Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Behind the Books: A Place for Birds, Take 2

When A Place for Birds came out in 2009, I was thrilled. Reviews were great. Sales were strong.

But as the years passed, things changed for many of the birds in the book. Some populations rebounded, while others faced additional losses.

My editor knew that I continued to collect materials related to the book after it was published. (It's hard to let go of a topic I care about.) And she told her publisher. They realized it would be relatively easy to revise the book and decided to do it.

While I updated the text on every spread, the biggest change involved adding a brand new example. In recent years, scientists have realized that millions of birds die each year when they accidentally fly into windows. My editor agreed that we should add this to the book and commissioned a new piece of art.

Because the publisher had received feedback from sales reps that the original cover was too location specific (The background is obviously the Chicago cityscape.), they also decided to change the book's cover. I really like the new one, and I hope it draws a new audience to the book.

I’ve also updated the educational materials that go with the book, so the new Teachers Guide is aligned to both The Common Core standards and the Next Generation Science Standards. Teachers can also download related activities to do with their students. So in the end, everyone wins.

Monday, March 30, 2015

My Favorite Book of 2014

The Most Magnificent Thing is hands-down my favorite book of 2014, and I am so grateful to Alyson Beecher for urging me to read it. Thanks, Alyson! Oh, how I wish this book had been eligible for the Caldecott. But alas, its uber-talented author-illustrator resides in Canada.

Why do I love The Most Magnificent Thing so much? Because it deftly introduces young readers to the trials and triumphs of the creative process.

The unnamed main character decides to design and build something special for her very best friend, her dog.“ She knows just how it will look. She knows just how it will work. All she has to do is make it, and she makes things all the time. Easy-peasy!" So she "tinkers and hammers and measures," she "smoothes and wrenches and fiddles," she "twists and tweaks and fastens."

But making her magnificent thing is anything but easy, and after several failures, she decides to quit. But later, she comes back to her project with renewed enthusiasm and manages to get it just right.

The Most Magnificent Thing is perfectly suited for STEM lessons as well as makerspaces because it expertly models the process engineers and inventors go through as they try to solve problems. But it also spoke to me because I saw my own creative process as a writer reflected in its pages. That makes it a great choice for Writer’s Workshop as well.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Fan-mail Friday

Over the summer, I decided it would be fun to look back through all the mail kids sent me during the 2014-2015 school year. I've picked out some of my favorites and will be posting one every Friday. They truly are inspiring.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Behind the Books: Thinking About Back Matter

Common Core has made educators much more focused on back matter in nonfiction books, and that’s a good thing. Source notes, bibliographies, and further reading lists are the perfect places for curious young readers and report-writers to begin exploring a topic that interests them. By grades 4 or 5, students should be thinking about examining an author’s sources.

But what about nonfiction picture books? When an author has just 32 or 40 pages to work with, how much space should be sacrificed to back matter? And should the back matter consist of the same sorts of research-assisting information as books for older readers? 

I do think that a page or two of back matter is often a good idea even in picture books. It’s the perfect spot for background information that provides context for young readers with limited knowledge of the world. A general note about the author’s process is also helpful because it pulls back the curtain to reveal how professional writers work. And that can inform students’ own writing habits and techniques.

Should a picture book author also include source notes or bibliographies? IMHO, no. Why waste the precious space when the young audience lacks the skills to follow the research trail.
For example, for my book Feathers: Not Just for Flying, the research came from personal observations of birds all over the world (which kids can’t repeat), from interviews with scientists (which kids can’t repeat), and from articles in science journals (which kids lack the skills to read).

For No Monkeys, No Chocolate, the information came from observing cocoa trees in Costa Rica, from reading journal articles, and from picking the brain of co-author, Allen Young. Dr. Young is the world’s leading expert on cocoa tree growth and fertilization. Again, kids can’t repeat this kind of research on their own. So rather than wasting valuable real estate listing all the articles I read and scientists I spoke with, it seemed best to simply explain my process in a few sentences. 

In some cases, it might make sense to include age-appropriate materials that can expand upon a book’s general topic. But not for the two books I mentioned above. There are no other books or websites that focus on non-flight uses of feathers or the microhabitat of a cocoa tree—for adults or for children. And if a second or third grader wants a general book about chocolate or feathers, let them type the words into an internet browser or a library database themselves. The results of their own exploration will be much more satisfying.

Monday, March 23, 2015

10 Great Fiction Picture Books for Young Engineers, Inventors, and Tinkerers

11 Experiments that Failed by Jenny Offill

If I Built a Car by Chris Van Dusen (See also If I Built a House by Chris Van Dusen)

Iggy Peck Architect by Andrea Beaty (See also Rosie Revere, Engineer by Andrea Beaty)

Junkyard Wonders by Patricia Polacco

Mattland by Hazel Hutchins

Papa's Mechanical Fish by Candace Fleming

Roxaboxen by Alice McLerran

The Three Pigs by David Wiesner

Weslandia by Paul Fleischman

Violet the Pilot by Steve Breen

Next week, I’m going to review my favorite 2014 Picture Book for Young Engineers, Inventors, and Tinkerers. Stay tuned. 


Friday, March 20, 2015

Fan-mail Friday

Over the summer, I decided it would be fun to look back through all the mail kids sent me during the 2014-2015 school year. I've picked out some of my favorites and will be posting one every Friday. They truly are inspiring.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Behind the Books: Is It Fiction or Nonfiction?

During a recent workshop, a teacher noted, that in recent years, some titles seem to blend elements of fiction and nonfiction. As a result, it may not be clear how to classify it. Is there an easy way to tell the difference?

Yes, there is.

In the United States, the decision lies with the Library of Congress. Prior to publication, publishers send each of their books to the Library of Congress. After a LOC employee reads a title, he/she assigns it a call number (that librarians will eventually use to shelve it), writes a brief summary of the book, and classifies it as either “juvenile fiction” or “juvenile literature.” Juvenile literature includes nonfiction and usually (but not always) poetry.

So when in doubt, look at a book’s copyright page for this information.

BUT also keep in mind that every librarian is the queen/king of her/his own collection. Individual librarians can override the LOC designation and shelve the book where they think it's audience is most likely to find it.

Monday, March 16, 2015

10 Great Nonfiction Picture Books for Young Engineers, Inventors, and Tinkerers

Balloons Over Broadway by Melissa Sweet

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer 
The Boy Who Invented TV: The Story of Philo Farnsworth by Kathleen Krull

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

Energy Island: How One Community Harnessed the Wind and Changed their World by Allan Drummond

How Ben Franklin Stole the Lightning by Rosalyn Schanzer

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

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

Mr. Ferris and his Wheel by Kathryn Gibbs Davis
Winter's Tail: How One Little Dolphin Learned to Swim Again by Juliana Hatkoff, Isabella Hatkoff, and Craig Hatkoff

Next week, I’m going to post 10 Great Fiction Picture Books for Young Engineers, Inventors, and Tinkerers. Stay tuned. 

Friday, March 13, 2015

Fan-mail Friday

Over the summer, I decided it would be fun to look back through all the mail kids sent me during the 2014-2015 school year. I've picked out some of my favorites and will be posting one every Friday. They truly are inspiring.
Frog life cycle

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Behind the Books: Tinkering with my Tools

Way back in October, I began a series of posts that focus on the five basic tools in my nonfiction writer’s toolbox (type, style, structure, voice, and point of view), and they have all been leading up to this post. Today I’m going to talk about how I use those tools as I’m writing, or to be more precise and use a popular educational term, as I’m pre-writing.

Here’s my process:

1.    Get an idea. Sometimes it’s a broad idea, like I want to write about hurricanes. But usually, it’s more specific and conceptual, like I want to explore the interrelationships of living things using a cocoa tree as the hook.

2.    I do some research to see if my idea is viable and to make sure another author hasn’t already done a brilliant book on the topic.

3.    I dive in.

4.    After I have a solid body of research, I take out my toolbox and start tinkering. I think of my tools as the items on an a la carte menu. I choose each one separately, but with the goal of combining them to create a delicious, nutritious, and satisfying meal.

Here’s a recap of the items on my menu:

Type: survey, specialized, concept, biography

Style: narrative, expository, persuasive

Structure: description, sequence/order, compare & contrast, question & answer, cause & effect

Voice: lively, lyrical, or somewhere in between

Point of view: first, second, third

It used to be that I’d just plunge into the writing and see where it took me. I was shooting in the dark. Often, I ended up with a big, bloody mess.

But now that I have a have a well-stocked toolbox, it’s easier for me to imagine important elements of a manuscript in advance. (Get ready. I’m about to mix metaphors again.) Will a survey with a compare & contrast structure taste better with an expository style or a narrative style? Will adding a lively voice ruin the meal?

Does this process always work?  No. Sometimes I have to do some sample tasting. And let’s face it, sometimes I still have to just plunge into the darkness. I don’t know if I’ll like a meal until I’ve eaten half or even all of it. But having these tools and thinking about how to mix and match them definitely helps.