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Writing nonfiction for children is a site for writers and readers who have an interest in children's books, especially nonfiction. We'll talk about how to write, how to research, and the many great books and writers out there.
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1. Writing Exercise - fleshing out emotions

I have the pleasure of being the nonfiction editor for the Oak Orchard Review, an online regional literary magazine. Saturday, we hosted a reading and open mic night when local writers, young and old, shared poetry, flash nonfiction, and visual art. The theme was gratitude.

For each issue, I give myself an assignment. This time I wanted to explore the physicality of emotion. Like many writers I rely on sad tears, a confused shoulder shrug, and happy smiles to show how a character is feeling. It's hard to be original.

If your writing feels too cliche when it comes to emotion, give this exercise a try: Choose a highly emotional moment in your life. Replay the scene in your mind. Let the emotions roll over you again. What sensations do you feel? Weave some of those details into a narrative of the same event.

Below is my NF piece on gratitude:


It begins here, a squeezing in my solar plexus. A sensation rises inside, pops my eardrums and shifts my scalp. I inhale deep as if for the first time.  Then let it go like a silent prayer that rises skyward. It’s the physical reaction that seems to accompany the feeling of gratitude.  I’ve felt it many times. When I see my kids sprawled all over the living room. When the sun lights up the autumn maple next door.  When our dog Bertie stands still to let the cat lick him. But I’ve felt it more so in the last 8 months since my husband was diagnosed with a rare lymphoma.
            
We’ve spent a lot of time at  Roswell Park Cancer Institute. During Fran’s first round of chemo, when reality was still raw, and my security shattered, I remember walking the halls pretending to study the paintings on the walls…
            
Giant koi swim past the thoracic clinic, and splashes of orange, pink and yellow brighten ambulatory surgery. But it’s the somber Birchfield paintings on the first floor that I’m drawn to. His mud green, grey and brown match my insides. I could walk into those brushstrokes and disappear.
             
I’ve been here long enough to know there are 68 steps between floors, the cool Dyson hand dryers are in the third floor bathrooms, and that free tea and coffee is available in the hospitality room. I want to tell all the folks waiting in line at Dunkin Donuts, but I don’t. I don’t sign the guest book in the hospitality room either. I’m a ghost floating through the corridors. I don’t want to make an impact here; don’t want to call Roswell home, although I feel safer here than anywhere else lately.
            
I could wander upstairs but those corridors are filled with nurses pushing computer carts, and patients maneuvering chemo poles and counting laps. Walking among them, reminds me how useless I am. I have no purpose other than waiting. Waiting for Fran to need something, waiting for the next bit of information to trickle in from the doctors, waiting for side effects to kick in, waiting for the kids to come home, just waiting.
            
Waiting is a heavy coat.  
            
I head up to the solarium. Other than the enormous glass window looking south over the city and beyond to the lake and the Lackawana windmills, it is just your average waiting room. There is a round dining table, small fridge, sink, and brown Naugahyde easy chairs that face the window.  I’m looking for privacy.       
            
The clothes dryer is spinning, but otherwise the room is empty. I leave the TV on for white noise, and curl up on the love seat. It’s embarrassing to admit, how often I’ve envied Fran’s plastic mattress and stiff sheets.  I hug myself and try not to cry.  It’s tricky to relax just enough to fall asleep without allowing a breach in the armor.  I need to keep fear in its cage in order to survive. 
            
The door opens. Ugh.  Someone checks the dryer.  Without my glasses, all I can see is a fuzzy form in jeans and striped shirt.  The beads in the woman’s corn rows click as she folds her clothes. She’s obviously a veteran of this cancer caregiving thing.  
            
There probably was once a time when she didn’t know about the free coffee room, or didn’t need to wash a towel and underwear, or keep a toothbrush in her purse.
            
I’d only started my residency. Will I have to do laundry someday, or put my name on cafeteria leftovers in the mini fridge?  Will I have memorized every brush stroke in “Ice Skating in Niagara Square”?  Pressure builds. Like a ship beached on a sand bar, my hull cracks. A tear leaks out. My arms tighten around me. I can do this. I don’t want to cry in front of a stranger.
           
The woman gathers her laundry as quietly as she folded it, and leaves.  I can’t hold back any longer and weep into my sleeve.
            
The door opens again.  I stop breathing. I hope it’s not a whole family. I just want to be alone.  If I pretend to sleep maybe they’ll go away.  I think, maybe I should go back to Fran’s room, although if he’s chatty I won’t be able to sleep there either.  And I needsleep. 
            
Something warm lands on my feet, my hip, my shoulder.  The weight of the heated blanket melts my muscles. My steeled interior collapses.  Such a gift. My ears pop, and my scalp shifts.  I breathe volumes. The chemo will work. Fran will be well.
            
Click, clack. A blur of blue slips out the door.  Lifting her up in prayer, I exhale. 
             
                                                                        *****

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2. Nonfiction for New Folks



Jump start your writing career with nonfiction!

Sign up for Nonfiction for New Folks conference in Fredericksburg, TX on October 9-12th. What else are you doing on Columbus day weekend?

I will be there to talk about writing biographies, research, and voice in nonfiction. The enthusiastic Steve Swinburne will show us how to write lively science, and Kristi Holl, will help us break into the educational market. Pat Miller, the brain child of this unique event, will give us the librarian's perspective, while Kelly Loughman, Associate Editor at Holiday House will show us the editor's point of view. And that's just the beginning.

We promise lots of information, lots of fun, and a head start on your new career as a nonfiction writer.

Hope to see you there!

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3. The Nonfiction Minute



Get on the ground floor of the next big thing in nonfiction! THE NONFICTION MINUTE is a website where teachers will find a new short nonfiction article written by one of dozens of award-winning nonfiction authors including Dorothy Hinshaw Patent (winner of the 2014 Edward O. Wilson Biodiversity Technology Pioneer Award For Exemplary Advocation of Biodiversity Through the Authorship of Children's Science Literature), Jim Murphy, whose books have earned two Newbery honors, history writer/illustrator Cheryl Harness (and even me).

The NF Minute is the easy and accessible way teachers and students can incorporate nonfiction in the classroom. Passages are only 400 words long, and feature fun facts and true stories that can spark a discussion, illustrate a writing technique, or inspire a reluctant reader to investigate on his own.

If you like what you see, become part of the movement to bring quality NF to students everywhere. Visit the NF Minutes Indiegogo page and donate today.




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4. Balancing Writing With Life - or - Why I haven't written a post in 4 months


Just in case anyone out there wondered why I haven't written anything since April 1st, it is because my husband was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer called Double-Hit Lymphoma, which threw us into a new reality -- one where writing took a backseat. Actually writing blew out the window as we raced through 6 rounds of in-hospital chemos, and clung by its fingertips to the rear bumper hoping we'd hit a stop light soon. And we did. For the last couple of weeks, we have been preparing for Fran's bone marrow transplant, which he'll have at the end of the month. Honestly, I still feel like I'm inside a centrifuge where the force of cancer in our lives is pressing me against the walls of  sanity, but that is another blog entirely.

HOWEVER - I thought I'd try to scrape the shredded remnants of  my writing life off the undercarriage, and see if I could find a better safer place for it to sit among my bulging baggage.  Basically, I need to find a better balance between Writing and Life. Throwing writing out the window was my way of staying afloat when I thought I was sinking. And I'm lucky I can do that. Millions of writers depend on the sale of their words to buy groceries and pay medical bills. My husband's teacher's salary does that.  But, I'm a writer. And when I stopped writing, part of me stopped functioning.

So-- here is my new game plan.  I will write at least one blog a week. Even if it is to tell you how I'm doing. I will attempt to keep it nonfiction focused so that you learn something as well.  I will start to do some Natalie-Goldberg-style-free-writing, ten minutes a day, to work the kinks out of my brain.  Don't know about Natalie Goldberg?  Well, then you are about to learn something. She is a wonderful author and teacher who wrote Writing Down the Bones, and Thunder and Lightning, as well as other books on the writing life.
I've been rereading her books while sitting at Roswell. What I love about her is that she is truly a nonfiction writer who uses all the soul and art of fiction and poetry to make her true stories come alive. Many fiction writers read her, but I think nonfiction writers can learn even more from her candor and guts.

If you would like to help me in this effort, you can bug me if I miss a week, offer suggestions for posts you'd like to see, ask me questions about nonfiction, writing, life, and share my posts with others.

And-- if you have gone through a bone marrow transplant or know someone with double-hit lymphoma and have uplifting news, I would love to hear from you.






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5. Responding to Copy Editor's Comments - don't be snarky!

It's that time of year again - when I'm up to my nostrils with school visits, preparing for conferences, and trying to work on a new project - when a manuscript comes back from the copy editor. My first response is always an involuntary cringe. I appreciate the copy editor because they can do what I can't - remember what a gerund is and when you capitalize president. But they inevitably make me feel stupid for the same reason. And I've never done well with having a spotlight shined on my ignorance, although I do mention it in school visits so other kids know that even bad spellers and the punctuation-impaired can be a writer.

So, I get the manuscript back, and for those of you who don't know, today's manuscripts are edited using the Track Changes on the word program. I prefer the old way - penciled-in notes in the margins and post-its flapping along the right edge of the page. Mainly because I have yet to learn the proper way to deal with Track Changes. And when I edit, I don't just rewrite a single time, I might start a new sentence, then back track and start again, and again, and the blasted things keeps track of all my back tracking so that my editor and anyone else who looks will know how indecisive I am. I don't like anyone knowing my awkward and pokey writing process.  But there it is.

So, I get the manuscript back and the first thing I do is flip through every page to see how many comments I have to deal with . And this time, I didn't have very many.  49 comments spread over 17 pages. You do the math. That's not rhetorical, I'm asking, please do the math, 'cause that's another thing I don't do well. But 49 that's not bad. for me anyway.  So, right away, I'm happy.

The second thing I do is get my pencil out and go over each comment. I like the easy ones that I can just say "ok" to, like adding "The U.S." in front of Congress. Or changing a the for his.  OK takes care of nearly half of the comments. Great.

Then I read the other comments and put it aside until the next day when I'll have more time to pull out my research and double check things like names of organizations -- Was it the Parisian Society of Agriculture or the Society of Agriculture of Paris?  Was Meriwether Lewis TJ's only secretary? If so, then add commas before and after his name.

The hardest part is to not make snarky remarks when the comments are: "South American may be considered part of the New World, but that may not be clear to readers. And AU's (author. ME!) argument is that TJ wanted people to come to the US, so holding up the superiority of a South America tapir doesn't seem logical to me." Now I know you don't know what all this is about, but basically, that's what TJ did. He bragged about a tapir being larger than European animals that this other guy had bragged about.  So, I just reported it. Blame TJ, not me.

And on another page I call the moose magnificent. The comment said, "Magnificent seems subjective." I guess a moose has never wandered into the copy editor's cubby. But if one did, I'm pretty sure that, after peeing oneself,  even a copy editor would be pretty impressed with a 7-foot-tall ungulate. I think they are magnificent, and i'st my book, so there!

Eventually, I hold my tongue, thank the gods above for copy editors who second guess me, question me, and always make my text better than it was before.

So -- always read through the comments carefully, then answer the easy ones first. Give yourself time to research the questions that need to be backed up with a source note, and hold your tongue when they say something that you think is silly. In the end, you have the final say..... unless your editor vetoes it.


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6. Happy World Read Aloud Day!

Consider reading NONFICTION!!

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7. President's Day Activities with Farmer George Plants a Nation, part 2

Washington as a Scientist

Ask students what it means to be a scientist. Make a list of the qualifications of a scientist as they understand it. They might say, “Conducting experiments, going to college, being smart…” Write them all done.

Science is a way to acquire knowledge through observation and experimentation. The classic scientific method includes Observation/Research, Hypothesis, Prediction, Experimentation, and Conclusion.

Now ask if George Washington was a scientist. Reread the passages on page 11. Make a list of the ‘sciencey’ things he did.

He made observations and recorded them. He kept a daily diary where he noted the weather, what was happening on his farm, and what occurred in each test plot. Let the students see some of George’s original observations (see below).

Are we sure that he stated a clear hypothesis? — He asked a question - What fertilizer works best?

In a way, he predicted that the best fertilizer would be among the handful of manures and other composted material that he chose to observe.

And he experimented –Washington used ten boxes of similar size, the same number of seeds and a single variable -- the fertilizer. Locate in his diary, Monday, April 14, 1760., to read the full description of the quote I used on page 11 in FG.

What was George’s purpose in doing these experiments? And what did he do with the knowledge he learned? Why?


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8. President's Day Activities with Farmer George Plants a Nation - Part 1


Each week in February, I will post a new lesson that can be used with Farmer George Plants a Nation.  This week it is all about  Mapping Mount Vernon.  

MAPPING MOUNT VERNON:
On the end papers of Farmer George, is a map of Mount Vernon that Washington drew in 1793. Compare that to the map he create twenty-seven years earlier in 1766. How do the two maps compare? Locate a modern map of the area. What differences do you see?  What features have remained unchanged?  Discuss how maps show changes over time, and the kinds of information you can learn from a map.  




Sources: 
Library of Congress, Maps in our Lives - www.gov/exhibits/maps/maps-exhibit.html
Mount Vernon - www.mountvernon.org
Rand McNally - www.randmcnally.com

Can be used in relation to these and other Common Core and Next Generation Standards:
CCSS ELA – Reading Informational Text 4, 5, 6 ;  CCSS ELA- Lit Reading History, Integration of Knowledge and Ideas ;  CCSS ELA-  Lit Writing-4, 5, 6 ; CCSS Math, 4-5 Measurement and Data.A.1;  4 &5-ESS1-1;  4&5 ESS2-2, Earth’s Systems;  4&5 ESS3, Earth and Human Activities.



L

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9. How to Create Vivid Imagery and Mood

Working on revisions again -- still. And I thought I'd share one technique I use to weave in specific imagery  and create a particular mood for the reader. It's just a list of words, in this case, agricultural words that I might use to reflect the point I am trying to make, namely that Jefferson grew a nation. You can be fancy and call it an image system, 'cause it's the same thing - a list.


I won't use every word on the list. That would be overkill. The list just reminds me of what I can do if I find myself using dull words like use, sent, or did. Instead, TJ can harness, or scatter, or cultivate....  My mother used to do this when she wrote poetry, and I'm still finding pages with word lists on them. Sometimes I can tell which project she was working on by the words - creepy, crawly words for the Big Bug Book, holey words for a poem about animals that dig. 

Exercise: Make your own word list for the project you're working on now.  Think of the connections you want to make. What is your subject matter?  Use a thesaurus to get you started, but don't stop there. Go heavy on verbs because they carry the action and will be most useful. 

You'll reap a more vivid text that blooms with multiple layers of meaning.  


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10. Writing a Biography -- How do I start?

Just the other day someone asked me about writing biographies. "How do I start?"  I'm always perplexed by such a question because if you know you want to write a biography, you must have already started. I can't imagine choosing the general genre before choosing a person to write about. It's like planning the wedding before you meet the guy.


The first thing you have to do is fall in love (or at least become infatuated with) a character. And usually the subject of a gotta-read biography has character --  faults and ambitions, temperament and talent, a singular drive or a mass of contradictions -- something that makes her stand out.  Think of Thomas Jefferson's bipolar emancipator on paper/slave holder lifestyle. Shirley Chisholm's ramrod opinions. Einstein the sock-less daydreamer.

Above all, the person has to act. Just like a novel, a biography has to move.  And usually it is this action that initially draws you to a subject. For example, Homan Walsh flew a kite over the Niagara River that started the bridge to Canada. But it is his character that drives the story in The Kite that Bridged Two Nations by Alexis O'Neil.

But a great act doesn't always signal a great biography. I've come across a lot of acts in history that sounded like it would make a good story, but either the character wasn't there, or wasn't kid-friendly, or there wasn't enough information to go on. Further research resulted  in a dead end. Don't discard those names, though. Those types of leads make a good basis for a fictional story where you can fill in the blanks.

Once you've fallen in love. Test the waters. Can you live together?  Is this person interesting enough to spend months, years with?  Will you begrudge him for taking over your dining room table and spilling onto the floor? How about your family? Will they withstand listening to the constant barrage of boring facts that you find fascinating? If you answered yes, then you've got yourself a new roommate.

Now ask yourself if this person is book-worthy.  You might be star-struck, but would a kid find it as interesting? Will an editor?  Should kids know about this person?  This is always a hard question to ask. But if you want to publish through traditional channels it is something you have to look at.

Ask: Are there any books already out there?  If no, ask why?  Maybe your character doesn't fit neatly into a curriculum niche. Editors don't like that because it makes it harder to sell.  Maybe the subject matter is inappropriate for a young age. I've had people comment that Shirley Chisholm would be hard to put in a picture book because the politics would be over the reader's heads.  Or maybe you've found something truly new to offer.

If yes, then ask yourself, "What am I bringing to the table that is different than what is already out there?" This is key. A well-written biography can sit on the shelf a long time. Give the librarian a reason to buy a new title on the same subject. Are you going to include newly discovered information?  Can you find a new slant on the subject. That's what I did with Farmer George Plants A Nation. GW's farming was a new take on a very overdone subject.

In order to answer all of these questions, you've had to have done a fair amount of research already, which means you have already started. So you shouldn't be asking me, "How do I start?"  You should be writing!

So should I. Bye!

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11. What's he going to do next?

It's that time of year again. Time to regroup and get back on track, because if you are like me, you've fallen off the writing wagon. (enough cliches for you?) I am not very disciplined and can easily be led astray by Christmas shopping, decorating, watching old movies, eating cookies, napping.... And I'm just now trying to get back to the projects that I left behind two weeks ago, namely, revisions for a Thomas Jefferson biography.

My major job, according to my editor, is to rethink the structure and clarify the theme. She said, "You want your reader to ask, "What's he going to do next?"" A great question for anyone who is writing a biography. What she means is that each scene has to be dynamic and build to the next one. Keep the action moving. That can be difficult when TJ basically instructed everyone else into action. And a picture book would be pretty boring showing TJ at his writing desk page, after page, after page. So, I have a lot of thinking to do.

Here's to you and to writing in the New Year!
Cheers!


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12. Where Nonfiction Writers Stand on CCSS


Hi,
I just wanted to share a post that Vicki Cobb wrote about the CCSS. Amid the noise of educators, administrators, parents, politicians, publishers, critics, and cheerleaders, there is Vicki who sees the CCSS as an opportunity to raise awareness about the existence of children's nonfiction and how it can be used to help children achieve the standards. Check her out at Huffington Post -

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/vicki-cobb/an-irresistible-invitatio_b_4489450.html?utm_source=Alert-blogger&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Email%2BNotifications

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13. Feeling Like a Rock Star in Chicago

I spent this last weekend at the Illinois Farm Bureau's conference in Chicago, and had a nano-taste of what a rock star must feel like. I never met so many people who had 1. heard of one of my books, and 2. wanted me to sign them. I actually had a line!!!

This adulation was all thanks to one of the best PR guys I have ever met -- Kevin Daugherty -- and his staff at Illinois Ag in the Classroom.  I gave a presentation to classroom teachers and Ag in the Classroom folks, who help teachers incorporate agriculture into their lessons. I spoke about how I came to write Farmer George (a family vacation trip to Mount Vernon), how I wrote it (over many revisions) and how it almost didn't fill the requirements of an "Ag book" (depicting agriculture accurately) because I had written "pushed the plow" (you guide the plow while an oxen pulls it).

I was just the warm up act. After the break, Kevin then showed how Farmer George can start a discussion about seeds, soil, compost, and horses with simple activities and additional materials from their magazines. Kevin even got the rarely-sighted man in the audience to make a Soil Sam by filling a knee-high stocking (non-reinforced!) with grass seed and soil. Anyone interested in these activities can access a PDF of the booklet here: http://www.agintheclassroom.org/TeacherResources/Lesson%20Booklets/Farmer%20George%20Plants%20a%20Nation%20Lessons.pdf  It gives directions to make Soil Sam, as well as several lessons on trees, horses, and my favorite, milling wheat.

And I've added additional lesson ideas (not ag related) on my website http://www.peggythomaswrites.com/Teacher-s-Guides.html.

Enjoy!



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14. Everybody's Talking Nonfiction

Had a wonderfully busy day at the Rochester Children's Book Festival on Saturday. More than once I heard, "Oooh, nonfiction," and saw eyes go wide. Not the normal response I've had in the past. I remember one year sitting between Ellen Stoll Walsh, author/illustrator of the bright toddler books,

Mouse Paint and Mouse Count, and a YA author (whose name I can't recall).  Trying to smile and not feel slighted as a line of new moms with strollers formed to my right, and a throng of heart-throbbing preteen girls crowded the author to my left, I rearranged my bookmarks and pretended to make a shopping list.

Although people weren't queuing up before me on Saturday, nobody discouraged a child holding one of my books by saying,  "Oh, let's find a real book." (Honest- that really happened to me.)

At 1:00, I spoke to a healthy group (more than 3) of teachers and folks interested in nonfiction ( or putting their feet up for 20 minutes) about how to use nonfiction in the classroom. My main point was -- Read nonfiction not only for its subject matter, but also for its structure, voice, and style that was chosen by the author to compliment the subject.  Other than librarians and book reviewers, not many people think about the whole package. Most people just focus on the facts, not how it is delivered.  But a nonfiction author spends a lot of time and effort figuring out how to tell their true story, and it should be appreciated.

For example, I didn't use nearly a dozen bird analogies in For the Birds: the life of Roger Tory Peterson just 'cause I thought it'd be fun, although it was. I did it to get my point across that Roger had a close affinity to birds, real close (not like that), but he felt more at home with birds, a kinship that made him seem bird-like in many respects. Using figurative language shows that relationship, so I don't have to blurt out - he was like a bird.

I think nearly every trade nonfiction title you pick up can and should be appreciated for its form as well as content. And in the future, I'll post more examples. But now I have to go grocery shopping, 'cause I cleaned out my fridge and now it's empty.   




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15. Ducks in a Row -- Keeping Reference Material Organized - Or Not

I must confess that my flush of ducks (that's what they're called) are rampaging across the fields, squeezing through fences, and leaping out of my arms. In other words, I stink at keeping my reference materials organized. I try, I really do. I even used index cards this time. Each little fact and quote on a card, organized chronologically, then by subject, or by larger theme, then collage-style all over the floor.

I use a notebook or two or three, sometimes a loose leaf one, I photocopy like crazy, and this time, even scanned in texts and images, so I had references on file. I especially need to have everything in my possession, which means I buy books, lots of them. So, with all of this paperwork and digital files, why is it still such a chore organizing everything to send to my editor? I've spent days shuffling through papers trying to find a specific reference that I had my hands on minutes before.

I think a lot has to do with the way I collect everything, and yet can only include a small amount of that info in a 48 page book. But if I didn't research deeply, I wouldn't know the background behind the Louisiana Purchase and not just the date it happened. I wouldn't make connections between TJ's early life and what he did later on, or find just the right detail or quote to make the idea come to life.

So, I guess I'll live with my dysfunctional organizational style as long as I get the story right.
I think I got the story right.
Did I get the story right?
That's another blog post altogether.

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16. A Passion for the Real Thing at Easy Read



This week I wrote a guest blog post at Easy Read System about a few of my favorite nonfiction books for kids. Check it out. http://www.easyreadsystem.com/news/a-passion-for-the-real-thing/





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17.

Get Caught Reading!
at the
Saturday, Nov. 16, 2013, 
10am - 4pm

MEET
• Amelia Bedelia
• Curious George
• Over 40 popular authors and illustrators
• local celebrities

FREE
• Admission
• Parking
• Face Painting
• Crafts
• Give-aways

Monroe Community College,
1000 E Henrietta Rd,
Rochester, NY. Follow signs to the Flynn Campus Center!
Visit www.RCBFest.com for more information!

 HOPE TO SEE YOU THERE!

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18. Author Interview

While at last fall's ASJA conference, I sat down with the folks of AuthorLearningCenter. Here are a couple of short clips from that interview.

Organizing School Visits

The iPad Effect

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19. Work In Progress -- Vocab Lessons

Thomas Jefferson wrote prolifically -- more than 18,000 letters, a garden book, a farm book, an account book, a weather journal, one book, and a declaration among other things. His writing was insightful, thorough, direct, and clear as long as the reader was born before skirts rose above the ankle.


So, I've had, on occasion, difficulty figuring out what he means. Some of his text can be convoluted, sound contrary, and include words I've never seen before.  But I'm enjoying TJ's vocab lessons. So far I have learned compromitted, which means to pledge or promise, OR to put in danger or compromise. Then there is usufruct - the legal right to profit from property belonging to someone else.  My favorite so far is promptitude. Exactly what it sounds like -- the characteristic of being prompt. 

So, thanks TJ. And thanks for my new way of signing off.

PE: Thomas




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20. I Finally Got It!

After months of research and rooting around for a lead that will capture a reader's attention, set the tone, and establish the theme, I finally found it. Or at least I think I have. I won't tell you what it is because it might change.  If it stays the same and appears in the published version I'll tell you then.

The best feeling in the world is finally getting it. It doesn't even compare with seeing your book finally in print, 'but it comes close to how you feel when you get that contract, although it's better. Way better for me, because now I know I can write this book. Before I found it, I was flailing around doing too much research on tangential subjects. I'm the kind of writer who needs to know where I'm starting. I find it hard to move forward without it. It not only sets the tone for the reader, but also for me as I continue on through the manuscript. What literary devices have I set up that I can play with throughout the rest of the text?  What imagery can I return to?  When I come full circle, where will I end up? If I know the beginning then I know the end.

So, now that I've found it, I'm feeling pretty pumped. Then what do I do? I show it to someone. Never do that. I expected him/her (For full anonymity) to be just as excited. They weren't.

But that's okay. Because it doesn't matter anyway. My brain has already moved on to the next bit and I'm on a roll.



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21. Secondary sources for guidance and understanding: Researching Thomas Jefferson

I spent two days at the Thomas Jefferson library near Monticello cruising through the bound transcripts of his Papers, and browsing the stacks.  Although primary sources are the gold standard, I find equally precious gems in secondary sources. Gasp! Did I really say that? Yes, I did, and here’s why.
                Unless you are a veteran scholar of TJ and have spent your career steeped in his work, then you need some guidance to the immense amount of writing the man left behind. Jefferson wrote some 18,000 letters (compared to his contemporaries who wrote about 5000), and then there are the letters he received, political missives, declarations, summaries, essays, financial memorandum, travel journals, daily notations in a farm book, garden book, and  meteorological data covering more than 60 years. That’s a lot of stuff to plow through.  Thankfully scholars have done much of the shoveling for you. Some clear a better path than others, and that’s where a great librarian is invaluable showing you who to trust and what to steer clear of.  Anna Berkes at the TJ library is one of those librarians.
               Besides the sheer volume of Jefferson’s legacy, you also need help understanding what he and others of his time meant.  The overly polite courtesies of 18th century letter writing can be tedious to slog through. Several times I found myself thinking, “Get on with it, already.”  On the other hand they were conscientious enough to future readers to note which letters they were referring to. They had to – after all, letters took days and weeks to reach their destination.  
               It's harder to 'get' 18 thcentury sarcasm.  When were they being snarky? When were they joking?  Thomas and one of his college buddies often wrote letters of their great adventures trying to top the other one. So, some of the adventures TJ wrote about never happened.  How would I know that if Kevin Hayes, author of Road to Monticello, hadn’t told me? 

               So, thank you Anna and Jack at the Thomas Jefferson Library for locating documents for me, and thank you to Betts, Boyd, Padover, Hatch, Peterson,  Meacham, Hayes, Thomson, Wulf, Dugatkin, and all the writers who have come before me who are helping me understand one of the most amazing men in history.

               

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22. Reading Nonfiction

Hi,

Just thought I'd pass along this article on NPR on "How to Get Kids Hooked on Nonfiction Books this Summer. Holly Korbey interviewed founder of iNK Think Tank Vicki Cobb. She included a reading list too. Check it out.
 http://blogs.kqed.org/mindshift/2013/07/how-to-get-kids-hooked-on-nonfiction-books-this-summer/

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23. A Passion for the Real Thing


                                                    
Growing up, I spent a lot of time in the nonfiction section at the local library. My passions varied. Sometimes it was Indian lore and how to make a teepee (mine never stayed up), horses, kitchen science, or true ghost stories at Halloween.  Basically I preferred the real world over a fictional one.  I still do. That’s probably why I write nonfiction for kids today. 

I’m proud to be part of a cadre of writers who are constantly coming up with amazing true stories and innovative ways to tell them. There is narrative nonfiction written with a story arc, books with two tiers of text to hook children reading at different levels, and books that dig deep into subjects kids care about.  Here are just a few of my favorites:


Rah, Rah Radishes! A Vegetable Chant by April Pulley Sayre is a rollicking rhyme through a farmer’s market.  A great read-aloud for little ones (and teenage grocery clerks who don’t know bok choy from broccoli). 

Seeing Symmetry by Loreen Leedy will catch a young reader’s eye with the tiger on the cover. And the clear text and bright artwork inside will have your child checking out the symmetry in your face, your food, your furniture….   

Older students will enjoy Those Rebels, John & Tom. Author Barbara Kerley turns stone-faced historical figures John Adams and Thomas Jefferson into real people who worked together and argued to create a nation.  Edwin Fotheringham’s humorous art perfectly captures Kerley’s take on these two amazing men.
You can follow that up with Thomas Jefferson Builds a Libraryby Barb Rosenstock. It tells the story of how book-crazy Jefferson helped create the Library of Congress.  Each page is filled with John O’Brien’s rich illustrations and primary source quotes.
   
Need to explain the Big Bang? Then grab Older than the Stars by Karen C. Fox. The main text written in the style of The House That Jack Built can be read by young readers, but those interested in the science behind the “puffs” and “bangs” can read the side text about atoms of helium and hydrogen,  gravity and galaxies.


A Black Hole Is Not a Hole is a fun look at a dark subject.  Carolyn Cinami DeCristofano’s conversational style is right on target for any curious middle-schooler (or adult) who wants to know how scientists know about stuff they can’t see.  

So, if your child gravitates to the nonfiction section of the library – Celebrate their passions! Together you can learn about lizards, or lasers, or (like one kid in my neighborhood) Liberace (and hope the fad fades fast). 


For more award-winning nonfiction ideas checkout http://inkthinktank.com/.

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24. Vicki Cobb on Nonfiction and Literacy

The other day, Vicki Cobb, science writer, speaker, and founder of iNK Think Tank spoke with Mark Gura in a Literacy Special Interest podcast. Hang in there, Mark is a little coma-inducing, but when Vicki gets on you'll perk right up.

My favorite part is her description of story and communicating with an audience.  She says, "The way that story gets processed through [ a nonfiction writer's] brains and comes out through their fingertips on the keyboard is where the humanity comes in, in the storytelling of the real world." She goes on to say, "It is revealed humanity -- who you are as a human being -- that is the subtext, the common denominator of all authentic communication. That's how you connect with people."

Check out more at -

 

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25. I Can't Handle the Truth! - Nonfiction Anxiety

I spoke with my editor about the biography I’m writing about Thomas Jefferson. An email on Monday said she’d call on Friday.  Nerve-racking anticipation for 4 days not knowing if she’ll have good news for me, or, as I always assume, bad news.

This time my fears were unfounded. She had great ideas and suggestions for me, as usual. I appreciate that she is my fresh pair of eyes.  I have been living with my words for months, so I no longer see gaps in the narrative, or places where I’ve tickled a reader’s interest but not scratched the itch.  And then there are places where I haven’t supported my theme. I’ve stated it, but not shown the proof.  So, it’s back to research to find those details in history that illustrate the nation growing as a result of Thomas Jefferson’s influence.

I opened the fourth volume of Dumas Malone’s biography of TJ and reread his introduction. He says: “Anyone who essays to write the biography of a President must familiarize himself as best he can with major events and developments in the country as a whole, and if dealing with an age when international relations were of prime importance to the Republic, he should try to see things in their world setting. He can hardly know too much about times and circumstances and, as I am well aware he is likely to know too little to orientate his subject properly.” 
   
His last line makes me feel that I am in good company. Malone spent some 40 years studying and writing about TJ, and yet he still had moments where he felt like he didn’t know enough.  How arrogant I am to attempt to excise a sliver of TJ’s life and offer it to children with any kind of confidence. I hope the 13 books I have stacked on my desk will help. (I know that a replica of TJ’s revolving book stand would help. It held 5 books open at once for easing viewing. That is the one thing I wanted at the Monticello gift shop and the only thing they don’t sell. I could have gotten TJ bookmarks, coasters, wine racks, tea towels… but no book stand.) The hours I have spent reading his letters online and at the TJ library have to count for something, too. 

I sometimes wonder why I write nonfiction. I can't handle the truth! A minefield of potential errors stretch out in front of me, and that’s not including my normal angst for making mistakes. Dates can be wrong, names can get screwed up, events misconstrued, and you know there are thousands of TJ enthusiasts who are ready to pounce on any little misstep. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve typed 1983 rather than 1783, and written Madison when I meant to write Monroe.  Clearly, I have to get these two guys defined in my head so that I have just as sharp an image of them as I do of TJ or George Washington. 

When you write a biography, you are never writing about one person or one time or one event. You are always chasing down a succession of details that radiate out from your subject like ripples around a stone plunked into a still lake. Where do you stop? When the ripples or details take you back to shore? No. Then you double back verifying those bits of information as they radiate back to the source to make sure that, yes, those pieces fit. Those connections connect. His cause had an effect, and vice versa.

See where I could go wrong?  Why do I do this, again? 


Oh, yeah. I love it.  

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