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26. 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. 

<!--[if gte mso 9]> Normal 0 false false false EN-US JA X-NONE <![endif]-->
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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27. Presidents' Day: Facts & Fantasy

Oh, I know how it is -  so soon after Valentine's Day, but here it is: Happy Presidents Day, INKsters! Insofar as it celebrates our nation's history as represented by our unbroken chain of elected executives, this holiday is second only to Independence Day in its importance to our democratic republic. 

An esteemed gaggle of early presidents
by way of Currier & Ives
Whether or not you'll be playing and marching in a band or doing last minute touches on your float or costume, enjoy your community's parades today and the fireworks tonight! Before this special day comes to an end, it's likely that you'll be gathered with your dear ones, sharing the usual Presidents' Day delicacies, such as hot dogs, like the ones FDR offered to Great Britain's royal couple in the summer of 1939, but if I were you, I'd skip the cottage cheese-and-ketchup, a favorite of Richard Nixon. For dessert? Maybe Ronald Reagan's jelly beans, but there's got to ice cream and of course,  cherry pie, which has come to represent our presidential pathfinder, George Washington 

But mind your portions - else you'll wind up like President Taft!   And if you're inclined and of age, do be having a celebratory sip of hard cider. As John Adams wrote in 1765, "I drank this morning and yesterday morning about a gill* of cider; it seems to do me good."   Harry Truman felt the same way about his breakfast shot of bourbon and FDR about his late afternoon martini. But I digress
      *about 1/4 of a pint 
"Big Bill" Taft - more to him than a big belly! 

It's become customary for Americans to have their P. Day dinner while watching the annual White House Concert. As usual it will feature live broadcasts from some of the nation's many lighthearted and colorful Presidential/First Family Look-Alike contests, as well as the much-awaited announcement of this year's winner of the Presidential Essay Competition. Who will be covered with glory, patriotic and intellectual honors, the $5,000 cash prize, AND the invitation to the White House?  

Knowing that you share my love of American history – and if you're reading this, I'd bet money that you do – you may well have long since written and contributed your own entry,
dated, but still a popular primer
on the presidents, their
House, and the presidency itself.
your own considered take on this year's topic:
The President We Most Need Today. If I'd written one - if there was any such event - I reckon I'd lean toward presidents who championed public education. Ike, for instance, the steely ex-general with the sunny smile.

For further thoughts on this issue, here's a good start. 

Because it's a worthy topic in this, our real, anxious, too-cool-for-school world, that has no such festive Presidents Day and never shall. Maybe just as well, given how money-corrupted the whole elective and legislative process has become, how it has so tarnished the Founders' Dream. Doesn't mean it's to be discarded, not celebrated. It only means it's to be clung to and fought for all the harder. The topic's been a hot one even before there was a republic for which we stand and throughout the days and years of our ever-contentious nation  What should be the role of our central government in our lives, in our classrooms?  
What are we prepared to do in order to be what we intend to be, as
individuals and as a nation? For one thing, read. Know what and who we've been, those whom we've championed to hold the standard.

Meanwhile, I need to go make sure to display my American Flag (the subject of my next book - did I tell you that? Did you know that 2014 makes 200 years since F.S.K. wrote his ode to the S.S'd. B.?), out by my front door because it's Presidents Day. 

And long live the Republic. Read on.

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28. A-HA! The Eureka Moment

As the story goes, for Archimedes, it was the moment he sank into his tub.  For Newton, it was that falling apple.  Eureka!  Aha! In a flash, the answers (displacement and gravity) became clear.  To Archimedes and Newton, anyway.  For them, that lightning bolt of understanding was accompanied by joy and amazement.  Other people, half as brilliant or educated, might have simply thought, “Oy, I hope the water doesn’t overflow” or “Ouch, that’s what I get for sitting under a fruit tree.”

I’ve been mulling over Eureka moments lately.  Products of pioneering thinkers like Archimedes’ and Newton’s may corner the market, but epiphanies come in all shapes and sizes.  It doesn’t always have to be and original discovery that leads to Eureka.  A gifted explanation can go a long way to create an aha moment for others.  

An example was when physicist Richard Feynman appeared before the Senate Committee hearing convened to figure out what caused the Challenger Disaster.  If you remember, the
space shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after liftoff in 1986, killing all aboard.  The question was why and everyone dithered about it for months.  During his testimony, Feynman revealed the problem in moments.  He used a C-clamp to bend the type of rubber O-ring used to seal joints in the rocket, then plunked it into his glass of ice water.  He pulled it out, unscrewed the clamp and showed how the now 32-degree rubber was too cold to bend for valuable seconds.  It had been 32 degrees on launch day.  No effective seal, leaking gas, fire, death.  

Was this an epiphany for Feynman?  I have no idea; it might have just been a satisfying, logical conclusion.  But for the people who wanted to know what happened and couldn’t assemble, sort and understand all the factors, it was a mind blower. QED, game over.

As nonfiction writers, and especially as nonfiction writers for kids, wouldn’t it be great to be able to create aha moments for our readers and open up new parts of the world to them? Sorry, I wish I could simply print the recipe at the bottom of the page.  

The best I do is guess about the necessary ingredients.  Here are a few I’ve been thinking about:

1.  Curiosity—not just coming up with facts, but also a compulsion to flip them over in your mind and study them from every angle.  

2. Wonder—wondering about situation and having a sense of wonder about it so you might be able to get some poetry into the mix when you try to get the idea across.  

3. Expansion—somehow leaving enough room for a reader to get invested and involved and find his or her discovery amidst your own.

Anybody have a few more suggestions?  I’d love to hear (and use!) them.

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29. Out and About with INK Authors



FEATHERS: NOT JUST FOR FLYING, by Melissa Stewart, ill. by Sarah S. Brannen (Charlesbridge)

MUMBET’S DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE by Gretchen Woelfle, ill. by Alix Delinois (Carolrhoda)


Sibert Honor Book
Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan, The Mad Potter: George E. Ohr, Eccentric Genius

Finalists for the Cook Prize for the Best STEM Picture Book:
Deborah Heiligman, The Boy Who Loved Math
Melissa Stewart, No Monkeys, No Chocolate

Finalist YALSA award for Excellence in NF for YA
Tanya Lee Stone, Courage Has No Color: The True Story of the Triple Nickles, America’s First Black Paratroopers

ALA Notable Books 2014
Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan, The Mad Potter: George E. Ohr, Eccentric Genius
Deborah Heiligman, The Boy Who Loved Math: The Improbable Life of Paul Erdös
Elizabeth Rusch, Eruption!:  Volcanoes and the Science of Saving Lives
April Pulley Sayre, ill. Steve Jenkins, Eat Like a Bear
Steve Sheinkin, Lincoln's Grave Robbers
Tanya Lee Stone, Courage Has No Color: The True Story of the Triple Nickles, America's First Black Paratroopers

Friday, February 7, Cheryl Harness will be speaking on “Creating Books for Young TimeTravelers” in Denver at the Colorado Council of the International Reading Association.

Saturday, February 8, Kelly Hall Milner, along with Kathleen Krull and Cindy Jenson-Elliott will address “Nonfiction v Common Core” at the California School Library Association Conference in San Diego.

Same day, same place, Gretchen Woelfle and Alexis O’Neill will talk about “Turning History into Story.”

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30. Something Entirely Different

Early last year, my editor asked if I would be interested in taking on a project very different from the narrative nonfiction books I've written. She asked if I would like to write the text for a baby book, a keepsake baby book, the kind in which parents can record the highlights of their baby's arrival and growth. But instead of being illustrated with the usual pastel drawings of bunnies, etc., this book would be filled with gorgeous photographs. The text needed to be lyrical and inspirational, with strong visual elements, she advised, and oh yes, it should also celebrate the natural world.

It was tall order! And it was unlike anything I'd done before. But it sounded like a great opportunity to stretch and challenge myself--not to mention earn some dough--so I took a deep breath and said yes to WELCOME TO THE WORLD: A KEEPSAKE BABY BOOK (National Geographic, March 4, 2014). I'm glad I did. Working on this book was a joy, from brainstorming with the editorial and design team, to looking through my own children's baby books and recalling their infancy and toddlerhood. I explored my feelings about motherhood and thought about my hopes and dreams for my children (now grown). I thought about my parents (both still going strong, I'm happy to say!) and my own childhood. I pondered the wonders of our world and tracked down--and verified--inspirational quotes to sprinkle through the book. Most gratifying, I discovered my poetic side as I crafted the text. 

My goal was to go beyond the traditional journal style of most baby books. I wanted to connect the birth and early days of a child's life to the beauty and wonders and possibilities of this amazing world we live in. I tried to do this with my text, but ultimately it's the stunning photographs--selected by Lori Epstein, a brilliant photo editor and very talented photographer in her own right--that really make this book special. The photos Lori selected not only delight the eye, they enhance and expand my words, creating layers of meaning I didn't even realize were there until I saw the pictures and words together. Some of them make me laugh out loud. Some bring tears to my eyes. It took a team of us to create and give birth to WELCOME TO THE WORLD. I can't wait to see how it fares.

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31. Road Maps to the Common Core

Sometimes I get the feeling that any change in educational policy doesn’t matter to the providers of educational materials as long as change is mandated. Publishers of texts and testing products make money no matter what.  The objective of No Child Left Behind was basic literacy for all, period.  So the emphasis was on decoding skills.  It set the bar very low and generated lots of new materials to teach phonics, etc.  Now we have the Common Core State Standards which redefine an educated person as someone who can read a text and figure out the main idea, how it was put together by the author, and how knowledge and ideas are integrated.  Moreover, students are supposed to incorporate these standards into their own writing.  The pushback from the educational community is that now the bar is set too high; especially in light of the new standardized tests that show kids failing as expected.  Veteran educations shake their heads in bewilderment.  They know better than most that there is no single panacea for delivering high quality education.  Just ‘cause you state it as policy, doesn’t mean it will happen.
Vicki Cobb and Lucy Calkins
One such veteran educator is Lucy Calkins of Columbia’s Teachers College who is the founder and director of The Columbia Reading and WritingProject. She is an outspoken champion of the CCSS.  She sees it as an opportunity to introduce students to a wealth of nonfiction literature about the real world and she spoke about it at a TC event last week, which I attended.  After decades of imposing rules and packaged lesson plans on teachers, of bashing teachers as the primary problem with education, of sucking the joy of learning out of the classroom, and of attempting to standardize teaching as if children were widgets in a factory, some of us see the CCSS as an opportunity to bring creativity, collaboration, and autonomy back to the teaching profession.

Let’s hope it’s not too late.  Enter the realityof a teacher’s day.  The stress is enormous and now they have to do a great deal of paperwork to justify exactly how they are meeting the CCSS.  Their jobs are now dependent on how well their students perform on the standardized test. Many gifted teachers are speaking up  or throwing in the towel.  Lucy Calkins sees the CCSS as an opening for many approaches to instruction and a diverse curriculum—the opposite of standardization.  Since businesses now say they want creative, self-starting, innovative workers, we have to allow teachers to go back to being creative innovators themselves.  We also have to experiment with different approaches and ideas with the understanding that some will prove better and others and that not everything that is done will be a home run.  In other words, educators, themselves, need room to learn and grow. 

The Columbia Reading and Writing Program states, " ‘the Standards define what all students are expected to know and be able to do, not how teachers should teach’ (CCSS, p 6). What's needed is an all-hands-on-deck effort to study how best to create pathways to achieve the Common Core. There will be no one 'right answer' to the question of how a school or a district needs to shift its priorities and methods so as to bring its students closer to the expectations of the Common Core, as schools and classrooms will come from different places and will have different resources to draw upon.”

Teachers need interesting, well-written materials for the curriculum subjects they teach.  They can also teach reading and writing skills through “mentor” books that are about content.  In addition to books, teachers also need strategies for using books that don’t come with lesson plans.  They need support from curriculum people and from each other.  If the skills of the Common Core are our destination, (and there is no question that we’d have a very well educated nation if everyone met them) we need ways to implement them and try them out.  In other words, we need time to develop road maps through uncharted territory and stop asking, like an annoying  passenger, “are we there yet?”  

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OK history buffs (or non-history buffs) - which of the following wild assertions just so happen to be true and which ones are false? Since I have to write about this stuff all the time, I actually know the answers and don’t have to look them up.  See how many you already know….TRUE OR FALSE: 
1) Ben Franklin invented the fan chair, which was a rocking chair with a fan on top to blow away flies.

2)  Ben invented a musical instrument that caused dogs to run away and hide and also made people think there were ghosts in their room.

3)  Pocahontas was bald.

4)  She taught her boyfriend, John Smith, how to smoke tobacco.

5)  Before being captured and enslaved, John Smith won a Turkish fortress by making a bunch of explosives and catapulting them into the Turks’ camp while they slept.

6)  George Washington always wore a white wig in public, even as a child.

7)  George Washington chopped down a cherry tree, and when his dad asked him about it, he said “I cannot tell a lie, pa.  I did it with my little ax.”

8)  George Washington had scars on his face from a duel.

9)  During the California Gold Rush, a single piece of paper cost $150 but you could get 12 shirts washed and ironed at the Chinese Laundry for $3.

10) During this gold rush, cooks regularly checked chicken gizzards for small gold nuggets.

11)  Frenzied gold seekers from 37 different countries rushed lickety-split straight toward California to seek their fortunes.

12)  Cowboys traveling on The Old Chisholm Trail used to cross the muddy rivers by running on their cows backs.

13)  The trail was finally closed by barbed wire.

14)  Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln were born on the very same day just a few hours apart, and they didn’t always get along with their dads.

15)  When Charles Darwin journeyed around the world by ship, he caught a giant octopus and sent it back to England for scientists to study.

16)   Charles Darwin used to ride on horseback with a wild Gaucho cavalry, ride on the backs of gigantic tortoises, and ride in a box on the back of an elephant in true Indian fashion. 
17)  In Salem Massachusetts, some people made medicine by combining boiled snippets of children’s hair, spirits of mummies, and the brains of young men who had died a violent death.

18)  During the Salem Witch Trials, nineteen people were burned for the crime of witchcraft.

19) During this time, people of all ages were accused of turning into a ball of light the size of a bushel basket, choking a woman with nails and eggs, stupefying a boy for 12 years, making a wagon plump down into a hole on flat ground, and killing victims with their evil “eye beams.” (A ghost said so.)


1)  False, but he did have such a chair inside his house.

2)  True.  It was called the glass armonica, and before it went out of style for hurting dogs' ears and sounding spooky during seances, it was so popular that Mozart and Beethoven wrote music for it.

 3)   True.  Pre-pubescent Powhatan Indian girls shaved the tops of their heads, and Pocahontas was between 10 and 12 years old.

4)  False.  Of course she was way too young to be John Smith's girlfriend, and besides, he thought smoking tobacco was disgusting.

5)  True, all true.  He was also great at making fireworks.

6) False.  George hated wigs even though they were in style.  If he absolutely had to, he would powder his hair instead.

7)  False.  Parson Mason Locke Weems made up that fake story to get kids to tell the truth like their hero.  Oh, the irony.

8)  False.  The scars were from smallpox.

9)  All true.

10) True again. One time a chicken gizzard panned out at $12.80

11)  False.  They came from more than 70 countries and set off one of the greatest mass migrations in history.

12)  Yup, that's true.  Those guys had talent.

13)  True.  Barbed wire smarts if you're a traveling cow.

14)  True. Their dads didn't seem to think they'd amount to much.

15)  False, false, false.  He did uncover plenty of humongous fossilized bones from extinct giant animals though.

16)  True.  Darwin perched these various backs in Argentina, the Galapagos, and the Isle of Mauritius.  

17)True.  Guilty as charged.

18)  False.  They were hanged, not burned.  A 19th guy was pressed to death by stones.

19)  True.  People really did tell all of these bald-faced lies in court.  AND THERE ARE NO WITCHES!!!

Didn't I tell you truth is stranger than fiction?  So how did you do? Feel free to try this on your students, friends, and enemies, and if they get all the answers right I will send them a lollipop.  (False.)

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33. Biographies book list is up!

Barbara Kerley collated a list of suggested titles from some I.N.K. bloggers.

You can find it here.

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34. BOOK BAIT: 10 Ways to Hook Kids On Nonfiction!

Authors, illustrators, and publishers put a great deal of effort into the quest to interest readers in their books. Ideally, every nonfiction book should have a terrific title, intriguing information, sensational sentences, and interesting images (and by all means alliteration...only kidding about that last one!?) 

Because of the great response to my last post about nonfiction activities, I was inspired to focus this time on how to entice students to read a variety of informational texts. Recommendations from their peers is one of the primary ways that kids decide to read a book, so with that in mind, ask students to:

1. Choose a nonfiction book to recommend, place it on your desk, then tour the room for new reading options.

2. Share one sentence that gives an idea of what the book is about.

3. Compile a class book of reviews then explore classmates’ suggestions.

4. Prepare and present book talks to the class in the form of posters, presentations, or videos.

5. After discovering a good book, create a display of more works by the same author.

6. Choose one page in a book and list the facts the words tell, then the information shown by the pictures.

7. Redraw an illustration or other image and add labels and other info.

8. Find a favorite cover and explain how it summarizes the book.

9. Design a new cover for a book to persuade more kids to read it.

10. Compare two or more books on a topic using a Venn diagram.

Click for my Pinterest board with nonfiction teaching ideas.


My web site

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35. A Change of Scene

My home is in beautiful Missoula, Montana, but my husband Greg (a food writer) and I decided to try something new.  We became snowbirds, leaving home in late October and planning on returning in early April.  At first we condo-hopped in Hawaii, but now are settled in Oceanside, CA, across the street from Del Mar beach.

Some writers need to work in their own familiar space or settle at a table in a familiar cafe near home to write.  But Greg and I feel fortunate that we can write anywhere, as long as we have a few reference books and our trusty MacBooks.  My nephew recently did some consulting for Microsoft and presented Greg with a sticker for his computer that declares "This is my office."  I want one too!

I find working in a new location has its own rewards.  The phone rarely rings, as no one knows this number.  Our cell phones stay mostly silent, since we don't use them that often.  That means fewer distractions.  We don't have the usual social engagements either, or other appointments, so we have more time to write.  The new location also means new experiences, like a variety of farmers' markets in surrounding communities with gorgeous greens and succulent citrus fruits, foods we can't get locally grown in Montana during the winter.  We both feel healthier, not only from the food but also the sunlight and relative warmth.

There's also the stimulation of the writing instinct in a new place. Greg is inspired to devote his blog (www.thebakingwizard.com) to "unplugged" recipes, ones that don't require a food processor or mixer, since we don't have those things here.  I find myself obsessed with photographing birds and brilliant sunsets over the Pacific, with the damp sand creating magical reflections of the glowing colors.  Maybe I'll write a book about sunsets!  Or about gulls, or maybe I'll revive my out-of-print book on pelicans.

When I take my afternoon break walking along the damp, firm surface of this beach, I feel I could walk forever.  It's a form of meditation for me, allowing my mind to clear and to settle down.  Then I can focus on prioritizing the many tasks large and small that go along with being a writer, or just "be."  I can't do this at home in wintertime Montana, where it can be too icy or too cold to walk and where the sky during the short days is almost always an uninviting gray.  But as I enjoy looking out over the silvery sparkles of reflected sunlight on the waves, I look forward to Montana in the Spring, when fresh green sprouts push forth from the earth and the familiar birds, "snowbirds" like us, return to enjoy new life and creativity in that special place.

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36. Finding Mumbet

My latest book, Mumbet’sDeclaration of Independence, comes out on February 1.  I’m always happy on pub dates, but this one feels especially good (thanks, PW) not least because of the book’s spectacular illustrations by Alix Delinois. He lives in New York, has done since he was seven. But he was born in Haiti, and Caribbean light and color shine all through the book and perfectly reflect the tone I tried to express in the text. I’m going to interview him for my February blog, so I won’t gush on now.

I love writing about little-known people and I’m pleased that editors are publishing books about them. Every season sees more new heroes and heroines lining the lists. As for Elizabeth “Mumbet” Freeman, I discovered her while researching Write on, Mercy! The Secret Life of Mercy Otis Warren.  Not for the first time, research for one book led to the next one.  Both Mercy (white and well-educated) and Mumbet (an illiterate slave) lived in Massachusetts during the American Revolution – Mercy in Plymouth, Mumbet in the Berkshires.  Both used revolutionary fervor to advance their causes: Mercy, to write and publish her political views; Mumbet, to sue for her freedom. (This is a portrait painted on ivory, of Mumbet in old age. It's in the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston.)

I try to bond with my subjects, and that often happens when I travel to their home territory.  This was true with Mumbet. ‘Twas a frigid day of January that I was given a “Mumbet tour” in Sheffield and Stockbridge, Massachusetts by historian Barbara Dowling, then working for the Trustees of Reservations, the conversation group that owns Ashley House, where Mumbet spent her slave years. The house was closed for winter – it being colder indoors than out! – but Barbara opened it for me to poke around, searching for traces of Mumbet’s life there.

  It's a comfortable, not grand, house, with a big hearth where Mumbet worked. I peeked up the chimney, stuck my arm into the baking oven, gazed into the small room off the kitchen when she probably slept. I climbed the narrow stairs that she climbed carrying refreshments to white men who discussed their fight for political freedom from the British.

Outdoors, nearby Bartholomew’s Cobble, far-off Berkshire mountains, and the Housatonic River presented themselves as symbols of Mumbet’s strength and courage, and found their way into my book. 

A few miles away sits the imposing Sedgwick estate, home of her lawyer, where Mumbet worked for two decades as housekeeper and second mother to the seven Sedgwick children. She saved enough from her wages to buy a small farm in the hills outside Stockbridge, and retired there to live with her daughter, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. The house is gone, but I envisioned her, looking out over the Housatonic Valley that held a life's worth of memories. Her grave includes this epitaph written by Catharine Sedgwick, one of Mumbet’s charges:

She was born a slave and remained a slave for nearly thirty years. 
She could neither read nor write yet in her own sphere she had no superior or equal. She neither wasted time nor property.
She never violated a trust nor failed to perform a duty.
In every situation of domestic trial,
she was the most efficient help, and the tenderest friend.
Good mother, farewell.

I ended Mumbet’s Declaration of Independence just after she sued her owner and [Spoiler Alert!] won her freedom. But she lived long after that, and her life led to me other African Americans of that era, and another book about worthy and under-reported lives. I included Mumbet’s later adventures there, but you’ll have to wait until 2015 to read those.

In the meantime, tune in next month to meet Alix Delinois, who also traveled to the Berkshires to bring Mumbet into view.

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37. Let the Games Begin! (But Where are the Good Books?)

Anyone else sorely disappointed in the selection of books on the Winter Olympics? I sure am. I’ve been trying to put together something interesting for my K-3 crowd: a little bit of general history, some stand out biographies, and (if it’s not asking too much)a concise explanation of the actual winter events.

The pickings are certainly slim. As I search and search again, the most frequently viewed item is a fiction book about a certain penguin in a Hawaiian shirt named Tacky playing his own version of the Winter Games.

Where are the I.N.K. books on this subject? Isn’t this the kind of subject where non fiction should shine?

What’s going on here?

Only one book stands out to me, and  I’ve been forced to rely on more than I would like.

 Olympics by B. G. Hennessy. 

 Published in 1996.

Other than that, The Magic Tree House series does tackle the Ancient Games in one volume. It even has a non fiction companion "fact tracker" listing facts about Ancient Greece and the Olympics. It’s certainly possible an intrepid second grader could read it without falling asleep.

Next week lets wave our flags and pretend to bobsled on our sofas. And lets think about, and perhaps even start writing, some medal worthy books.

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38. How Did You Get the Idea of This Book and Other Burning Questions Revealed

This week, Debbie Glade at Smart Books for Smart Kids reviewed my new book Women of Steel and Stone.  The review can be found here.
Following the review, she asked if I would mind answering a few questions for the readers of her website. The questions got me thinking about why I wrote the book, the process, STEM, and girls in engineering fields. I thought INK readers would like to read a part of that interview. The full interview can be read on the Smart Books for Smart Kids website. I'll post the link as soon as it is live on the site. I also added a few extra questions and answers for the readers here. All the questions and answers can be read on my new website Anna M. Lewis.

How did you get the idea to write this book?
My editor and I were going back and forth with proposal ideas in two different series - Activities for Kids and Women of Action.  My degree is in Product/Industrial Design and I took several design history classes in college, so design was an area that interested me.  Then, I found one website that listed the top 100 architects. There were only 2 women on the list – 2 women out of 100 architects. That didn’t sound right to me. I started researching women architects and found some amazing women whose stories hadn’t been told. From there, I also discovered several women engineers and landscape architects, and the book grew from there.

How did you come up with the women you featured in the book, and was it difficult to find the detailed information you needed about some of them? 
Each book in the Women of Action series has about 16 to 26 profiles, so I knew I had to have about that many women. My daughter's favorite number is 22, so I felt that I had to appease her and the karma gods and write about 22 women. That number worked perfectly.
In forming the list, I basically had 7 women per category; which meant, 2 of the first in the field, 2 of the most current, and 3 in the middle. As it turned out, all the women I chose had interesting stories to tell. Every chapter had to have a compelling story to pull the reader in; otherwise the book would just be a rehash of wiki pages and facts. Some of the background stories had to be dug out, and I was digging for days. When I found an interesting story about a woman, it was almost like finding gold. Sometimes, after fact checking, a great story turned out to be not true. A popular book on Julia Morgan tells how she was dusting the family stairs and said that when she was older that she wouldn't design houses with spindly staircase rods that little girls would have to dust, and then she ran outside to play with her brothers. Many other sources also cited that story. It took some digging but I found a transcript of an interview with several family members and co-workers. I read through the entire entire interview and at one point the interviewer asked the family if that was true. They said, "No, Julia never said that." Great story but I couldn't use it… but I found other great pieces to use in that transcript. Julia was hard to research. After she was misquoted early in her career, she never gave another interview. She even instructed her staff to destroy all her papers after she retired.

In the beginning, I asked the leaders and archivists of several engineering and architecture groups to review my list. I wanted to make sure that I didn't leave anyone out. Their suggestions were perfect.

Did it strike you when researching and writing the biographies that the accomplishments of these women from long ago would be equally as impressive in today's world as they were back then?
Three things stood out to me while writing the book. First, it has been over 125 years since Louise Bethune became the first female member of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), and women are still struggling to get noticed in that field. Second, all the women in my book had very supportive parents. Third, all the women chose architecture, engineering, and landscape architecture because they were drawn to those fields.
To answer your question, yes. But also, it also surprised me that after 125 years, things haven’t changed much. Women are still having a difficult time in those fields. The recent petition that sought to highlight Denise Scott Brown’s accomplishments with the inclusion of her name on her husband's 1981 Pritzker Prize put this issue into the spotlight. While media took great note, the Pritzker Committee turned down the request.
In building our future, we need all our students involved in creating wonderful things.

Considering the limitations women in the 1800s and early 1900s had wearing such binding, layered clothing with long dresses and corsets, do you think just the change in the way we dress has made it more possible for women to work in male dominated fields?
I don’t think the change in clothing was a large factor. Julia Morgan used to hike up her long skirt and climb up scaffolding, sometimes three stories high. Actually, the invention of the bicycle was a huge factor in the changes of a woman’s role in society. She was able to go to so many more places – without a chaperone, and her clothing loosened to allow her to ride. Society accepted this change with a few protests. 
Honestly, the women in my book and their strong-willed desire to do something that they wanted to do broke down the barriers and showed that women could work in the same fields as men.
What's your next writing project?
I’ve been going back and forth with my editor. I’ve been trying to decide if I want to write another Women of Action book or an Activities for Kids book. I’m also working with two other publishers on some fun ideas.

What do you most like to do when you are not working?
When I’m working, it doesn’t really feel like work. I love to read, which in a way is working. Actually, I have a pile of books that I can’t wait to get my hands on.
Besides writing, I’ve been doing some illustration work, which is like playing to me. I’ve been having fun learning how to use the Wacom tablet to create digital images.

Questions I added:

Did you have a special process while writing the book?
While doing the research, I had a box of grey folders and I made a folder for every woman. I also made a folder for my intro and chapter intros. I made copies of every quote for easy access when I compiled the Notes section. I also bought quite a few of my research books, a little while after I started racking up some library fines. (It's amazing how those due dates can slip by you when you are deep in work.) The actual books came in handy during the year-long editing process, when I had to check sources multiple times.
Towards the end, I made a spiffy excel spread sheet to keep track of all of my 22 women, images, permissions, word count, etc. 

Did you have a personal connection to this book?
Yes, my father passed away suddenly the day after I got the go ahead to work on the proposal. My father ran a medium-sized engineering practice in Cincinnati for over 50 years. His firm oversaw the HVAC (Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning) on many major construction projects. The last few years of his life he taught engineering at the University of Cincinnati. I think that he would have approved of this book. 

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39. Happy TENTH Anniversary to the Mars rover Opportunity!

On July 7, 2003, tucked into a Delta 2 rocket, the rover Opportunity blasted into space headed to Mars.
On January 24, 2004 PST (Jan. 25 Universal Time), the rover was dropped onto the surface of Mars wrapped in airbags, where it bounced 26 times before coming to rest in a crater.  This little rover, about the size of golf cart, was designed for the three-month mission to find signs of past water on Mars. 

Tomorrow marks the 10-year anniversary of Opportunity’s mission on Mars. TEN YEARS!!! HURRAH! WHOOT WHOOT! I MEAN, CAN YOU BELIEVE IT PEOPLE??? TEN YEARS!!! It was a three-month mission and this little robot, which was not designed to survive even one Martian winter, is STILL EXPLORING MARS TEN YEARS LATER! It is a miracle. This is perhaps the most successful space mission EVER!

I don’t get to write like this, in all caps and with multiple exclamation points, in my books for children, but this is how I feel about this mission and this rover. I am astounded. I am in awe. I cannot believe that a dream and the work of a bunch of scientists and engineers have given us a ten- year tour of another planet.

Opportunity was designed to only travel on flat terrain but has explored crater after crater after crater and is currently climbing the tallest hill of its mission. This is where Opportunity has traveled so far:
Opportunity is currently exploring the rim of Endeavour Crater, near an outcrop that may contain clay laid down in a watery past. Signs of past water have been found before, but evidence suggests that unlike the battery-acid-like water present on other parts of the planet, the water here may have been neutral enough to have once sustained life.  LIFE!

I hope you can find a little time to celebrate the incredible success of this mission, especially with your children and students. You can:

Watch a live broadcast from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory today Thursday, Jan. 23, 11 a.m. PST (2 p.m. EST) which will include appearances of two of the heroes from my book The Mighty Mars Rovers, Steve Squyres and John Callas. (Webcast live at http://ustream.tv/NASAJPL and on NASA TV streaming at http://www.nasa.gov/nasatv.)

See Space.com’s slide show of the top ten discoveries from Spirit and Opportunity’s mission.

Enjoy these stunning photos from a decade of exploration.

Check out a slideshow about why the rover lasted so long, at NASA’s 10-year anniversary page. 

Read the story of girl who was in eighth grade when Opportunity landed on Mars and is now an engineer on the mission.

Teachers, there is so much this mission offers to inspire your students. As the mission continues to unfold, Opportunity gives you an incredible opportunity to connect reading, writing, science, history, news, books, videos, and primary source material easily available on the internet. A teachers’ guide to my book The Mighty Mars Rovers offers discussion questions, hands-on activities, and resources. You can also find good ideas in two Common Core guides, one short  and one long.

When I started writing The Mighty Mars Rovers, my husband bought me a little scale model rover to keep on my desk as inspiration. But my model kept falling off my desk and breaking.
Perhaps my desk is a more hazardous place than Mars. 

Or perhaps we humans are capable of much more than we can even imagine.

Long live Opportunity!

Elizabeth Rusch

Images courtesy of NASA/JPL, except for the last one, which I took myself.

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40. The Port Chicago 50

I’m excited to report that my new book, The Port Chicago 50, is now out and getting some good attention, including three starred reviews so far. I just happen to have one of them right here: http://www.publishersweekly.com/978-1-59643-796-8

This is a little-known but very dramatic World War II civil rights story, set at a naval base near San Francisco. The main characters are young African American sailors who take a stand against segregation—and end up getting charged with mutiny and told they’re all going to be shot.

This book is a great example of how I, and I think most of the I.N.K. writers, truly never know where the next idea is going to come from. A few years back, at Thanksgiving, I was talking about my research for a book about the making of the atomic bomb, and my brother-in-law, a great lover of conspiracy theories (as am I), asked if I knew when the first bomb was tested. I said, “Yeah, in New Mexico, July 16, 1945.” He said, “That’s what they want you to think!”

Then he told me this fantastic tale, firmly believed by many on the Internet, that the first atomic test was actually in the summer of 1944, at a naval base called Port Chicago. I was intrigued and did some digging. There really was a massive blast at Port Chicago in 1944, one that killed more than 300 American sailors and marines. But the real story is that it was an ammunition ship, packed with thousands of tons of bombs, that exploded. To this day, no one is sure why.

After a bit more research, I learned that the sailors loading bombs and ammunition onto ships at Port Chicago were all African American. The Navy didn’t allow black sailors to serve at sea, except as messmen, so they were put to work on land at places like Port Chicago—only they were never trained to handle explosives. The men were pressured to work quickly and knew something terrible was going to happen. And of course they resented facing segregation while serving in a war that was being fought, as President Roosevelt kept saying, to preserve freedom around the world.

Then came the explosion of July 17, 1944, by far the deadliest home front disaster of World War II. With much more research, and some travel and lots of help, I was able to track down in-depth, unpublished interviews with many of the sailors who survived the blast. So in my book I’m able to follow the story from their point of view as they face what they know will be a life-changing decision: go back to work under the same conditions, or defy orders and face the consequences?

I won’t give away too much more, except to say that the number in the book’s title refers to the fifty men who wind up court-martialed for mutiny. I can’t promise a happy ending, though there’s no question that the stand these men took helped end segregation in the military, and was an early spark of the civil right movement of the 1950s and 60s. It's a story I am very proud to have the chance to tell.

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News-o-Matic: A Daily for Kids' Fingertips

I'm a long-time news hound. I got my start in children's publishing writing news for kids. Like other nonfiction writers, I continually try to adapt my work to new audiences, new formats, and new markets.  So I was psyched to find an app that brings news directly to kids via iTunes -- whether they're on their own or at the sides of their parents, teachers, and classmates.

I'm the newest contributing writer to News-o-Matic, a news app for children ages 7 to 11 available in pdf for classrooms and in the home via iPad and iPhone.  I think it's pretty great, so I checked in with editor-in-chief Russell Kahn to find out more about it.

Q. How long has News-o-Matic been going?
A. We formed our company, Press4Kids, two years ago, and launched News-o-Matic in the App Store about a year ago. We launched our School Edition over the summer. And News-o-Matic 3.0, which allows users to read the editions on both the iPad and iPhone with one subscription, launched last week.

Q. Why did you create News-o-Matic?
A. My business partner Lillian Holtzclaw Stern, had the initial idea because her two children (then seven and nine) had nowhere to go to make sense of the news happening in the world. Maybe a generation ago it was possible to shelter your children from current events, but it's not possible with today's media saturation.

Q. Who is your audience?
A. We have now been downloaded more than 50,000 times in 120 countries. That doesn't include the 600-plus schools that use a PDF of our publication on a daily basis. (We want to be sure that schools without tablet technology still have access to our stories.)

Q. What kind of response do you get?
A. Kids feel like they have a newspaper just for them.  Kids write comments and draw pictures every day; I usually get about 100 of each from them every day. Our readers are incredibly invested in our stories. They share their opinions and ask additional questions to show how much they care. You should see some of the drawings that we get; it's clear that they understand, for example, how an eclipse works or what the effects of climate change are.
      As for educators, we've had teachers tell us that we're the reason they bought iPads for their classroom. Others have said that their students have begged to read News-o-Matic during breaks in the school day. It's opened up new avenues for discussion, and of course it's helped teachers meet the need to ensure that half their content covered in the class is nonfiction (as directed by the Common Core Standards.)
     If you're a parent with an iPad, it can be difficult to know how to use the tablet as a valuable tool.  The iPad can be much more than a game console. So we're trying to give parents an app that will get their kids READING (and actually enjoying it) without it being a forced assignment. Parents are grateful to know that their kids are being safe on our app and developing a reading habit.

Q. How do you decide what should be covered?
A. The two founders and I are French, Brazilian, and American. It's always been our mission to be international. We feel it's important to expose readers to the world beyond America's borders at a young age. Sometimes that means we deal with tough stories, such as Syria's civil war or the Taliban resurgence in Iraq. But we need to establish a glance in every edition. Our readers constantly request stories about animals, sports, and entertainment. In a given edition I would hope we'd cover at least one or two stories that will appeal to ANY young reader.

Q. I was interested to read the section about what to do if the news upsets you. This is a topic very dear to my heart.
A. We can't shield kids from scary events anymore. Kids hear about them, and without an appropriate place to learn what happened, they may get upset. We want them to understand that News-o-Matic will help explain the event in a way that makes sense. We don't want to be the ones to INTRODUCE scary news to a kid. You won't see us covering a car bomb in Baghdad. But if something happens that makes the front pages of the newspaper, if kids will hear about it in the schoolyard, we feel we have to cover it. We covered Newtown. We covered the Boston Marathon bombing. We had to!
  Misinformation can be scarier than the truth. We have a child psychologist, Dr. Phyllis Ohr, on staff who helps us help young children understand tough current events in a safe and age-appropriate way. Together with her, we try to accentuate the positives and focus on the helpers. That said, we do know that some kids will be upset by the news. We worked with Dr. Ohr to develop a series of strategies to help children cope. But ultimately we hope that News-o-Matic serves as a tool to help kids understand why things happen (and how people try to help), making the world a less scary and more inspiring place to live.

Q. Tell me a little bit about your work load.
A. Oh, boy. First, it's really important to recognize that we're an original content creator, not just a repackager of the news. We've interviewed gold medal Olympic athletes, astronauts, and artists. We've talked to scientists and Iditarod mushers and kids who've discovered supernovas. We've gone into the street to cover events.
    I read the news all day long, every day. As a daily newspaper, we need to be able to respond immediately to anything that's happening. We publish Monday through Friday, 52 weeks a year. At 261 editions a year, that's six more than USA Today! We considered not publishing during the holidays, but we want kids to become addicted to the habit of daily reading -- especially when they're out of school!
  And of course we talk to kids to get their perspectives, such as with our Martin Luther King, Jr., article (posted yesterday).  To be truly a kids' newspaper we need them to be a part of it. News-o-Matic aims to create a dialogue to get children writing, asking questions, and actively interacting with the news. And it's working. Kids feel like they have a newspaper just for them.

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42. We Bumble Onward

"Faith is taking the first step even when you don't see the whole staircase." 

Certainly it is a day upon which I should make mention of such splendid books as Martin's Big Words: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  
written by Doreen Rappaport
illustrated by Bryan Collier
And David A. Adler's A Picture Book of Martin Luther King, Jr. 
written by David A. Adler
illustrated by Robert Casilla 
And I Have a Dream, featuring the great man's words, along with Kadir Nelson's handsome illustrations. 
It is a noble day to remember that all for which the great man is known was once in the 
unimaginable future of a 
bright little boy in Atlanta, Georgia, in a very different America. And, on this here anniversary of Inauguration Day, please note that young Martin had just turned 8 at the time of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's second Inaugural, in 1937.
A freezing, rainy day for an Inauguration, January 20, 1937.
Never before had a U.S. president taken his Oath of Office on the 20th of January. (If you're reading this, it's likely that you know the big day used to be in March and had been since 1789.) On that raw winter day in Washington, DC, 1937. FDR
quoted a long-gone Victorian poet, Arthur Wm. Edgar O'Shaughnessy,  when he said "each age is a dream that is dying, or one that is coming to birth." It was a day to "reconsecrate our country to long-cherished ideals." 
And so it is with this very Monday, this holiday commemorating the words and deeds of an idealistic leader, this anniversary of commencements. It's a far out day for rededication, to our works, our books, our readers, our dear ones, our purposes, various and precious. Though this blog is coming to an end, I'd be willing to bet that I'm not the only author who could cheerfully quote Franklin Roosevelt's buddy, Winston Churchill: "We bumble onward." 

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43. Goodbye from Tanya Lee Styone

This is my last post on I.N.K.. It has been a wonderful community of writers and I have thoroughly enjoyed interacting with some of the teachers, librarians, and other readers here. Thank you so much for your attention and time.
As I say when I am doing school visits, if I leave with you remembering just 2 things about our visit together, remember this: What If? are the two most powerful words in your writing arsenal (and in life, for that matter). And always, always, always have an emotional connection to what you are writing. If you are interested in what you are writing, your writing will be interesting.
Thank you I.N.K.ers and readers!
You can always find me at www.tanyastone.com

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44. A Girl and Her Critters -- Life Changing Nonfiction

As a kid in Friendswood, Texas, I grew up chasing snakes, frogs, toads and lizards – dodging dance class and piano lessons.  I was a whirlwind of a little girl, knee deep in activities traditionally earmarked for boys.  When I walked into the public library and the library at school, finding books I thought were “for me” was nearly impossible.  

Copy #2 of my first life-changing book.
Even so, one book I did find, literally changed my life – A Golden Nature Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians. 

We moved to the Houston suburbs just before I started Kindergarten.  When I wasn’t at school, I practically lived outside, but so did every poisonous snake in North America.  Tying me down was not an option, so knowledge was my only defense. 

My parents bought me the little book.  They poured through the pages with me, ceremoniously circling the venomous snakes with a red Magic Marker. 

“Don’t touch THESE snakes,” they would tell me, making it clear what they were called and what markings identified them.  

That book literally changed my life.  It gave me knowledge, freedom and even expertise.  As the years flew past, the neighbors  who once saw me as an odd little  fish out of water, turned to me for information. 

“Run get Kelly,” they said.  “She’ll know what this snake actually is.” 
Copperhead snake

If I said it was safe, they let it go.  If I said it was a danger, other measures were taken.  I begged them to let those venomous snakes go, too, but I didn’t always win their release.

That little book gave me direction, sure, but it also gave me purpose.   That little book even made it okay for me to be exactly the kid I was born to be.  I was a little weird, especially as a little girl of the early 1960s, but that was okay – thanks to the power in the facts of that book. 

There is not a doubt in my mind I became a nonfiction writer because of that book, and the absence of others like it.  I write now for the kid I used to be.  

Today, there are dozens of exceptional books for young readers on nature and animals – dozens of books I would have loved to check out and own, had they been around when I was a child.  But the diversity of author voices is as important now as it ever has been. 

Weird and proud of it!
You may not write or read the books I write and read, but the topics you do love will give comfort to young readers – the kids waiting to discover they are not alone in their “weird” and wonderful interests.  When they find the right books, they also find the safety of kinship. 
If you’re really, really lucky as a writer, parent, librarian or teacher, you’ll feel the kinship, too.  When that happens, anything is possible.  

A wise man once told me, everything in life is about human connection. The right books reveal the paths to human connection, and those books change lives every day.  When an adult shares the right book with the right kid, magic is not only within reach, it is unstoppable.

                                            -- Kelly Milner Halls

I would have loved Marty Crump's amazing book as a kid.

Another stellar option by Seymour Simon.

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45. Then and Now

As regular readers of this blog may have noticed, there is a theme for September. We I.N.K. bloggers are recalling important — perhaps life-changing — nonfiction books from our childhood. We are also contributing to a list of noteworthy contemporary nonfiction titles that will be compiled at the end of the month.
     Important nonfiction books from my own childhood are notable, mostly, for their absence. An exception is All About Strange Beasts of the Past, by Roy Chapman Andrews.
     This was perhaps the single most important volume of my childhood (an endpaper is shown — the cover was loved off). This book was probably responsible for launching my early career as a rock and fossil collector, a preoccupation that lasted into my teens.

Of course, memory — or the failure of it ­— is part of this story. I recently came across this photo of myself at a tender age “reading” what is clearly a picture book about animals, though I have no recollection of it.

But if, as far as I can recall, I had access to few illustrated stand-alone volumes about the natural world, I did have encyclopedias and field guides. The serial nature of these publications probably made an impression. My parents bought each volume of the Golden Book Encyclopedia at the grocery store as it was published (weekly, I think), and I eagerly awaited each new book. What I remember most clearly is the cover illustrations, but the interior graphics and information were fascinating as well, and quite sophisticated for the time.

I spent many hours with the Book of Knowledge, a more formal multi-volume children’s encyclopedia, and remember being particularly taken with the endpapers.

 I also owned a collection of Golden Nature Guides (Kelly Milner Halls describes her love affair with the Reptiles and Amphibians volume in her I.N.K. post of September 5th), which allowed me to identify many of the insects, snakes, field mice, and other creatures that I caught and kept in my room.

Today there are dozens of beautifully illustrated and/or photographed single-volume encyclopedias about the animal world. A few of my favorites (some of these books are written for adults, but the illustrations and photos make them accessible to young readers as well): National Geographic Animal Encyclopedia, Dorling Kindersley Encyclopedia of Animals, and Smithsonian Super Nature Encyclopedia.

My own modest contribution to this genre, the Animal Book (October 2013) is a little different. At 208 pages, it’s an encyclopedia of sorts, but the entries are more eclectic and reflect my personal interest in the animals I included in the book.

There are still field guides, of course, but also related to those Golden Nature Guides, at least in spirit, are some excellent contemporary series by single authors, often focusing on some particular aspect of math, science, and the natural world.
David Schwartz has authored several of these series, including How Much Is a Million and related books intended to illustrate large quantities; the Look Once, Look Again series, which focuses on various biomes and animal parts; and the Life Cycles series. 

Loreen Leedy’s Mission Addition, Subtraction Action, Fraction Action, and other titles dealing with math and measurement provide playful, non-threatening introductions to basic math concepts.

And April Pulley Sayre’s quirky chant series, including Trout, Trout, Trout — a Fish Chant; Ant, Ant, Ant — an Insect Chant; and Rah, Rah, Radishes — a Vegetable Chant are hilarious, infectious, and full of accurate information about their subjects.

This is by no means a complete list of nonfiction picture book series, but it covers a lot of ground.

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46. Life Changing Almost Nonfiction

   The nonfiction book that changed my life was Daniel Defoe's A JOURNAL OF THE PLAGUE YEAR.  Okay, okay, I know.  It's not really a book of nonfiction.  But when I read it at age 12, I wasn't much of a reader and didn't really care about the distinction between fiction and nonfiction.  What I knew was that I took a fancy to the notion of a gooey mega-disease killing off thousands of people, read the book and found myself wandering the streets of London with the narrator, tentitively entering shops and bars with him to see if anyone was still alive, and wondering how many dead bodies might be clogging the alleys off of Coleman Street.  Defoe and his narrator put me in the middle of a disaster and it changed my life.
   How?  To start I began reading everything I could about the Black Plague.  Not just the 1665 one that Defoe chronicles.  All of them and in any and all countries.  Right now I'm happily reading Ole J. Benedictow's (what a great name!) THE BLACK DEATH 1346 -- 1353.  Now aside from a history paper I did as a freshman in college, I've never written anything about the plague, but I can recommend a wonderful children's book entitled WHEN PLAGUE STRIKES: The Black Death, Smallpox, AIDS by James Cross Giblin.  He looks at how the arrival of these diseases created great fear and prompted nasty and sometimes hostile responses to vicitms.
   But Defoe's book also changed the way I approach my own writing.  After writing a couple of standard nonfiction books, I decided I wanted to do something a little different.  I wanted to put young readers into the middle of whatever historical event I was investigating, much as Defoe did.  But with a major difference.  He was free to invent things; I'm not.  Still, I was sure that with enough research and thought I could fashion nonfiction that read like a story (and slip in lots of important details and information and historical analysis along the way).
   How have I done?  Well, the results vary according to the subject being explored.  Some topics are information rich (especially with firsthand accounts); others not so.  One I'm particularly fond of is my AN AMERICAN PLAGUE: The True and Terrifying Story of the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793.  Because no one back in 1793 had any real scientiific knowledge of the disease I decided to write the book as a medical mystery (telling readers precisely what doctors knew about the disease in 1793 and holding back our current understanding of yellow fever until the last chapter).  I wanted kids to experience this plague just as people back then did and let them come up with their own opinions and ideas along the way.
   One example is how to view Benjamin Rush.  At the time, he was the most famous and powerful doctor in the United States, but his notion of a cure (massive amounts of bleeding and purging) probably harmed more people then it helped.  I let readers see how he came up with his cure, its impact on his patients, how he tried to bully other doctors into using his methods, and how other doctors viewed him -- all without trying to influence readers as to whether Rush was a hero or a monster.  It's one of the many instances in this book where I hope readers use critical thinking skills to form an opinion about an individual or situation.  
   Doing nonfiction books like this isn't easy (and I usually end each day with a headache as a result).  Sometimes I grumble that Defoe did this to me; most days I just sigh, thank Defoe, and see this curse as a kind of blessing.         

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47. Common Core Care Package: 5 Ways to Sneak Nonfiction into Your School-day Schedule*

1. Booktalks

If you’re a teacher-librarian, you probably already do booktalks on a regular basis, but they also work well in a classroom setting. Think of a booktalk as a 2-3minute commercial that introduces students to a book. If you teach grade 3 or higher, try modeling a booktalk a few times, and then invite your students to choose a favorite book and do booktalks of their own.
 Booktalking is a great technique for introducing your students to the classroom book collection. If you alternate between fiction and nonfiction titles, students will be exposed to a wide range of literature. By including nonfiction titles, you let students know that you value nonfiction and find it interesting to read.

2. Read-alouds
By adding nonfiction picture books to your classroom read-alouds, you provide engaging opportunities to explore content. Choose books with a varying voices so students can explore the many ways to write nonfiction and come to realize that an author's writing style often reflects content. Here are a few recommendations:

Vulture View by April Pulley Sayre

Army Ant Parade by April Pulley Sayre

The Boy Who Loved Math by Deborah Heiligman

Under the Snow by Melissa Stewart

Those Rebels, Tom and John by Barbara Kerley
Lightship by Brian Floca

When Marian Sang by Pam Munoz Ryan

Redwoods by Jason Chin

Here Is Antarctica by Madeleine Dunphy

An Egg Is Quiet by Dianna Aston Hutts

Move! by Steve Jenkins & Robin Page

Neo Leo by Gene Barretta

Dave the Potter: Artist, Poet, Slave by Laban Carrick Hill

Frog in a Bog by John Himmelman

Hello, Bumblebee Bat by Darrin Lunde

Mosquito Biteby Alexandra Siy & Dennis Kunkle

3. Use Nonfiction as Mentor Texts
When you teach writing, use high-quality trade titles (such as the ones listed above) as authentic models for structuring text, crafting beginnings and endings, choosing precise words, selecting voice, and more. Some students may understand the power of vibrant verbs, sensory details, similes, metaphors, alliteration, hyperbole, imagery, and other language devices better by interacting with examples in both fiction and nonfiction texts.

4. Pair Fiction and Nonfiction Titles on Related Topics
Reading fiction and nonfiction titles together enriches student experience by allowing them to make real-world connections to the ideas or themes of a fiction work. It also provides students who prefer nonfiction with a concrete way to approach the story. For more information about this teaching strategy and sample book pairings, see this article.

5. Give Students Opportunities to Skim and Scan Nonfiction Texts
When students have free time, encourage them to look through nonfiction titles and complete activities that involve identifying text structures, text features, key ideas, or specific language devices. You can find some sample ideas here and here and here.
*Strategies based, in part, on suggestions in Reading in the Wild: The Book Whisperer’s Keys to Cultivating Lifelong Reading Habits by Donalyn Miller with Susan Kelley (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2014).

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48. My Trusty Bike

When we first moved to Portland, OR, we lived in a condo downtown…and my life was downtown-centric.  Now, we live in a little house across the river. I love our quiet neighborhood, but it's a bit removed from the action. Several times a week, it seems like I'm commuting somewhere, and my favorite way to do this is by bike.

I hate driving, for one thing.  The bus is reliable but takes a while.  And I’ve slowly outfitted myself with a variety of bike gear—waterproof this-and-that’s, good gloves and booties, and even most recently, a truly sweet headlamp that is so high tech you just plug the whole thing in to recharge.

And then there’s the commute itself.  Portland has this wonder called the Springwater Corridor and wow is it great.  It allows me to travel much of my commute on a dedicated bike path.  No cars, just bikes, joggers…and the occasional goose.

You see, the section of the corridor I travel runs alongside the Willamette River, skirting the edge of the Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge.

As I ride, I see kayakers or crew teams in the river, and, on the other side of the trail, Great Blue Herons standing quietly in the marsh.  Three times now I have even seen a bald eagle.  There are hawks.  And in the spring, there are baby geese—Canada Geese that start out as tiny yellow puffballs and quickly grow into gangly awkward goslings.

I commute by bike a lot, and my favorite ride is to and from my critique group meetings. The commute home often proves to be almost as productive as the meeting was.

My critique partners raise good points, ask good questions, leave me wondering how on earth I am going to fix the problems I didn’t even realize were there until I went to group.

But as I start pedaling, once I’m off the busy streets and into the quiet, tree-filled, goose part of my commute, I find that I’ve started to work out those problems, without even realizing it.  I’ve had to stop my bike more than once (sometimes more than once in the same ride) to write down what I’ve just figured out while I was pedaling.

I’ve come to look forward to those rides home. And I always pack my notebook and pen in easy reach.

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49. Elementary Science Fairs in the Era of STEM and the Next Generation of Science Standards

As an author of science activity books for children, I've attended my share of elementary/middle school science fairs.  I cannot recall ever being surprised by a project or display that was particularly clever or original.  Mostly the exhibits are the predictable volcano models, electric circuits, acid-base changes detected by red cabbage juice.  Parent fingerprints are all too often all over the display and when I've asked the student about their work, they show little background or knowledge of the subject.  The “fair” aspect of the event is far more important than the science. I’d like to help change that.    Since most science fairs take place in March—two months away—NOW is the time to start.

First, there is a coming shift to looking at science as a process.  Juliana Texley, president-elect of the National Science Teachers Association, told me:
“The Next Generation Science Standards emphasize the practices of science. With respect to science fairs, the first six are most crucial: 
1. Asking questions (for science) and defining problems (for engineering)
2. Developing and using models
3. Planning and carrying out investigations
4. Analyzing and interpreting data
5. Using mathematics and computational thinking
6. Constructing explanations (for science) and designing solutions (for engineering)

 Tomorrow's science fairs will place less emphasis on winning, more on cooperation and on the pathways that were used to get to the products.”

I like the idea of kids working together.  After all, the body of knowledge we call “science” comes more from collaboration than competition.  When I researched my biography of Marie Curie, I was impressed with the eagerness she exhibited when a new journal came in the mail.  She couldn't wait to go to her own lab and repeat the experiments of colleagues in other parts of the world.  Science is the original wiki—a communal body of work. 

Playing with nature, asking testable questions, taking an initially informal, experiential approach to curiosity are the scientific behaviors that elementary students should be doing.  The formalization of experiments and the “scientific method” can be learned after there is some experience with just playing around.  My approach in my own books has always been to bring science into the world of children; let them learn something new about something familiar before subjecting them to the abstract, rigorous generalizations or laws of science that are the result of cumulative knowledge. One problem in elementary school science is that most teachers do not understand it well themselves.  They need to learn to listen to the questions of children so that they become aware of the questions that can be answered by doing something

The best science activity books for children give a reason or motivation for doing an experiment that goes beyond a “wow!” or a “so what.”  So if you’re looking for help, here are two books to get you started:  Prize-Winning Science Fair Projects for Curious Kids by Joe Rhatigan and Rain Newcomb. This book is a collection of experiments actually done by kids for science fair project that answer kid-friendly meaningful questions and show dramatic changes in otherwise ordinary items. 

My own book:  See for Yourself: More Than 100 Experiments for Science Fairs and Projects.  Projects are rated according to “challenge level” so there are quickies and then there are more ambitious projects. 

Here's a suggestion: since science touches every aspect of our universe,  find out what a child is interested in and Google it along with the word “science” and see what you get.  Experiment with other word combinations but always attach the word “science.”  Bring imagination and curiosity to the inquiry. If a question occurs to you or the child, don't dismiss it; think about it.  You just might be led down a path of creative discovery that shows you why scientists love science.

Note: I’m collecting a list of terrific science books to be published here on the I.N.K. blog at the end of January.  Please send your suggestions to me along with the link to the Amazon catalog page, a brief description of the book and an image of the cover:  email@vickicobb.com.

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Wow.  During the past three weeks or so, I’ve been following an extremely passionate and thoughtful debate on the NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English) Discussion Forum.  English teachers and their students are currently discussing Mark Twain’s famous classic, Huckleberry Finn, a book that's included on required reading lists for schools all over tarnation. And it seems that every single teacher has a different way of dealing (or not dealing) with the ever-present “N” word in Huck’s tale. 

What do the teachers have to say?  You name it:

~So should the book be banned? 
~How dare anyone even think the book should be banned!! 
~Should the “N”word be repeated aloud in class? 
~Let’s put a less offensive word in its place!
~No way….that’s verboten
~How do I keep from offending my black students?
~We’re a bunch of white men, so maybe we’re unfit to discuss such things.  
~Can the word make for a teachable moment?
~Maybe there’s another equally good book that could replace Huckleberry Finn and still get Mark Twain’s points across without using politically incorrect language.
~Why would you want to do that?  
~Mark Twain just uses the "N" word to satirize the racists' immoral behavior. 
~Should we simply have kids read certain “safe” passages and ignore the rest?
~Why can’t they take a gander at the whole tamale?
~Can we as adult teachers even use the word “nigger” with each other in this forum?
~Yes, of course! 
~NO, most certainly not!

I just looked at Mark Twain’s book as I was typing this blog, and the word is all over the place; on the first page of Chapter XLII alone, it appears 14 times.  But what does all this have to do with yours truly?

Right now, a lot. I’m writing a nonfiction picture book about the Civil War for kids ages 10 and up, and to me, many of the most riveting, memorable, candid, and revealing quotes I have ever seen anywhere come from slave narratives compiled verbatim after these people were freed. 
If anyone wants to understand what life was really like for black Americans before and during the Civil War, they should see these unfiltered stories as experienced by the genuine human beings themselves. I’ve read slave narratives by the hundreds by now, and for that reason, I’m including a few of the strongest paragraphs in my (not yet finished) manuscript.  Or at least, that’s my full intent.  This is nonfiction, so the plan is to uncover the truth, not to Bowdlerize history.

The problem is that slave narratives are liberally peppered with the ubiquitous “N” word. It was an integral part of the language back then and appears on almost every page.  Of course I’m no Mark Twain—tis to laugh— but I’m already getting the same kind of push-back Huck Finn is getting for including the word (in its proper context).  You can find the warnings I’ve gotten in the list above, and I’m getting five more: 
1)  Your book will be banned if you use that word because you ain’t Mark Twain.
2)  Yup, Mark Twain was white like you, but he’s a famous dead guy and can get away with things you can't.
3) Have fun trying to get the word nigger past your publisher.
4) Be practical. If you include the word you won’t sell a single copy. 
5)  Look out for the hate mail. 

People, get in line.  I’ve gotten push-back for writing non-Bowdlerized history plenty of times already, so why stop now?  (Even so, I’d like to know what you think…..)

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