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1. Great Presentations

Last Saturday, I attended a terrific conference put on by the Foundation of Children’s Books (FCB) at Lesley University.  It’s a regular event and this year it concentrated upon nonfiction.  The speakers were nonfiction all-stars including Michael Tougias talking about adapting to write for middle grade after being an adult nonfiction author, Kathy Lasky reflecting upon the evolution of the nonfiction part of her career, Jason Chin finding the narrative arc of science through words and illustrations, and Steve Sheinkin being wildly entertaining while discussing books about very serious subjects.

I was especially pleased, however, to listen to fellow I.N.K. contributor Melissa Stewart.  She appeared in the middle of the lineup, and that’s when you could hear pens scratching on notebooks.  Melissa was there to discuss “Nonfiction Books You’ll Love” from 2013 and 2014.

The way that she presented them would do any nonfiction writer proud.  She organized her info into topics that provided context to her audience.  She gave just enough description about each book to inform and create the desire for further research.  Her enthusiasm for her subject/s was infectious.  She even supplied back matter: a takeaway list of 30 books arranged in alphabetical order by title and by year.

I guess what impressed me most besides Melissa’s careful curation was the generosity of her presentation--praise, yes, but also ways we could appreciate and use the books she mentioned.  That’s why authors in the audience were writing down titles as potential mentor texts while teachers and librarians were listing books to add to their collections.  

I remember a post Melissa did a while ago, saying that Common Core is here to stay and one of the best things writers can do (if they have the time and interest) is to give teachers easy ways to use their books to teach these standards.  Then she helped us further by providing 10 ways to help educators, complete with with examples of these ideas.

During her presentation at the FCB, Melissa showed us a new idea she is using, a multimedia revision timeline that chronicles the very long road she took to finally publish her book, No Monkeys, No Chocolate.  It was a fabulous way to show students and beginning authors that effortless writing takes an enormous amount of steps and work.

Now, she has given us 11 ways to help educators.

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2. A Day for Biographers

Today's guest blogger is Catherine Reef, author of Leonard Bernstein and American Music; The Bronte Sisters: The Brief Lives of Charlotte, Emily, and Anne; and Jane Austen: A Life Revealed.

I can easily conjure up little Eleanor Roosevelt suffering through her lonely childhood, or Helen Keller, on the cusp of adult life, announcing her intention to go to Harvard; both scenes were imprinted on my memory by my early reading of biographies.
Biography thrives as a literary genre because people love to read about other people. This is true for readers of any age. A good biography breathes life into a figure readers may have met only briefly in a classroom or history book; it takes them behind the scenes, where they get to know the subject in family life; it places them on the spot as the subject experiences triumphs and setbacks, sorrow and joy, and learns how to navigate life.
                  I still like reading about people, but today I like writing about them as well. Biography lets me do what writers love to do: tell good stories. Even better, through biography I can explore a character in depth and create a vivid portrait in words. But writing is a solitary task, so like many writers I welcome opportunities to mingle with other people doing the same kind of work, to talk shop and gain from others’ wisdom. This is why I was happy to discover Biographers International Organization, or BIO for short.
                  BIO is young (founded in 2010), but it has been strong and active from the start. Having as its mission “to promote the art and craft of biography, and to further the professional interests of its practitioners,” BIO presents the annual BIO Award to a distinguished biographer for his or her body of work. This year’s recipient is Stacy Schiff, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Véra and other notable works. BIO also hosts a terrific annual conference that always sends me home with many new ideas to think about and apply to my work.
                  At this year’s Compleat Biographer Conference, which will be held at the University of Massachusetts Boston on May 17 and 18, I will moderate a panel on young adult biography. On the panel will be two accomplished biographers, Mary Morton Cowan and Kem Knapp Sawyer, and a representative of the world of children’s book blogging, Dorothy Dahm.
Cowan received a 2010 National Outdoor Book Award and other honors for Captain Mac: The Life of Donald Baxter MacMillan, Arctic Explorer (Calkins Creek). She has also published numerous magazine stories and articles, a novel based on MacMillan’s experiences, and a book on logging in New England. Cowan has said about her work, “I am pleased and proud that these books give young readers a glimpse of relatively unknown history—dangerous and adventurous chapters of history!”
Sawyer’s recent biographies are of Mohandas Gandhi and Nelson Mandela (both from Morgan Reynolds) and Harriet Tubman and Abigail Adams (both from DK Publishing). “I try to figure out what gave my subjects the ambition and the drive to set out to change the world,” she said in a recent interview. “And I like to focus on what they were like when they were young, before they went on to become leaders.” Sawyer has written as well about current social issues such as the situation of refugees worldwide, and historical subjects such as the Underground Railroad. She also reports on youth in developing countries for the Pulitzer Center, an organization that supports journalism and education.
In recent years, book bloggers and online reviewers have become increasingly influential in the world of children’s literature. Dahm’s lifelong interest in biography for young readers led her to launch the Kidsbiographer’s Blog (http://kidsbiographer.com/), where she reviews new and noteworthy biographies for children and young adults and interviews their authors. A professor of English at Castleton State College in Vermont, Dahm has contributed articles and reviews to publications in the United States and Great Britain. I’m eager to hear what she has to say about the state of young adult biography today and what she looks for in a book of this genre.
Other conference sessions will focus on such matters of craft as creating suspense in biography and finding the right balance between a subject’s life and work, and on practical aspects of the writing life: dealing with agents, marketing, and the like. There will be plenty to interest biographers writing for any age level. You can learn more about the Compleat Biographer Conference from BIO’s website: http://biographersinternational.org/conference/. I hope to see you in May!

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3. Drawing it True

Today’s guest blogger is Cynthia Levinson.

With my first nonfiction picture book under development, I’ve begun to think about—and look hard at—the illustrations in nonfiction books for younger readers. Although it was challenging to ferret out photographs, pamphlets, legal documents, and memorabilia for images in my first nonfiction middle-grade, We’ve Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children’s March, they served at least two purposes. Above all, as primary sources, they informed me about the times and events I was writing about. In addition, placed in the book, they broke the text and provided both visual interest and verisimilitude for readers.

Illustrations, I’m realizing, are very different. They’re not artifacts. They’re the artists’ imagined representations of time, place, events, and mood. Although they can be very precise and accurate, water colors, collages, oils, etc., don’t necessarily show the reader exactly how the spur attached to the boot, say, or that the temperature was 99 degrees. They can be more atmospheric and still be valid—not just valid but also emotionally true.

I’m beginning to think of the artwork in nonfiction picture books as the visual voice of the book. And, just as I struggled to make the textual voice in The Youngest Marcher authentic, even when I wasn’t quoting someone, I’ve been looking at illustrations for authenticity—even if they’re not photographically accurate.

Here’s a range of pictorial styles, in recently published and lauded picture books, from the concrete to the imagistic. (Warning: I am not an artist! These are merely my impressions.)

Brian Floca’s illustrations in Locomotive are as precise and detailed as those in any Richard Scarry word
book. After looking at the end papers’ labeled diagrams, I’d recognize a piston rod, throttle lever, and Johnson Bar anywhere! And the accuracy of those drawings tells me that every other illustration must be right also, even the water-colored elevation map of the Great Basin in the frontispiece and the sketch of a man chasing his horse, who must have been spooked by an approaching train. Floca not only conveys depth of information but he also gives the reader confidence that he knows what he’s writing—and drawing—about.

Similarly, many of Melissa Sweet’s illustrations, such as the medical drawings, in Jen Bryant’s A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams seem to be completely accurate. Other, blurrier ones, however, appear metaphoric, which seems appropriate for a book about a man who was a poet as well as a physician. Sweet’s blocky collages display a conglomeration on each page of neat facts and lyrical tone.
To Dare Mighty Things: The Life of Theodore Roosevelt, written by Doreen Rappaport and illustrated by C. F. Payne, takes the realistic cum impressionistic approach a step further. Clothing is appropriate to the times, of course, as are saddles and ten-dollar bills. Furthermore, Payne might well have drawn the faces of politicians and bystanders by copying them exactly
from contemporary sketchbooks or photographs. Today’s facial recognition software could practically identify them! Yet, snow falling in the Dakota Territory looks like unnaturally soft polka-dots, and Teddy sometimes appears unrealistically eyeless behind his spectacles— appropriate for someone who was hard-of-seeing. And, in a spread of young Teddy’s dream, he seems to float along with a butterfly and a polar bear. As with Sweet’s illustrations, both accuracy and mood prevail.

There are many superlative nonfiction picture books I could focus on. Georgia in Hawaii: When Georgia O’Keefe Painted What She Pleased, written by Amy Novesky and illustrated by Yuyi Morales, must have been particularly challenging for Morales because it needed to convey both the truth of the paintings by its artist-subject and also the mood of O’Keefe’s lush surroundings.

Possibly at the furthest extreme of dispensing with concrete accuracy while maintaining recognizability might be On a Beam of Light: A Story of Albert Einstein by author Jennifer Berne. Most of illustrator Vladimir Radunsky’s images are sweetly cartoon-like. Yet, Einstein is obvious with his brushy mustache and distracted gaze.

I’d like to round off my exploration of visuals in nonfiction picture books with Grandfather Gandhiby Arun Gandhi and my friend Bethany Hegedus and illustrated by Evan Turk. Cloth and paint collages of the Mahatma’s posture and emaciated frame make him instantly recognizable, even in crowd scenes. The vivid background coloration sequence from beige to yellow to orange to red and back to beige again conveys not only India’s searing heat but also young Arun’s moods, from awe of his famous grandfather to anger and back, appropriately, to peace with himself and his family. Readers will sense the place, the times, and the moods without the need for photographic detail.

I’m curious to see how Vanessa Brantley-Newton, the wonderful illustrator of The Youngest Marcher, will choose to visualize its voice. Will she portray scenes of, say, jailed civil rights protesters by drawing hundreds of them packed into a cell, just the way they endured those stifling conditions? Or, will she take a more atmospheric approach?

The Youngest Marcher focuses on one of the people highlighted in We’ve Got a Job. While the books address the same topic, the readership is entirely different. Seeing them side-by-side will further inform me about the various ways that text and visuals can enhance each other. Check back in in January 2016 to see how she accounts for the same facts for a different audience.

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4. Invitation

Who could resist an invitation like this:

3 July 1872
Dear Mr Thayer, 
Come be a brave good cousin, and face our heats and solitudes on Friday eve… and we will give you a cup of tea, and piece of a moon and all the possibilities of Saturday….   
Your friend, R. W. Emerson                                                                                           
This sweet, quirky invitation was one of the first things I read as I began researching the life of Ralph Waldo Emerson. And as soon as I read it, I thought, ‘I’ve got to write this book!’

Not that I knew what ‘this book’ was, of course—not at first. (It was only after months of reading and thinking and writing that A Home For Mr. Emerson began to take shape.)

But from the start, I was inspired by this man who believed that each of us can create the life we dream of living.

Emerson, that was a life centered on friendship and home. 

In his study, brimming with books and journals, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote many letters to friends far and near. Come to my home in Concord, he invited them. Come on the four o’clock train.

I love how Edwin Fotheringham’s illustration invites readers into Emerson’s home AND into a book about his life.

And this invitation sums up in a nutshell my sense of what a picture book biography is meant to do: to invite young readers into a new life, to meet someone they might like to know better.

If you think about it, all nonfiction for kids is an invitation. Here’s something interesting, a nonfiction book says. Here’s something you might like to know about. Come on in.

I’ve been lucky these past few years to work in concert with the other authors on INK, issuing invitations to kids—offering them through our books a “piece of a moon and all the possibilities of Saturday.”

And I’ve loved getting to know the readers of this blog, folks just as passionate about nonfiction as I am.

This is my last post on INK, brainchild of the amazing Linda Salzman. The past five years have been an honor and a pleasure. Thank you, all.

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5. INK Author News for April


Beneath the Sun by Melissa Stewart, ill. by Constance Bergum (Peachtree)

A Place for Butterflies by Melissa Stewart (revised edition, Peachtree)


The Mad PotterGeorge E. Ohr, Eccentric Genius by Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan (Roaring Brook)
            • Orbis Pictus Recommended
            • Booklist Best Book
            • School Library Journal Best Book
            • CBC/NCSS Notable for Social Studies
            • Dorothy Canfield Fisher Children’s Book Award Master List

The Animal Book by Steve Jenkins (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
            • John Burroughs Riverby Award
            • featured title, New England Book Show eBook category.

The Mystery of Darwin's Frog by Marty Crump, ill. by Steve Jenkins and Edel Rodriguez (Boyds Mills)
            • John Burroughs Riverby Award

Animals Upside Down by Steve Jenkins & Robin Page (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
            • featured selection, New England Book Show

Eruption!: Volcanoes and the Science of Saving Lives by Elizabeth Rusch (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
            • 2014 CCBC Choices

Volcano Rising by Elizabeth Rusch (Charlesbridge)
            • 2014 CCBC Choices

Rotten Pumpkin, by David Schwartz (Creston Books)
            • 2013 Distinguished Book, Association of Children's Librarians of Northern California

Courage Has No Color, by Tanya Lee Stone (Candlewick)
            • NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literature for Youth/Teens


April 3-5 Melissa Stewart will speak at the National Science Teachers Association conference in Boston, MA.

April 7: Deborah Heiligman will speak at the Simons Foundation in New York City: Lyrical And Logical: A Reading of Children's Books About Math.  

April 9: Steve Jenkins and his co-author Robin Page will speak at the TLA (Texas Library Association) Conference in San Antonio, TX.

April 10-11 Melissa Stewart will speak at the Massachusetts Reading Association annual meeting in Quincy, MA.

April 10-11: David Schwartz will speak at the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics National Meeting, New Orleans, LA.

April 10-12: Deborah Heiligman will speak at the Festival of Faith and Writing, Calvin College, Grand Rapids MI.

April 26: Steve Jenkins will speak at the 32nd annual Spring Festival of Children’s Literature at Frostburg State, MD.

April 26: Susan Kuklin will be guest speaker at the 2014 Stamford Literary Competition Award Ceremony, Stamford, CT. 

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6. INK Author News for April


Beneath the Sun by Melissa Stewart, ill. by Constance Bergum (Peachtree)

A Place for Butterflies by Melissa Stewart (revised edition, Peachtree)


The Mad Potter: George E. Ohr, Eccentric Genius by Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan (Roaring Brook)
            • Orbis Pictus Recommended
            • Booklist Best Book
            • School Library Journal Best Book
            • CBC/NCSS Notable for Social Studies
            • Dorothy Canfield Fisher Children’s Book Award Master List

The Animal Book by Steve Jenkins (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
            John Burroughs Riverby Award
            • featured title, New England Book Show eBook category.

The Mystery of Darwin's Frog by Marty Crump, ill. by Steve Jenkins and Edel Rodriguez (Boyds Mills)
            John Burroughs Riverby Award

Animals Upside Down by Steve Jenkins & Robin Page (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
            • featured selection, New England Book Show

Eruption!: Volcanoes and the Science of Saving Livesby Elizabeth Rusch (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
            • 2014 CCBC Choices

Volcano Rising by Elizabeth Rusch (Charlesbridge)
            • 2014 CCBC Choices

Rotten Pumpkin, by David Schwartz (Creston Books)
            • 2013 Distinguished Book, Association of Children's Librarians of Northern California

Courage Has No Color, by Tanya Lee Stone (Candlewick)
            • NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literature for Youth/Teens


April 3-5 Melissa Stewartwill speak at the National Science Teachers Association conference in Boston, MA.

April 7: Deborah Heiligman will speak at the Simons Foundation in New York City: Lyrical And Logical: A Reading of Children's Books About Math.  

April 9: Steve Jenkins and his co-author Robin Page will speak at the TLA (Texas Library Association) Conference in San Antonio, TX.

April 10-11 Melissa Stewart will speak at the Massachusetts Reading Association annual meeting in Quincy, MA.

April 10-11: David Schwartz will speak at the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics National Meeting, New Orleans, LA.

April 10-12: Deborah Heiligman will speak at the Festival of Faith and Writing, Calvin College, Grand Rapids MI.

April 26: Steve Jenkins will speak at the 32nd annual Spring Festival of Children’s Literature at Frostburg State, MD.

April 26: Susan Kuklin will be guest speaker at the 2014 Stamford Literary Competition Award Ceremony, Stamford, CT. 

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7. Who Gets To Write What?

I tuned into ESPN the other night, clicking away at my laptop as I waited for the Stanford-North Carolina women’s basketball game to begin. The end of the Louisville-Maryland contest was on. There was about a minute left, and Louisville was losing by 10 points, which pretty much guaranteed Maryland the win. But wait. A Louisville player, number 23, floated in a terrific three-point shot with 30 seconds left. Then the same player hit another three-pointer with 18 seconds left. And yet another with five seconds left. Maryland had made two foul shots during the Louisville run, and the score was now 76-73. But it was Louisville’s ball. One more three-pointer would send the game into overtime.

I’m a sucker for an athlete who performs well under pressure, so I put down my laptop and stared at the screen. The announcers were full of praise for the Louisville player, a senior named Shoni Schimmel. I have rarely seen anyone with a smoother, more poetic stroke. When Maryland took a timeout before the game's last play, I went back to my computer and Googled her.

I admit I don’t follow college basketball as much as I should. If I did, I would have known that Shoni, and her sister Jude, who also plays for the University of Louisville, are a genuine phenomenon. Their games attract thousands of people who drive from all over the U.S. and Canada to see them. The sisters are Native Americans who grew up on the Umatilla reservation in Pendleton, Oregon. Their success has galvanized Native fans and even attracted a filmmaker, who made a documentary about them titled Off the Rez.

As I read about the Schimmel sisters, I thought, “This is a great story. I should write it.” You probably know that I’ve made a career bringing the true tales of athletes and other bold and brilliant women to the mainstream. As first Shoni and then Jude graduate from college and enter the WNBA, their journeys should have the makings of a great book.

But then I wondered, “Should I write it?” In recent months, there has been a lot of discussion about the underrepresentation of people of color in children’s books. The postings on multicultural literature on the listserv of the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, were coming fast and furious the entire month of February. A few weeks later, Walter Dean Myers and Christopher Myers wrote companion essays in the Sunday Review section of The New York Times under the title, “Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Books?”

One of the strands on the CCBC listserv focused on who actually writes books with characters or subjects of color, and as a corollary, who shouldwrite those books. A number of posters were pretty adamant that they thought books were more authentic—and by extension more acceptable—when they were written by members of the groups they portrayed. By that logic, a book about the Schimmel sisters would be best by a Native person. But why should authors be limited by their backgrounds? I’ve written more than a dozen books, including three biographies, and I’ve never written one with a main character who shares my Jewish heritage. For me, part of the joy of writing nonfiction is getting to explore new worlds while developing the context to tell the story.

That’s what I was thinking as I read many of the CCBC posts. And now I’m finally putting it into words. People expressed a valid concern about getting a more diverse pool of authors (and editors) producing children’s books, but I don’t feel that any authors should be dissuaded from tackling any topics that ignite their passions. Every voice is valid and every perspective is worth considering as we inspire kids' curiosity about and understanding of the world around them.
For the record, Louisville didn’t win the game, despite an inspired play that put the ball in Schimmel’s hands for one more three-point attempt. She shot, and the ball hit the rim and ricocheted away as time ran out. It was Shoni’s last college game, but hopefully the prelude to an exciting professional career. Perhaps someone will write a book about Shoni and her sister one day. Perhaps it will be me.

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8. Eating Dessert First

The whole idea of traveling is to learn about new places and new people.  You can buy tours where the itinerary is planned by someone else.  But for me, the best trips are the ones where I start the process that will create a trip to research a new project.  Make no mistake; it takes time and attention to plan such a trip.  This winter I made two trips to research my next book How Could We Foil a Flood?I’m particularly interested in the engineering aspect of flood control because more than forty percent of loss of life and property from natural disasters comes from flooding, and because we’ve been engineering to prevent flooding for at least 1000 years.  Most other natural disasters have had little to no engineering applied to controlling the phenomenon—we’re struggling hard enough learning how to predict them.

So the first question I ask, after reading extensively is on the subject is, who knows about this?  It is always useful to start looking for contact information though tourism or government sources.  So I made contact with the Mississippi Army Corps of Engineers (ACE) who connected me to the ACE in New Orleans, where they’re putting the finishing touches on an enormous post-Katrina resiliency post-flooding  project.  (It is no longer politically correct to call it “flood control.”) 
Lexi poses next to the new West Closure Pumping Station
--the most powerful pump in the world.
It can fill an olympic-sized swimming pool in 5 seconds.
Next, I contact the tourism people and tell them where I plan to visit and ask if I can get media rates on accommodations, freebies, etc.  Since New Orleans, a tourism mecca,  was on the itinerary, I was booked into a great hotel in the French Quarter at an affordable price.  My nineteen-year-old granddaughter, Lexi, had approached me last fall, “Please, please, please Gran, I’ve never been anywhere or seen anything.  Take me with you.”  How could I resist that gift?  My response,  “Okay, but you’ll have to work.  I need you to listen to all the interviews, take photos and videos, and keep track of all my contacts.”  And so the deal was struck.  It took a good three months to make the arrangements.
Here I am in front of some major sluices that keep the North Sea from flooding
the lowlands.  It was cold and windy with wind turbines everywhere.

The second trip I made was to the place where they know more about keeping the sea at bay than any other nation—the Netherlands.  Here, a peculiar serendipity  (not unusual for these amazing trips) played a role.  Over Thanksgiving my son had new guests—his wife’s mother’s first cousin from Scotland and her Dutch husband, Wim—were visiting from Canada. I told Wim I was planning to visit his country, so he offered the help of his brother Giovanni and his wife, Mechtild, who lived in the Hague.  Giovanni was a recently retired diplomat with time on his hands.  They stepped up and offered me a place to stay and would drive me to all my venues. In effect, they would do the job Lexi had done.  (I had been planning to take Lexi along, but she’s in her first year of college/nursing school with a heavy schedule and prioritized well.  She couldn’t take the time to come.  I’m proud of her for that.) 
I always thank the people I interview with a signed book and
an acknowledgment when the new book is published
The arrangements and schedule of what I’d see and who I’d interview was done by Arjan Braamskamp of the Dutch Consulate in NYC.  It was an amazing, exhausting and rigorous schedule.  I was wished “bon voyage” in person by Rob de Vos, the Consul General who happens to be a friend of Giovanni (talk about a small world!)
My one day to relax was two weeks before the tulips so I settled for
tiptoeing through the crocuses in the Hague.
These trips are like eating dessert first. Now comes the hard part of sifting through all the material and crafting it into something new, which will ignite the desire to learn from my readers.

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9. Postcard Preview

Greetings from my desk! 
This will be my last post for I.N.K. I’m taking off, so I thought I’d send a few postcards from the future, because I’m pretty excited about the places I’m going -- or planning to go, or hoping to go. 

1. Key Largo 
Date: Tomorrow 

Would you, could you? Writing is like eating green eggs and ham: you can do it anywhere: on a boat! on a train! in a tunnel! in the rain!  So when I was invited to “do a residency” -- live in a little house somewhere away from home, and do my work -- and when the residency in question was starting April 1 in a place that, unlike my hometown, doesn’t still have big piles of dirty snow and death puddles of cold floodwater -- I said yes.  I will be researching sea turtles for a book called Mission: Sea Turtle Rescue, (National Geographic, 2015)  finding out about manatee migration for a new Humanimal Doodle, learning to scuba, and learning to identify fish, with the help of REEF. REEF teaches divers and snorkelers to identify their neighborhood fish, then puts the fish they find into a big database that helps them assess the health of the coral reef ecosystem.  It’s kind of like the Cornell Backyard Bird Survey -- but instead of counting birds at your backyard feeder, you snorkel around and count fish. 

2. Smithsonian Institution 
Date: The next six months 

I’m beginning work on a series of activity books (Doodle Plus books, Penguin, 2015-20 16) based on Smithsonian treasures -- everything from Chuck Yeager’s pilot pins (create a pilot pin related to your dream flying route) to the ruby slippers (design your own magic shoes). No, I won’t be actually digging through Smithsonian’s attic -- but I’ll be doing it virtually through their websites and libraries. I’ll be posting some preliminaries on The Doodling Desk. If you know about something you think I should definitely include, let me know! The photo here shows scientist Stephen Hawking in zero gravity. 

3. Alaska
Date: The next three months 

Sadly, I’m not actually going to Alaska, either. I won’t be visiting virtually, either. The stories of LaVern Beier, the subject of my book Looking for Bears (Collins Big Cat, 2016), will be transporting me there in words -- and I’ll be trying to take readers along by illustrating his experiences. LaVern is a bear guide -- someone who knows how to find bears and work with them. He assists scientists doing research as they tag bears with satellite transmitters or attach little cameras to their collars.  

4. Wherever Alvin is
Date: Eternal 

I have been following this little submarine around for close to twenty years, but Alvin is a lot older than that. This submarine carried scientists to the first hydrothermal vents, deep volcanic cracks on the sea floor. Robert Ballard used it to locate the wreck of the Titanic.  Now, after a two-year refitting from stem to stern, Alvin is in the water again working for scientists.   For several years I’ve been working on an infographic book about deep sea exploration, and the illustration here  -- printed on a sweatshirt, which I think looks cool -- is the beginning of this new adventure for me. What’s next with this adventure is . . . 

5. The Ocean Floor, via E/V (Exploration Vessel) Nautilus and ROV Hercules (shown here) 
Date: Summer 2014 

This August I’ll go to sea as a Communications Fellow with Dr. Ballard’s group, the Ocean Exploration Trust.  (Teachers, you can apply to do this, too!) This group of scientists, educators, and ship crew work to map the 95% of the ocean floor that has not yet been mapped, and explore the 99% of the ocean that has not yet been explored.  I will be working on an expedition leg sited in the Windward Passage, off the coasts of Haiti, Cuba, and Jamaica. One thing we want from this trip is a better understanding of the causes of the 2010 earthquake that devastated Haiti. During my expedition, I’ll be one of the voices narrating dives to the ocean floor, and one of the faces doing Q and A’s between ship and shore. I’ll also be drawing and writing, working on science comics about our expedition and adding to my book. You can follow us (starting in June) through the Nautilus Live site.

Thank you, I.N.K. I have loved being a part of this group of authors.  And thank you, I.N.K. readers.  Best wishes and long life to all those who work to bring science and stories to children. 

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10. Research and Discovery After Book is Published

On my mini book tour last week, I visited the lovely town of Bellefonte, Pennsylvania. While writing and researching about Anna Keichline for Women of Steel and Stone, Anna's grandniece, Nancy Perkins, asked if I'd be willing to allow the Bellefonte Art Museum to host an author reception when the book was published. I responded immediately, "But, of course."
Fast forward two years later and scheduled considering good driving conditions, I headed toward the center of Pennsylvania. My trip was filled with many fun surprises and observations.
Here are just a few of them:
Stayed in a Anna-designed house!
Anna's grandniece, Nancy, owns a home designed by Anna and asked me if I wanted to stay with her during my visit. What a treat! Almost surreal. What surprised me was the realization that one really doesn't get the true feel of a piece of architecture until you see the work first hand.
Anna Keichline Designed Home
Anna's houses were designed with many unique details.
The house reminded me of the California Bungalow I owned in Long Beach California - built in 1930 - but Anna's house had a basement, a second floor, and stairs to an attic. Some details that stood out to me were a cozy breakfast nook, beautiful fireplace, hardware for drapes on french doors, arched windows and matching doorknobs. 
Breakfast Nook 
 Hardware for Drapes
Kitchen Patent #1,612,730 1924
First Floor Bathroom
Harvey Apartments 1935
Decker House 1931
Bible Home 1916
Harvey House 1939
Model House 

Beautiful architecture can be torn down.
Sadly, the beautiful Garman Opera House was recently torn down. Anna's Cadillac Building is disrepair but the community is hoping that it will escape the wrecking ball.
Cadillac Building

Beautiful architecture can be transformed into other uses. 
In 2001, the Plaza Theatre was shut down and turned into the Plaza Centre Antique Gallery. Turning a art deco theatre to a two-story store changed the entire structure and feel of the building, but the beautiful ceiling details and unique wall coverings still remain. If you go to the very back of the second floor, you can still peek into the "crying room"--- a room for mothers to take their fussy babies and toddlers, a feature not found in theaters in the 1920s. 

Plaza Theatre 1925

Plaza Theatre Ceiling Detail
Crying Room in Back of Theatre
Anna's Life

Anna's Childhood Home
Anna's Cabin in Fishermen's Paradise

Grave Marker
Office Where Anna Worked w/ her Father
Historical Marker

Anna Featured on Bellefonte Monopoly

Book Signing in Anna K Exhibit

Nancy and I next to Anna

To get another perspective of Anna's life and the town of Bellefonte, Pennsylvania, here's an entertaining and informative YouTube video, that I just found.

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11. Inspiring students to write

This winter, and now thank goodness spring, I've been working by videoconference with two classrooms in Missoula, Montana, helping them with their writing projects, through iNK Think Tank's Authors on Call program, posted publicly at http://district1missoula-dorothyhinshawpatent.wikispaces.com/.  At Franklin School I'm working with fourth graders, and this month they are sidelined by testing.  But the third graders at Lewis and Clark School have finished their project.  My book, "When the Wolves Returned: Restoring Nature's Balance in Yellowstone," is their guide to writing well, and they have been working very hard at it.

In our first videoconference, I talked to them about the importance of beginning a story with something mysterious or exciting, with a beginning, middle, and end, just like a little story in itself.   Each student is writing about a member of the deer family.  Here is Oliver's first paragraph:

"Imagine walking through the woods.  You see something with fangs.  A lion? A wolf? A sabertooth tiger?  No.  It is a musk deer, the only deer with fangs."

Another student wrote:

"On an early foggy morning you can hear distant clanking in the air. As the fog clears you can see two kudu. You come closer and can that their horns are interlocking. They are pulling and tugging but can't get separated."

Wouldn't you want to read more?

In our second videoconference, students were able to read their beginning paragraphs to me, and I gave them specific advice on how to improve the writing.  When an author makes suggestions, the students accept them very easily, while sometimes if it's a parent or teacher making suggestions they aren't as willing to make the changes.

The students are carefully studying my writing and noting down the "powerful" words I use and looking them up if they are unfamiliar with them.  Then they compare them with "ordinary" words I could have used:

I'm very proud of these young writers who are working so hard to do their best, and I think having a "live" author work directly with them to help them with their  difficulties can lead not only to rapid improvement in their work but also in increased enthusiasm about writing and reading.

If you want to know more about our work with students in the classroom, go to www.inkthinktank.com/authors-on-call .

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12. JOSEPHINE rocks, and so does her author!

Thanks to my occasional INK book reviews, I sometimes get presents from publishers. Opening an envelope from Chronicle and seeing JOSEPHINE by Patricia Hruby Powell, illustrated by ChristianRobinson,  nearly took my breath away.  When I began reading it, I had to sit down to still my heart.  Which is rather counterproductive because Powell’s book is all about dancing! It’s a gorgeous book, with text, artwork, design perfectly matched. As a biographer, I’m delighted to see it expand the genre of picture book biography. To learn more about the genesis of Josephine, I asked author Patricia Hruby Powell – a professional dancer herself – a few questions.

Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker breaks a lot of boundaries.  It is a 104-page picture book biography divided into chapters, 3800 words long – way beyond usual picture book length. Is this the length and format that you had in mind before you began writing?

No, not at all. It began as a picture book, 1475 words long, which is too long for a PB, so I got it down to 1000 words. After taking it to a workshop I revised it as a 7500 word book for YA, imagining b & w illustrations along the lines of the Paul Colin poster art whose work helped launch Josephine’s rise to fame. I know, there’s really no such brief illustrated YA genre, but I was writing what impassioned me.

That odd manuscript won me my agent. After we received many complimentary rejections, my visionary editor-to-be at Chronicle Books asked if the author would cut it down to about 3000 words and make it younger for a picture book reader. I got it down to 3400 and that manuscript was purchased by Chronicle and in the editing process we added back some stanza/paragraphs.

The SLJ review lists it for grades 2-4, Booklist, for grades 5-8. What do you think?

I think it works for 2-4 and 5-8 and even high school. I know it’s being used for all those ages.

This book is so rich and multi-layered. It’s the story of one African American woman’s life.  It’s the story of the racial climate of the U.S. vs. Europe.  It’s the story of the evolution of an artist. What drew you to JB? Any dark nights of the soul along the way?

Way back in 2005, while on duty as a children’s librarian, I got to know a group of unfocused African-American preteen girls who showed up daily and pretty much wreaked havoc in the library. I thought Josephine Baker would be a great role model—with her high spirits which she channeled into great success (dancer, singer, star, civil rights worker, pilot, spy for the French, mother of 12). As I said, JOSEPHINE won me my agent at the end of 2009, and the book sale in 2010. At that point there was not really an awful lot of editing to do except for adding stanzas back in and tweaking here and there.

Darn those dark nights of the soul. We must talk about that.

Did you always intend to write in free verse?

Yes and no. The language was always razzle dazzle, but the line breaks came over time. What you write evolves, and as the words became more rhythmic I followed that rhythm and it became more important over several drafts. And the line breaks enhanced the understanding and the rhythm.

You’re a dancer, so you have a deep understanding of body and rhythm.  Did you dance while you were writing this?

I did dance while I wrote—occasionally—I mean I’m always dancing. If you dance for a lifetime or if you’re born wanting to dance, the rhythm just lives inside you. I watched early footage of the magnificent young Josephine and was wowed. I tried to translate that into words on the page.

The design and illustrations are glorious: the bright colors, the typography, the illustrations showing figures against a blank background. Were you involved in any of those decisions?

I was, actually. I had veto power over the publisher’s illustrator choice—a privilege rarely given to a non-star writer. Later, after Christian Robinson was chosen, my editor and I would sit over his early sketches (sent online) and we discussed the accuracy, the energy, the placement in the story—all very cool. And then we worked together on the placement of words on the page (how they sometimes cascade down the page) and the “shout out” words—those in caps. The designer got the final word, but I got to participate in that. What a great experience. I love Chronicle and I love my editor (who is way too busy so I’m keeping her name under tabs so we can get back to my next piece together ;-). And the publicity people and the designer--great. And I love Christian’s illustrations. Just magnificent.

How do children respond to the book, and to your dancing the Charleston for them?

Kids appear to be mesmerized by the book. I love seeing black kids seeing themselves in the illustrations. As for dancing, it certainly draws their attention. In our culture we don’t do enough dancing. I always encourage kids to dance. And to draw, paint, sing, write, tell stories, anything that offers self-expression. I’ve done a couple events where we’ve all danced together. Very fun.

Did your research on Baker lead to other book projects?

Struttin’ With Some Barbecue – another biography in jazzy verse about Lil Hardin Armstrong, jazz pianist and composer, Louis Armstrong’s wife – has not yet sold, but I think it will.

Loving vs Virginiais scheduled to come out with Chronicle in Fall 2015. This is a documentary novel for teens in verse about the interracial marriage between Mildred Jeter (black) and Richard Loving (white) in 1958 Virginia, when miscegenation was illegal. It’s a beautiful love story set against a backdrop of the civil rights movement.

I have a couple of other picture book biographies in the works and I look forward to getting back to a jazz age novel. Thanks for asking, Gretchen.

For a pitch-perfect trailer of Josephine by illustrator/animator Christian Robinson, click here

For the story of the Christian Robinson’s illustrations, including post-it sketches and paintings, click here.

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It's pretty impressive to see how many different ways nonfiction authors can present the very same subject matter or the very same people in their books. To get the gist, today I thought it might be fun to compare some examples of books on the same topic--mostly (but not entirely) by our own INK authors and illustrators. I'll be brief, I promise.  

So how about starting with our foremost founding father, George Washington himself. Each of these 3 authors has come up with entirely different hooks to pique your interest, so a young audience could get a pretty well-rounded view of our guy by checking out these true tales.

First up is The Crossing: How George Washington Saved the American Revolution by Jim Murphy.  His hook is to focus on Washington's growth as a leader, obviously leading up to the famous crossing of the Delaware on Christmas in 1776. He's used some very interesting artwork from the period to enhance the tale.

Next comes an entirely different take on George from Marfe Ferguson Delano. Her book, Master George's People, tells the story of George's slaves at Mount Vernon, and she has collaborated with a photographer who shot pictures of reenactors on the scene. 

And this one is  (ahem) my version. George vs. George: The American Revolution as Seen from Both Sides shows how there are two sides to every story.  I got to meet George Washington and King George III and paint their pictures myself.
OK, on to the second set.  In one way or another, the next 3 books are all based upon Charles Darwin and his Theory of Evolution. Let's start with Steve Jenkins' handsome book Life on Earth: The Story of Evolution.  With a nod to Darwin, Steve has created a series of stunning collages along with fairly minimal text in order to focus on the history of all the plants and animals on the planet. 
And here's yet another nod to Deb Heiligman for her celebrated true tale of romance between two folks with opposite views of the world. Despite Emma's firm belief in the Bible's version of life on earth, she and Charles enjoy a warm and loving marriage.
Mine again. What Darwin Saw: The Journey that Changed the World, tells about Darwin's great adventures as a young guy while traveling around the world. We're on board In this colorful graphic novel as he picks up the clues that lead to his Theory of Evolution and then does the experiments that prove it.
And here's series number 3.  Apparently these authors and illustrators were hard at work at the very same time on three very different picture books about the very same person; her name is Wangari Maathai, and she won the Nobel Peace Prize for bringing Kenya's trees back to life after most of them had disappeared. 

The artwork in all three books is outstanding, and each version is truly unique. The writing styles vary enormously too. I strongly recommend that you look at them side by side to prove that there's more than one way to skin a cat.  

Planting the Trees of Kenya was written and illustrated by Claire A. Nivola.

Wangari's Trees of Peace was written and illustrated by Jeanette Winter. 
And Mama Miti was written by Donna Jo Napoli and illustrated by Kadir Nelson.  
I'd bet anything that these folks didn't know they were creating books about the same person until all 3 versions were finally published....writing and illustrating books is a solo occupation if there ever was one. 

OK, that's it--though we could easily go on and on.  Here's hoping that if any kids examine a whole series of books on the same topic written and illustrated in such different ways, they can come up with some unique new versions of their own....and have some fun at the same time. 

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14. Puzzling

“How many hours a day do you write?” is one of the most frequent questions I encounter when I speak at schools. That’s a tricky one to answer when you write nonfiction. The truth is, because research is such a major part of the process of creating nonfiction, nonfiction authors may go weeks or months without writing, and yet we’re working all the time. That’s the case for me, at least. My writing months are the treasured few in a given year that follow the sometimes interminable phase of research.

Some of my earliest childhood memories are of emptying and solving our family’s wooden tray puzzles. Some were easy. Some were not. I learned as a child which ones I could do quickly and which ones were more difficult. As my puzzling skills improved—and I began to memorize the layout of each puzzle—I took the logical next step to increase the challenge and dumped all the puzzles out together and proceeded to sort the jumble of pieces into their respective frames. That was fun. It took time, but it was so satisfying to turn the chaotic pile of colored wooden shapes into familiar scenes.

I still puzzle: here's my 2012 holiday diversion.
In my teen years, I returned to puzzling, but this time they were the 500-piece cardboard variety. My father and I worked on puzzles recreationally, perhaps with a football game or TV show playing in the background. We loved the work—the incremental progress that could be measured by locking each piece into place, the strategy required to best solve a particular design, the satisfaction of placing the final piece into place.

Many years later, after I became an author, I realized I could not have found a better way to prepare my mind for a life of research and writing. Every project I undertake is a new puzzle. Each fact collected adds an element of understanding to the project. The more I collect, the clearer the picture becomes of what I am trying to create.

The Big Sort--organizing note cards before writing.
But the picture—that’s the one difference between puzzling and authoring. We know exactly what a jigsaw puzzle should look like by the image portrayed on its carton. A book is another matter. Authors start with topics and a basic knowledge of a subject, but the details and nuance that follow add a dimension of creativity to our work that eclipses the jigsaw puzzling experience.
My office--the epicenter of puzzling and writing.

I’m in the puzzling phase of a project right now. Completing the reading. Converting the facts I’ve found into notes. Drawing connections in my mind. Those interconnected steps will empower the words that begin to flow in a few more weeks. I have no doubt that my childhood passion for and practice of puzzling helped to make me the writer I am today. Patient. Persistent. A puzzler.

How many hours a day do I write? Throw in the puzzling and it’s more than a full-time job. On any given day you'll find me, metaphorically at least, spilling the pieces of the project onto the floor to see what picture emerges.

Posted by Ann Bausum

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15. Making Multimedia Connections with Books

Recently I was invited to present at a conference of the Northwest Association of Independent Schools on connections between books and technology. Perhaps because I’m a writer married to a technology guy, I see the potential for a rich marriage between books and multimedia resources on a given topic.

For one thing, because of the Internet, students can get a behind-the-scenes view of the research and writing that went into a book.  Websites, Facebook pages, and blogs can (miraculously, I think) connect students directly with authors. Many authors have websites (try the author’s first and last name.com or do a google search by using the author’s name and the word “author”). Author websites also often contain links that can deepen students’ understanding of a book or topic. 

For example, after reading Muckrakers by Ann Bausum, they can stop by her website and click on the "photo research" link for an interactive tutorial on how to conduct photo research using the online collections of the Library of Congress.

After reading Bausum’s Unraveling Freedom, they can visit the page for that book and click on the "political cartoons" link to begin an interactive session about decoding political cartoons, using six cartoons from World War I.

Many authors also have Facebook pages which can give readers insights into the on-going life of writers, updates on developments related to their books, and play-by-play descriptions of their current work on new writing projects. (I’m just getting mine going at https://www.facebook.com/authorelizabethrusch). Some even write blogs or contribute to group blogs like this one. (Try googling the author’s name and the word “blog,” or check author websites, which will have links to their blogs.)

Many nonfiction authors write about current topics that are still unfolding after the book has been published. The internet can continue the story.  For instance, after reading Loree Griffin Burns’ The Hive Detective, students can watch a TED talk about the plight of the honeybee or learn about pollinator conservation at the Xerces Society’s website. Likewise,
after reading Steve Jobs: The Man Who Thought Different by Karen Blumenthal, students can check out what’s happening with the company now at http://www.apple.com/hotnews/ or read recent articles about the company at www.techspot.com.

After reading my book, The Mighty Mars Rovers: The incredible adventures of Spirit and Opportunity, students can explore what the rover Opportunity is up to now (10 years after landing!) at JPL’s website, which includes regular mission updates, press releases, photos and videos; and follow the newest rover Curiosity, too.

And after reading one of my volcano books—Volcano Rising; Will it Blow? or Eruption! -- students can learn more about current on-going eruptions at Earthweek; Volcano Discovery, which includes a map of recent eruptions and  webcams at active volcanoes; and Smithsonian’sGlobal Volcanism Program, which has both weekly updates of volcanic activity and an amazing searchable database of past and current eruptions.

Think this only relates to current events? Think again.  Fascinating additional reading and other resources such as audio, films and websites related to American history, 1492 and onward, can be found on the website of the Zinn Ed Project, which is searchable by theme, time period, document type and reading level. You can also search by book. For instance, the entry for Gretchen Woelfle’s Mumbet’s Declaration of Independence, (https://zinnedproject.org/materials/mumbets-declaration-of-independence/) links to actual court records from the lawsuit Mumbet brought against her owners to win her freedom.

Multimedia experiences can bring a book to life. After reading A Home for Mr. Emerson by Barbara Kerley, students can visit thehome online. They can view a slideshowfrom the New York Times about the caretaking of the home, which Emerson bought in 1835; the site includes interior shots of the home, including the rocking horse in the playroom and Emerson's hat, hanging on the wall. To dig even deeper into Emerson’s life, readers can go to an online exhibit by the Concord Free PublicLibrary with photos and essays about Emerson, which also features many primary source documents.

If you want to offer your students a multimedia experience, most likely you don’t have to do the research on the best resources yourself. Many nonfiction authors include a list of the best multimedia resources in the back matter of their books or on their websites. Check them out – and send your students to them, too. You’ll both be enriched by the experience.

Elizabeth Rusch

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16. The Illustrator's Side of the Story

Today I’m giving my slot to 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.

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17. Everything I've Learned About Interesting Nonfiction, Kids, Writing, and Life from I.N.K.

My sons went to a Quaker school, and every time they left meeting for worship they sang, As we leave this friendly place, and that's the song that's going through my head right now. I spent about half an hour trying to find a recording for you, but I can't.* I need a (Quaker) librarian to help me. (See below re librarians.)

I.N.K. has been a great place to hang around these past few years. I've learned so much from all of the other writers, from the teachers and librarians who've commented, and from writing my own posts.

So I thought I'd share with you some--no, not everything, of course--of what I've learned and give you some places to visit in the absence of I.N.K. Though I hope Linda will keep the blog up so people can dip into the archives.

1.Nobody knows kids like teachers. Stating the obvious, but I'm amazed by how much teachers know about children, about human nature, about different kinds of learning,  about what works and what doesn't. One of my favorite blogs is There's A Book For That, written by a woman who must be one of the best teachers ever. Carrie Gelson teaches a class made up of 2nd, 3rd and 4th graders in Vancouver. She's a great fan of nonfiction, of books, and, clearly, of children. I kind of want to pretend I'm 9 and go sit in her class.

2.Nobody knows books and research like librarians. Soapbox time. Every time I visit a school I am bowled over by how much librarians know. Which book to put in which kids' hands. Better than any Amazon formula, "If you liked Those Rebels John and Tom, you will probably like A Home for Mr. Emerson and  Handel, Who Knew What He Liked."  Ditto independent booksellers!

And whenever I need research help, no amount of futzing around on the internet will be better than asking a librarian. One hour of futzing around on the internet is worth 270 seconds with a librarian. There's nobody like a librarian and there's nobody like Betsy Bird. Visit her blog Fuse8 whenever you can. You won't be sorry! And there are so many more. In fact, HERE is a compendium of the best librarian blogs!

3. Nobody knows writing like authors.  Except when we're stalled or stuck or terrified. Then we go read what other authors have to say. I'm sort of addicted to the Paris Review interviews. If you go here you'll see Geoff Dyer saying all kinds of interesting things about nonfiction and how one can bend it and still have it be nonfiction! I've talked about John McPhee's interview before on I.N.K. in a piece I wrote about letting content dictate form. I intend to be addicted to the DRAFT column in the New York Times as soon as I'm done with my W.I.P. Check it out. It's a wealth of information--writers writing about writing.

4. There's nothing like having friends who do what you do. There are so many great authors on I.N.K. Great people. Having this blog has been like having a nation-wide support group. Teachers have the faculty room. Librarians have the water cooler. Writers can get lonely. Thanks to all you I.N.K. folks for hanging around the virtual coffee machine with me. Someone please pass the cookies. And while you're at it, please add to my list of what you've learned, and where we should hang out next.

*Ok, I found a recording. It's a real school singing it, and it's rough, but it brought a tear to my eye.

Here you go: As We Leave This Friendly Place.


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18. Picture Books and Middle Grader Readers: A Perfect but Uneasy Mix?

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You can’t judge a book by its cover?  Rightly or wrongly, we all do.  In the children’s book market, trim size matters too.  And, when you’re a nonfiction picture book author, these two criteria create a complicated mix.

Here’s why I’ve been thinking about this subject.  Last year, Penguin’s paperback imprint, Puffin Books, approached me and illustrator Elwood H. Smith about combining our books, The Truth About Poop and Gee Whiz, into one digest format edition for the middle grade market.   Why not?  Where Elwood’s original illustrations were vivid and lovely, they were just as funny in black-and-white and worked well in this 5 x 7 ½ trim size.  




Furthermore, this new edition was in a format that says to kids, “You’re older now, grown up enough for a big person’s paperback.  Welcome to middle grade and the road to adulthood.”

The Truth About Poop is remaining in print; in fact, it’s soon celebrating its tenth anniversary.  I’m happy to say it’s still selling, being reviewed on Amazon and hopefully offered in brick-and-mortar bookstores around the country.  But I realize that these two versions, that share the same text and drawings, are for different audiences.

There comes a day in every child’s life when it’s no longer okay to carry a teddy bear outside or hug Mom in public.  For most kids, there’s also a time when reading landscape-format or square-shaped picture books with bright illustrations becomes taboo—at least in public or outside the classroom.  The same material that can amuse, amaze and be shared in black-and-white and portrait-shaped rectangles doesn’t cut the middle grade mustard when it’s in color.

But, here’s the rub.  So many nonfiction picture books in these sizes and shapes are written for this age group and even older.  This short length is just the right sized introduction to an idea or subject that can become an abiding interest.  Beautiful pictures or photographs not only bring these subjects gloriously alive, they are a “working vacation,” providing additional information while they also give respite, letting a young reader stay involved while absorbing what was just read. And our readers may need this rest.  We often write about complex situations or questions with high level language and abstraction.  We talk about the ingenuity of Ben Franklin, the eccentricity of mathematicians and Thelonius Monk, the stuff that stardust is made of. 

The Truth About Poop and Pee just came out on March 6th and I couldn’t be happier.  It translates well into its new format, and snuggles comfortably into its new home on bookstore shelves where every book is the same dimension.  If it reaches new readers this way, I’m very delighted.  I’m glad I can nurture an interest in biology, chemistry, sociology, history while kids just think they are reading about poop and pee.

But I also hope these same readers won’t be so ready to “put away childish things” and will still be willing to explore the wonderful world of nonfiction picture books in living color.

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19. Growing from our Work

At the end of March, I’ll be flying to Michigan to receive the Mitten Award from the Michigan Library Association.  The award is for a book (“Dogs on Duty: Soldiers’ Best Friends on the Battlefield and Beyond”) that does a good job of communicating information to its target audience.  I work hard to achieve that goal, so I feel honored to receive this award.  At the conference I will also be giving a keynote address, which has gotten me thinking: What topic is especially appropriate for a keynote?  This question has been wandering around in my head for a while, and I’ve finally decided on the answer for me, at this time in my career.

A nonfiction writer is a person who loves learning new information and feels the urge to communicate the fascinating information she/he has learned to other people.  We go through the years finding intriguing topics, enjoying our research, and putting it all together in a form we hope will inspire and engross our readers.  We learn a lot, meet all sorts of experts, and probably visit some fascinating locales.  But I realize now that we do so much for ourselves in the process of being dedicated to looking for truth and communicating our knowledge to others.
This work helps make us be more open in a number of ways.  We learn to explore all sides of a topic, to investigate different versions of the “facts,” and to communicate the complexities of “there are no simple answers” to our audience in clear, nonjudgmental language.  I think nonjudgmental is a big part.  Years ago I wrote “Where the Wild Horses Roam,” about wild horses in the West.  There were, and still are, big controversies about these animals.  To some, they are a symbol of wildness, an integral part of the history of the American west that must be honored and protected.  To others, like ranchers who purchase grazing leases on the public lands that house the horses, these equines are not just a damn nuisance, they steal the vital and sometimes sparse food their cattle need to fatten up and provide income for the ranchers.

I did my best to express the concerns of both sides and shrugged.  “If both ranchers and horse advocates hate me after reading this, I’ll know the book is good.”  But I was wrong—both sides appreciated what I wrote because I stated each side of the story accurately and without any evaluative language.  They just wanted to be heard.  I try to keep that lesson in mind whenever I write about a potentially controversial topic.  “Just the facts, ma’am” has become my mantra.

That's just one example of the unexpected bonuses I've received from this work. Now, after more than 40 years in this business, I realize how much of value I’ve learned, not just the facts and theories, the interactions and exceptions, but also the variety of it all—so many cultures, so many ways of seeing the world and of being in the world, so much glorious variety in Nature.  So, as you can imagine, I’m nowhere near finished yet.  I want to continue learning and communicating as I keep finding more and more intriguing stories available for exploration.

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20. Alix Delinois

Last month  I promised an interview with Alix Delinois, the awesome illustrator of MUMBET’S DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE. But first I need to brag a bit about the review we got in the New York Times recently. Here it is

Now here’s Alix:

Illustrating Mumbet was a truly great experience for me. I was honored to be part of a truly inspiring story about an American pioneer whose story has been rediscovered.  I would like to thank/dedicate this interview to New York Public Library librarian Maira Liriano. Without Maira’s love, support, and professionalism I would not have been able to produce the level of work I did for Mumbet. Thank you Maira.

What attracted you to the story of Mumbet?

I was immediately attracted to the story of Mumbet because of her courage, the courage it must have taken for her to approach Mr. Ashley’s own lawyer to represent her against Mr. Ashley who happened to be the richest man in town. I was also attracted to Mumbet because she did not see her life as less than, even though she was born a slave. To have the imagination to secure her freedom was a great inspiration for me to be part of this amazing story. 

You traveled to Massachusetts to research the story. What you look for?

After reading the story I started to research Mumbet’s life and discovered that the home she was a slave in, has been turned into a museum. I thought the best way to bring authenticity to her story was to visit the place she called home. I also went to the cemetery to see her tombstone. I wanted to take in as much of the landscape as possible to incorporate the natural environment that I imagine Mumbet experienced.

How did you come up with the idea for the cover?

The cover was a joint effort between Carolrhoda editor Andrew Karre, art director Zachary Marell, and myself. We agreed that the cover should depict a strong and determined portrait of Mumbet. I painted the cover portrait with the words resilient, intelligent, brave, pioneer, and humbled in the back of my mind to try to illustrate Mumbet’s personality and character.

Nearly every page has at least a bit of landscape in it. What were you trying to express with this? 

I think the landscape of Massachusetts was particularly important in Mumbet’s story. I feel the landscape represented her strength, vulnerability and hopeful spirit. The words in the story also influenced my decision to include a lot of the landscape in Mumbet: references about how Mumbet associated the water flowing down the river with being free, and references about how the ice, snow, etc could not wear down a mountain. It seems to me that nature was a big inspiration to her to be free.

Your colors look so Caribbean! Are you influenced by your Haitian heritage?

I love colors and love to paint colorfully. My colors are influenced by my Haitian/Caribbean heritage, but also from living in Harlem. I grew up in Harlem in the 1980’s. In those days colors were everywhere and I must have absorbed a lot of the colors that I saw. I loved to walk through Harlem’s 125 Street and take in all the African/Caribbean styles and colors that were all around me.

Who are your favorite artists?

The list of artists that influence me is endless. But some of the artists that stand out immediately to me are Aaron Douglas, Edward Hopper, and Claude Monet. I love Edward Hopper’s compositions, and love the use of colors in the works of Aaron Douglass and Claude Monet. Some of the illustrators I am influenced by are John Steptoe and Leo & Diane Dillon. 

You’ve lived in New York City since you were a child. What do you think of New York and the opportunities for an artist there?

I think many opportunities exist for artists in NYC, even though there are many artists here. Ultimately you have to learn how to make your work stand out and be true to yourself. While there are many opportunities here in NYC for aspiring artists, artists have to make their own opportunities as well. For example, my first book deal came as a result of going to different book fairs and following up with contacts I was lucky enough to make with some of the editors. Opportunities exist in NYC, but hard work and flexibility is ultimately what worked for me.

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21. Inspiring Future Girl Engineers: Ruth Gordon Schnapp Memorial

The topics of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) and Girls in Engineering have received a lot of press this past year. Yes, we need more girls participating in STEM industries. Yes, we need more girls studying STEM topics in high school and college. Yes, parents, schools, and society need to support all young people pursuing STEM fields. I continue to be amazed every time I hear the facts: “American students score 23rd in math and 31st in science when compared with 65 other top industrial countries. In math, we are beaten by countries from Lichtenstein and Slovakia to the Netherlands and Singapore. In science, we are beaten by countries from New Zealand and Estonia to Finland and Hungary.” (From a CNN 2012 article).

Tomorrow, February 22, 2014, a memorial service is being held at the Golden Gate Yacht club in San Francisco for Ruth Gordon Schnapp who died on January 1, 2014. My heart is filled with great loss - as well as pride, in the fact that Ruth's amazing life story will live on in my book for young readers. Also, today marks the last day of Engineering Week, with the exciting Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day this Thursday.
Discover E explains it best on their website:
Engineers Week—the only event of its kind—is a time to:

  • Celebrate how engineers make a difference in our world
  • Increase public dialogue about the need for engineers 
  • Bring engineering to life for kids, educators, and parents 
Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day:
  • Girl Day is a movement that shows girls how creative and collaborative engineering is and how engineers are changing our world. With hundreds of events happening each year, together we are driving the conversation about girls and engineering.
  • Host a Girl Day event and make a difference to the girls (and their moms) in your community.

Ruth Gordon Schnapp is one of the 22 inspirational women that I wrote about in Women of Steel and Stone. As we talk about the lack of women in STEM fields, we should be supporting and promoting the achievements of the women who have paved the way. Beginning my research, I googled Top Architects. What surprised me was that on one particular list of Top 100 Architects there were only two women. Two women out of 100 architects? Those odds seemed shockingly way off. In my further research, I uncovered several amazing women in architecture, engineering, and landscape architecture whose stories needed to be told and were over looked. Young readers needed to hear about these inspiring stories. As Ruth’s health was failing, the family asked me to write an obituary for their mother. The press did not pick up on the news story of her passing. So, to celebrate Ruth Gordon Schnapp’s life and to promote Engineering Week, I thought I’d share the obituary that I wrote.

Ruth Gordon Schnapp 

First woman structural engineer in the state of California and women’s rights advocate

Ruth Gordon Schnapp, the first female structural engineer in the state California, played pioneering roles in increasing 
the number of women in engineering fields, as well as improving the safety of hundreds of hospitals, schools, and other buildings.

Mrs. Schnapp, 87, who had a passion for math that led her to a 41-year structural engineering career that included building safer schools and hospitals in California, died January 1, 2014, in Los Banos, Calif.

Her first job was with the San Francisco structural engineering office of Isadore Thompson, after being rejected by several companies who told her, “We don’t hire women engineers.”  Thompson told Schnapp that he didn’t care if she was green, just as long as she could do the job. Schnapp also worked for engineering firms Bechtel and Western Knapp before her 29-year career for the State of California.  Schnapp opened her own business, Pegasus Engineering, in 1984 and retired in 2001.
Schnapp’s parents, Solomon and Lea Gordon, were Lithuanian immigrants who first settled in Dallas where her sister, Clara, was born. After that, the family moved to Seattle where Schnapp was born on September 19, 1926. Excelling in school, Schnapp said she often saved her math homework for dessert because it was the most fun. She dreamed of becoming a concert pianist, but her parents cautioned her against her following her dream, stating:  “You never can tell what’s going to happen. You have to study something for which you can make a living.” In 1942, most parents were encouraging their daughters to marry and have children.
Not knowing what an engineer did except that it involved math, Schnapp chose that path. After she was accepted to Stanford, she had to first find out where it was. During her summer breaks, she worked for Boeing in Seattle, one summer participating in structural engineering changes to the B-17 bomber. When World War II ended, she was forced to take a typing job with the company at a lower pay. According to Schnapp, just to spite Boeing and its sexism, she was the slowest typist they ever had.
Schnapp was the only woman to graduate from Stanford in 1948 with a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering. With the support of her male professors, she went on to earn her master’s degree in structural engineering in 1950.
Starting in 1953, after receiving her civil engineer state license, Schnapp worked for the state of California for 29 years, designing and constructing school buildings to make them more earthquake resistant.
In 1959, Schnapp passed the test for her structural engineering license — 20 years before another woman would earn that license. Schnapp loved structural engineering, and she especially loved being out in the field. She traveled a seven-county area of Southern California, checking schools, hospitals and other construction projects. Some of Schnapp’s more high-profile projects were the San Francisco Public Library, San Francisco Asian Art Museum, San Quentin Prison, Palace of the Legion of Honor, San Francisco General Hospital, and the Marin General Hospital.
She married Michael Schnapp in 1950. The ceremony was performed in the old house of Lillian Gilbreth, the mother in Cheaper by the Dozen, another famous industrial engineer and role model for girls in those fields.  Michael died in ____.
With their mutual love of boats, the Schnapps bought a 26-foot-long sailboat and started racing. In 2001, she received the Yachtsman of the Year Award from the Pacific Inter-Club Yacht Association. For many years, the Golden Gate Yacht Club has held the Ruth Gordon Schnapp Regatta.
Schnapp’s daughter Madeline explained, “One of the reasons my mother was able to do the things she did was because she had a wonderful support system at home and didn't have to worry about how her children were faring while she was away at work. Nydia Rosa was part of the Schnapp family for over 50 years, first helping with the children, and then more administrative tasks as the children grew. About six years ago, Nydia returned to the family to take care of my mother during her declining years.”
Some of Schnapp’s many accolades include being named the first woman member of Structural Engineers Association of Northern California in 1953; the first woman president of the Bay Area Engineering Council in 1982-83; and the first woman to receive a Tau Beta Pi’s Eminent Engineer Award in 1995. A staunch advocate of women’s rights, in 1980, Schnapp took part in a public demonstration at the Pacific Stock Exchange, during which she chained herself to the building for five hours to protest gender discrimination.
After retiring in 2001, Schnapp traveled the U.S., lecturing students about at a long list of schools. She said, “I became very much interested in helping women and encouraging women to be sure to study math and science.”
 Fittingly, Schnapp’s story will continue to serve as a role model in a new book for young adults just released last week, Women of Steel and Stone by Anna M. Lewis. Schnapp is one of 22 inspirational women architects, engineers, and landscape architects profiled in the book, excepts from that book have been included here.
 Her sister, Clara Gordon Rubin, who died in 2002, was also a supporter of women’s rights and fought to improve gender equality among civil service workers in Seattle for four decades.
 She is survived by her three children, Madeline, Marcia and Michael, and several grandchildren.

Thank you, Ruth, for all the girl engineers that have followed your lead and for the young girls you will inspire to build great things. 

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22. Photographing Beyond Magenta

After four years in the making, I’m absolutely thrilled to announce that my new book, Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out has just been published. I’ve been waiting for this month with anxious anticipation. Now that it's here I’m walking on air, soaking in all the love, care, and respect sent out to the six teens that participated in the book.

Usually my YA books have black and white photographs peppered throughout the text. But this time they are mostly in color and are a finely integrated part of each chapter.

Each teenager in the book is individual and distinct. They know who they are and what they need. They certainly know who they are not. My role was to represent these awesome kids through words and photographs.

One person in the book preferred not to have photographs at all, and another person’s mother did not want her son’s face shown. That left four chapters that needed separate photo essays.

The first teen I met was Jessy, who had just begun taking hormone therapy. I thought, and he agreed, that it would be interesting to photograph him every two weeks as his transition progressed. This is the first photo, taken with my cell phone because it never occurred to me that our first meeting would include a photo shoot. I referred to Jessy’s photo essay as  “Transition.” They are very casual and mostly shot in natural light.

This is from the final set of photographs of Jessy's transition at the time I turned in the book. In my view - and the art director’s - camera and lighting are somewhat better than the one with my iPhone.

The second person I interviewed was Christina. Christina loves to shop and is very, very good at it. I trailed along, feeling quite dumpy, as she methodically, elegantly went through every rack. We did two shoots, one when she was a strawberry blond and another when she was a brunette. This essay is called “Shopping Spree.”

Cameron, the third photo essay in the book, did a great job explaining gender fluidity. We decided that it would be best to “show AND tell.” I set up my studio with a crumpled white cloth background and large strobes that I usually use when photographing dancers. Cameron carried bags of clothing to my sixth floor walk-up studio. We did two sets of studio photography. This is “Variables.”

Nat, the fourth essay, is a fine artist and a wonderful violinist. We wanted to do something that married intellect and art. And that to me is Black and White photography. I suggested that I photograph them [Nat’s pronoun of choice] in the tradition of André Kertész, 1894 -1985, a photographer whom I greatly admire. Kertész focused on patterns, angles and space. Nat and I went up on the High Line early in the mornings when all the tourists were asleep in their beds. We did our interpretation of a Kertész photo essay. It became “The Long Road with Musical Interludes.”

The last chapter is devoted to Luke, [not his real name] a marvelous poet and actor. Luke’s mother did not want her son’s real name or face revealed in the book. When Luke is onstage he’s a whirlybird.  So I slowed down the camera and let his movement compliment his personality. Although his is not a true photo essay, the images are not like the other chapters.

This structure is not explicitly described in Beyond Magenta. But it's layers like these that add (subliminal) depth to our books. No one knows it, unless posted, but it's there. One of the pleasures reading INK is to learn the backstory, the layers, that go into creating books. 

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I do love writing. I love being an author. But let me say, it feels really, really good to be back behind the camera. I continue to photograph Jessy and Christina as they grow into stunning adults.

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23. Join the Resistance

My “inner blogger,” which I discovered six years ago when Linda Salzman started this blog, is now in full flower at the Huffington Post.  Since September I’ve tried to post twice a week.  My initial mission was to add my two cents to the national discussion on education.  But a second mission has emerged—to shed light for the general public on our genre, children’s nonfiction literature.  To that end I’ve requested that my colleagues send me their most recent books.  I read them and write posts that show a book’s timeliness to current events or where it fits into the curriculum.  I am not a book reviewer as all of my posts are unabashed cheers for the brilliance of these authors.  As an author, myself, there is a conflict of interest for me to act as a critic.  But I have no problem endorsing the creativity and insights of my fellow authors. 

The adoption of the Common Core State Standards has created an opening for public awareness of our genre.  It has helped to create a readership for this blog.  When I first read the CCS standards, I saw them as an opportunity for teachers and educators to bring their own passions and creativity to classrooms through, among other things, the use of our books.  Children need to know there are many voices out there so they can develop voices of their own.  But this opening for diversity has been hi-jacked by standardized testing and the demand that teachers constantly document how they are meeting the CCSS—yet another chore that competes with instructional time.  One of the more absurd examples of the implementation of the CCSS is the lesson on close reading of the Gettysburg Address by focusing on text only, with no background knowledge of the Civil War.  

Diane Ravitch is leading a movement against the CCSS.  I’ve been a faithful subscriber to her amazing blog (she posts 5,6,7 times a day!) and she and her followers are gaining traction.  Meanwhile, NY State, for example has a huge contract with Pearson for their textbooks and their texts.   Granted, they and McGraw Hill and other textbook publishers are buying rights to our books to excerpt in their publications (and/or in the tests themselves) along with lesson plans making nice, convenient packages for harried teachers and furthering the notion that their books are the only books kids need to read to pass the tests, although their ethics in this are currently being questioned (in the example I've linked above).

My intent through my Huff Post blogis to join Diane's fight against the huge corporations that have dominated classroom reading for many years, the standardized teaching and testing and their ties to teacher evaluation.  Instead of emphasizing the horrors of turning teachers in to robots, all teaching the same page at the same time, I want to show the exciting alternatives that our genre offers. So I invite the readership of this blog to join me.  This means you need to use social media to spread the word. So "follow," "tweet," "share," and "like." It's the way business is being done these days.  So many people out there are still unaware of our existence.  This is one positive way we can all  help save public education.

I’m showing you the covers of the books I've given a shout-out to, so far.  The titles below the images are links to my posts.  Please join the "resistance" and spread the word. 

Arousing a Sense of Wonder
In the post that went live last Thursday (Here Come the HUMPBACKS!), I featured April’s three recent picture books.  I gave a shout-out to all of us who write for this blog and on the iNK website.  Keep those (virtual) cards and letters coming!!!
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24. INK Authors Making News


Welcome to the World: A Keepsake Baby Book  by Marfé Ferguson Delano (National Geographic)

The Truth about Poop and Pee, by Susan E. Goodman (Penguin), a new edition that brings together two of her best-selling books.

A Home for Mr. Emerson, by Barbara Kerley (Scholastic)


Deborah Heiligman will be speaking at the Virginia Festival of the Book March 21-23

Anna Lewis, author of Women of Steel and Stone: 22 Inspiring Architects, Engineers, and Landscape Designers, will be speaking at the Bellefonte, PA Art Museum on March 22, which has installed a large Anna Keichline exhibit. 


The Animal Book: A Collection of the Fastest, Fiercest, Toughest, Cleverest, Shyest--and Most Surprising--Animals on Earth, written and illustrated by Steve Jenkins (HMH)
            • The Horn Book 2013 Fanfare List of the Best Books for Young People
            • NPR 2013 Great Reads
            • Book Links Top 30 Titles from 2013
            • Junior Library Guild Top 10 Books for Youth 2013
            • ALA Notable Book 2014

Who Says Women Can’t Be Doctors by Tanya Lee Stone (Henry Holt)
            • NPR Great Reads

The Boy Who Loved Math: The Improbable Life of Paul Erdos, by Deborah Heiligman. (Roaring Brook)
            • Orbis Pictus Honor Book
            Book Links Top 30 Titles from 2013

Eruption! Volcanoes and the Science of Saving Lives, by Elizabeth Rusch. (HMH)
            • Book Links Top 30 Titles from 2013

Courage Has No Color: The True Story of the Triple Nickles, America’s First Black Paratroopers, by Tanya Lee Stone. (Candlewick)
            • Book Links Top 30 Titles from 2013

The Nature Generation has announced the shortlist for its 2014 Green Earth Book Awards. The award honors authors whose books best convey the environmental stewardship message to youth.

Eat Like a Bear, by April Pulley Sayre, illustrated by Steve Jenkins (Henry Holt)

Here Come the Humpbacks, by April Pulley Sayre (Charlesbridge)

No Monkeys, No Chocolate, by Melissa Stewart and Allen Young(Charlesbridge)

A Place for Turtles, by Melissa Stewart(Peachtree Publishers)

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25. Picture Books and Middle Grade Readers: A Perfect but Uneasy Mix?

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You can’t judge a book by its cover?  Rightly or wrongly, we all do.  In the children’s book market, trim size matters too.  And, when you’re a nonfiction picture book author, these two criteria create a complicated mix.

Here’s why I’ve been thinking about this subject.  Last year, Penguin’s paperback imprint, Puffin Books, approached me and illustrator Elwood H. Smith about combining our books, The Truth About Poop and Gee Whiz, into one digest format edition for the middle grade market.   Why not?  Where Elwood’s original illustrations were vivid and lovely, they were just as funny in black-and-white and worked well in this 5 x 7 ½ trim size.  




Furthermore, this new edition was in a format that says to kids, “You’re older now, grown up enough for a big person’s paperback.  Welcome to middle grade and the road to adulthood.”

The Truth About Poop is remaining in print; in fact, it’s soon celebrating its tenth anniversary.  I’m happy to say it’s still selling, being reviewed on Amazon and hopefully offered in brick-and-mortar bookstores around the country.  But I realize that these two versions, that share the same text and drawings, are for different audiences.

There comes a day in every child’s life when it’s no longer okay to carry a teddy bear outside or hug Mom in public.  For most kids, there’s also a time when reading landscape-format or square-shaped picture books with bright illustrations becomes taboo—at least in public or outside the classroom.  The same material that can amuse, amaze and be shared in black-and-white and portrait-shaped rectangles doesn’t cut the middle grade mustard when it’s in color.

But, here’s the rub.  So many nonfiction picture books in these sizes and shapes are written for this age group and even older.  This short length is just the right sized introduction to an idea or subject that can become an abiding interest.  Beautiful pictures or photographs not only bring these subjects gloriously alive, they are a “working vacation,” providing additional information while they also give respite, letting a young reader stay involved while absorbing what was just read. And our readers may need this rest.  We often write about complex situations or questions with high level language and abstraction.  We talk about the ingenuity of Ben Franklin, the eccentricity of mathematicians and Thelonius Monk, the stuff that stardust is made of. 

The Truth About Poop and Pee just came out on March 6th and I couldn’t be happier.  It translates well into its new format, and snuggles comfortably into its new home on bookstore shelves where every book is the same dimension.  If it reaches new readers this way, I’m very delighted.  I’m glad I can nurture an interest in biology, chemistry, sociology, history while kids just think they are reading about poop and pee.

But I also hope these same readers won’t be so ready to “put away childish things” and will still be willing to explore the wonderful world of nonfiction picture books in living color.

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