Monday, October 31, 2016

Quintets for Curious Kids: 5 Great Fiction Picture Books for Young Nature Lovers

Owl Moon by Jane Yolen

The Snail’s Spell by Joanne Ryder

The Salamander Room by Anne Mazer

The Promise by Nicola Davies

Tadpole’s Promise by Jeanne Willis

Friday, October 28, 2016

School Visit Success

There are so many reasons I love my job. I love researching. I love writing. And this week, especially, I love school visits.

On Thursday and Friday, I was honored to learn and share with the fantastic grade 3-5 students at Thompson School in Arlington, MA. We compared our writing processes and discussed the challenges we faced as writers. We practiced my four-step revision process. And we talked about why, oh why, it took 10 long years for me to write No Monkeys, No Chocolate—and what inspired me not to give up. 

My favorite moment was when this fifth grader showed me a visual model she had created to summarize the information and ideas in No Monkeys, No Chocolate.

It's so amazing that I know you'll want to see it up close:

Wow, I'm so impressed. Thank you, Thompson School. You made me week totally fantastico!

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Behind the Books: Stepping Up to Research

About a year ago, Ellen Brandt, the school librarian at Westford Middle School in Westford, MA, shared this Wordle with me:
And I haven’t stopped thinking about it since. I was stunned. Why did students think research was boring? It’s one of the things I love most about my job.

In my quest for an answer, I interviewed teachers, librarians, and kids. I compared what students were doing in school to my own process. And I discovered two important facts.

1. Real research is active and self driven. It requires creative thinking.
2. It’s difficult to create authentic research experiences for early elementary students.

And so I developed some fun activities to help early-elementary students develop research skills without them even realizing it. If you’re interested in what I came up with, check out these links:

But still, I wanted to dig deeper. And that’s why I was so excited to hear about some new findings from Colleen Cruz, a staff developer at the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University. Here’s what they found.

The best nonfiction writing occurs when early-elementary research experiences are scaffolded as follows:

1. Organize and categorize information 
     (a) based on personal experiences
     (b) on a topic students care deeply about

2. Organize, categorize, and compare observations.

3. Conduct guided research.
4. Conduct cold research.

I’ll provide more details about each of these steps over the next few weeks.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Quintets for Curious Kids: 5 Great Nonfiction Picture Books for Young Nature Lovers

An Egg is Quiet by Dianna Hutts Aston 

No Two Alike by Keith Baker

Planting the Wild Garden by Kathryn O. Gailbraith

Trout Are Made of Trees by April Pulley Sayre

Vulture View by April Pulley Sayre

Friday, October 21, 2016

Compare and Contrast: Maple Tree Foliage

October 19, 2016
Longtime readers of this blog may remember that back in 2009, my Monday strand was called "My Little Maple." Each week I photographed the sugar maple tree outside my office window and made some observations.

At the end of the year, I used all the images to create this video, showing how the tree changed over the course of the year.

Every autumn, I find myself looking back at the photos to compare the foliage. I'm curious. How do the tree’s colors vary? Is the foliage at its height earlier or later?

As the sun rose on Wednesday morning, I was gobsmacked by the beauty of my little maple tree. I knew it was time to search for the old photos.

So here are images I took in 2009.
October 19, 2009
October 26, 2009
In 2010, I decided to take another set of photos. It was a dry year and, to me, the colors seemed more orange-y than usual. I wanted to do a comparison.
October 18, 2010
October 26, 2010
Turns out, I was right. I also discovered that the tree was at it's height earlier than in 2009.

The summer of 2016 brought a severe drought to most of Massachusetts, and once again, I was wondering if that would affect the foliage.
Boy, did it! Just look at the 2016 photo. The leaves are a fiery orange, and the tree is at its height more than a week earlier. Wow!

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Behind the Books: What the Heck Is Creative Nonfiction?

Lee Gutkind
The term "creative nonfiction" was first used by Lee Gutkind in the 1980s as a synonym for “narrative nonfiction.” Gutkind wished to convey the idea that nonfiction wasn’t always dry and utilitarian. By employing such elements as character, dialog, scene building, strong voice, innovative structure, point of view, and literary devices, writers could craft nonfiction that sings.  
Over the years, the term has come to be used more broadly, describing both expository and narrative nonfiction that makes use of elements originally considered as exclusive to fictional texts. And as result, most of the trade nonfiction titles currently published for children include a mix of these creative elements.

Biographies and history books generally feature a narrative writing style and include central characters, real dialog, and scene building. Science books often feature an expository writing style and employ strong voice, point of view, innovative structure, and carefully-crafted literary language that delights as well as informs.

Never, never, never does creative nonfiction refer to books that take creative liberties with the truth. Everything must be accurate and verified through fastidious research. Any kind of undocumented embellishment kicks a piece of writing out of the nonfiction realm.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Quintets for Curious Kids: 5 Great STEM-themed Picture Books Especially for Girls

11 Experiments that Failed by Jenny Offill

Ada Twist, Scientist by Andrea Beaty

Marvelous Mattie: How Margaret E. Knight Became an Inventor by Emily Arnold McCully 

Papa's Mechanical Fish by Candace Fleming

Rosie Revere, Engineer by Andrea Beaty

Friday, October 14, 2016

Breaking the Mold

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know that nonfiction writing style is one of my favorite topics. Narrative nonfiction tells a story or conveys an experience, and expository nonfiction explains, describes, or informs.

As I discussed here, while some nonfiction writing is 100 percent expository, most narrative nonfiction is actually a blend of narrative scenes and expository bridges. The ratio of narrative to expository text ranges widely. Most biographies are burgeoning with narrative scenes. Books about historical events often include a bit more exposition. And at a certain, undefined tipping point, a book contains enough expository sections that people routinely identify it as expository overall.

Still, many expository books feature narrative chapter openers. One of my favorite books, The Great Monkey Rescue by Sandra Markle, has a narrative beginning and ending with an engaging expository center.

Sniffer Dogs by Nancy Castaldo is expository overall, but it makes expert use of occasional narrative sections to illustrate specific points. My book Hurricane Watch includes a short narrative scene at the beginning and a large narrative chunk in the middle, as I immerse readers in the action of the storm.

When Lunch Fights Back by Rebecca L. Johnson includes alternating sections of narratives scenes of predator and prey and expository behind-the-story explanations of  how their behaviors help them survive—or not.

Neighborhood Sharks by Katherine Roy is also a 50-50 mix with narratives that show sharks close up and expository sections that provide fascinating descriptions of the hunters’ body features and how they work.

In all of the books mentioned above, the authors hooked young readers with a narrative opening. It’s a winning technique that works time and again. So imagine my surprise when after reading the lyrical, luscious, wonderfully mysterious 5-page expository opening of Giant Squid, I suddenly found myself plunged into a gripping narrative scene that focuses on the squid’s fascinating feeding strategy.

With this bold choice, uber-talented author Candace Fleming broke the mold. Here, for the first time I know of, a writer began her narrative-expository hybrid with an expository passage.

Was it the right decision? You bet! It’s one of the most intriguing expository passages I’ve ever read. It’s simply enchanting.

Taken as a whole, the book is a 50-50 mix consisting of three narrative scenes and gorgeous expository descriptions that do more than link one scene to the next. They bring us into the life and the world of one of Earth’s least known creatures.

Giant Squid is definitely one of my favorite books of the year.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Behind the Books: What Is the Heck Is Informational Fiction?

It’s a term I'm now using to describe books that share a significant amount of true, documentable information, but also have some made up parts. 

These books include historical fiction, like the Dear America series or Brad Meltzer's Ordinary People Change the World series or picture book biographies with some made-up dialog or events presented out of chronological order to improve the storytelling.

They also include science-themed books, like The Magic School Bus series or Redwoods by Jason Chin. These books are full or facts and explore science concepts, but they contain made-up characters, fantastical art, or other embellishments.

In some cases, taking creative liberties with true, documentable facts may be an effective way to share ideas and information with young readers, but authors and publishers need to be upfront with children. It’s important to let them know what’s real and what’s not.

Friday, October 7, 2016

A Picture Is Worth a Thousand Words

Just imagine how many words it would take to explain everything we see in this solar system diagram:
--the names of the planets,
--the sizes of the planets,
--the colors of the planets,
--the distance each planet is from the sun,

--the distance each planet is from the other planets.

It's amazing that just one quick glance can convey so much information. That's why visuals—charts, diagrams, photos, illustrations—are such an important part of nonfiction writing.

Of course, in a nonfiction book, everything in the words AND everything in the pictures has to be 100 percent true. But because very few artists have a strong science background, I need to review the artist's sketches for science-themed picture books very carefully for accuracy.

As K-2 teachers at Middle Gate Elementary School in Newtown, CT, listened to me describe the process of reviewing sketches for When Rain Falls, they came up with a great idea for their students.
Problems with sketch: Three ladybugs probably wouldn't be so close together and all falling at the same time. A spider wouldn't sit on its web during a rainstorm.

Problems with art: The text says the ladybug falls off a blade of grass, so the words and pictures don't match.
Solution: It would be too time-consuming to change the art, so we changed the text to say that they ladybug is falling off a slippery stem.
First, students write nonfiction about a topic of their choice. Then children in another class at the same grade level illustrate the text. Like professional authors and illustrators, they don't meet and they don't speak to one another.
When the drawings are done, the original writer reviews the artist's work. Did the artist make any factual errors? If so, how can the writer explain the problems clearly and politely in writing?
This activity models the process nonfiction authors go through when they review sketches created by an illustrator. What a great idea!

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Behind the Books: Fiction or Nonfiction?, Part 2

Most children's trade book editors say they believe that if a book includes such elements as invented dialog, imagined scenes, or fictional POV characters, then it's fiction.

And yet many picture book biographies include at least some of these elements. How can that be? The answer surprised me, and it will probably surprise you too.

According to many trade book editors, a biography is “an account of a person’s life,” but it doesn’t have to be completely factual.

BUT when it comes to fiction vs. nonfiction, the Library of Congress is lenient and inconsistent. If a book is about a historical figure and mostly true, the LOC generally classifies it as “juvenile literature,” which is the term they use for all nonfiction books.

Here are some examples:

But then there is this book:

Is your head spinning? I’m not surprised. It’s all very confusing.

What’s the solution? I’ll offer up one possible idea next week.

Monday, October 3, 2016

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

Iggy Peck, Architect by Andrea Beaty

Mattland by Hazel Hutchins

The Most Magnificent Thing by Ashley Spires

Roxaboxen by Alice McLerran

Weslandia by Paul Fleischman