Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Hedy Lamar’s Double Life: Hollywood Legend and Brilliant Inventor by Laurie Wallmark and Katy Wu

I almost never review children’s books on this blog, but today, I’m going to make an exception because Hedy Lamar’s Double Life: Hollywood Legend and Brilliant Inventor by Laurie Wallmark and Katy Wu is A-MAZ-ING. Seriously. You NEED to order it right now.

I know it’s only February, but I’m pretty sure it’s going to be my favorite picture book biography of 2019. It’s hard to imagine anything better.

Here’s a brief description:
To her adoring public, Hedy Lamarr was a glamorous movie star, widely considered the most beautiful woman in the world. But in private, she was a brilliant inventor.

During World War II, Hedy collaborated with another inventor to develop an innovative technology called frequency hopping. It was designed to prevent the Nazis from jamming torpedo radio signals to make the weapons to go off course. Frequency hopping is still used today to keep our cell phone messages private and protect our computers from hackers.

When Hedy was finally recognized for her incredible accomplishments in 1997, the 87-year-old had just three words to say: “It’s about time.”

Why do I love Hedy Lamar’s Double Life so much? Because it does a phenomenal job of explaining some pretty technical physics concepts in a way that any upper elementary student can understand. The text, art, and design work together to show and describe how Hedy’s brilliant idea—frequency hopping—works and why it’s so important.

The text makes use of meaningful, kid-friendly comparisons and superb scaffolding. It also includes plenty of details to bring Lamarr to life as a character.

The illustrations seamlessly integrate diagrams that show how changing frequencies can thwart an enemy’s efforts to tamper with torpedoes.

The design incorporates quotations from Lamarr that highlight her passion for science and inventing, and make the presentation more personal.

I was really curious about how all the different components of this book came together and I thought you might be too, so I asked author Laurie Wallmark if she’s be willing to answer a few questions. Luckily, she said yes.

MS: You are extremely talented at explaining complex science ideas to your elementary-aged audience. Do you have a science background?

LW: My science background is both through self-study and traditional coursework. As a child, I was a math/science kid. I read every popular math and science book I could get my hands on. For two summers in high school, I attended summer math and science programs sponsored by the National Science Foundation and taught by college professors. My undergraduate degree is in biochemistry, and one of my masters degrees is in Information Systems—combining people, processes, and technology to produce useful information. (The other is an MFA in writing for children and young adults.)

MS: What are some of the nonfiction craft moves you employed to make the technical information in this book easy to understand?

LW: My MFA thesis was on how to explain STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) in picture books. Here are three of the techniques I explored.

1. You don’t always have to use the technical term when you’re describing something. For example, I wrote, “Hedy made a flavor-cube that changed plain water into soda.” I didn’t write, “Hedy found a way to carbonate water.” The science of carbonation has nothing to do with Hedy’s story, so I didn’t need to include a word that I would then need to define.

2. When you want or need to use a technical word, it helps to provide the definition immediately adjacent to the word in the text instead of only in a glossary at the back of the book or in a sidebar. I wrote, “The speed of the [piano] wire’s movement, or its frequency, produced the correct note for that key.” Without stopping the flow of the story, the readers can understand what the term “frequency” means. As a secondary benefit, in this case, children also learn a bit about how a piano works.

3. Another technique I use is to compare a technical concept with an idea more familiar to children. To explain how missile guidance systems worked, I compared them to walkie-talkies. (Since modern-day children might not know what a walkie-talkie is, I used technique # 2 and gave its definition—a two-way radio.)

MS: For fiction picture books, the author and illustrator often do not interact and the author is not involved the art and design process. Was that true for this book or did you have a chance to review and comment on the sketches?

LW: I was lucky in that I had the chance to review and comment on several iterations of sketches and final art. Sometimes my comments related to the scientific or historical content (see next question), and sometimes they were just my opinion. Sometimes the editor and art director took my suggestions, and sometimes they didn’t. When you’re a picture book author, you have to be able to let go of control over the illustrations and the design of the book.

MS: I love the way this book employs a fun art style, making even the most technical drawings seem friendly and approachable. Does illustrator Katy Wu have a science background?  
LW: Katy doesn’t have a scientific background. For a book like this, that’s where the author and illustrator combination can be useful. For example, at one point in the text, I explain how the existing torpedo guidance system worked and why Hedy’s system, “the hopping of frequencies,” would be better. With my nonexistent artistic skills, I sketched how the waveforms should look for Katy. She then turned this simple sketch into the beautiful illustration you see in the finished book.

MS: Whose idea was it to incorporate quotations into the design? Where did these quotations come from?

LW: Using quotations actually started with my book, Grace Hopper: Queen of Computer Code. Grace made so many witty, memorable comments, that I knew I had to include them with my story. The hard part was choosing which quotations to put on which page and which needed to be left out entirely.

Since I had the same editor, Meredith Mundy, for my Hedy Lamarr book, it seemed natural to include quotations again. I had a treasure trove of relevant sayings to go along with the story. They came from primary and secondary sources, both in print and on video. These included interviews and presentations Hedy gave as well as articles, documentaries, and books.

MS: Thanks so much for giving us a window into your creative world, Laurie. Now I appreciate Hedy Lamar’s Double Life even more.

Monday, February 25, 2019

Nonfiction Authors Dig Deep by Pamela S. Turner

Today we continue the Nonfiction Authors Dig Deep series with an essay by author Pamela S. Turner. Thank you, Pam.

My first memory: reaching through the wooden bars of a playpen, trying to drag a puppy in by his ears. Although my dog-handling skills have improved, I'm still drawn to animals in a way I can't fully explain. Perhaps it's their otherness, the presence of a gulf that seems almost crossable but isn't.

As writers, our subjects often define us. I never get tired of exploring the complex, contradictory, and continually fascinating relationship we humans have with other animals.

When casting about for a subject for my first children's book I thought: Dog stories! I love dog stories! The result was Hachiko: The True Story of a Loyal Dog, a fictionalized account of a tale I discovered while living in Tokyo. (Warning: you might want to have Kleenex nearby).

The dog was the first species domesticated and is still probably our best-beloved. Our relationship with wild animals, however, is the one I've grown most committed to probing.
In my most recent book, Crow Smarts: Inside the Brain of the World's Brightest Bird I wanted to help readers appreciate a much-maligned, underappreciated group of animals that combine astonishing intelligence and solid family values.

New Caledonian crows, the academic stars crow family, make and use multiple kinds of tools and on some cognitive tasks can outperform six-year-old children. This is striking evidence of convergent evolution: two groups of animals that have gone down different paths but arrived at a similar destination.

Crow Smarts was a very personal book for me because I volunteer as a wildlife rehabilitator specializing in crows and ravens. At the moment, in fact, I have a juvenile crow recuperating in my aviary after being trapped in a chimney for a week and losing about half its body weight. I have no idea how this crow got into the chimney, but intelligent animals are sometimes too curious for their own good!

Many animals, like crows, are in dire need of good PR. But a few are in need of corrective PR. I wrote The Dolphins of Shark Bay in order to smash a few myths about bottlenose dolphins, probably the most popular wild animal species on the planet. They perform amazing tricks! They play with swimmers! They save drowning people!--etc. etc.

In Dolphins of Shark Bay, I sought to show that their relationships with each other are far richer, more complex, and more interesting than their relationship with us. We don't need to turn dolphins into noble elves in wetsuits because these animals are astonishing enough on their own. (And by the way, as a scuba diver who has been on dives involving both sharks and dolphins...I always assume Flipper's got other priorities.)

I hope to continue writing books for children and young adults that strive to educate, enlighten, and entertain by putting animals in a realistic behavioral and environmental context. I hope that by doing so I'm also placing humans in a realistic context.

The famous environmentalist and myrmecologist E.O. Wilson put it best:
"The more we know of other forms of life, the more we enjoy and respect ourselves. Humanity is exalted not because we are so far above other living creatures, but because knowing them well elevates the very concept of life."

Pamela S. Turner was an international health consultant and health policy researcher before turning to writing about science and history for children and young adults. She has lived in Kenya, South Africa, the Marshall Islands, the Philippines, and Japan. Each of her three children was born in a different country.

Pamela's books, including Hachiko, Gorilla Doctors, The Dolphins of Shark Bay, A Life in the Wild, The Frog Scientist, and Crow Smarts, have won such honors as the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrator's Golden Kite Award, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Science Writing Prize, and an Orbis Pictus Honor. Her most recent book, Samurai Rising: The Epic Life of Minamoto Yoshitsune  is an ALA Notable Book, a YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction Award Finalist, and was named a "Best of the Year" by Kirkus, Booklist, and School Library Journal. Pamela lives in Oakland, California.

Friday, February 15, 2019

Gamification: A Cool Way for Children to Learn by Roxie Munro

Today author Roxie Munro discusses gamification--one technique for infusing fun into nonfiction for kids. Thanks for your contribution, Roxie.

“Life is more fun when you play games,” Roald Dahl once wrote.

Teachers who play are more likely to bring joy into their classrooms, according to a recent study. Learning at its best already has game-like elements that are latent and waiting to be unlocked. Great teachers offer the kind of interactive, discovery-based learning that works so well. For their students, learning already starts to look a lot like a game.

Nonfiction print books aren’t often thought of as being interactive, or using games, but they are and they do. Some authors and illustrators “gamify” nonfiction, making it a fun new way of looking at the subject. The author wraps the content around a concept or a construct, using clever devices to engage children, keep them interested, and impart information in creative ways: lift-the-flap/paper-engineered books, mazes, guessing games, inside-outside concepts, search-n-find, ABCs and counting, puzzles, matching games, hidden objects, and more.

Steve Jenkins (often with Robin Page) makes beautifully designed books using game elements, including What Do You Do With a Tail Like This?, Who Am I?: An Animal Guessing Game, and Animals by the Numbers: A Book of Infographics. Guess What Is Growing Inside This Egg by Mia Posada is a guessing game too.

For books on math, numbers, and counting, look at How Many Jelly Beans? by Andrea Menotti illustrated by Yancey Labat and How Much is a Million? by David M. Schwartz, pictures by Steven Kellogg. Laurie Ann Thompson and Ammi-Joan Paquette’s Two Truths and a Lie: It’s Alive urges kids to tell fakes from facts, and the classic forever-in-print Science Experiments You Can Eat by Vicki Cobb, recently reissued and revised, often uses play to teach.

My first series of books used inside-outside concepts to inform kids about cities and places (Inside-Outside New York City, Washington DC, London, Paris, Texas, and libraries). Then I started doing maze books about real things. In Mazeways: A to Z, the alphabet letter forms a maze … A for Airport (ever been to Heathrow or JFK? They really ARE mazes!), H for Highway, L for Library, R for Ranch, and so on—you’re playing, but also learning about how places work.

EcoMazes: 12 Earth Adventures uses mazes to explore and understand ecosystems and a finding/counting game to learn about which animals live in the habitats. In Market Maze children see where food comes from and how it arrives at their town greenmarkets.

My lift-the-flap books include Rodeo (the action and rules of the sport), Circus (various acts in motion), Go! Go! Go! (about transportation), and Doors (learn about the space station, a doctor's office, a mechanic's garage, behind-the-scenes of a theater, a firehouse, and more).

Many of my books use a very visual Q&A format.
—In Hatch! an egg or a clutch of eggs is shown. Children try to guess what kind of bird it’s from.
—In Busy Builders children see the giant bug, and then turn the page to check out the unusual kind of structure it makes, and why.
Slithery Snakes presents close-up scaly skin patterns—along with fascinating facts—and encourages kids to figure out what kind of snake it’s from. —In Rodent Rascals, the game-like device is ever-increasing real-life size.
Masterpiece Mix has a seek-n-find game, with 37 famous paintings hidden in the finale.

This is all nonfiction content, structured to encourage play, learning, and engagement.

Many subjects lend themselves to game-like interactive formats. For learning about a person, an animal, a historical period, science, or a place, you can start with a question, and note fun facts that allow the reader to guess who or what you are discussing, before they get to the satisfying answer. Or in a more interactive way, readers can lift flaps, play matching games, find and count things, or solve a maze.  However, “games” have to be logically associated and integrated with the subject, not just put in gratuitously. They must immerse the young reader, not distract.

Engaging in games helps children with concentration, setting goals, problem-solving, collaboration (some allow multiple players), and perseverance. It also gives them an opportunity to celebrate achievement.

Many games (mazes in particular) help children with decision-making and critical thinking skills. Young readers must think ahead and plan steps in advance. Mazes also teach alternate ways to solve problems and judge spatial relationships. They can even help children develop fine motor skills, which can improve their handwriting.

And they’re fun!

Roxie Munro is the author/illustrator of more than 40 nonfiction and concept children's books. Her books have received the New York Times Best Illustrated Award, Cook Prize Silver Medal for STEM, numerous Best of the Year lists (SLJ, Bank Street, Smithsonian, NCSS-CBC, NSTA-CBC, NCTE, more). Recent books include Rodent Rascals, Masterpiece Mix, and Market Maze. Roxie lectures in conferences, schools, libraries, and museums. She lives and works in New York City. Visit

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Behind the Books: Circle Text Structure

Most schools are currently teaching students that there are five nonfiction text structures—description, sequence, compare and contrast, cause and effect, problem and solution. But the truth is that these options are just the tip of the iceberg.

There are many, many possibilities, and one of the biggest challenges a nonfiction writer faces is choosing the most effective one (or combination).

One text structure that I think should get more attention is the circle structure. One of the best known fiction books with a circle structure (as well as a cause and effect structure) is If You Give a Mouse a Cookie by Laura Joffe Numeroff and Felicia Bond.
Why is it so popular? Because it's so different, so unsual, and so fun. The clever combination of a cause and effect structure and a circle structure is extremely rare in a fiction title. Nearly all fiction books have a problem-solution text structure.

Circle structures are more common in nonfiction. Some of great examples include:

A Butterfly Is Patient by Dianna Hutts Aston and Sylvia Long
A Drop of Water by Gordon Morrison

An Egg Is Quiet by Dianna Aston and Sylvia Long

Flying Deep: Climb Inside Deep-Sea Submersible ALVIN by Michelle Cusolito and Nicole Wong

Frog in a Bog by John Himmelman

No Monkeys, No Chocolate by Melissa Stewart and Nicole Wong

Red-Eyed Tree Frog by Joy Cowley and Nic Bishop

Redwoods by Jason Chin

A Rock Is Lively by Dianna Hutts Aston and Sylvia Long

A Seed Is Sleepy by Dianna Hutts Aston and Sylvia Long

Trout Are Made of Trees by April Pulley Sayre and Kate Endle

Under the Snow by Melissa Stewart and Constance Bergum

Vulture View by April Pulley Sayre and Steve Jenkins

Warbler Wave by April Pulley Sayre

When Rain Falls by Melissa Stewart and Constance Bergum
Some of these books have a narrative writing style, while others have an expository writing style. But many students (and adults) would be tempted call them all “stories.” Why? Because the reader begins and ends at the same place, which is very satisfying and has a similar feel to the denouement of a typical narrative.

As a result, expository titles with a circle structure appeal to a broad range of readers. They feel comfortable and familiar to narrative lovers, and yet, they still have the expository characteristics that appeal to analytical thinkers—fascinating facts, main ideas and supporting details, patterns, comparisons, concepts. So consider adding some books with a circular text structure to your collection and sharing them as read alouds. Students will thank you.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Nonfiction Authors Dig Deep by Laurie Wallmark

Today we continue the Nonfiction Authors Dig Deep series with an essay by author Laurie Wallmark. Thank you, Laurie.

Writers are often told to write what they know. As far as I’m concerned, we should write what we’re passionate about. We can always research (and who doesn’t like research?) a topic, but if we’re not interested in it—boring!

Which brings me to why I write about women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math). Doing so lets me combine two of my passions—STEM and equal opportunity for all.

Me in third grade
Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve loved science and math. In college, I majored in biochemistry, which allowed me to take courses in math, physics, biology, chemistry, and of course, biochemistry. I was in science-nerd heaven.

I also took a few computer courses (there wasn’t yet a computer science major) and found a new love—programming. But how could I combine my new and old loves? Much to my delight, I found out there was a profession called scientific programming. Woo-hoo!

After college, I received a master’s degree in Information Systems and worked in programming for many years. Now I teach computer science at my local community college.

But what about my other passion, wanting to provide equal opportunities for everyone, regardless of sex, race, religion, sexual orientation, etc.? As a child, I was convinced I could only become a scientist if changed my name to Marie Curie. After all, she was the only woman scientist I had ever read about. Through my writing, I can show girls (and boys!) that STEM is for everyone.

There are so many unsung women in STEM whose stories deserve to be told. How do I decide which ones to write about it?

Since I’m a computer scientist, who better to write about than Ada Byron Lovelace—the world’s first computer programmer? Notice, I didn’t say the first woman programmer. Ada was the first person, male or female, to write code for a computer.

At the time I started doing research for the book (about 2007 or so), no one, other than a few other computer geeks like me, had ever heard of her accomplishments. I’m happy that my book, ADA BYRON LOVELACE AND THE THINKING MACHINE (Creston, 2015), has played a part in changing that.

You can tell by the title of my next book, GRACE HOPPER: QUEEN OF COMPUTER CODE (Sterling, 2017), that I still had more to say about women and computers. Grace was the first person (again, not the first woman) to use words, instead of just “1”s and “0”s, to write computer code. This made it possible for non-technical people (like kids!) to program them.

For my third book, HEDY LAMARR’S DOUBLE LIFE (Sterling, 2019), I decided it was time to consider women other than computer scientists. Hedy was a glamorous movie star AND she co-invented the technology that helps keep Wi-Fi, GPS, and Bluetooth from being hacked. I was drawn to Hedy’s story because it shows kids they don’t have to give up their other interests to be good at STEM.

I love bringing to life stories about women in STEM. The book I’m working on right now is a woman mathematician. Will I ever write biographies of men or people not in STEM? Who knows? But I do know, my books will always be about someone whose accomplishments have been overlooked—someone whose story deserves to be told.

Award-winning author Laurie Wallmark’s debut, ADA BYRON LOVELACE AND THE THINKING MACHINE (Creston, 2015), received four starred reviews and many national awards. GRACE HOPPER: QUEEN OF COMPUTER CODE (Sterling, 2017), earned a Kirkus star and made several “best of” lists. Her next book, HEDY LAMARR’S DOUBLE LIFE (Sterling), releases in 2019. Laurie has an MFA from VCFA and teaches computer science. Find Laurie at and @lauriewallmark.

Friday, February 8, 2019

NF 10 x 10: In the Ocean

I created this post as part of the annual Nonfiction Picture Book 10 for 10 (#nf10for10) event started by Cathy Mere (@CathyMere) and Mandy Robek (@mandyrobeck) in 2013.

In honor of my upcoming book Seashells: More than a Home, I’m featuring
ten ocean-themed nonfiction titles.

Coral Reef by Jason Chin

Giant Squid by Candace Fleming, illustrated by Eric Rohmann

If Sharks Disappeared by Lily Williams

Life in the Ocean: The Story of Oceanographer Sylvia Earle by Clare A. Nivola

Manfish: A Story of Jacques Cousteau by Jennifer Berne, illustrated by √Čric Puybaret

Ocean Alphabet Book by Jerry Palotta, illustrated by Frank Mazzola, Jr.

Seashells, Crabs, and Sea Stars: Take-Along Guide by Christiane Kump Tibbitts, illustrated by Linda Garrow

Seashells: More than a Home by Melissa Stewart, illustrated by Sarah S. Brannan
Shell by Alex Arthur, photographed by Andreas Einsiedel

What Lives in a Shell?  by Kathleen Weidner Zoehfeld, illustrated by Helen K. Davie