Monday, March 31, 2014

Deadliest Animals: Ugh! Outlines

Here’s something that might surprise you. I hate making outlines, and I don’t do it unless I have to (because the publisher requires it). I think it must go back to the way I learned to write in school. Outlines were supposed to be like roadmaps, and you followed them carefully, so you wouldn’t get lost.

But here’s the thing—writing isn’t like driving from Point A to Point B. Sometimes it’s good to get lost in words and ideas and information. Sometimes you stumble upon marvelous things as you blindly try to find you way.
When I share my philosophy with other nonfiction writers, they are very skeptical. They insist that I MUST outline. I must have a general sense of order, at least in my head if not on paper. And maybe they’re right. But if it’s sitting there in one part of my brain, the writing part of my brain must choose to ignore it—at least to a certain extent.
I have to admit, though, that I like the idea that Colleen Cruz and Lucy Calkins suggest in The Art of Information Writing. They don’t talk about starting with an outline. They talk about starting with a Table of Contents (Brownie points for integrating a text feature into an instructional strategy.).
Colleen and Lucy see a TOC as a way to get from Point A to Point B. Not the way. To emphasize this point, they encourage students to play around with their Table of Contents, considering various options. The point is that the same information can be structured in different ways, resulting in radically different books. And some of those books will be more interesting than others.
What I like most about this way of thinking is the idea that no writing plan needs to be set in stone. Writers should stay open minded and take time to consider alternate routes throughout the writing process.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, even though I don’t usually write outlines, sometimes I am contractually required to submit one. And that’s what happened with  Deadliest Animals. Here’s what I sent to my editor:

Table of Contents             

Intro                                           4-5

Mighty Hunters                       6-11

--Polar bear

--Saltwater crocodile
Big and Brutal                      12-17
--Cape buffalo
Scary Snakes                       18-21
--Beaked sea snake

Ferocious Fish                     22-27
--Great white shark
--Puffer fish

No Bones About It               28-33
--Blue-ringed octopus
--Box jellyfish
--Cone shell

Small But Deadly                 34-43
--Poison dart frog
--Cane Toad
--Funnel web spider

Deadliest of All                     44-45
--Mosquito (includes conclusion)
Glossary                                46
Index                                      48

There are a few interesting things to note about this outline.

  1. It’s pretty similar to the final book, which sort of surprised me when I looked back at it. What I remember most about writing the book was my decision to expand the introduction as I wrote the first draft. But because the intro includes the lion, I only ended up cutting one animal (the cane toad) later.
  2. I didn’t provide any details about what the intro would be—the whole idea of readers being surprised. I’m not sure if that’s because I was still working it out in my head or if I decided to keep the approach to myself until the editor could see it fully developed.
  3. This isn’t a very detailed outline. I probably should have submitted something a bit more fleshed out. I think the editor must have trusted me because I’d already written several books for the series. But as they say, all’s well that ends well.


Friday, March 28, 2014

Friday Fun: Super Silly Science Jokes

Q: Why didn’t the teacher ever call on Carcharodontosaurus?
A: She couldn’t figure out how to pronounce his name.

Q: What kind of animal should you never trust?
A: An am-fib-ian.

Q: Why did the reptile lay its eggs on land?
A: Because if it dropped them, they’d break.

Q: Why did Sauroposeidon have a long neck?
A: Because its feet stank.

Q: Why did the Ichthyosaur cross the ocean?
A: To get to the other tide.

Looking for more super silly jokes from long, long ago? Check out Dino-mite Jokes about Prehistoric Life.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Behind the Books: It's School Visit Season

For the last few weeks, I've been crisscrossing New England to visit school after school. Here are some of the highlights.
When I arrived at Falmouth Elementary School in Maine, I was greeted by this beautiful poster. It's a visual montage based on some of my books created by the four talented third-grade students shown here. That poster was the highlight of my week.

I spent three fun days meeting with the students at Downey Elementary School in Westwood, MA. During the writing workshops, students listened closely . . . 
. . . and then they got to work. They're writing was terrific!

Monday, March 24, 2014

Deadliest Animals: A Look at Structure

Here are some great quotations from The Art of Information Writing:

“Writers often make plans for how to organize their information writing. Writers make one plan, then they think about different possible plans, and they keep doing this over and over.”

“So much of what makes a writer strong . . . is the ability to envision a variety of structures her work can take and then to choose and implement one of those structures.”

To develop a structure, students should pretend to “fly above the terrain of a topic like an airplane flies above the earth, allowing for a bird’s eye perspective.”

“[O]ne of the most important ways to revise is to consider alternative structures.”

“[A] writer needs to build a sound structure; that structure then allows the writer to elaborate without the text becoming a swamp.”

I agree with all of these statements.

When I was writing books like No Monkeys, No Chocolate, Feathers: Not Just for Flying, and Under the Snow, I really struggled to find the right structure. For No Monkeys, No Chocolate, the process search took 10 years, 56 revisions, and 3 fresh starts. I documented that process in a RevisionTimeline comprised of videos and downloadable samples of rejected manuscripts. I invite you to share it with your students.

Luckily, structuring Deadliest Animals wasn’t nearly as difficult. As a matter of fact, it came to me fully formed in a single flash of inspiration. And it happened very early in the process. It was truly a gift.

The instant I read that mosquitoes are the deadliest animals on Earth, I knew that “oh wow” fact would somehow play a central role in the book. After all, who wouldn’t be surprised to learn that these tiny pests are so dangerous?

And as I continued to research, I learned that the “usual suspects”—lions, tigers, bears—aren’t really the critters we should worry about most. There are plenty of deadly plant eaters and lots of deadly little guys. And some of them live much closer than most people realize. Basically, this topic was full of surprises—and that was my hook, that was the idea that would form the core of my structure.

And that brings us to one more great statement from The Art of Information Writing:
“[E]ffective information writing shows the writer’s own involvement with and interpretation of a subject. Readers want to read texts in which facts carry and create ideas.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself. The best nonfiction uses information to present an idea that is meaningful to the author. We see the topic through a lens that he or she creates.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Friday Fun: Gross Out!

Burrowing owls collect poop. Lots of it. And they aren’t picky about the source. They like horse poop, cow poop, dog poop, even pig poop.

What do the little birds do with their prize collections? They use it to line their underground nests. Think these owls should have their heads examined? Think again.
A poop-lined nest attracts insects in search of a fecal feast. And that means the owls can have a feast of their own. In fact, owls with dung in their dwellings eat ten times more dung beetles than owls with better-smelling burrows.

For more gross facts about our animal neighbors, check out Animal Grossapedia. But be sure not to read it right after lunch!

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Behind the Books: Illustrating Feathers

Today I’m featuring a guest post by Sarah S. Brannen, the uber-talented illustrator of Feathers: Not Just for Flying.

“Birds and feathers go together, like trees and leaves, like stars and the sky.”

It had me at hello. I read the first sentence of the manuscript that would become Feathers: Not Just for Flying, and I wanted to illustrate it more than any book that had come my way before. I love drawing natural things like rocks, moss, bones, or feathers, but I hadn’t yet had the opportunity to illustrate the things I do best in a children’s book.

Several years went by before I was able to start; Melissa had to finish the book and get a contract for it, and the publisher, Charlesbridge, had to find me—I was eagerly waiting to be found—and spend some more time finalizing details. At last, in the fall of 2011, it was time to start sketching.

Although I had been wanting to illustrate this book for years, once I read the manuscript over a few times, I realized that it was going to be an unusual challenge. Each bird discussed had two separate pieces of text, which had to be presented separately. I was convinced that I couldn’t illustrate a book about feathers without drawing actual feathers, but because of the text, it was clear that each illustration would also need to show the bird doing the action described.

And I wanted to add another set of illustrations. The similes in the book compare feathers to blankets, cushions, matador capes, fishing sinkers, etc.; I felt that it would be necessary to illustrate some of the things a young child might not be familiar with, like a matador.
So each spread had five different elements; ten, in the cases of spreads that showed a different bird on each page. I couldn’t think of how to pull it all together in a coherent design. I went for a walk, as I always do when I have a tough problem to solve. I wish I could explain how I came to the idea of a trompe l’oeil scrapbook, but the idea just burst into my head full-formed, as I walked along North Road near my house.
Actually, my first idea was that each page would be the drawer in a curio cabinet, laid out like a collection, with the words written on a background, cut out of “magazines,” scribbled on sketchbook “pages,” etc. Then the main illustration could also look like it was a photo, or a piece of art, and the feather could lie on top.

Everyone liked the idea, although it eventually changed from a cabinet into a scrapbook.

I did a lot of research to find images of birds doing the things discussed in the text. I had been picking up feathers for over three years, hoping against hope that I would someday illustrate this book. I had to spend a lot of time identifying them, and figure out how to get feathers from some of the more unusual birds. A rosy-faced lovebird owner in Iceland sent me some feathers from her pet. A scientist in New York and a nature photographer in Australia sent me high-resolution photos of the club-winged manakin and the sandgrouse, respectively. The red-tailed hawk was easy… I was mowing the lawn one day and found a wing feather in the grass next to my house.

After all the research, the art went quickly and it was a delight. I loved drawing the feathers.

Along the way, someone mentioned to me that it was illegal to possess wild bird feathers. I didn’t believe them. But I told Melissa, and we looked into it, and discovered that under the terms of the 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty, it is illegal to possess feathers from a long list of native American birds. (It is legal to possess feathers of non-native species like peacocks, lovebirds, and mute swans; domestic fowl like turkeys are also okay).

I learned to draw feathers where I found them, and I’ve actually done a series of drawings of feathers on rocks, or sand, which turned out to add an interesting layer to the art.

However, the whole idea of the book was to encourage children to make a scrapbook of natural things, to study and learn. Obviously we couldn’t recommend that children engage in an illegal activity! The publisher talked to the Department of Fish and Wildlife and was told that although enforcing this aspect of the act was not a high priority, that it is illegal to possess the feathers of any bird on the list.

It may sound absurd, but when the law was enacted, many species were threatened by the fashion of wearing bird wings and feathers in hats, and egg collecting was very popular. Although picking up a feather a bird has dropped doesn’t harm the bird, there is no way to prove where you got a feather once it’s in your possession. So it does make sense, once you think about it.

Ultimately, it was decided to remove the tape which showed the feathers being mounted in the book. The scrapbook look remains, and the illustrations of the feathers accompany the illustrations rather than being intrinsically part of them. We had a slight story idea that was cut—there had been an illustration of a child holding the scrapbook on the original title page, and it was dropped.

It was a long, labor-intensive, complicated process, and the book was published over five years after I first saw the manuscript and fell in love with it. I’m very proud of how it turned out, and I can’t wait to share it with the world.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Deadliest Animals: Chunk and Check

As I’m researching, I type notes into a Microsoft Word file, always using my own words to avoid any possibility of accidental plagiarism (as I recently discussed here). By the time I’m done, I might have 20, 30, 40 pages of notes. I save that file, which includes bibliographic references, as is. Then I make a copy of the file and get to work on the next step in my process. I call it Chunk and Check.

To organize my material, I start to think about what information I’d like to include. What’s most important? What will really interest and/or excite kids? I jot down a quick list. Some of the items on this list might become section headings in my Table of Contents.  Others will become subsections, and some may not end up in the book at all. After all, this is just my first stab at wrangling all the information I’ve collected into a fascinating 48-page book for kids. I’m not too worried about specifics right now. In fact, I need to stay flexible as I move from the act of organizing to the act of developing a structure for the book.
In The Art of Information Writing, Colleen Cruz and Lucy Calkins say:
“Writing is a tool to synthesize, organize, reflect on, and teach knowledge.”

I’d change their word “teach” to “share,” but otherwise, I really like this quotation. And it’s what I’m just starting to do as I make my list. (Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find that initial list for Deadliest Animals, but it must have included topics like “Snakes,” “Sea animals,” and “Plant eaters.”)

Next, I cut and paste, cut and paste. I move around the information in my research document until I have perhaps 10 clusters, or chunks, of information. Sometimes I highlights text blocks in different colors. It helps me see what I have. Plus the colors are just fun.

As I go through this process, I delete redundant information, and I flag facts that I’d like to double check for accuracy. By the time I’m done chunking, my 40 page research document might be whittled down to 20 pages, which is much more manageable.

What happens next? Come back next week to find out.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Behind the Books: A Look at Plagiarism

When I do school visits, the topic of plagiarism and piracy often come up. Well, actually it’s usually teachers who bring in up during the Q & A at the end of my presentation.

My feeling is that the concept shouldn’t even be mentioned until grade 3. I think it’s fine for K-2 writers to copy text because it can help them learn how sentences are supposed to flow. The act of writing it somehow taps into a different part of their brain than reading it alone. In other words, it’s a powerful learning tool, especially for tactile learners.

ln addition, most of the texts K-2 students are interacting with very simple and basic. Because kids don’t have much to work with, it can be very difficult for young children to figure out a way to rephrase the ideas in their own words. But by grade 3, most students are ready for the idea that they need to respect the words of other writers.

Different authors have different ways of organizing their research. Some make photocopies and then physically move the pages around as they decide how to structure the information. I tell students I could never work that way, and they probably shouldn’t either. Here’s why.

I have a very good memory, and so do most kids. If I read a sentence and like the way it flows, I’m likely to remember it, especially if I read it multiple times. Then, when it’s time to write my own manuscript, that sentence or something very close, too close, is likely to flow out of my mind. I don’t consciously realize that I’m using someone else’s words, but it’s still plagiarism.

That’s why I always tell kids to take notes in their own words from the very beginning of their project. That way, they are forced to digest the information and recast it. Often, this process involves adding a little of myself or incorporating my own prior experiences. That means the thought that ends up in my notebook truly is my own.    

Monday, March 10, 2014

Deadliest Animals: Research

I wrote about my general research process just a few weeks ago, here and here, so I’d encourage you to look at those posts and share them with your students.

Although I’ve observed many of the creatures in Deadliest Animals while on safari in Africa or exploring the tropical rain forests of Costa Rica, I didn’t do any traveling specifically for this book. Most of the information came from notes I took during past trips or from magazine and journal articles. I did use the Internet a bit, and, as always, checked my facts with a variety of scientists.
All in all, the research process for this book was pretty uneventful, but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t surprised by some of the information I uncovered. And as you’ll discover over the next few weeks, my sense of surprise became the core of the book.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Friday Fun: A Great Week

This has been a great week for me.

On Monday, Franki Sibberson, fabulous third grade teacher and co-host of the A Year of Reading blog, declared it "Melissa Stewart week" in this wonderful post. (I'm blushing.)

On Wednesday, which just happened to be the 10th anniversary getting engaged to my amazing husband, I spent the day with uber-talented children's book author Loree Griffin Burns at the Massachusetts Environmental Education Society at Holy Cross College in Worcester, MA. I met a lot of passionate educators and had some great discussions.

And today, I'm presenting at a Massachusetts School Library Association pre-conference event sponsored by the New England School Library Association in Hyannis, MA. I'm looking forward to spending the day with dedicated teacher-librarians and talking about books and nonfiction writing and Common Core. I love these conferences because they help me get a sense of the specific struggles educators are facing and what I might be able to do to help.

The conference continues all weekend, and I'm looking forward to attending some great sessions and to presenting again on Sunday. The best part is that my parents live about 15 minutes away from the conference center, so I'll get to see them, too. Like I said, it's a great week.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Behind the Books: Another Gift for Educators

When No Monkeys, No Chocolate came out last fall, I wanted to provide educators with a really useful teaching tool to accompany the book. I created this Revision Timeline so that kids (and teachers) could get a sense of how much time and energy goes into a book, even when it’s just 32 pages long.

The timeline was a big success. To say educators love it would be an understatement.

Flash forward six months and it’s time to launch another picture book into the world—Feathers: Not Just for Flying has. Once again, I wanted to create a great book-related resource for teachers.

Thanks to a suggestion from my friend and uber-talented teacher Kate Narita, I made a list of the most important features of nonfiction. A carefully chosen structure was first on my list, but I focused on that a lot in the Revision Timeline. Other items on the list included a distinctive voice, strong verbs, meaningful comparisons . . . BINGO!

Similes are at the heart of Feathers: Not Just for Flying, so they’d be the perfect focus for educational materials. After some more thought, I decided to create a mini-lesson that includes reading the book, watching a video, and doing a worksheet.

Of course, you can bring your own creativity to how you present the material to students, but everything you need to get started is right here.
I hope you like it.


Monday, March 3, 2014

Shifting Gears

A few months ago, I connected with Colleen Cruz, a Lead Senior Staff Developer for the Columbia University Teacher’s College Reading & Writing Project, on Twitter. Colleen is one of the authors of the popular Units of Study in Opinion, Information, and Narrative Writing: A Common Core Workshop Curriculum. Working with Lucy Calkins, Colleen wrote the third grade module entitled The Art of Information Writing, which uses my book Deadliest Animals as a mentor text.

I’m honored that Colleen selected my book, Deadliest Animals, and was delighted that she invited me to participate in a Twitterchat with teachers using the Units of Study program. As I read The Art of Information Writing, I was thrilled to discover that one of its main focuses is structure in nonfiction writing. As far as I’m concerned, structure is the most critical element of nonfiction writing, and the one I struggle with most. 
The Twitterchat was a huge success, and I’ve continued to stay in touch with the #TCRWP and #UofS communities via Twitter. I love seeing the student work teachers post and hearing their stories of success with the program. It’s exciting to be involved.
Quite a few teachers have asked me questions about the creative process behind Deadliest Animals and some of my other books on Twitter or at conferences, such as NCTE, so I thought I’d blog about it here for the rest of the school year.
I’ll start today by explaining why I wrote the book in the first place. I began writing for the National Geographic Readers series in 2008 after being contacted by editor Amy Shields. I had known Amy since the late 1990s when she acquired a book I wrote for Millbrook Press, which is now part of the Lerner Publishing Group.
The National Geographic Reader series was just beginning and I was one of the prototype authors. My first book for the series was a Level 2 reader entitled Snakes!. Over the next couple of years, I wrote Ants (Level 1) and Dolphins (Level 2). Then in 2010, the series’s new editor, Laura Marsh, asked me to write my first Level 3 reader, Deadliest Animals. I thought it was a great topic, and said yes immediately.
What happened next? I’ll continue the story behind the book next week.