found in Hadar, Ethiopia.

Discussion Questions
--Ask students what the books have in common. [Examples of the scientific method being practiced.]
--How are the books different? [One is fiction. One is nonfiction.]
--Ask students which book they preferred and why.
--What mistakes does Shohei make in Ninjas, Piranhas, and Galileo? What mistakes does Elias make?
--How does scientist Donald Johnson employ the scientific method in Lucy Long Ago?

Another Perfect PairTry reading either of these books with The Snake Scientist by Sy Montgomery.

Doing More
Ask students to write a few paragraphs explaining why the steps of the scientific method and how it should be used are clearer to them after reading Ninjas, Piranhas, and Galileo and Lucy Long Ago: Uncovering the Mystery of Where We Came From. They should include specific examples from one of the two books.

Do you know another great book that could be paired with the ones I’ve discussed today? Can you think of related activities for students? If so, please add a comment below. This blog is all about sharing ideas.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Behind the Books: Under the Snow

Children’s books can be released anytime of the year, but most come out in September or March. Up until now, all of my trade picture books have had March pub dates, but my new title, Under the Snow, came out September 1.
A fall publication definitely makes sense for a book about winter and snow, but my guess is that sales will get off to a slow start—even though the book is a Junior Library Guild Selection. After all, who wants to think about snow right now? Not teachers. Not librarians. Not me.

When I think about this book’s path to publication, I realize that almost everything about it has been slow. The idea came to me in 2002. I did the research right away, and I decided what my focus would be—animals that hibernate and animals stay active under the snow—within a matter of weeks.

But then the project came to a screech halt. Try as I might, I couldn’t find a structure that I was happy with. I struggled and struggled for a lo-o-o-o-o-ng time. Two years, in fact. But I knew I had to be patient because finding the right structure for a book is important—more than ever before.

Back in the day, books were pasted up by hand. (Yep, I’ve been in publishing that long.) Because the process was so laborious, people didn’t experiment too much with format, design, and structure. But easy-to-use computer layout software programs have brought about a revolution.

Couple the new world of creative capabilities with the MTV mentality, and you end up with a generation of kids who have a staggering degree of visual sophistication. Today’s readers expect more. So as authors, we need to dig deeper to surprise and delight them.

Most of the time searching for the perfect structure for a work-in-progress is fun, but sometimes it’s frustrating. And Under the Snow was frustrating.

I tried a million different things (Well, maybe more like two dozen, but it sure seemed like a million). Nothing seemed to work.

Then on a frigid winter night in 2004, I dragged myself out of the house to hear author-illustrator Timothy Basil Ering speak at an event sponsored by the Foundation for Children’s Books. Tim was so engaging, so charismatic, his energy was so contagious that I was inspired to take another stab at my manuscript—as soon as I got home. I finished the new draft around 1:00 a.m., took it to my critique group meeting the next night, made some changes based on their suggestions, and mailed it to my editor the next day.

Okay, so that part was quick, but then I waited and waited and waited. Six months later, I finally heard from my editor. She loved it. Hooray! Remarkably, only a few tiny things changed during the editorial process.

But wait, there’s more. That’s not the end of the journey. In fact, in some ways, it was just the beginning. The manuscript was accepted in 2004, but it wasn’t published until 2009. More waiting.

Why did it take so long? Because there was lots more work to do. The illustrator needed time to make sketches, revise sketches, get sketches approved, complete final art, and then make small changes requested by the publisher. The designer needed time to lay out the book, and the printer needed time, too. Add all those steps together, and you get 5 years—at least for this book.

Think about it this way: The book-making process for Under the Snow took longer than some of my young readers have been alive. But it was worthy the wait.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Friday Fun: Five Gross & Goofy Body Facts

  1. At traditional Greek weddings, people spit on the bride’s dress to wish her a happy marriage.

  2. Members of the Maasai tribe in Tanzania, Africa, spit on newborn babies to wish them a long, healthy life.

  3. A gob of gooey spit can turn a baseball into a deadly weapon. Depending on how much slobber a pitcher uses and how he throws the ball, a spitball can dart wildly up, down, or diagonally. That makes it very hard to hit. Spitballs were officially banned from baseball in 1920 after New York Yankee Carl Mays threw a pitch that hit Cleveland Indians shortstop Ray Chapman in the head and killed him.

  4. In 2007, bus drivers in London, England, began carrying spit kits. When an angry passenger spits, the driver collects the saliva and turns it into the police. Then police compare the sample to records in their DNA database. If there’s a match, police track down the spitter and charge him or her with assault.

  5. If you spit in zero gravity, your slimy saliva will fly off into space. It might even smack someone else in the face. Luckily, researchers invented NASAdent, a foamless toothpaste that astronauts can swallow. NASAdent is also perfect for hospital patients who have to brush their teeth lying down.
Looking for more Gross & Goofy Body facts? Check out my new book It’s Spit-Acular: The Secrets of Saliva.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Behind the Books: Aha Moments

It was 1996. My first children’s book had just been accepted for publication, and I was headed to East Africa to do research for a second book. Life was good—or so it seemed.

As friends and family heard about my success, I received a flood of phone calls. They congratulated me, of course. But they also asked some unexpected questions.

“So now are you going to write a real book? You know, one for adults.”

“It’s nonfiction? That’s great. But wouldn’t you rather write fiction?”

These questions confused me. They made me wonder and worry. Was I headed down the wrong path? Was writing for children a waste of time? Was nonfiction less important than fiction?

Luckily, my journey halfway around the world gave me the perspective—and the answers—I needed.

One night around a campfire at the edge of Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park, Ann Prewitt, an anthropologist and educator from the American Museum of Natural History, said she was fascinated by aha moments—seemingly small experiences that change the course of a person’s life. She asked the circle of scientists if they could recall such events from their own lives.

When my turn came, I described exploring a wooded area in western Massachusetts with my dad and brother when I was around eight years old. As we hiked, my dad asked lots of questions:

“Why do stone walls run through the middle of the woods?”

“Why do sassafras trees have three kinds of leaves?”

“Why don’t chipmunks build their nests in trees like squirrels?”

He wanted us to think about our surroundings, and he knew a guessing game would be more engaging than a lecture.

As we reached the top of a hill, my dad stopped and scanned the landscape. Then he asked if we noticed anything unusual about that area of the woods.

My brother and I looked around.

We looked at each other.

We shook our heads.

But then, suddenly, the answer came to me. “All the trees seem kind of small,” I said.

My dad nodded. He explained that there had been a fire in the area about twenty-five years earlier. All the trees had burned and many animals had died, but over time, the forest had recovered.

Why had it been an aha moment? Because I instantly understood the power of nature. I also realized that a field, a forest, any natural place has stories to tell, and I could discover those stories just by looking.

As the firelight flickered across the African savanna and I described my childhood insights, heads nodded all around me. I was among a new group of friends, kindred spirits who understood my fascination with the natural world.

They knew why I didn’t write fiction.

They knew why children were my primary audience.

And suddenly, so did I. It was another aha moment.

Now, twelve years later, I’ve written more than one hundred children’s books about science and nature. Some people still ask me why I’ve never written a book for adults. Others want to know if I’ll ever write a novel. But these questions no longer bother me.

I know that my personal mission, the purpose of my writing, is to give today’s children their own aha moments in the natural world—the same gift my dad gave me on that special walk through the Massachusetts woods.