Monday, January 30, 2012

Cool Clouds: Looking Forward to Cloudy Days

Remember those long, lazy summer days from your childhood? Remember lying on the ground, looking up at shape-shifting clouds, and looking for recognizable outlines? A frog. A fish.  A  unicorn.

It’s been a long time since I’ve done that. But it wasn’t too long ago that I marveled at the fluffy cumulus clouds standing out against a pure blue summer sky as I drove along a wide, open highway.

We’re most likely to notice clouds in summer. And we’re most likely to appreciate the scattered cumulus variety. But take a look at this wintery stratus sheet. It’s lovely too. Really beautiful.

February is supposedly the cloudiest month here in New England. Most years I dread it. I’m glad it’s just 28 days. But this year is leap year, and I’m looking forward to every, single cloudy day—even that extra one.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Friday Fun: Crazy for Cactus

While I was in California for a writing retreat earlier this month, I went crazy with my camera’s macro lens. What was the special occasion?

Cactus. It was the first time I’d ever seen cactus plants growing in their natural setting.

I was amazed by the diversity of cactus species I encountered, so I thought I’d share some of my photos with you today.

Hope you like them.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Behind the Books: A New Year, A New Direction

I didn’t make any New Year’s resolutions a month ago. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t been thinking a lot about my goals for 2012 and beyond.

Each January, I make a list of goals for the year. Some I accomplish, and some I don’t. I design the list that way on purpose. There are always a few over-the-top, pie-in-the-sky ideas that I just want to put out there in the Universe.

This year I’ve been looking back as well as forward. December 2011 marked my twentieth anniversary as a professional writer. I still remember how excited I was to see that first check—even if it was only $4.00.

This year, 2012, marks the fifteenth anniversary of my first book acceptance. In 2012, I have twenty-one new books coming out. That’s the most titles I’ve ever published in a single year. And one of them will be my 150th book. I’m not sure which one because some of the release dates are still in flux.

But going forward, I think things are going to change for me. The future I've currently mapped out for myself includes publishing fewer books, and in some cases, different kinds of books.

The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 has put so much emphasis on math and language arts that science instruction is now limited in many elementary schools and nonexistent in some. I’m deeply concerned about this shift. In recent years, I’ve worked hard to develop activities that integrate science and language arts with the hope that teachers can sneak a little more science into their lesson plans.

Teachers responded so enthusiastically that I began thinking about a pie-in-the-sky idea--writing a book for teachers that includes some of my ideas. And now, thanks to Stenhouse Publishing, I've achieved that over-the-top goal.

I’ll be spending most of 2012 writing a pair of books that present a new way of teaching elementary science. And there are likely be more similar booksinthe future.

The two books, one for grades K-2 and one for grades 3-5, I'm working on now will support the new Common Core Standards for English Language Arts and the new Framework for K-12 Science Education. And most importantly from my point of view, they will immerse students in high-quality children’s literature.

The children’s books I select will be deftly integrated into inquiry-based lessons that include a range of engaging, minds-on activities and will appeal to students at various points on the multiple intelligences spectrum. In many cases, the lessons will get students outdoors, experiencing the wide world and all its wonders. Can you tell how excited I am?

Although it will be hard to put my children’s writing on hold, I’m really looking forward to this new opportunity. 2012 is going to be a landmark year.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Cool Clouds: A Snowy Sky

We haven’t seen much of clouds like these so far this winter. I may not love shoveling, but I was more than happy to see this sky full of gray stratus clouds on Saturday morning. Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Friday Fun: Five Gross and Goofy Body Facts

1. Your body has more than 200 bones. During a simple stroll down the street, you use at least one hundred bones.

2. Bones are five times stronger than steel, but they don’t weigh as much as you might think. Your skeleton makes up only about 16 percent of your body’s total weight.

3. Without the three itty-bitty bones inside each ear, you couldn’t hear a thing. On of them, the stapes, is the smallest bone in your body.

4. The mandible, or lower jaw, is the strongest bone in your body.

5. During the day, gravity pushes down on your body, and the bones in your spine smoosh together. But as you sleep lying down, the spaces between the bones in your spine increase. So by morning, you’re about 0.5 inches (1.2 centimeters) taller.

Looking for more Gross and Goofy Body facts? Check out my book Moving and Grooving: The Secrets of Muscles and Bones. It’s full of weird, wacky, strange, and surprising information about your body and the bodies of other animals.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Sunny Santa Barbara

Earlier this month, I was on the faculty of an SCBWI writer’s retreat held at a mission-turned-retreat center in Santa Barbara, BA.

I enjoyed getting to know fellow faculty member Kathi Appelt, organizer Alexis O’Neil, and many of the writers who attended the retreat, which featured an all-day critique session, three 30 minute presentations, and two First Pages panels.

Wow! I’m exhausted just writing about it. 

Even though we’ve had a mild winter in New England, I felt incredible lucky to spend a few wonderful days in the presence of the California sun.

Here’s a photo of the retreat center at the back of the mission’s property.

Here’s the view from my room.

And after all the attendees left, this is the area I looked out across as I snuck in a few hours of writing on the terrace outside the dining center. What an inspiration!

Friday, January 13, 2012

Friday Fun: A Perfect Pair

Now that the heart of winter is here, it’s just the right time to share perhaps the most obvious fiction-nonfiction pairing I’ve ever come across. My book Under the Snow and Kate Messner’s new title Over and Under the Snow are indeed a perfect pair.

In Over and Under the Snow an adult and child cross-country ski through a winter forest wonderland, they discuss and imagine what’s happening under the feet. Messner’s spare, poetic text is enriched by and Christopher Silas Neal’s woodcut-like illustrations rendered in a lovely gray/brown/ice-blue palette.
Using clear, simple language and beautiful watercolors in muted tones, Under the Snow offers young readers a lyrical look at the surprising ways animals living in fields, forests, ponds, and wetlands spend the chilly winter months. Some fish and insects rest, but others stay active. Voles spend their days burrowing through the snow. Red-spotted newts dodge and dart, whiz and whirl just below the ice.

Discussion Questions
• What do the two books have in common. [They are both about how animals survive in winter.]
• How are they different? [One is fiction and focuses on a winter forests. The other is nonfiction and looks at life in four different habitats.]
• Discuss what makes one book fiction and one nonfiction.
• Ask students to review what they have learned about animals’ winter behavior from these two books.

Related Activities
Materials: Notebooks in plastic bags, pencils, black construction paper, magnifying glasses
If you live in a place where it snows, take the students out while snow is falling. Have the students catch snowflakes on black construction paper and look at them with a magnifying glass. Ask the students to make detailed drawings of the snowflakes in a notebook. When the class goes back inside, have students share their drawings with one another. Ask the students how the snowflakes are similar? How are they different? Make a list of their responses.

Materials: Notebooks or drawing paper, pencils, a digital camera, field guide to animal tracks
If you live in a place where it snows, ask students to look for animal footprints after a new snow. Suggest that they draw or photograph the prints and bring them to school. Using the book Big Tracks, Little Tracks: Following Animal Prints by Millicent Selsam (HarperCollins, 1998) or a field guide to animal tracks, try to identify the creatures that made the footprints.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Behind the Books: Real Revision

Tanya Lee Stone. Susan Goodman. Loree Griffin Burns. Jim Murphy. You know these folks. They’re some of the biggest names in nonfiction for kids.

They’re also four of the thirty or so authors featured in Real Revision by award-winning children’s book author Kate Messner. The book is such a gem that you’ll definitely want your very own copy.

Real Revision is published by Stenhouse Publisher, which caters to educators, so this book is written specifically for teachers. That makes it great for all you educators out there. But I know plenty of writers also read this blog. This book is a MUST READ for you, too.

Some chapters focus on fiction-specific revision strategies, but the lion share of the book is useful to nonfiction writers as well. Here are few of my favorite quotations from nonfiction writers.

Kelly Fineman on why she takes time away from a manuscript between writing the rough draft and delving into the revisions:

“It could be as little as half an hour or as long as a year, but I need to have established some sort of distance from it in order to read it at least somewhat objectively and not like a doting author.”

Loree Griffin Burns on the importance of reading widely and carefully considering the structure of nonfiction writing:

“I pay close attention to the structure of the books I am reading all the time, and I compare and contrast them to the structure I’m working with. This is always helpful to me because it gives me confidence . . .or in some cases, helps me see why my own structure is not working.”

Susan Goodman on striking the right balance between sharing information and engaging readers while writing Life on the Ice:

“. . . I was trying to fit in so many facts that I had lost sight of what my book was all about—the excitement on exploration . . . So I sat down at my computer with an imaginary nine-year-old kid beside me. And I simply told that kid an adventure story—one where scientists were the explorers.”

Jim Murphy on finding the proper voice and storytelling technique for his Newbery Honor book The Great Fire.

“I read newspapers and personal recollections of the Chicago fire until I had absorbed the pace and language of the era. . . . I didn’t try to duplicate voices from the past, but I knew I had a faint echo of them in my style.”

Tanya Lee Stone on the importance of sensory details:

“. . . if I interview someone, I will note very specific things about the way they speak, move, dress, smell, etc. These details come in handy when writing a scene that needs to capture the real essence of a person.”

And these great bits or advice are just the tip of the iceberg. Trust me. This is a book you won’t want to miss.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Cool Clouds: Building a Community

It’s another cloudy day, but I’m not complaining. Photos like this one are making an impact. People have started noticing my weekly chronicling of the sky outside my office window, and they ‘ve kept it in mind as they go about their business.

A few weeks ago, fellow children’s author Leslie Bulion came across the poem “Weatherman.” She knew I’d appreciate it and sent it may way:

My father was a skywatcher,
cloud-noter, wind-gauger,

trained since birth
to check the weather first thing
and last. In those last

dim years when all else had left
mind and memory, he’d still stare

keenly out the car window

as I drove him to neurologist
or podiatrist, and exclaim with joy and

satisfaction: Look at those clouds!
And I knew right then
that watching the sky

was a good way to conduct a life--
that reading the outlines of clouds,

lifting a finger to the pulse of
breeze coming your way,

is what can hold you close,
clasp you tight to the thrum.

                                  --Wendy Ingersoll
Thanks, Leslie. What other special treats have people be sending me? Stay tuned to find out.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Friday Fun: Five Gross and Goofy Body Facts

1. Your skin loses about fifty thousand dead cells every minute. That adds up to about three million cells every hour. No wonder dead skin is the main ingredient in household dust!

2. More than 11 miles (17.7 kilometers) of blood vessels crisscross your skin—and it’s a good thing, too. Your skin needs a never-ending flood of blood to live and grow.

3. Inside your skin 2 million sweat glands are constantly cranking out a fresh supply of sweat. Most days your sweat glands produce enough sweat to fill a 1-liter soda bottle. On really hot days you churn out ten times as much. That’s a lot of sweat!

4. More than 5 million short, thin strands grow on your arms and your legs and even on your back. Only three places don’t have hair—your lips, the palms of your hands, and the bottoms of your feet.

5. Your hair grows about 0.5 inches (1.2 centimeters) a month. At that rate it doesn’t take long to grow a new eyelash or an eyebrow hair. The hairs in your scalp can keep on growing for seven years or more.

Looking for more Gross and Goofy Body facts? Check out my book The Skin You’re In: The Secrets of Skin. It’s full of weird, wacky, strange, and surprising information about your body and the bodies of other animals.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Behind the Books: Are Picture Books Too Short?

One of the great things about the holiday slowdown is that it gave me extra time to catch up on other bloggers’ recent posts. One of the most interesting posts I came across was written by J.L. Bell over at Oz and Ends. It was a discussion of an article Anita Silver recently wrote for School Library Journal.

In it she notes that (1) picture book sales are in a slump compared to the 1990s and early years of the twenty-first century; (2) classic picture books seem to have stronger sales than recently published picture books; (3) in her opinion, contemporary picture books are suffering because there is too much emphasis on keeping texts brief.

I wrote a long comment on Oz and Ends, and I’ve continued to think about it. So I thought I’d share my ideas here.

First of all, are picture book sales really significantly lower than they were a decade ago? There’s no arguing that they represent a lower percentage of revenues (roughly 10-15 percent now vs. 30-40 percent in the 90s), but does that really mean people are buying fewer picture books.

A few years ago, Arthur Levine of Scholastic took a hard look at the actual numbers from his house. He also interviewed people with knowledge of the numbers at other major publishing houses. His conclusion was that PB sales are about the same as they were in the 1990s. The percentage is lower only because YA sales have exploded in the last decade.

Sure the PB market is tough right now, but so are the MG and YA markets. Editors are being cautious about all acquisitions, which is completely understandable given current economic conditions here and abroad.

Even when the economy is plugging along, it's no easy task to sell a children's manuscript. The simple truth is that there's more supply than demand--much more. I would imagine this is particularly true for picture books because they seem deceptively easy to write.

And there's another issue. It's easy enough to convert a novel to a digital format, but things get tricky when a book is loaded with color illustrations that do much of the storytelling. And publishers wonder if, going forward, those lovely illustrations will be enough. Will customers demand animated or otherwise enhanced picture books a few years from now? Since most editor are now acquiring for 2014, they are being very cautious. Who knows what the digital landscape will look like then?
So, back to today's PBs. Some of the most commercially successful recent picture books include Fancy Nancy, Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus, and Bad Kitty. These books are clever and/or feed right into things kids are passionate about. And they all have brief texts. A breakout success this holiday season, Good Night, Good Night Construction Site, has a very short text, indeed.

Classic titles are certainly popular now, as they always have been. The Very Hungry Caterpillar is almost always near the top of lists in sales. But does it have a long text? Nope.

Frankly, it shouldn't surprise anyone that parents are buying books they remember fondly from their own childhoods.

One of the reasons classic PBs account for much of backlist sales is because many of the books being published today don’t get much of a chance to succeed. Due to high inventory costs, if a book isn’t an instance success, it will probably go out of print very quickly. And if a book isn’t available, people can't buy it and it has no chance of ending up on backlist bestseller lists.

As for bedtime reading, I know plenty of parents who read one short book, have a little discussion about it, and then kiss their child goodnight. As for story hours, surely librarians are capable of choosing two or three titles with some commonality to fill the time. My guess is that today's kids would enjoy hearing several books that are somehow related. But this belief is based on anecdotal evidence (reading to and with my own nieces and nephews), not hard data.

And perhaps that's my biggest gripe with Ms. Silvey's article. I don't see any stats to back up her thesis.

My favorite part of the SLJ article is the ending.

"We’re demographically moving into a new baby boom; already this year publishers are reporting more robust picture book sales than expected on new titles. And, in terms of quality, it’s been a particularly good year for new picture books. The optimist in me believes that the pendulum is already swinging back the other way."

Strong recent sales of new picture books and Ms. Silvey's claim that it's been an especially good, innovative year for picture books reflects my own belief that a great book can find an audience.

Sure, there are some low-quality celebrity books out there cluttering up the market, but I still believe that a great book--long or short or even wordless(Have you seen Red Sled by Lita Judge? It's ingenious!)--will eventually find an editor who falls in love with it and a publisher who is excited to launch it into the world.

Authors and illustrators may have to work hard and dig deep. They may have to be patient and persistent. To be sure, our profession is full of frustrations. But what profession isn't? And as far as I’m concerned, the rewards of writing for children far outweigh the frustrations.

So I'll keep on writing, and I'll keep on getting plenty of rejections. But sometimes my manuscripts will resonate with an editor and a marketing department. They will be published and maybe, just maybe, they'll inspire a child or change the way he or she views the world. What could be better than that?