Last month I wrote a post about lyrical language and many of you had great comments. Thanks so much! Jan Greenberg mentioned the role of sensory words in creating lyrical prose, and I couldn’t agree more. In fact, for today’s post, I’ve decided to highlight some of my favorite examples of writing that is enriched by sensory details.
Sensory details can really bring a piece of prose to life. Why is appealing to the five senses so powerful? Because they are how we experience and interpret the real, 3-D word we encounter every day.
Sights, sounds, and especially smells can instantly transport our minds to a specific time and place, an event from 10, 20, 30 or more years ago. They can also transport us to a time and place described in a book. Consider the following examples. Two are from adult books and one is from a book written by one of my fellow I.N.K. bloggers.
From Gorillas in the Mist by Dian Fossey“Sound preceded sight. Odor preceded sound in the form of an overwhelming musky-barnyard, humanlike scent. [Then we heard] a high-pitched series of screams followed by a rhythmic rondo of sharp pok-pok chestbeats . . . The three of us froze until the echoes of the screams and chestbeats faded. Only then did we creep forward under the cover of the dense shrubbery to about 50 feet from the group. Peeking through the vegetation, we could [see] . . . furry-headed [gorillas] peering back at us.”
From The Outermost House by Henry Beston“I like a good smell—the smell of a freshly plowed field on a warm morning after a night of April rain, . . . the morning perfumes of lilacs showery with dew, the good reek of hot salt grass and low tide blowing from
I had a big essay for today but it seemed like overstuffing the turkey. I'm imagining we're all just creeping back to work. So, I'm going minimal and bloggish with what I'm thinking, via linking. Here is much of what I what I was going to say. Consider it a peek at what a nf writer outlines before they, um . . . write!
WHAT I DIG
Gloppy, tongue-tangling words
Maria Montessori (My K-5 years)
The wisdom of Kurt Hahn, founder of Outward Bound
The six declines of modern youth
Bio and quotes
The Children and Nature Network
The Global Education Conference where Dorothy Hinshaw Patent and I presented
OUTDOORS. PLAY. PIE. Need I say more?
Writing this blog made me sick to my stomach. I often feel this way about blog writing. Because I don't like just throwing written words out there, willy-nilly. I like having editors. Blogging is just running around nude, not even getting dressed. And believe me, you don't want me streaking.
With all the recent talk of author power, hooray, publish-your-own-books, digital freedom, I'm going to temporarily crawl in my curmudgeonly corner. Yeah, I like freedom and I'm a longtime Mac head, videographer, photographer techno-geek. But, I WANT MY EDITORS! I want their counsel, their expertise, their push which makes the work better. I want their understanding umbrella, their picky questions, finding mistakes I did not see. My name and often an illustrator's name are on the books. But our editors (and designers and others) have made our work what it is. Just because we CAN wear all the hats and create something ourselves doesn't mean we should. Or that the work would be of comparable quality.
Authors and illustrators tend to remember, and relate, the times when they were right and editors were wrong. Yes, it happens. I still have a ghost words in my head, words that I sneak in at public readings even though they were cut from the final books. (Rebellious author moments!) But, oh, the improvements that have been made in my work by editors that pushed me. Better endings. Better wording. Deeper character. Better flow. I've learned so much from them over the years. I don't think enough readers appreciate the vast teams of people that work on each children's book. I'm not sitting in offices with these folks. But they are part of my daily work life. Bouncing text back and forth with them is productive, a satisfying, sometimes humorous, give-and-take. Hair-pulling hard work at times.
Recently, there were two places in a manuscript that were excellent. Yet whenever I read over them, I felt a faint tickle in my brain. The pieced flowed beautifully, so I sent it in. The manuscript returned from the editor. She had called me on each of those spots—pressing me, asking if something might somehow be better. I laughed to realize that she was echoing an instinct I'd had but couldn't follow without inquiry and encouragement.
Having a great editor on a project frees me to do what I do best—play with language, dig into concepts, explore, and experiment. Occasionally, I need reigning in. For a sometime picture book writer, I can get awfully wordy on occasion. Maybe a bit rambling. Oh, had you noticed that? Well, what do you expect? This is a BLOG, PEOPLE!
April Pulley Sayre
This month I also have a nonfiction blog post about animals that hop, hosted on the Under the Green Willow blog. It's linked to a my fiction book, If You're Hoppy, which was released this week. (Shock! Horror! She writes… fiction?) Rest assured, the text of the
The Problem of Knowing
Nonfiction has, at its roots, knowing. Paying attention to the real world. At times, that causes pain for reader and writer. No better time than the past few weeks of tsunami, earthquake, nuclear disaster, bombings, and the like to bring this to the fore. It's been a challenging for anyone watching the news and taking the time to understand the pain and problems for our planet and its people.
During the first thirteen years of my career, when I wrote environmental articles and books for adults and middle grade students, full time, I faced this issue a lot. Acid rain, deforestation, global warming, endangered species—you name it, I wrote about it, while working at National Wildlife Federation, interning at Nat Geo, and, later, authoring 27 middle grade books about biomes, continents, endangered species and the like. Been there. Seen stuff. So the issue of personal grieving about the planet's issues has been an ongoing process for me.
Unfortunately, my young readers don't yet know that the world can go through these horrible things and regular life will still go on, at least for those of us not directly impacted. Only experience can really give you that, although comforting grandmas, grandpas, aunties and other elders, can help, too.
As a writer about the environment, I've built an internal wall, the same wall that most folks build with age. This past week, by dropping that wall, I could walk away from the news barrage and plant peas, and do a school visit, a teacher inservice, a young author's conference where we celebrated words and wildness and, for a time, did not try to generate anything but sheer animal joy. Thank you, wall, you come in handy. Just don't stay closed.
The act of writing and reading, fortunately, seems to heal our brains, too. For me, science has a comfort to it: the comfort of being small, of being connected to the wondrous. That was why I wrote Stars Beneath Your Bed: The Surprising Story of Dust. Or Trout Are made of trees. But on a daily basis, here's what I use for my shot of big thinking as healing:
Astronomy Picture of the Day.
My husband keeps me updated on the number of earthlike planets estimated, which seems to keep increasing. Cool!
Just thinking about this kind of stuff lifts you out of everyday.
Ted Talks. Big thinkin
April is poetry month so it seems like a good time to celebrate jumping, thumping, nonfiction words. (Is any word not "nonfiction"?)
Below I've assembled sound samples to help in teaching language joy via my chant books. These books are a celebration of words, rhythm, rhyme, and biodiversity. (The newest celebrates veggies, farmer's markets, and farmers, too.)
After a quick reading of my upcoming (Beach Lane Books/S&S/June 14, 2011) book, Rah, Rah, Radishes: a Vegetable Chant, a 6-year old spontaneously practices, is able to chant a section, and has made up some dance moves to go with it. RahRahRadishesOutLoud
Here I teach the new chant to a large group, line-by-line. Rah Rah Radish youngauthorsconf
I teach word-by-word and challenge a group: Teaching Insect Chant
An older student rhythmically reads Bird, Bird, Bird_ A Chirping Chant
Here I perform a high speed version of the Fish Chant End
Another activity is to divide up into teams and have each act out a stanza of the chant. I wish I had video of what creative teachers did performing Ant, Ant, Ant: An Insect Chant during a recent inservice.
By: James Preller,
Blog: James Preller's Blog
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This is amazing good news. Great news, in fact. I’m happy and proud to say that my book, Bystander, is included on the ballot for the 2012 New York State Reading Association Charlotte Award.
To learn more about the award, and to download a ballot or bookmark, please click here.
The voting is broken down into four categories and includes forty books. Bystander is in the “Grades 6-8/Middle School” category. Really, it’s staggering. There are ten books in this category out of literally an infinity of titles published each year. You do the math, people.
For more background stories on Bystander — that cool inside info you can only find on the interwebs! — please click here (bully memory) and here (my brother John) and here (Nixon’s dog, Checkers) and here (the tyranny of silence).
Below please find all the books on the ballot — congratulations, authors & illustrators! I’m honored to be in your company.
GRADES pre K-2/PRIMARY
Bubble Trouble . . . Margaret Mahy/Polly Dunbar
City Dog, Country Frog . . . Mo Willems/Jon J Muth
Clever Jack Takes the Cake . . . Candace Fleming/G. Brian Karas
Lousy Rotten Stinkin’ Grapes . . . Margie Palatini/Barry Moser
Memoirs of a Goldfish . . . Devin Scillian/Tim Bower
Otis . . . Loren LongStars Above Us . . . Geoffrey Norman/E.B. Lewis
That Cat Can’t Stay . . . Thad Krasnesky/David Parkins
Turtle, Turtle, Watch Out! . . . April Pulley Sayre/Annie Patterson
We Planted a Tree . . . Diane Muldrow/Bob Staake
The Can Man . . . Laura E. Williams/Craig Orback L
Emily’s Fortune . . . Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
Family Reminders . . .
By: Melissa Stewart
Blog: I.N.K.: Interesting Non fiction for Kids
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Ever since desktop publishing software became available in the early 1990s, the visual appeal of nonfiction books for young readers has grown by leaps and bounds. These programs make it easy to experiment with a book’s layout.As a result of this new freedom, many books now include multiple illustrations per spread and make clever use of white space. Examples include Ballet for Martha: Making Appalachian Spring by Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan, An Egg is Quiet by Dianna Aston, and Born to Be Giants: How Baby Dinosaurs Grew to Rule the World by Lita Judge.One of the true masters of nonfiction book design is Steve Jenkins, who often works with his wife Robin Page. Books like How Many Ways Can You Catch a Fly?, Never Smile at a Monkey, What Do You Do with a Tail Like This, and Move! are all about animal adaptations. The fun, innovative design of these books couple with the brief, clear text is irresistible. Jenkins does a remarkable job of selecting animals with unique adaptations and organizing them into clever categories to create books with a game-like feel.A current trend in science-themed titles for the picture book crowd is layered text. Books like Beaks by Sneed B. Collard III, When the Wolves Returned: Restoring Nature’s Balance in Yellowstone by Dorothy Hinshaw Patent, Meet the Howlers by April Pulley Sayre, and my own book A Place for Butterflies feature two kinds of text that serve different purposes and that is distinguished visually by size and font. For the most part, a larger, simpler text provides general information and can stand on its own. The smaller text presented in sidebars provides additional details to round out the presentation. These books are perfect for the Reading Buddy programs popular
In 2006 I watched British chef Jamie Oliver's 4-part BBC documentary, "Jamie's School Dinners," in which he interviewed children and found that many didn't know the names of vegetables. As a girl who grew up picking vegetables on her grandparent’s farm, that shocked me. I had to do something.
I’d already been worrying about childhood obesity because of my work as a visiting author in schools; I see about 17,000 school kids each year. I’ve noticed that some audiences are sluggish, having a tough time brainstorming, asking questions, and responding quickly and creatively. It just seems like they’re not feeling good. These audiences also seem to have the highest numbers of kids struggling with obesity, and the worst time to speak with them is soon after a greasy school lunch.
After watching the BBC show, I wondered, how could these kids change their eating habits? How could they find, choose, or prepare healthy foods such as vegetables if the entire vegetable aisle was a foreign country to them?
I knew from my work, and from my previous chant books, that kids can easily learn new words if they are in a chant form. Then, when kids are out in the world and they see a chant word, they connect with it. Perhaps I could do something in this small way.
Rah, Radishes: A Vegetable Chant (Beach Lane Book/S&S, release June 14, 2011) is about having fun with vegetables—and with delicious words, colors, and shapes. I photographed the book at our local South Bend Farmer’s Market over the course of four years. The farmers are so excited about the book. (They know which carrot or celery is theirs!)
Once kids read the book, I hope they'll have vegetable names, colors, and shapes in their heads. Perhaps they'll stop and actually point at a potato, laugh at a rutabaga, try broccoli for the first time.
Of course, this book is just a tiny piece of what needs to be done to help kids have healthier lives. So many people are putting their hearts and hands into the work of providing kids with better food choices. My hope is that folks doing this important work will find the book—and any joy and conversation it sparks—helpful in their efforts.
The International Reading Association (IRA) has declared Sept. 5-9, 2011 to be "Revision Week." Visit the IRA's Engage: Teacher to Teacher Blog this week to read/hear comments about revision from several well-known children's authors, including Cynthia Lord and Kate Messner.
Classroom teachers often tell me that one of their greatest challenges is helping students understand that a first draft is only the first step in the writing process. And many adult writers also dread the "R" word: Revision. Yet, as Kate Messner says today on the Engage: Teacher to Teacher Blog: “Revision is where writing really happens.”
(In the audio interview, Messner also talks about making time to write while working full-time and raising a family.)
One of the best ways I've found to help writers of all ages appreciate the benefit (and necessity) of revision is a bit of "show and tell." I "show" the drafts of my novel Rosa, Sola with all the post-it notes from my editor and I "tell" about how that feedback helped me polish that story. You can see some photos of one of my drafts and read a bit about that process in this post from last year.
For both young students and adult writers, it's often difficult to look at our own work objectively. Below is a revised version of the Writing Workout I shared last year. (Yes, even blog posts and writing exercises get better with revision!) The Workout is intended as a way to help trick ourselves into reading our work as though it were written by someone else.
Speaking of revision, the next session of my Craft & Critique Workshop, which is held in Oak Brook, IL, begins on Tuesday, Sept. 27. That class is ALL about revision. For more information, see my website. If you don't live in the Chicago area and are looking for some feedback on your writing, check out the Blogosphere Buzz below for help finding a critique partner.
In addition to Revision Week, this is the third annual Random Acts of Publicity
week, a chance to celebrate and publicize the work of our fellow authors. I'd like to take this opportunity to remind you that THREE
of the TeachingAuthors
have new books out this year. If you're new to our blog, please read these posts to learn all about them: JoAnn Early Macken's Baby Says "Moo!"
, Mary Ann Rodman's Camp K-9
, and Esther Hershenhorn's Little Illinois.
Last weekend I had the privilege of speaking at the Elizabeth York Children’s Literature Festival at the Nicholson Library at Anderson University in Anderson, Indiana. This conference, in its 3rd year, helps celebrate an impressive collection of about 11,000 children’s books and poetry books—specializing in rare first editions and signed volumes. It would be a great spot for author and illustrator research.
Also speaking was Bryan Collier, an illustrator who has twice been the recipient of Coretta Scott King Awards, and three-times a recipient of Caldecott honors. As always, his process captured me. His in-depth research on Rosa Parks—visiting Alabama, soaking up the atmosphere, researching the community, the buses, the circumstances—is a tale you have to hear directly from him. It has every element of research one would expect from someone writing such a book. Yet to see it through an illustrator’s eyes brings an extra dimension.
Many nonfiction writers speak of their research journeys. Yet, so often, the task of creating a nonfiction image is overlooked. You have to know a thing to write about it. But to draw it—sometimes, you must know more. (When I interned at National Geographic, years ago, I created huge research packets of historical material for each and every object in a single illustration for a children’s book!)
Bryan, though, is looking for more than precision in his work. From what I gathered, he is not limited by the idea that a nonfiction illustration must be like a snapshot, all objects order and historically what they were. He’s creating a moment, truer to those feelings in the air than you can create with a crisp photograph. Although he works very hard to be true to life about climate/people/objects, he also goes for soul—not just the emotion of individuals, but the soul of a community and moment. He adds hidden symbols, words, essence of experience to his illustrations.
As a fine artist, collage artist, and speaker, Bryan added layer by layer to our understanding of his subjects. One of his newer books is connected to South Carolina, where I grew up. He spoke of the soil, the many colors of clay. Immediately, as a tactile person, I was hooked. This book is Dave the Potter. Dave created 40,000 pots in his lifetime and along the way wrote poetry on them and signed his name. He did all this as a slave, somehow learning to read and write in a time when it was illegal for slaves to be taught these skills. Extraordinary. I could imagine a dozen ways teachers could fit the book into their work.
A couple of days ago I started wondering what to blog about this month. I was feeling pretty smug about not waiting until the last minute this time, but guess what? No ideas, nothing, nada, nichts, rien, niente, nihil, tidak ada, wala, nic, ingenting, kitu. (Google Translate--so much fun!) Anyway, as usual when I'm feeling stuck or squirmy, I laced up my sneakers and whistled for my pup (that's kutsikas in Estonian). "Wanna go look for ideas? Wanna go look for squirrels?" Wise dog wagged his tail yes to both.
We took our usual route, heading east toward the Potomac River and River Farm, which was part of George Washington's huge estate in the 18th century. Now it's the headquarters of the American Horticultural Society (AHS). Aha, inspiration, less than a mile from home! The mission of AHS, according to its website, is "To open the eyes of all Americans to the vital connection between people and plants, to inspire all Americans to become responsible caretakers of the Earth, to celebrate America's diversity through the art and science of horticulture; and to lead this effort by sharing the Society's unique national resources with all Americans."
One way AHS seeks to fulfill these goals is by promoting youth gardening programs. It also paired up with the Junior Master Gardener Program to create the “Growing Good Kids – Excellence in Children’s Literature” award program, which honors outstanding children’s books that promote "an understanding of, and appreciation for, gardening and the environment." Of the 22 winners selected since the first awards were given in 2006, by my count four have been nonfiction titles. They are:
Big Yellow Sunflower, by Frances Barry
Flip, Float, Fly: Seeds on the Move, by JoAnn Macken, illustrated by Pamela Paparone
A Seed is Sleepy, by Dianna Hutts Aston, illustrated by Sylvia Long
Miss Lady Bird’s Wildflowers: How a First Lady Changed America, by Kathi Appelt, illustrated by Joy Fisher Hein
Surely there's room for more nonfiction books here. I hope you'll help spread the word about these awards! (If I were April Pulley Sayre's publisher, by the way, I would definitely submit her wonderful RAH, RAH, RADISHES!) And if you're ever in the Alexandria, Virginia, area, I encourage you to visit AHS headquarters at George Washington's River Farm. Take time to enjoy the beautiful grounds and gardens, to learn from hands-on demonstrations about composting and raised vegetable beds, to play in the Children's Garden, to stroll through the Andre Bluemel Meadow down to the Potomac. You might see a bald eagle. You'll almost certainly be inspired.
P.S. In case you're wondering: <
When I was 17, I took a tour of Belize and Guatemala in rickety bus with 14 random strangers who would have been great characters for a Broadway play. There was the lady who thought she’d been bitten by a vampire bat and ran off to find a local shaman. There was the British Imperialist magazine writer who who wanted to buy a pig and stake it out so we could attract a jaguar. There was the tour guide who abandoned us so he could rescue a tapir from a well. Oh, and let’s not forget the matronly lady with the inescapable grinding voice who complained about every single thing.
But there was this couple—a friendly couple. The man had powers. He could find animals. Anywhere. He could find a speck on a hillside and it would be a toucan. His skill was almost magical. I craved it. Years later, I found his magic was a hunter skill that comes from practice, year after year. Experienced birders have it. Now, I have it, too. Someone can say, “See that warbler?” And I can often find that bird without any additional directions in about two seconds, 60 feet up in a distant tree.
I can barely remember what it was like not to be able to separate the layered calls of forest birds and identify them. It seems strange to remember a time when I didn’t know the insects, the plants, the ecological layers, and how to snap to see the slightest animal movement at the corner of my eyes. My husband and I have led rain forest tours to Panama and helped others who felt just like I once did—like they’ll never see that animal everyone else is seeing. Yet this skill comes with time and practice.
Another thing that comes with time and this particular career is an absurd amount of information about the natural world. At first, I had knowledge because I wrote so many books about biomes, endangered species, and environmental issues. (Okay, so I also have a biology degree from Duke.) Back then, before google, I dug through academic libraries for much of my information about taiga, tundra, acid rain, global warming, and the like. Yes, the book stuff migrated to my brain. Before that, I’d written dozens upon dozens of articles for encyclopedias, conservation newsletters, and geography texts while working at National Wildlife Federation and the National Geographic Society.