Monday, December 24, 2012

A Season of Gratitude


Happy Holidays!! (Note: I prefer to wish everyone, no matter what their spiritual outlook, a happy time as they celebrate their own beliefs -- just saying.) Anyway -- No matter what you celebrate, this is traditionally a season of gratitude, and I think nonfiction writers have a lot to be grateful for these days.

I could start with the Common Core, but that may or may not become a boon to our business. Instead I am grateful for a job that allowed me to stay home with my children for 20 years.  Yikes! When I say it like that it seems like a long time, but boy did it go quickly.

I'm grateful for the technology that allows me to write and revise so easily.  I remember my Mom, Margery Facklam, writing her first books using carbon paper and a typewriter.  I wonder if she was more thoughtful in her revisions compared to me who goes back and forth with a click of a key.  Plus, she actually knew how many times she revised.  I'm just constantly revising.

I am thankful for a community of writers who support one another.  Children's writers are, by far, the most supportive people I know.  We don't think of other writers as competition.  They are colleagues struggling with the same difficulties.

I'm thankful for true stories unveiling themselves everyday - in the news, in my life, in other books. For the Internet that makes preliminary research effortless, and puts experts in my living room.

I'm grateful for new purple pens.  And new notebooks with gleaming white pages.

For libraries and librarians, and especially kids who love reading nonfiction.

What are you grateful for?

Monday, December 17, 2012

The Writer's Common Core Syndrome

Last week Jim Murphy wrote an excellent INK blog( voicing his worry that writers will write to the Common Core Standards.  He has a point.  After all, there is not one nonfiction writer that I know who didn't cheer when they read the part about kids reading 50% nonfiction and 70% by the senior year.  We didn't bother to read further.  We have all been infected in some way with the Writer's Common Core Syndrome where your mind is taken up by the Common Core wondering if your work- in-progress will “fit” the standards, or you may spend more time thinking up classroom activities and lesson plans that can be used with your old books than time writing a new book.   

I have an antidote -- Read this sentence 10 times –
The Common Core is a standard for teaching, not for writing.

That’s right.  It is a standard for teachers and school districts not for us.  If we want to “fit” into CC all we need to do is continue to write the great nonfiction that we are writing. 

I cheered when I read the CC because I saw it as an invitation to Science teachers to put down their text books and read my book FOR THE BIRDS: THE STORY OF ROGER TORY PETERSON to introduce a lesson on nature observation, or an Art teacher might use it to introduce a drawing lesson.  Social Studies teachers might use FARMER GEORGE PLANTS A NATION to illustrate the importance of breaking away from England, or Science teachers might use it to discuss composting or to introduce a seed experiment. I’m not a teacher, but my mind reeled with the images of my books being read in a variety of classrooms, not just sitting in the nonfiction section of the library (where there may or may not be a librarian).

However, I don’t think that many Science, PE, History, Art, Music, etc., teachers are being encouraged to do that – yet. It seems that many school districts are leaving it up to the English department.  (After all , that’s where books and reading come from, right?)  Not enough of the public and school officials are aware of what the CC really is.  If that worries you then direct your friends to The Reading Zone and this blog post that puts the CC into perspective.

The author, Sarah, is an English teacher and I like what she has to say about CC - “Standards are not curriculum, despite headlines that like to insinuate that those words are interchangeable.  Standards tell me, the teacher, where my students should end up.  I decide what our journey will look like.”  

She goes on to say, “Our students should be reading real-life informational text in their content area classes.  I want to see my students reading field guides in biology!  I want them to analyze journal articles and primary documents in history!  Why shouldn't they read biographies of mathematicians in geometry or instruction manuals in CAD class? ”

It really is that simple.  CC wants kids to read REAL STUFF!  Not manufactured, one-size-fits-all text books that leave no room for discussion or imagination.  Books are not meant to linger in English class, but are meant to inhabit  ALL classrooms. 

And Writers?  You need to write REAL STUFF!!  Do that, and your books, magazine articles and newspaper columns will always be a perfect fit.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Nonfiction Writers Anonymous - "Hi I'm Tom King and I write Nonfiction"

I had been listening to the radio – Q on the CBC -- when I heard an appalling comment.  I thought I heard Tom King, author of Inconvenient Indian and many other fabulous books say that reading nonfiction was like herding porcupines with your elbows.  AHHH!!!   My mind reeled and I started in on a head-rant about how its people like him that makes my job seem second rate to fiction writers.  “Reading nonfiction – Oooh, Painful – too many facts – yuck!”  How dare he!  But before I made my head-rant public I listened to the rest of the program, and I looked up a few things about Tom King.

The first thing I learned is that he actually said, “WRITING nonfiction is like herding porcupines with your elbows.”  And that statement I can relate to.  You do have to wrangle disparate accounts into place, and that sometimes can be prickly business. 

The second thing I learned is that Tom King is an award-winning author of several books, a college professor, actor and activist. He was nominated for the Governor-General’s Award twice and in 2004 awarded the Order of Canada. No slub.  And no stranger to nonfiction.  

However, in an interview with Daniel David in the Globe and Mail, King said, “I have a new book coming out in November. It’s called The Inconvenient Indian. Non-fiction. Sort of.”

Sort of???  Is it true or not? All true and nothing but the truth??  Then why waffle?

King goes on to explain. “I’m calling it a narrative history. I know what a history looks like, with footnotes and all. This is more of a narrative history. I think I say in the book that it’s more of an adult conversation that I’ve been having with myself for most of my life.”

Now that sounds like a nonfiction book I want to read -- a nonfiction book that raises the bar; a NF book that other NF books can aspire to; a NF book that can walk into a library and make all other NF books shudder with envy. If I wrote that kind of nonfiction book, I’d be hollering from the rooftop and calling myself the new Truman Capote.

I thought we were past the days when nonfiction was considered a synonym for textbook, boring, dull, tedious.  I thought everyone knew that nonfiction simply meant a true story and implied well-told, riveting prose that can take a variety of forms.  But I guess our work is still not done.  So, in the name of nonfiction, I interloaned the Inconvenient Indian. And you know what he said it that? – “…writing a history is herding porcupines with your elbows.” 

OH! A History.  Well – that’s different – never mind!


Sunday, December 2, 2012

Ramblings on a Skype Author Visit

The other day I had my first Skype session with college students.  Of course there were technical glitches - I couldn't hear them - but after a few minutes, switching laptops and tossing the dogs upstairs, I finally connected with some of our future science teachers in Wyoming.  What could I possibly tell them? What did I think they should know about nonfiction books?

I discussed how most nonfiction books (at least mine) are written to satisfy the author.  We're curious people, constantly asking why, where, what, how, and getting excited by a topic until we have to say, "Hey look what I learned."  I mentioned that good nonfiction isn't a regurgitation of general facts, but a thoughtful presentation of stories woven together to create a full picture of an event or a life or a concept. I can’t remember who said it at the NSTA conference last year, but someone said it beautifully when asked what the difference was between text books and nonfiction – the answer came down to two things – the passion of the author, and that text books leave you with no questions, while nonfiction leaves you wanting to know more.  I didn't say it beautifully, but you get the gist -- Good nonfiction inspires, excites, it leaves room for the reader to imagine, question, explore.

I also babbled on about the Common Core and how NF writers are excited to have this opportunity open up in the curriculum.  Writers and librarians have known forever how to use our books in the classroom, but the sad reality is that it is easier and sometimes mandated to use text books.  And what's ironic about that, is that most text book companies these days purchase the rights to reprint sections of writer's award-winning NF books and magazine articles, so kids are reading quality writing, but the they are hand-fed the questions and the answers so there is no room for imagination and exploration.

I think I mentioned that teachers and writers should work together more because we do what teachers and students are asked to do everyday. We look for information, evaluate it, put it in some kind of context, then use that information, expand on it, combine it in a new, clear, thoughtful way. We can show kids how this process works – that it can be fun – and some weird people like me love doing it --  and that one style does not fit all as might be mentioned in some text books – there are many ways to do research, many ways to write, and many ways to share that writing. 

After rambling for a bit the students asked questions.  Where do you get your ideas?  How long does it take to make a book?  I sighed and realized that what I do for a living is just as mysterious to others as knowing how to fix a car is to me.  No matter who your audience is, start at the beginning.  


Tuesday, October 30, 2012

A Storm of Words

I woke this morning to the sound of the generator, which means I can write today.  Yeah! What a better way to wait out a hurricane than with a flurry of words, great food, and no interruptions.  On Saturday, I    drove down to Highlights in Honesdale, PA for a four day writing retreat, not knowing what the impending storm would make of my plans.  As the winds picked up, and the news got more sensationalized, we decided to ditch the cabins and hole up in the Main house where the generator would kick on automatically, and where we wouldn't have to get our feet wet when we ventured out for meals.

Turned out to be a great plan.  Spent the entire day yesterday re-crafting a mid-grade novel, and when we needed a nosh, who should show up but a male model with a culinary degree. I kid you not! Jo Lloyd, you think of everything!

Oh, gotta go - he made omelettes.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Voice, Imagery and Figurative Language

The other evening I attended the launch party for a new online literary magazine.  The Oak Orchard Review will feature writers and artists from Western New York, especially those who have a tie to the Oak Orchard creek area in Orleans, Niagara and Genesee counties. In their submission guidelines the editors mentioned that they look for a clear sense of voice, concrete imagery and compelling figurative language, and I realized how universal those three elements are.  And how connected the universe seems to be.  That same day I received an acceptance to speak about voice, imagery and language at the New England SCBWI conference next May.  So, it seems like a good topic to discuss here. 

No matter what you write - poetry or prose, fiction or nonfiction - voice, imagery and figurative language are essential ingredients for success.  They are  just as important when describing a current event as they are creating a fantasy world.  

In order to hone my abilities in V, I and FL, I keep a notebook of words, descriptions and phrases that ring true that other writers have created.  One that I fell in love with at the poetry reading was created by Amy D'Amico. The leaves "typed" across the pavement.  Instantly I heard that dry clatter sound.  Another phrase I liked was written by Nathaniel R. Fuller in his short story, Aster -- the man had "more warts than prayers God actually listened to."  Who can't picture that guy? And you also hear the narrator's voice, jaded and world-weary. A two-fer. Excellent.

What words have captured your imagination? Keep a notebook and open your ears. Listen to the wonderful voices that surround you. It will make you a better writer regardless of what you write -- fiction or non-.  



Monday, September 17, 2012

Connecting Conversation and Kids

I am always looking for great ways to connect kids to the urgency of conservation.

I think Dan Brubaker did a great job on the Think Elephants International blog - What Is Dr. Seuss Teaching Our Kids About Elephants? Revisiting the classic children’s book: Horton Hears a Who! at:

Fran listens to Am
I hope everyone hears the call of the elephant.  But more importantly, I hope everyone acts as well!


Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Writing Dreams

Every once in a while I will dream the perfect story.  Have you ever done that? You know in your dream that it is a gem, sure to be a hit, so perfect it will write itself.  But then you wake up and jot down what you remember and see cavernous holes in your plot - like nothing happens, or there is no antagonist.  Still I love those dreams, because like the NY lottery commercials say, "Hey, you never know."

Last night my dream took on a new and disturbing twist. Yes, I did have the perfect story.  In my dream I became the main character.  I was yellow -- not afraid -- but head to toe a golden hue. And I could fly.

But as the writer, I could not write it down. I felt the lift of air beneath my glowing body, and remembered a few heroic deeds, but I could not capture words on paper. To save the flimsy wisp of storyline before it evaporated I tried to give it life by speaking it out loud.  "What if a genie...." (I know it sounds as lame as Tiny Tim, but that's what it was, and let me tell you it would have been a best seller!)

More words would not come. I had to solidify this flimsy form on paper.  Clutching a ragged scrap of paper and a pen, I hurried from room to room in a mansion with white floors, white walls, and white furniture looking for a quiet place where my fading fiction would show itself. But this girl kept interrupting. "What are you doing?" It was no one I know and no one I ever want to meet, because she popped up everywhere. I locked myself in the bedroom and she opened the door. I hid in a corner of the bathroom and she appeared instantly. She even found me perched on the highest shelf doubled over near the ceiling.

In the nanoseconds that I had to myself before the girl would appear, I'd scrawl a word or two, but my useless hand gripped the pen like a 6-month-old trying to hold a spoon.  My illegible letters dribbled away and dissolved with each attempt.

Then miraculously my husband appeared.  Surely he could write the story down if I dictated it to him. So I began.  "What if a genie...." But he wasn't writing.  Instead he was checking out something on his giant poster board computer.  "Why aren't you writing this down?" I cried. "I am," he said and held up the poster board.  On it was a list of random words. Cabbage. Doorstop. Porous.

I awoke depressed and exhausted. Never in my 20 years had I had a writer's block writing dream. It disturbed me. I don't have writer's block.  I'm writing this blog and this morning I worked on my elephant book.  Then I thought about my fictional story that I've been working on for several years.  I hadn't worked on it all summer.  I was blocked on that.  I haven't nailed down my character yet.

But nothing in my dream was helpful. I know that my character is not and cannot be a genie.  And I know he shouldn't be yellow.  I also know that I don't want to linger within those white walls.  I guess the dream gave me a nudge.  No answers, but a nudge to keep going.  And one more thing that popped into my brain a few times today and made me smile -- I love that flying feeling!

Follow your dreams!

Monday, September 3, 2012

Too Quick to Propose

I have been working on a proposal for a book on Asian elephants, and made a newbie mistake.  I proposed my project too early.  In my eagerness to share all the amazing things that I learned while working with Thai elephants, I sent off an email proposal without a key bit of information.

I may have made more than one mistake, but the one that I noticed today was that I neglected to mention the existence of a book that could be considered competition to mine.  I don't think it is, but that really is the judgement call of the editor and whether or not a sales department feels that it could sell a book about elephants when two other books were published last year.  So, how do you judge those books and how to report that information to your would-be editor?

Well, the book that I forgot to mention in my proposal is all about one aspect of elephant life -- communication.  Although it does touch on intelligence, it is not a book about the intelligence of elephants.  Plus, the book focuses on African elephants, and only occasionally mentions Asian elephants.  Another mistake I made was not making the case strong enough in my proposal that Asian elephants are significantly more endangered than their African cousins, even though they are the species that inhabit almost every zoo in the World.  Asian elephants have a long history entwined with humans and that history is exactly why Asian elephants are often thought of as large domestic cattle.  But they are not.  Even today, most elephants that end up in captivity were caught from the dwindling wild population.  Once healthy adults were captured to work as logging elephants, but today, the most sought after are the babies to fuel the tourist trade.  And for every baby caught in the wild, there is a good chance that the mother, and several aunts were killed in the process.

Sorry for that rant -- but the point is, in my proposal I needed to make the point that a book about African elephants should not be looked at as competition to one on Asian elephants.  I shouldn't assume an editor would know that.  And neither should you.  So, next time you are proposing a new book, take your time and evaluate your competition.  Even though it may seem like you are giving an editor a reason to reject the project, you job is to present the market such as it is and then explain how your book is so different that they have no choice but to buy yours.
Carved tree trunk at Mae Fah Luang Garden

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Back to Work!

Sorry to be away for so long, but I was up to my elbows in research! 

This summer I studied elephants in Thailand.  Not always this closely, and usually at the other end.  But this particular day, I was part of a vet check.  Did you know that an elephant's temperature is about the same as ours - between 97.5 and 99 degrees F.  But they only breathe 4-10 times a minute!  It takes a long time for blood to be pumped throughout that enormous body.  

The work that I did with Think Elephants International  will find its way into a new book (hopefully), and also help researchers devise better ways to protect wild Asian elephants.  Check out their website and their Facebook page at www.facebook,com/thinkelephants.   Asian elephants need all the help they can get - seriously!  


Friday, June 1, 2012

Keys to Success

Saw this link on Rosi's blog The Write Stuff, and liked what it had to say.  Even after twenty years in the writing business, we all need a reminder that we hold the keys to our success.  Unfortunately, I often forget where I put my keys!!
Check both links out -

By the way, I had the pleasure of working with Rosi on her manuscript at Highlights. She made amazing progress on her manuscript, and I agree that it will be ready to submit soon.  Can't wait to read it when it comes out, and interview her on her process.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

A Week of Highlights

I had the great pleasure of being on the faculty of Highlights Foundation's Whole Novel Narrative Nonfiction Workshop, along with Elizabeth Partridge, Susan Campbell Bartoletti and Carolyn Yoder.  A whole week talking about nonfiction writing -- while we ate, while we walked in the woods, while we shared a glass of wine, and I know some people didn't even sleep much.  It was a great week!

A Few Highlights --

About writing nonfiction kids remember -- "If there is no emotion, there is no memory." Nancy Bo Flood (author of Sand to Stone).  "Finding the heart, connecting, and making it meaningful is about as easy as getting on a bull and staying there."

Red-spotted newts in the woods

On research -- "Keep looking for veracity.  Try not to assume. Question and verify." Betsy Partridge
 author of March to Freedom.

An Oriole's nest

"Yes, and..."  Be open to anything.  Susan Campbell Bartoletti

The deep hoot of a Great Horned Owl

For me the best part was feeling the enthusiasm that each writer brought to their projects -- giving voice to a Nagasaki survivor, revealing little-known facts about famous Americans, telling about forgotten tragedies and more.  It made me eager to get home and get to work on my own projects.

Thanks everyone!!

Monday, April 30, 2012

Whose Angel?

April has been a month of conferences and school visits. Each week I’ve been away from home, in a hotel, and I now don’t envy my business-suited brothers as much as I once did. But these trips have also been a blessing.

At the NESCBWI conference a woman introduced herself and recalled meeting my mother, Margery Facklam, many years ago at another conference. The woman was alone, new to the world of children’s writing, homesick, and feeling isolated in a sea of writers until my mother, speaking at the conference, invited the woman to have ice cream. In a little pack of writers old and new, published and unpublished they sat in the grass, talked and laughed, and the woman felt right at home. “I’ll never forget that,” she said to me.

At the ASJA conference, when my panel was over, I was tired and ready to put my feet up, but I made myself go to the little reception they were having at the end of the day. I wandered, quite alone in a sea of writers, until I pushed myself toward a partially full table and asked to sit down. Then another woman joined us and suddenly we were a group. After pulling out business cards and sharing titles, the woman gasped, “Margery Facklam?” “Yes, that’s my mother,” I told her.

And she shared with me how my mother drew her into the world of writers. Years ago she saw my mother on a local news program, called the TV station and asked for more information. Before HIPA and identify theft, the TV station gave her my mother’s phone number. Mom talked to her about writing, offered to look at her manuscript, and even invited her to join a critique group. “She made me feel like a real writer,” she said.

There is a saying that you should be an angel to at least one person every day.

My mother was an angel to many people in the writer’s world and I am blessed to hear the stories, especially in a time when my mother’s memory is failing her. I can remind her of past places and faces so that she still feels connected and right at home.

But it makes me wonder – was I an angel to anyone at these conferences? I have stepped into my mother’s shoes as writer, speaker and mentor – but how successfully have I filled them? At the conferences I spoke at, did I inspire? Did I draw them in? Did I make them feel at home? Did I encourage them to continue writing?

Perhaps years from now I will know, or perhaps I will never know. I just hope that, like my mother, I will be someone’s angel everyday.

Monday, April 2, 2012

The Difference Between a Text Book and a Trade Book

This weekend I had the pleasure of being on a panel with 4 extraordinary nonfiction authors – April Pulley Sayer, Loree Griffin Burns, Pamela Turner and Sallie Wolf. We were speaking at the National Science Teachers Association Conference in Indianapolis.  Along with educators who have served on the NSTA/CBC Outstanding Trade Book Committee, we were there to talk about Science and Literacy. I was flattered to be included on such an illustrious panel, but also a little intimidated. However I soon felt right at home when we all met each other for the first time.

Writing is such a solitary endeavor that it is a great treat to talk to people with like minds. I loved hearing that Loree and Pamela both had aspirations to be a scientist as I did, and like me put those dreams aside for marriage and children. Some people may condemn us for “settling” or giving in to traditional pressures, but those people do not realize that we have the best of both worlds. As nonfiction science writers we are every bit as driven and committed to science as we would be if we wore a lab coat. Our commitment is to make science accessible to children, who are the most receptive and eager to learn it. One science teacher I met at NSTA mentioned a research paper that stated most scientists got hooked on science when they were 8 or 10 years old. I love to hear that. Because I feel like it is my job to dangle that well-baited hook in the water with my books, and I’m sure my fellow panelists would agree.

“Do you know the difference between a text book and a trade book?” our moderator Wendy Saul, professor at University of Missouri, asked in the introduction.  “No one steals a text book.”    With a little prompting the teachers in attendance also came to the conclusion that trade books reflect the author’s passion for her subject and relates that passion “elegantly as well as truthfully.”

April Sayre’s Book Trout, Trout, Trout: A Fish ChantApril mentioned her love of the “scientific voice” and filling kids with “delicious words,” which she does so brilliantly in her chants like, Trout, Trout, Trout, and Rah, Rah Radishes.

HIVE DETECTIVES CoverAnother attendee mentioned that text books are designed to give you all the answers, but trade books leave you asking questions. I liked that. Loree said that in her books, like The Hive Detectives, she tried to present information and then ask, “So, what do you think?” And Pam, too, leaves room for the child to wonder, to think and make up their own minds. She gave the example that in her new book about dolphin cognition, she lays out all the information about how smart dolphins are and then poses the ethical question of whether these animals should be kept in captivity. She guides but does not dictate. She makes children think.

And when children are allowed to think then all sorts of wonderful things happen. Sallie mentioned that her love of nature was nurtured by teachers, especially one teacher who taught her how to band birds, and observe nature, a habit that led to her newest book A Robin Makes a Laughing Sound, which contains poetry, observations and sketches that came directly out of her personal journals. Sallie encourages kids to "live in the questions."  I love that!

Hmmm -- Personal observation and discovery, delicious words, guiding and thought provoking, elegant and truthful – sounds like a nonfiction trade book to me.

At the end of our session, a teacher approached me and held up For the Birds. “I love this book,” he said. “If I had had this book as a kid, this would have been the book I would have kept always.” I just beamed. There is no higher honor than to be the author of a child’s treasured book – especially when it is a nonfiction trade book.

Monday, March 26, 2012

An Invitation to Use Nonfiction in the Classroom

Good morning!  Last week was busy with school visits, and everyone was hyped up because of the gloriously warm weather.  Spring sprung so fiercely it jumped right into summer, and the kids' internal clocks jumped right along with it.  Even so, I had several great discussions about how to take a boring, assigned subject and make it exciting for them, and led some rowdy but imaginative storytelling to create new adventures of Joshua the Giant Frog. 

But I wonder when I leave a school if what I have said, or what we have done as a group has made an impact. Do teachers refer back to anything I said days or weeks later?  Do classes revisit the tall tales we wrote together to expand, revise or illustrate?  Do my books ever get pulled off the shelves again? 

In light of the new core curriculum's focus on 50% nonfiction, I would like to think that FOR THE BIRDS might be used to introduce lessons on scientific observation, a bird unit, or even an art lesson.  FARMER GEORGE PLANTS A NATION might have been read in February to celebrate President's Day, but it is even more appropriate to launch a spring project of planting seeds, experimenting with soil, light and moisture conditions.  Farmer George celebrates Earth Day!

I would love to know what librarians and teachers do with my books.  Are they useful?  Do they inspire lessons?  Or do writers have to help bridge the gap between the old standards and the new?  Teachers are way too busy with the everyday chaos of kids to keep up with new curriculum ideas, like finding ways to use nonfiction in the classroom, that are tossed out every few years.  I know many writers provide activity sheets on their websites, but should we do even more? 

If a teacher uses one of my books, I invite them to let me know.  I would be happy to answer questions kids might have. We could even Skype (I need the practice).  The point is, I want to make a connection between my books and your kids.  After all, that is why I write - to make a difference.  We are all in the same business of teaching kids.  Teachers do it in person, and writers do it in print.  I'd like to blur those lines and invite you  into my world just as teachers and librarians have so graciously done for me over the years.  I love visiting schools. Now I want to extend that visit to make a lasting impression. So I pledge to provide more help on my website and in person, when possible, so it will be easy to use nonfiction in your classroom.

Monday, March 12, 2012

More Thoughts on Poetry in Nonfiction

Since my last post – an interview with Laura Purdie Salas author of A Leaf Can Be -- I can’t stop thinking about poetry in nonfiction. Not that poetry is categorized as nonfiction, but that poetic language and verse are used to convey factual information. Salas does a wonderful job capturing the many occupations of a leaf in her rolling rhyming scheme, but many other writers use free verse and lyrical prose in much the same way. An Egg is Quiet comes to mind, and Nicola Davies’s Bat Loves the Night. On her website, Davies says, “Writing picture books is like doing very difficult yoga for your brain! Everything you want to say must be fitted into a small number of words, and those words have to sound lovely when they are read aloud. It’s more like writing a poem than a book; every word has to earn its keep and be put in exactly the right place.”

I like that – lovely words in exactly the right places.

As I was doing a little surfing about nonfiction and poetry I came across a couple of interesting sites. The first is an article called “Making Time for Nonfiction Read Alouds” by Franki Siberson.

As a writer I think it is important to know what librarians and teachers think about our work. Siberson noticed that she rarely read nonfiction out loud to the children, and made a concerted effort to pull in more nonfiction so kids would hear all sorts of writing and enjoy all sorts of writing. She gives a nice list of different kinds of nonfiction that she likes to read to her class.

The second site I came upon bothered me. It is at Studyzone, and is a test prep quiz. “Let’s practice deciding if what you hear is fiction or nonfiction.” This is the sentence that bugged me – “Remember, fiction is an entertaining, make-believe story that is not real; nonfiction is true information that gives you facts to explain something.” Huh!

So, nonfiction isn’t entertaining??? You can’t learn anything from fiction??? I know this is for small children, but do we really need to drive that wedge between pleasure and learning when it comes to reading and books?

The fiction example reads: “Sarah Jane is my cow. Last week she told me a story about how she got her blue spots…”

The nonfiction example is: “Cats make great pets and are easy to take care of. Cats need to be fed several times a day….”

But what if the passage read: Sarah Jane is my cat and I love to take care of her. Each morning when she hops on my bed, nuzzles my face and purrs in my ear, I know it’s time to feed her.

I thought the news about amazingly-written and enjoyable-to-read nonfiction was common knowledge, but I guess not. We still have more work to do.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

FYI - Workshops for Writing Nonfiction for Children

Sibert Medal
Guggenheim Fellowship
Newbery Honor
Jane Addams Award
Orbis Pictus Award
National Book Honor
NSTA Outstanding Science Book Award

Is this list . . .
A. a list of the most prestigious awards in nonfiction writing for children?
B. a short list of the awards won by our faculty members teaching nonfiction workshops at the Highlights Foundation?
If you said "A and B," you are correct. Our workshops are led by some of the most highly recognized authors in nonfiction writing for children. Better still, these authors will support you and help guide you toward your goals in nonfiction writing. Many of their classes still have openings. Which one will you join?

Nature Writing Boot Camp
April 16-April 19, 2012
Workshop Leaders: Dianna Hutts Aston, Mark Baldwin, Robert Hynes, Andy Boyles

Science Writing Boot Camp
April 19-April 22, 2012
Workshop Leaders: Catherine D. Hughes, Sally M. Walker, Doug Wechsler, Andy Boyles
Special Guest: Laurence Pringle

Whole Narrative Nonfiction
May 20-May 26, 2012
Workshop Leaders: Carolyn P. Yoder, Elizabeth Partridge, Susan Campbell Bartoletti, Peggy Thomas
Special Guests: Nancy Bo Flood, Barbara Krasner

Nonfiction Writing for Children and Young Adults
July 15-July 22, 2012
Workshop Leaders: Peter P. Jacobi, Candace Fleming, Larry Dane Brimner, Lionel Bender, Stephen R. Swinburne
Special Guests: Carolyn P. Yoder, Laurence Pringle

Visit our Web site to learn more about these workshops, which take place near Honesdale, PA, or contact Jo Lloyd at 570-253-1192 or via e-mail at

The Highlights Foundation is a public, not-for-profit 501©3 organization. We dedicate our efforts to connecting, nurturing, and inspiring children's book writers and illustrators.


Highlights Foundation, Inc.

814 Court Street

Honesdale, PA 18431

Phone: (570) 251-4500


Monday, February 27, 2012

An Interview with Laura Purdie Salas

It may not be spring yet, but you can start thinking about it with a new book called A LEAF CAN BE (Millbrook) by poet and prolific nonfiction writer Laura Purdie Salas.  This verdant picture book illustrated by Violeta Dabija  captured my attention because I had a similar idea to write about leafy jobs, which I can now put aside, because I think Salas’s rendition will become a classroom classic. Being long-winded myself, I am fascinated by her ability to capture so much in so few words. Here is just a bit of the text:
A leaf is a leaf—
a bit of a tree.
But when cool days come chasing,
it can also be a...
Lake glider…
Wind rider…
Pile grower…
Hill glow-er…
Frost catcher…
Moth matcher.

So, I caught up with Laura and here is what she has to say about writing, poetry, nonfiction and more...
PT: When writing nonfiction, some people believe the more details and information the better, but poetry in some ways is just the opposite – simplicity is key. How do you maintain that balance?

LPS: You’re so right. I fight the impulse to stuff in too much information constantly. I want to share every single wonderful fact I learn! But then I would overwhelm and bore kids. To bring focus, I think about the one thing I really want the reader to leave with--a fact or question or feeling…but only one thing. And then I brutally cut what doesn’t help a kid get that one thing.

For A LEAF CAN BE…, the thought I want kids to leave with is: “Wow! I never knew leaves did all that stuff!” I think in many ways a nonfiction poem or rhyming nonfiction book can be a teaser for a certain topic, inspiring kids to want to know more about something in the future. But it has to be wonderful enough to stand on its own, too, even if the child never explores that topic further.

PT: Have you ever started a project in verse and found that prose worked better, or vice versa? If so, can you give an example?
LPS: Usually, I envision a project right from the start as a poem or a collection or a prose picture book. But sometimes I’m wrong. Usually that’s when I think I have a picture book idea, but it turns out I don’t have enough plot. Then I delete it from my “picture book ideas” list and move it to my “poem ideas” list. I tend to realize the problem in the thinking and planning stage, before I start actually writing. None of my published books have changed format that drastically, though STAMPEDE! POEMS TO CELEBRATE THE WILD SIDE OF SCHOOL did start out as a collection geared toward older elementary kids. (That story is here:

I did try rhyming nonfiction manuscripts for a few other ideas I want to write about before I hit on LEAF. But they just didn’t work. I tried one about how the layer of limestone near Mt. Everest’s peak used to be on the bottom of the sea. I love that story and have many prose nonfiction versions of it that have never sold. When I decided to write a rhyming nonfiction book, I thought that topic might have another chance. But the science and the vocabulary were too complex to make work in the simple rhyming framework I wanted to use. Darn!

Anytime it feels like the verse is becoming the point of the story, I know I’m in trouble. Plot and character (whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, in my opinion) are the keys. If the use of verse is overshadowing them or forcing them on a death march, I have to get rid of the rhyme. It hurts, but by the time I make that decision, the manuscript is usually so painfully bad that it’s a relief!

PT: In the idea stage, what comes first, poetry or facts? Or put another way, what happens first - do you say to yourself I want to write about leaves, or do you hear the cadence of “A leaf can be…” in your head, or is it some combination or alchemy of the two?

LPS: Great question. Almost always, for me, the facts, the topics, come first. When my brain sizzles from some amazing fact, I know I want to write about it in some way. For A LEAF CAN BE…, I knew I wanted to write a rhyming nonfiction picture book, and I went looking for topics. I came across a poem I had written about Honduran tent bats and how they use leaves. Then I started researching leaves and all the cool things they do. I didn’t start thinking of words and rhyme and meter, though, hearing phrases or rhythms in my head, until my head was stuffed full of amazing facts.

PT: Do you feel that in general editors are open to lyrical prose in nonfiction? And what advice would you give to writers who would like to incorporate more verse or lyrical prose in their nonfiction?

LPS: That’s a good question. I think they’re more open to it than straight poetry, that’s for sure! Young kids love rhyme, and they also love to learn things. So if you can mix those two things, I think you can make a book that really appeals to kids, parents, and teachers.

But…it’s not easy. For writers who would like to try it, I suggest reading a ton a great children’s poetry, both rhyming and non-rhyming. See Sylvia Vardell’s blog, Poetry for Children, and search for her Best Poetry Books of the Year for the past several years. That’s a great place to start.

Then look specifically at rhyming nonfiction picture books. Joyce Sidman’s Swirl by Swirl, Linda Ashman’s Castles, Caves & Honeycombs, and Lola Schaefer’s An Island Grows are just three examples I love.
And, of course, get feedback. If you’re in a great critique group, use it to get honest opinions about how to improve your work. For people who can’t get everything they need from their crit groups, or who don’t have one, Lisa Bullard and I run Mentors for Rent (, an hourly mentoring service for kids’/ya writers. We often work with writers on rhyming manuscripts—it’s a really tough format to get right.

PT: You are a prolific writer working with several publishers, and I was excited to see that you have written a guide for people who want to write for the educational market. What bit of advice would you offer someone who would like to break into that market?

LPS: Writing for the educational market is a big chunk of my writing life. I learn so much cool stuff about topics that I had no idea were so interesting: Mealworms? Snowmobiling? Charles Drew? None of these topics wowed me at first, but they sucked me in! And this market can provide a small, steady income and stream of publishing credits, which is also great.
Basically, getting work in this market is like job-hunting. You send out an introductory packet that includes a cover letter, possibly your resume, and some writing samples. You tell the editor why you would like to write for that publisher specifically, and you convince her that you are professional, hard-working, and congenial. And then you follow up every so often until you get your first (or next) assignment. I used to teach an online course in this, but then I put everything I knew about it into a print textbook ( It’s not that difficult to approach editors, but it can be overwhelming if you don’t know where to start.

PT: Thank you, Laura, for the great advice and insight into your writing process.  Can't wait to see what comes next!  

Monday, February 6, 2012

Being On TV

Recently I had the thrill of being on the local morning show, AM Buffalo. I had sent a review copy of For the Birds to the host Linda Pellegrino hoping the selling point that Roger Tory Peterson was local (from Jamestown, NY) would spark and interest. It did.

So, Friday I woke up to a torrent of rainwater and thaw flowing down my street. I hadn’t planned on wearing rain boots at the end of January, but I pulled them on and sloshed out to the car.

I picked up my sister-in-law Terry, I figured it would be more fun with two, and it was a good thing I did, because we got lost. Well, not lost lost, we could see the building with its giant red 7 teasing us, but couldn’t find the way into the parking lot. Twice we made the same mistake almost ending up either on the Skyway or going over the Peace Bridge to Canada. With Terry’s help I kept calm and she read the map and although we did not get into the parking lot we did find a parking lot and walked over.

I always imagined a TV studio busy and full of people, but it was quite quiet and stark. We sat around with another guest, a chiropractor, waiting for the hosts to show up.

A large warehouse type room with small sets – a mock kitchen, part of a living room, a stairway that led nowhere, and a new’s anchor desk. Most of the equipment seemed to hang from the ceiling, lights, monitors, TVs and whatnot,except for two cameras and two teleprompters.

The few people we met were pleasant, but not too concerned that we were there -- no pre-interview or a heads up about what they might ask me -- but that was okay because Terry and I just had fun taking it all in.

A few minutes before the show was to go on, the hosts arrived, Linda Pellegrino and John Summers. They sat on their loveseat spoke to the invisible people only they could hear in their ear pieces and chatted about the day’s events. Then they were on. Bubbly, engaging, clear and crisp, they rarely faltered as they zipped through weather, banter and promos of what was coming next. Me!

Thankfully, I could not see myself live on TV. And without cameramen there to distract me (it’s done remotely), I easily focused in on Linda and John and their genuine interest in my book. They didn’t ask me anything too difficult and I found myself at ease and able to have a normal conversation with them. They showed off Laura Jacques’ amazing artwork, and helped me relate interesting bits of Roger Tory Peterson’s story. All too soon it was over, and I hoped I had not embarrassed myself.

The experience was a lot of fun and I wouldn’t hesitate to do it again, although I still haven’t seen the clip yet, and if I did I might change my mind. But the experience was a lot like writing nonfiction and here’s why --

Sometimes doing research is like slogging through ankle-deep water. You have to go slowly or it will swamp you, and you have to be prepared – Not with golashes, but with extra pens, paper, change for the copier, etc.

Unlike fiction authors, nonfiction writers need a solid plan or map to help them navigate all the information that is out there. If you don’t have a clear idea of what you want to write, you may end up lost. If you lose your way, enlist the help of experts, archivists, librarians who know where to look. They can get you to your final destination.

You have to enjoy what you are doing and understand that others won’t necessarily care about it as much as you do. Your enthusiasm needs to carry the project through.

When you begin to write, keep your message clear and casual – just a normal conversation. Make it interesting, show off your best research, share your best stories. And enjoy the experience. If you do, people might say what Linda Pellegrino said when it was all over, “Let us know when your next book comes out. We’ll have you back on.”

I certainly will, especially now that I know how to get there.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Nonfiction at its Quirkiest – A Review of How They Croaked

Georgia Bragg’s mid-grade book, How They Croaked; The Awful Ends of the Awfully Famous (Walker & Co.) is the perfect example of how a writer can take a common subject and give it a twist. Think you know everything there is to know about icons like Columbus, Mozart and Washington? Think again. Bragg brings you the gruesome, gory, yucky truth about their last days.

Each chapter gives you a nifty mini biography so that anyone can appreciate the tragic deaths that are the focus of this book. But that alone is not the hook, it is also the warning she gives – “If you don’t have the guts for gore. Do not read this book” – likening the reading of How They Croaked to watching Bambi’s mother die over and over again, but worse!

Although appreciative of the famous achievements of each of the 19 famous people, Bragg does not hold back the snarkiness when it comes to the medical professionals who supposedly cared for these kings, queens and geniuses, leaving nothing to the imagination as she describes barbaric treatments such as leeching, cupping using a scarifactor with spring-loaded blades, drilling a hole into Beethoven’s stomach and then plugging it up with rags, and the ten doctors who took turns poking their dirty fingers into the wound in James Garfield’s back to locate a bullet that would not have been fatal if it had been left in place.

Kids, especially boys, will love every garish detail, as well as the cool facts, sarcastic how-tos, and terrifying trivia at the end of each chapter. Kevin O’Malley’s black and portraits, boarders and spot art are a perfect quirky compliment.

How They Croaked definitely goes on my list of “Books I Wish I Wrote.”

Friday, January 20, 2012

Congratulations NCTE Orbis Pictus Winners!

The winner of the National Council of Teachers of English Orbis Pictus Award for Outstanding Nonfiction for Childern was announced today.  Congratulations to Melissa Sweet for her beautiful picture book Balloons over Broadway: The True Story of the Puppeteer of Macy’s Parade.

Honors include:
Amelia Lost: The Life and Disappearance of Amelia Earhart by Candace Fleming (Schwartz & Wade Books)
Father Abraham: Lincoln and His Sons by Harold Holzer (Calkins Creek)
Pablo Neruda: Poet of the People by Monica Brown illustrated by Julie Paschkis (Henry Holt and Company)
Terezin: Voices from the Holocaust by Ruth Thomson (Candlewick Press)
The Mangrove Tree: Planting Trees to Feed Families by Susan L. Roth & Cindy Trumbore (Lee & Low Books Inc.)

But I'd like to congratulate the folks at Boyds Mills Press and their imprint Calkins Creek for collecting one honor and having 3 of their books included on the short Recommended list -- Harold Holzer was honored for his Father Abraham, and the recommended titles include: Billions of Years, Amazing Changes: The Story of Evolution by Laurence Pringle, illustrated by Steve Jenkins, Inkblot by Margaret Peot, and For the Birds: The Life of Roger Tory Peterson by yours truly and the amazing illustrator Laura Jacques!

Maybe someone will take me out tonight?!?!?

Learning From the Best

I am so proud of the amazing nonfiction books for children that are published these days.  But there is always room for more, and if you have ever thought about turning your love of reading children's nonfiction into writing children's nonfiction there are all sorts of books, conferences and workshops out there to help.  For twenty years I have been learning from other writers and continue to do so. But now I have the privilege of giving back. From May 20-26 I will be working with the Highlights Foundation to help other writers at THE WHOLE NARRATIVE WORKSHOP. 

Although I am one of the teachers, I am SO excited to hear what fellow instructor Susan Campbell Bartoletti has to say about how she creates her award-winning books like Hitler Youth.  Elizabeth Partridge will also be there talking about writing biographies.  I'm hoping I can add to the discussions about research, interviewing, crafting a strong storyline and more.  I have to admit that I am a little nervous to have on the faculty my editor Carolyn P. Yoder.  I know it will be great, but a little part of me feels like a kid having to spend the weekend with her teacher. She has seen my mistakes and knows my weaknesses, but together we may be able to give a clear picture of the author/editor relationship. More importantly I am excited to read the manuscripts of new writers with new ideas and new approaches to nonfiction, and be able to help them become published authors. 

The Whole Narrative Workshop is May 20-26, and the last day of registration is approaching soon. If you are interested I encourage you to check out this website for all the details -

I hope to see you there.


Monday, January 16, 2012

Review: The Mangrove Tree, Planting Trees to Feed Families by Susan L. Roth and Cindy Trumbore

The colorful multi-media collage on the cover created by Susan L Roth instantly draws you in to this amazing story of one man and a great idea. The layers of paper and fabric create a wonderful sense of perspective and texture even on the end papers, and supports the text beautifully.

On the right hand side of every double page spread the reader learns how Dr. Gordon Sato, a cell biologist, came up with the idea to plant mangrove forests along the coast of the impoverished country of Eritrea. There is a lot of science in the story as Roth and her co-author Cindy Trumbore explain how the mangroves need to be supplemented with fertilizer and iron, and how the forests are planted.

On the left hand side, the text builds in the style of “the house that Jack built,” reinforcing the accumulative good that the mangrove provides. The leaves and seeds are used to feed goats and sheep, the trees and the healthy livestock provide an income for the women, and provide food for the families, and even the roots create a healthy habitat for fish and other sea creatures which can be harvested by the fishermen.

The Afterword is filled with much more detail about Sato’s life. He grew up in the Manzanar War Relocation Center during WWII and even named the mangrove project after that camp where he learned to grow corn for his family to eat.

The Manzanar Project continues in Eritrea and has spread to Mauritania and Morocco with plans to help South American countries as well. For more information about the project check out

Monday, January 9, 2012

More Important Things

I have crapped around with how to write a writer’s blog that deals with how I feel in a writerly way, but I can’t. So I’m just going to say what happened.

My father-in-law died this past weekend after a valiant struggle with Parkinson’s and a week-long vigil at his bedside. I stayed home much of that time to take care of the dogs and cats so my husband didn’t have to worry about anything. Yet, my mind was in that room the whole time. I didn’t write. I didn’t want to. Somehow, spending time doing normal things seemed sacrilegious. So I did abnormal things (for me, anyway). I cleaned the fridge. I sorted files. Dusted, vacuumed, swept, and washed dishes.

The few times I tried to write this blog, I stalled out after just a sentence or two. I thought I could write about how to overcome distractions as a writer, but it seemed wrong to call my father-in-law’s death a distraction, and I didn’t have any advice anyway. The fact is there are more important things in life than trying to write a blog, or revising a picture book manuscript, or researching elephants. The fridge and the dishes weren’t important either, but they were my way of acknowledging that my life has changed in a profound way.

One thing I loved about my father-in-law, Bob Thomas, was how passionately he enjoyed beautiful things. He loved photographing the sunsets off of Cape Cod, capturing the ever-changing play of color, light and shadow. He could call chickadees, loved jazz, and told bad puns. He was silly, especially with his grandkids who shared his enthusiasm for giant bubbles and soaring kites.

He had his serious side too. He knew there was work to be done.
But then again -- look at that sunset!

Thanks Dad! I love you.