Friday, September 30, 2016

Pipsqueaks, Slowpokes, and Stinkers

I've written more than 180 science books for children, but last week, for the very first time, one of them was announced in Publisher's Weekly. Imagine my surprise when I saw it!

I'm delighted that Pipsqueaks, Slowpokes, and Stinkers: Celebrating Animal Underdogs will be illustrated by Stephanie Laberis and published by Peachtree Publishers in Fall 2018.

I know, I know, 2018 seems sooooo far away, but making a picture book takes time. I promise it will be worth the wait.

Here are a few art samples from Stephanie's terrific portfolio:

Don't you just love how she portrays animals? They're scientifically accurate and a whole lotta fun at the same time. This style is perfect for the book's lively, humorous voice.

Even though the information is presented in a fun way, the book's central nugget, it's creative core is serious. I was severely bullied as a child, and this book is my way of offering hope to children who might be facing something similar right now.

Everyday across America, children get picked on for being small or slow or shy or overweight or clumsy, but sometimes these perceived weaknesses turn out to be a core part of what makes them successful adults. Using examples from the animal world, I encourage children to flip their thinking, and to be kind to one another. 

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Behind the Books: Fiction or Nonfiction?, Part 1

In the United States, the decision of whether a children’s book is fiction or nonfiction ultimately lies with the Library of Congress.

Prior to publication, publishers send books to the Library of Congress. A LOC employee reads it, writes a brief summary of the book, classifies it as either “juvenile fiction” or “juvenile literature” (which includes nonfiction and usually--but not always--poetry) and assigns a call number that librarians will eventually use to shelve it.

This sounds like a good system, but guess what? The Library of Congress isn’t always consistent. Look what happened two these two companion titles:

And look what happened to these four books written by the same author in the same style:
How would you classify these books?

Cases like these help explain why there's so much confusion in determining whether a book is fiction or nonfiction. But there’s yet another reason that the term “informational text” is sometimes misused to describe a book that presents true information but takes a few liberties. I call it the Biography Conundrum, and I’ll talk more about it next week.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Quintets for Curious Kids: 5 Great Nonfiction Picture Books for Kids Who Love to Tinker and Solve Problems

For most of this year, my Monday blog strand will feature some of my favorite books for kids who love to tinker and probe, imagine and invent, wonder and observe, explore and discover our wonderful world and everything in it.

So let’s get started!

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer 

The Day-Glo Brothers: The True Story of Bob and Joe Switzer’s Bright Ideas and Brand-New Colors by Chris Barton

Mr. Ferris and his Wheel by Kathryn Gibbs Davis

Timeless Thomas: How Thomas Edison Change Our Lives by Gene Baretta

Winter's Tail: How One Little Dolphin Learned to Swim Again by Juliana Hatkoff, Isabella Hatkoff, and Craig Hatkoff

Saturday, September 24, 2016

NF 4 NF Handout: Four Steps to a Stronger Manuscript

Vibrant Verbs: Books to Study
Baboons by Melissa Stewart

Rain, Rain, Rain Forest by Brenda Z. Guiberson

Porcupines by Judith Jango-Cohen

Sensory Details: Books to Study
Army Ant Parade by April Pulley Sayre

Gorillas in the Mist by Dian Fossey

Up Your Nose! The Secrets of Schnozes and Snouts by Melissa Stewart

Comparisons: Books to Study
by Melissa Stewart

If You Hopped Like a Frog by David Schwartz

Actual Size by Steve Jenkins

Language Devices:
Books to Study
When Rain Falls by Melissa Stewart
The Story Goes On by Aileen Fischer
Vulture View by April Pulley Sayre

Friday, September 23, 2016

NF for NF 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.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Behind the Books: What an Informational Book ISN’T

In last week’s post, I outlined the origin and meanings of the three contradictory definitions for “informational book” that are currently is use. There is also a fourth use floating around out there, but it is without foundation.

Let’s face it. Writing engaging nonfiction isn’t easy. Because you can’t make anything up, you have to rely on the information that’s available, and sometimes the information a writer would like to include simply doesn’t exist.

It can be tempting to invent dialog or rearrange chronology a bit to improve a story arc. So tempting that some writers would love a term that justifies doing so. That’s why it’s no surprise that some people misuse the term “informational book,” thinking it is a kind of nonfiction that is based on true information but takes occasional liberties with the verifiable facts.

But this is NOT a legitimate use of the term “informational book”. NONE of the three accepted definitions make room for made-up material with the goal of strengthening a story. NONE.

If you make up anything, anything at all, you are writing fiction. Period.

So why does this mis-definition persist? There are a couple of reasons. I’ll discuss the first of them next week.

Monday, September 19, 2016

TCRWP Handout: The Power of Voice in Nonfiction Writing

Nonfiction voice options span a continuum, from lively to lyrical. Your topic and the approach you take to it will dictate the best voice choice for a particular manuscript.

What's the difference between voice and tone? Check out this blog post.
Some Characteristics of a Lively Nonfiction Voice
  • Second person point of view
  • Figurative language, including alliteration/assonance, similes and metaphors, onomatopoeia
  • Sensory details
  • Strong, surprising verbs
  • Irresistible facts
Some Characteristics of a Lyrical Nonfiction Voice
  • Figurative language, including alliteration/assonance, opposition, similes and metaphors
  • Repetition
  • Internal rhyme
  • Strong, surprising verbs
Great Books with a Lively Voice
Works well for expository surveys and some picture-book biographies

Animal Grossapedia by Melissa Stewart

Army Ant Parade by April Pulley Sayre

A Black Hole Is Not a Hole by Carolyn Cinami DeCristofano

Bone by Bone: Comparing Animal Skeletons by Sarah Levine
Bugged: How Insects Changed the World by Sarah Albee

Deadliest Animals by Melissa Stewart

It’s Spit-acular by Melissa Stewart

Look Up! Bird-Watching in Your Own Backyard by Annette LeBlanc Cate

Now Hear This by Melissa Stewart

Pink Is for Blobfish by Jess Keating 
See How They Run by Susan E. Goodman

What to Do About Alice? by Barbara Kerley

What to Expect When You’re Expecting Larvae: A Guide for Insect Parents (and Curious Kids) by Bridget Heos

Thank You, Sarah by Laurie Halse Anderson


Great Books with a Lyrical Voice
Works well for nature-themed picture books and some biographies

Ballet for Martha by Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan

Beneath the Sun by Melissa Stewart

Coyote Moon by Maria Gianferari

Dave the Potter by Laban Carrick Hill

An Egg is Quiet by Dianna Aston Hutts

Feathers: Not Just for Flying by Melissa Stewart

Frog Song by Brenda Z. Guiberson

Lightship by Brian Floca
Planting the Trees of Kenya: The Story of Wangari Maathai by Claire A. Nivola

The Secret World of Walter Anderson by Hester Bass

Step Gently Out by Helen Frost

Under the Snow by Melissa Stewart

When Marian Sang by Pam Munoz Ryan

When Rain Falls by Melissa Stewart

Vulture View by April Pulley Sayre

Great Books with a Neutral Voice
Eye to Eye by Steve Jenkins

Frogs by Nic Bishop

Move by Steve Jenkins & Robin Page

My First Day by Steve Jenkins & Robin Page

Neo Leo by Gene Barretta

Now & Ben by Gene Barretta

Redwoods by Jason Chin

Timeless Thomas by Gene Baretta

Friday, September 16, 2016

Disturbing Dewey: It’s a Good Thing

If you’re a book nerd and you’ve been reading my recent Wednesday posts, you might think it’s interesting that when patrons were having trouble finding novels amongst all the other literature, early twentieth-century librarians pulled them (and short story collections) out of their “proper” Dewey Decimal order and created a separate fiction section.

Yet, when librarians later began using the term “informational books” to describe everything in the nonfiction section except folktales, poetry, drama, etc., they didn’t create separate sections for the outliers. Why not have separate sections for poetry or drama or folktales?

Maybe librarians thought that would be too complicated. Or maybe, by then, the Dewey system was so established that librarians were reluctant to mess with it.

Well, they’re messing with it now. And the results are terrific.
In recent years, some children’s librarians have taken a close look at their nonfiction collections and done some rearranging to better serve the needs of their young, curious patrons.

For example, Judi Paradis, the fantastic teacher-librarian at Plympton Elementary School in Waltham, MA, has rearranged her collection so that students interested in mummies, U.S. states, and outer space can find the full range of books on each of these topics more easily.

Judi noticed that most books about outer space have Dewey Decimal numbers between 520 and 525. But rockets are at 629. Since children interested in planets might also want to know more about rockets, Judi now shelves books about rockets at 520.

Most books about mummies have Dewey Decimal numbers in the 360s, but Egyptian mummies are in the 930s. Judi decided to shelve all the mummy books in the 930s and doesn't worry about the South American mummies getting upset.

I think these are great changes and would encourage more children’s librarians to take a close look at their collections and consider moving books to places where curious young mind can find them most easily.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Behind the Books: What Does "Informational Book" Really Mean?

There are three contradictory definitions floating around, and they are causing a lot of confusion.

Since 1970 or so, the librarian community has used the term “informational books” to describe everything in the nonfiction section except poetry, drama, and folktales.

Beginning in the 1980s and solidified in 2000 by a landmark paper by Nell Duke, the literacy education community has used the term “informational books” to describe a narrow subset of nonfiction books that present information about science, history, and other content areas. According to this definition, informational books do not include biography, how-to descriptions, or any kind of narrative writing. This definition is roughly equivalent to the more useful term “expository nonfiction.”

In 2010, the Common Core State Standards introduced a third definition that is much broader. It includes all narrative and expository nonfiction books plus reference books, directions, forms, maps, persuasive essays, etc.

In my opinion, if a term doesn’t have a standard, universal definition, then it’s useless. That’s why I avoid using “informational book.” I just use "nonfiction."
And yet, it seems like the confusing term is here to stay, so it’s important to know all its possible meanings.

Monday, September 12, 2016

A Sneak Peek

Wow, wow, wow! I’m so excited to share a sneak peek of the upcoming book Can an Aardvark Bark?, illustrated by the uber-talented Steve Jenkins (Beach Lane Books, Summer 2017). It’s a fun, interactive look at all the amazing ways animals use sounds to communicate.

Here’s the title page:

And here’s a sketch and final art for one of the pages:

I can hardly wait to hold a copy in my hands.  

Friday, September 9, 2016

September Is National Wildlife Month

One way to celebrate is by observing an animal in a natural area and then writing about it. Why not take your students outside in search of ants or birds or earthworms in the schoolyard? If school policy prohibits this, you could find a local webcam and watch wildlife via the internet.

Students may choose to write a scientific description or a poem or even a personal narrative. Here’s an excerpt from the beginning of my first book, Life Without Light. It’s based on an experience I had at a Collins Lake in Scotia, NY, when I was about 20 years old.

    “As the morning passes, clouds meander across the bright blue sky. The shape of each is mirrored on the calm surface of the water below. Suddenly, the sky darkens as the sun’s light is momentarily blocked out by the body of a huge, awkwardly beautiful bird flying overhead. The lanky bird glides gracefully above the lake, slowly flapping its massive wings and dragging its long, stick-like legs behind.
    “From high above, the great blue heron surveys the lake for the perfect fishing spots. It watches for fish surfacing in search of their morning meal of insects. The heron is looking for a breakfast of its own.
     “The great bird lands in a small cove and silently wades through the shallow water. When it spots a potential victim, the heron extends its folded neck and stabs the unsuspecting fish with its long, spear-like bill. The bird devours its catch quickly.”

I'll never forget the dark, cool shadow that mighty bird cast as it cruised over the lake. One of the reasons it’s burned into my memory is because I recorded it on the spot in my nature journal.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Behind the Books: How Nonfiction Got Its Name

Melvil Dewey
You’ve heard comments like these:
Nonfiction sounds so negative. Let’s come up with a new name.”

“We shouldn’t define something by what it isn’t.”
“Instead of nonfiction, why don’t we use true books or real books or fact books?”
But despite protests like these, the term nonfiction seems to stay with us. Did you ever wonder where the term came from in the first place? I did, so I did some research. Here’s what I discovered.
Our story begins in 1876. That’s when Melvil Dewey invented a (mostly) ingenious book cataloging system. Librarians were so impressed with the Dewey Decimal System that it quickly spread through libraries across America and the rest of the world too.
By the early 1900s, a growing number of library patrons were complaining that it was hard to find a good novel. That’s because “fiction” (novels and short stories) were interspersed among all the other categories of “literature” (essays, letters, speeches, satire) in the 800s.

And that’s not all. The books in the 800s were organized by original language of publication. So novels by American writers were nowhere near novels by German writers or Portugese writers.

So sometime between 1905 and 1910, librarians started pulling novels and short story collections out of the 800s. They created a separate "fiction" section with books arranged alphabetically by the author’s last name.
Soon, people began calling everything else left behind (still arranged according to Dewey’s system) "nonfiction." And the word stuck.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Radical Revision!

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know that I think taking a break between drafts is a critically important part of my writing process. I’ve written about it here and here.

I discuss this important step every time I present the school visit program Creating Nonfiction: Researching, Writing, and Revising. I’ve given this talk many times over the years, updating it as I develop a better understanding of how I work and how I can best explain the process to young writers.

Recently, many teachers have told me they really like the Let It Chill Out part of my presentation and that it has made them re-think how they ask their students to revise. They’ve come up with lots of great ideas—letting manuscripts chill out during lunch and recess or over the weekend or even during a school break.

The best idea of all came from the fourth-grade teaching team at Kennedy Elementary School in Billerica, MA. As the teachers listened to me describe the 10-year process of revising No Monkeys, No Chocolate, they hatched a plan for a whole-school project I love.

This year, the first graders will write a piece of nonfiction. Next year, when the students are in second grade, teachers will share the No Monkeys, No Chocolate Revision Timeline on my website and ask the children to revise the piece they wrote in first grade.

Good idea, right? But it gets even better. Both drafts will be placed in a folder, and the students will revise the piece again in third grade, fourth grade, and fifth grade. Wow!
Imagine how different the final piece will be from the original. It will allow children to see tangible evidence of their growth as writers and give them a true sense of how long it can take to write a book.