Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Behind the Books: Taking Notes

When I was in elementary school, we took notes on 3 x 5 cards and used color coding to keep them organized. That was the old days—before personal computers.

Today teachers and students are searching for ways to modernize, simplify, and improve the process. Recently, a librarian told me that students at her school copy whole articles into a single computer file and then worked from there. I have to admit, that made me nervous.

I always take notes, and I think students should too. I usually type them straight into the computer as I’m reading a book or an article. I never cut and paste whole passages for one very simple reason. I’m afraid I might inadvertently plagiarize.

What I’ve found is that sometimes great sentences lodge in my mind, especially if I read them several times. Even though I don’t mean to reproduce them in my own writing, my mind might spill out that great combination of words without me even realizing that they aren’t my own original creation.

Most kids have great memories, so they are even more likely to fall prey to this sort of thing than I am. If the words are their own from the very beginning, then they’ll never accidentally “borrow” from someone else.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Take a Look: A Great School Visit

Recently, I spent two wonderful days getting to know the students and staff at Rochester Memorial Elementary School in Rochester, MA. I did three different programs for the second, third, and fourth graders. The town paper ran this fantastic article of the days events.

Here are some of the day’s highlights in photos taken by Michelle Cusolito, who did all the hard work of coordinating the event. Thanks, Michelle!
The third graders loved my bird program (And I admit, it’s my favorite, too.) Here students compare their arm span to a bird’s wingspan and their weight to a bird’s.

The fourth graders worked really hard in the nonfiction writing workshops I offered. I was so impressed with their ability to revise. I know they’ll keep up the good work.
Toward the end of the second day, students started to hand me drawings and cards. Look at these hand-crafted beauties:

Friday, March 25, 2011

Friday Fun: Coral Reef Game

This fun activity comes straight out of the Teacher’s Guide for my new book A Place for Fish. It’s also great to use with my book Extreme Coral Reefs!

Take the class outside to play Shark and Minnows. Minnows stand on one end of the field. The shark stands in the middle of the field. Minnows must run to the other end of the field without getting eaten (tagged) by the shark. Have students keep track of how much prey (minnows) the predator (shark) eats during each round.

Now give each child a red, yellow, green, or blue scarf. Create four bases in the middle of the field. Minnows are safe if they’re on the base with the same color as their scarf. After each round, eliminate one base. Ask minnows with that color scarf how they feel. Explain that this is what happens to tropical fish when a coral reef dies due to pollution and development. Have students keep track of how much prey (minnows) the predator (shark) eats during each round. Did the number of minnows who died increase or decrease as the bases (coral reefs) disappeared?

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Behind the Books: Let It Chill Out

Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of school visits for grades 4 and 5 where I talk about my writing process and teach kids some of the tricks I’ve learned over the years. For the next few weeks, I’ll be sharing some of those tricks with you.

When I was I school our rough draft was usually our final draft, but today kids do real revision.

First, they write a sloppy copy. So do I.

Then they do peer reviews or buddy reviews with other classmates. I have buddies too—a critique group that meets twice a month at a local library.

After revising, students hand the paper into the teacher. Their teacher is just like my editors. They make more suggestions for improving the manuscript.

Of course, the kids are shocked when I tell them how many drafts I write and rewrite before a manuscript is complete. But it’s the same process. I just do it more times.

One step that’s really important for my process is something that kids usually don’t do. I let the manuscript “chill out”. After finishing a draft, I don’t look at it for a week, two weeks, or even longer if possible. I get some distance from the writing. That way when I go back, I can see things that need to be changed more clearly. Because I’m no longer so attached to the writing, it’s easier to trim the fat, to clarify ideas, and to kill the darlings—the phrases I love but that are extraneous or overwritten.

I always suggest that teachers create writing deadlines with this important step in mind.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Take a Look: The Horn Book

Just a week ago, I practically swore that I was going to refocus this Monday "Take a Look" strand to fit my original intention for it--looking more closely at the nature around us.




Oh heck, the words "Take a Look" are just too broad. And the truth is this week the main thing I wanted to look at and read and devour and internalize was the March/April issue of the The Horn Book. I have to admit, I don't always read The Horn Book. But when I heard they were devoting an entire issue to nonfiction, well, I had to have it. I couldn't just read the articles online. I had to pick up a copy at my local book store.

Trust me, it was well worth the $13.00.

From cover to cover, the issue is bursting with articles by all the children's nonfiction authors I love--Deborah Heiligman, Tanya Lee Stone, Elizabeth Partridge, Chris Barton, Kathleen Krull, Susan Campbell Bartoletti, Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan, Steve Jenkins, Canadace Flemming.

And that's not all. There was a great article by Erica Zappy, editor of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt's Scientists in the Field series. Laurie Halse Anderson wrote a wonderful piece about her research for the historical fiction novel Forge. There were also some great overview articles and an editorial in which Roger Sutton actually defended series nonfiction (well, sort of).

Seriously, if you're interested in nonfiction for kids, you need to read this issue of The Horn Book.

Next week, we'll get back to the natural world. Fingers crossed.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Friday Fun: Five Gross and Goofy Body Facts

1. What color is a pocket mouse’s fur? It depends on where it lives. If it spends most of its time on dark lava rock, its coat is black. But if it lives in a sandy place, its fur is light yellow. A pocket mouse’s hair always matches its surroundings.

2. A tiger’s black stripes and orange fur make it hard to spot. It can sneak through the grass and catch its prey by surprise.

3. When zebras run in a group, their stripes blend together. That makes it hard for predators to tell where one zebra ends and another begins.

4. In the thick, dark forests where mandrills live, it’s hard for monkeys to see each other. So a male mandrill depends on its pale beard and colorful face to catch a female’s attention.

5. A skunk’s white stripe makes it easy to spot. It warns other animals to stay away.

Looking for more Gross & Goofy Body facts? Check out my book Here We Grow: The Secrets of Hair and Nails. It’s full of weird, wacky, strange, and surprising information about your body and the bodies of other animals.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Behind the Books: Nonfiction Authors Inside Their Stories

It’s no secret that writing nonfiction books requires a heaping dose of research. Tracking down letters and journals, interviewing people, observing animals in their natural setting, experiencing events firsthand—these are the kinds of research that has always been routine for nonfiction writers.

But what’s new is that some of them are starting to bring their research process and stories into the books themselves. They are showing that they are part of the story, and they are making readers aware of their role in the adventure.

Here are three great examples of this new kind of nonfiction for children.

Almost Astronauts by Tanya Lee Stone
Tanya Stone spent at least a decade working on this book, and during that time, she got to know some of the “Mercury 13 Women” quite well. She did a fair amount of in-person interviewing, and in a few key spots she uses italic text and writes in the first person, including herself in the story. She does this because her presence affects the way the women interact, so it would be misleading to leave herself out. After all, we nonfiction writers can’t just be flies on the wall. We are flesh and blood . . . just like our readers.

If Stones Could Speak by Marc Aronson
To write this fascinating book about Stonehenge, the author made several trips to England, and through his nonfiction narrative, he takes us along with him. We learn as he learns. He also frequently addresses the reader in a way that has a great affect. His presence, rather than seeming distracting, helps to give the prose and immediacy that makes it especially engaging.

Quest for Tree Kangaroo by Sy Montgomery (photos by Nic Bishop)
Sy Montgomery and Nic Bishop have worked together on many books in Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s Scientists in the Field series. To create these amazing titles, they have traveled all over the planet. But their journey in search of tree kangaroos was especially harrowing. I love how the author introduces us to the whole research team and writes as though she is taking us right along wither on this amazing journey of discovery. Like If Stones Could Speak, the resulting book is incredibly engaging for young readers.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Take a Look: Ring Around the Tree

Last September, I optimistically began this “Take a Look” Monday blog stand to “encourage us all to look more closely at the world around us.” I was hoping that it would force me to explore the winter world of New England more than ever before.

Well, that didn’t happen. Through the cold winter months, I strayed from my intention by blogging about things that were, indeed, worth looking at and considering, but they didn’t get me out of the house into the natural world. Hmmph!

But now spring seems to be just around the corner, so I’m going to try to get back on track. And I can’t think of a better way to do that than to take a look at my beloved maple tree.

There’s still plenty of snow on the ground, but look at how all the snow has melted out from around the base of the tree. For an even better view of how this works, take a look at the linden tree in my side yard.

Why does this happen? It’s not because the tree gives off heat. It’s because the dark bark reflects the sun’s heat and light and that melts the snow in a ring around the tree.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Friday Fun: Fishy Facts

In honor of the publication of A Place for Fish, here are some fascinating fish facts. Enjoy!

• No one knows exactly how many kinds of fish live on Earth. So far, scientists have discovered more than 25,000 different species. Some researchers think there may 15,000 more species left to identify.

• Most fish swim in groups called schools, but a group of seahorses is called a herd.

• The stout infantfish is the smallest fish on Earth. It could easily sit on top of a pencil eraser. The great whale shark is the world’s largest fish. It is larger than a school bus.

• Fish don’t have eyelids, so they can’t close their eyes and fall asleep like we do. Most fish rest quietly during the night, but some fish are almost always on the move.

• Does the idea of kissing a fish make your skin crawl? Then consider this: Most brands of lipstick contain ground-up fish scales.

• Most young fish are called fingerlings, but young sharks and sawfish are called pups.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Behind the Books: Who Wrote that Book?

Last July, I had the pleasure of speaking at the League of Vermont Writers’ conference in West Dover, VT. In my personal and professional lives, I always strive to see ideas and situations from other people’s points of view and doing just that allowed me to have a surprising insight at this conference.

In one session, an adult fiction writer lamented about how much easier it was for nonfiction writers to create a “platform.” According to her, it’s a given in the adult writing world that it’s much, much easier to gain name recognition if you write nonfiction.


I looked around the room and saw many people nodding their heads in agreement.

Double huh?

The discussion then went in a direction that was completely foreign, completely startling to me. How, I wondered, could things be so different in adult publishing and kids publishing?

I don’t have enough fingers and toes to count the times I’ve had the exact opposite conversation with my children’s nonfiction writer colleagues. From our point of view, fiction writers like Jeff Kinney, Stephanie Meyer, Mo Willems, Kevin Henkes, Jane Yolen, Suzanne Collins, Rick Riordan are household names because when kids read a novel or fictional picture book they like, they want more of the same. They go out and read every other book that author has ever written. That’s one reason series are becoming more and more a part of the kidlit landscape.

But the leaders in the kids’ nonfiction field aren’t household names. Teachers and librarians may know names like Steve Jenkins and April Pulley Sayre and Brian Floca and Marc Aronson and Sy Montgomery, but parents and kids don’t. The reason is simple.

If a child reads and loves my book A Place for Butterflies, chances are he/she won’t read every other book I’ve written. That child will go read voraciously about butterflies. They are turned on by the topic, not the writer. It makes perfect sense.

What doesn’t make sense to me is why it’s different for adult books. I’ve been contemplating this discrepancy for six months now, but I still haven’t come up with an answer that satisfies me. I’m hoping that if I do, we can figure out a way to boost nonfiction sales overall. Any ideas?

Monday, March 7, 2011

Take a Look: I’ve Been Traveling and Having a Blast

It’s March, and that means it’s time for school visits. Last week was a very busy week for me. I started the week at Woodville School in Wakefield and ended it in the March into Reading Book Festival in Rhode Island. I did 22 presentations in all.

Boy am I tired. But I’m also exhilarated. Those kids give me s-o-o-o-o-o much energy. And so much to think about, too. No matter how many times I do a program, those kids come up with questions that surprise and challenge me.

Here are a few of the highlights . . .

At Woodville School in Wakefield, MA, the second graders performed a Readers Theater based on my book Under the Snow.

Look at this cool hat! This boys asked me some super fantastic questions.

Here are the awesome signs that greeted me at Hathaway School in Portsmouth, RI.

A student from Mrs. Backman’s class introduced me at all 6 of my programs. They did a great job.

Here’s another Readers Theater program. Look at how straight these students are standing. I could tell they worked hard. They knew their lines, and they spoke loudly and clearly.  

And here’s my friend and fellow science writer Loree Griffin Burns who also presented at the March into Reading Book Festival in Newport, RI. She was discussing her wonderful new book The Hive Detectives.

What a fun week! Now I'm getting ready for more presentations over the next few weeks.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Friday Fun: Five Gross and Goofy Body Facts

1. When a cuddly kitty feels threatened, its fur sticks up straight. The scaredy-cat looks larger and fiercer, so enemies think twice about attacking.

2. How can you tell when a chimp’s stressed out? Just look at its fur. Upright means uptight.

3. Dogs and cats shed their coats twice a year. As the days grow longer and warmer in spring, their thick winter fur falls out in clumps. The summer coat that grows in is thinner. In autumn, as the days grow shorter and cooler, dogs and cats shed their summer coat. Heavier fur grows in to keep them toasty warm all winter long.

4. During their autumn molt, weasels and snowshoe hares turn off the cells that give their hair color. The result is a white winter coat that blends in with snow. During the spring molt, their color-making cells crank up production. That’s why their summer coats are brown—perfect for hiding in grass or under shrubs.

5. A fawn’s first coat is speckled with spots that help the baby animal blend in with its surroundings. By late summer, a young deer can run as fast as its parents. So during the autumn molt, it loses its spots.

Looking for more Gross & Goofy Body facts? Check out my book Here We Grow: The Secrets of Hair and Nails. It’s full of weird, wacky, strange, and surprising information about your body and the bodies of other animals.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Behind the Books: A Place for Fish

Tomorrow, March 3rd, has been a big day in my life since 1971. That’s when my brother, Doug, was born. This year is his 40th birthday, so his birthday is an extra big deal.

But that's not the only reason it's an extra special day for me. I'll also be celebrating the launch of my new book A Place for Fish. What makes the coinciding date even more special is that A Place for Fish  is dedicated to Doug.

My brother, a fellow nature enthusiast, is an environmental consultant and an avid fisherman. When I needed someone to vet this manuscript, I knew exactly who to call. It was the first time we’ve ever worked together, and I'm happy to report that no authors or reviewers were injured in the process. We might have spent a lot of time fighting when we were kids, but these days we pretty much see eye to eye.

Thanks, Doug, for all your help with this book. And, oh yeah, Happy Birthday! I can't imagine what my life would be like without you in it.