Sunday, December 29, 2013

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!

Friday, December 27, 2013

Where Nonfiction Writers Stand on CCSS

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 -

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

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:  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


Monday, November 18, 2013

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.   

Monday, October 21, 2013

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.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

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.

Monday, October 7, 2013

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

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

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

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


Monday, September 23, 2013

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

Monday, September 16, 2013

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.  

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

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 -


Monday, September 9, 2013

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 Library by 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

Sunday, August 25, 2013

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

Friday, August 2, 2013

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.

Friday, July 26, 2013

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 th century 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.


Saturday, July 13, 2013

Reading Nonfiction


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.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Writing for Children's Magazines


Evelyn B. Christensen has a new online issue of Writing For Children's Magazines.
It includes an article by Savannah Hendricks - How Rejections Can Improve Your Writing
and an Overview of Clubhouse magazine by Carrie Clickard.
Check it out. Evelyn provides a great resource.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Mid-list Maggie gets Media Savy

One of the big take-away tips from the 21st Century Children's Nonfiction Conference was -- get media savy!  When Roxie Munro said she spends two hours a day dealing with her online presence I cringed. But I've challenged myself to be better about this stuff than I have been.  I know it's one of my weaknesses along with procrastination, popcorn and napping.

So, today I will update  my website. It really needs tear down and rebuild, but I'll start with making sure my calendar is up-to-date.

Another thing Roxie mentioned was joining things like Good Reads.  And then today I read a blog by Sarah Pinneo about an Author's Complete Guide to Using Good Reads, so I thought I'd share it. It was on Query Tracker.

Monday, June 24, 2013

On the Couch with Nonfiction Authors Anonymous

Whack! Whack!

I now call the first meeting of Nonfiction Authors Anonymous to order.

Hi. I'm Peggy Thomas. I'm the author of 13 books written for the educational market and ... 4 (sniffle) were ... work for hire.

While speaking to a group of nonfiction writers, I got to laughing about how dysfunctional we all seem to be. We apologize for having done work for hire instead of being proud that we are capable of researching and writing a book in 3 months or less.  I jokingly said that perhaps at the next conference there should be a group session with a therapist. Isn't it enough that we sometimes feel like the geeky yet genius stepchildren as we sit at book signings next to perky picture book people and the moody YA click? We shouldn't turn on each other by buying into a ranking system of nonfiction.

We have bought into the idea that a jacket-wrapped hardcover trade book is the "corner office" of children's NF. If it is, then only in a creative sense -- you get to write what you want, how you want it (sort of). But it isn't necessarily so financially. Many trade books don't pay out their advance. Some may be pulled off the shelf before their time.  I have earned more money on one article -- which sold in reprints and then was bought by a testing company for a 5 year period, and renewed after that -- than I have on some books.

So get on the band wagon. Shake off the senseless shame we feel for the important work we do, the work that feeds our families, heats our homes, and guess what? Educates and entertains millions of school kids every day!!!  Not many people can make that claim.

As long as you know that you did the best job you could crafting that book within the guidelines a publisher set, then hold your head up high.

 Nonfiction Authors Anonymous UNITE!

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

21st Century Children’s Nonfiction Conference Talks Books, Apps, and More By Rocco Staino

Here is a link to a review on the the conference in School Library Journal -- 21st Century Children’s Nonfiction Conference Talks Books, Apps, and More by Rocco Staino. I guess he didn't sit in on my workshops - I'll forgive him.

Monday, June 17, 2013

21st Century Children's Nonfiction Conference


The conference in New Paltz was TERRIFIC!!!  I can't tell you how exciting it was to be with dozens of other nonfiction writers, illustrators, editors and publishers, teachers, and librarians all discussing the art, craft and business of nonfiction for kids. It was such an unusual event - to focus only on nonfiction - that it was like letting prisoners out of solitary.  I was positively giddy.

Attendee Nancy Arny Pi-Sunyer wrote about it in her blog --

For me the highlights were:

--  working with Mary Kay Carson on a three hour presentation about all the basics of the publishing process.  I thought we made a great self-deprecating team. And I learned a thing or two about contracts, which I tend to be ignorant about.

-- Hearing from Melissa Stewart about a new initiative by the "Uncommon Corps" that categorizes nonfiction seven ways.

-- Learning a few ideas on how to reinvent myself for new markets from author-illustrator Roxie Munro.

-- Meeting Laura Purdie Salas and hearing about her experiences with an agent.

-- Seeing pictures of Vicki Cobb as a kid and realizing that she is just as energetic and enthusiastic (perhaps more so) now.

-- Laughing a lot discussing the ups and downs of this business with everyone. I loved meeting the four writers I critiqued, and those I sat with at meal time. 3 whole days of NF talk!!

-- Meeting author Carolyn DeCristofano and  editor Alyssa Mito Pusey and hearing how they created two books together. I soooo appreciated Carolyn's willingness to share moments of angst and frustration, because we have all been there. I don't know if I could be so brave. And Alyssa was wonderful explaining her process and giving us a glimpse of what her job entails. Loved the photo of all the revisions, emails, galleys, etc. that is kept in the archives.

Many thanks go to Lionel Bender, and Sally and Mike Isaacs for inviting me to this awesome, one-of-a-kind conference. I can't wait till next year.

SAVE THE DATE --  June 20-22, 2014

Saturday, May 4, 2013

From the New England Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators.

Hello from the New England SCBWI conference in Springfield, Mass.

I love when ideas swirl in the atmosphere and effervesce in one place and then another.

Yesterday, I led a workshop on voice in nonfiction and was delighted to see so many faces in the audience. I had them create an Image System (basically a vocabulary list of words pertaining to a specific theme or subject), and suggested that they practice my daily Haiku writing exercise to strengthen descriptive muscles. Today, Sharon Creech talked about poetry and how disparate ideas connect to create something new. Her novel in verse, I Love Dogs, features Alfred Lord Tennyson's poem, The Eagle. Then I went to Leslie Bulion's ( workshop on poetic form and she featured The Eagle. I suppose it's not mind bending considering I am at a writer's conference, but I've been exploring poetry recently -- even participating in the Oak Orchard Review Poetry Open Mic Night to celebrate April as Poetry Month, so it is reaffirming my search for the creative right-brained stories that lurk inside of me.

Last year, at this very conference, I was told by an agent that I needed to loosen up  -- to turn left when I wanted to turn right. So today, I look back at that cross roads with a sigh and look forward to the right, to the stories that need to be told.

Today's Haiku --

One syllable short
One glass of wine too many
Where's my cup of tea?

Monday, April 29, 2013

Albany Children's Book Festival

This Saturday, I had a lovely time at the Albany Children’s Book Festival at the Albany Girl's Academy.  I shared a table with Jana Laiz, author of Elephants of the Tsunami, a true story about elephants who saved many people who otherwise would have been washed away; and “A 
Free Woman on God’s Earth,” the inspiring story of  Elizabeth “Mumbet” Freeman who sued for her freedom in a Massachusetts court of law. We swapped stories of Thailand and elephants, in between signing books.

The crowd wasn't as large as it could have been. The 70 degree weather enticed many folks to garden -- which is what I would have been doing -- shoot hoops, play T-ball, or a hundred other things we've been buggy to do since the snow melted. But that gave me time to roam around and meet other writers. I was amazed at how many nonfiction books were there. Maybe it was a conscious decision by the festival board, or maybe nonfiction writers are just braver to step out into the spotlight. I know that several years ago I was usually one of three or four nonfiction writers at a book festival, but this weekend it seemed like every other table celebrated a NF title.

I met Matt Faulkner, author/illustrator of A Taste of Colored Water. Although not a NF book, Matt has illustrated some award winners like You’re on Your Way, Teddy Roosevelt by Judith St. George. But I love A Taste of Colored Water because it looks at the Civil Rights movement from the POV of two innocent, rural white kids who come to town to see this magical rainbow bubbler they've heard about, only to be confronted with the reality of intolerance. It makes you think, which in this day and age we need to do.

I also met author/illustrator Lindsay Barrett George, who created In the Woods: Who’s Been Here?, a book that my kids loved when they were younger. I purchased In the Garden: Who’s Been Here? for two more curious kids, Ryder and River.

Across from my table was a writer I have always wanted to meet because she wrote one of my favorite books called Manfish about Jacques Cousteau. I use Jennifer Berne’s book when I talk about voice in nonfiction because she wrote it with the same breathy lyrical voice of Cousteau himself. When you read it out loud you unwittingly take on a French accent. Jennifer’s newest book, hot off the press, is On a Beam of Light about Albert Einstein, and it, too, is written in that same clean, spare, narrative that I aspire to.

By four o’clock I had sold more books than I bought, so, all in all, a good day.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Talking Trade Books In Science

Spent the weekend at the National Science Teachers Conference, and talked with a room full (or not so full) of science teachers and those interested in using trade books in their science classrooms.  The session wasn’t as packed as it should have been, but the discussion was no less rigorous.  I met teachers from Missouri, Vermont, Wyoming, and other states who all struggle against time constraints, testing standards, and changing curriculum in their efforts to teach science as it should be taught – as an exciting exploration to satisfy curiosity about the world around us. 

Catherine Thimmesh (author of Team Moon) wondered why students “check out” when a lesson or activity is labeled science. It didn’t make sense to any of us in the room – teachers or writers – who think that science in all its forms is cool.  Most kids start out being curious, natural scientists. Something along the way turns them off.  What can we do?

I’ve heard that kids don’t go into the sciences because they believe that it is hard.  Where does that idea come from? Yes, science can be difficult, but it is also one of the few places where being wrong can be just as important as being right.  Elizabeth Rusch (author of Mighty Mars Rover) noted that we need to model that it is okay not to understand something.  Our school system promotes right and wrong answers, facts for every subject. Sarah Campbell (author of Growing Patterns)  contends that if kids are taught how to think – analyze, compare, etc. -- science is just like everything else. “If you can do that, you can do science.” 

I think Sallie Wolf (author of The Robin Makes a Laughing Sound) hit the nail on the head when she said, “We don’t have time in our education system to let kids stay in that place of not understanding.” There is always a test in two weeks, another unit to move on to. Kids also aren’t taught to trust their observations.

When a group of 5th graders created a bird field guide, they had to ask, “How can we make a boring Missouri bird sound cool” (They had just read about penguins and thought they were cool.)  That’s what NF writers ask every day. What other questions do we ask?  How do you make something complex simple?  What’s important to kids?  If you don’t understand, how do you find out – what questions do you ask?  What are your assumptions? How do you know what you think you know?

If we want kids to ask questions, we can’t be afraid to not know the answer. Teachers, writers and everyone need to admit, “I don’t know, but let’s find out.”  And we writers can acknowledge how much we don’t know when we start a project, how that it’s exciting to us, and how we go about getting the information we need. If we are honest with kids about not knowing, perhaps they will be more comfortable with that part of learning and science won’t seem so hard. 

Monday, April 8, 2013

Walking in Their Footsteps

The best way to capture the past is to step back into it -- visiting the places you are writing about. Last week Fran and I toured Monticello, the mountaintop home of Thomas Jefferson.  There is no better way to get into a person's head than to walk the red Piedmont soil and marvel at the blue rolling hills off in the distance. Now I know why he called it his "sea view."

But stepping back in time also takes a healthy dose of imagination, too. Mulberry row, where slaves lived and worked, is empty now. I have to imagine the lane busy with boys making nails, and the air  thick with smoke from the forge and the cook house. Instead of the two white women driving a four-wheeler from tree to tree in the orchard, I have to envision perhaps two black men carrying a ladder and saws to trim the branches.

The past is not black and white, either. Old photos make everyone look somber and give the impression that history was fuzzy and dull. But people wore shades of red and blue, laughed and danced.  One of the more startling things I noticed at Monticello was the neon yellow dining room. Not what I would have expected had I not known how much he appreciated light and air.

Hustled through the house with other tourists it was hard to really see everything, but then again, it gave me a more accurate portrayal of a house filled with children, servants, and family.  And when I return, I can dig deeper, look closer, and reveal even more.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Writing is Glorious

Saturday night I saw Glorious! a hilarious play by Peter Quilter at the O'Connell & Company theater. Based on a true story, Glorious! is the life of Florence Foster Jenkins the worst singer in the world (check her out on Youtube). Florence, born in 1868, was the tone deaf daughter of a wealthy banker who forbade her from taking music lessons. She so loved opera that she eloped just to get away from her domineering father. Many years later she inherited her parents fortune and began a singing career. Still tone deaf and rhythmically challenged Florence performed her first recital at the age of 44.

Of course the play features her most bizarre quirks like she interviewed anyone who wanted to purchase a ticket, and created her own costumes favoring wings, tinsel and tiaras. After a taxi crash Florence discovered that she could hit higher notes, and sent the cab driver a box of Cuban cigars to thank him for increasing her range.

Although ridiculed with bad reviews and called 'First Lady of the Sliding Scale,' she had a cult following that included Cole Porter, Talula Bankhead, and Enrico Caruso.

Her peak came in 1944, when at age 76, the Diva of Din played Carnegie Hall - to a standing room only crowd.  Some in the audience jeered, some laughed, but most admired her remarkable zest for life, her courage, and her singular passion for music.

At one point in the play, Florence, played by actress Mary Kate O'Connell (who portrayed Florence's joy and jarring arias brilliantly) said,  "People may say I can't sing. But no one can ever say I didn't sing."

And that line, which might have been her mantra, reminded me how important it is to be unwavering in the pursuit of one's passions. As a writer you are constantly getting knocked down with written rejections -- and if you're like me, you actually keep them so they continue to taunt you every time you open up a file drawer!  It is easy for your passion to waver each time you're faced with the choice to sleep in or get up and write (will anyone care?), or when you start a new story (is it worth the effort?), read aloud in a critique group (will they like it?), type up a cover letter (it is right?), stuff a manuscript in an envelop or attach it to an email (is it ready?).

Be courageous and take a cue from Florence. Be selective of your audience. Don't send a manuscript to just any editor. Check out their blogs and interviews online, read the books they've published. Find out what they like, what they want, so you'll have fewer boos and more bravos.

Dress up your prose -- not with tinsel and tiaras, but with the best writing you can create-- vigorous verbs, dynamic details, and kick ass characters.

And when someone helps you raise your game with a bit of advice, a research lead, or a personal editorial note, show your appreciation. Build your fan base. Start now to fill Carnegie Hall.

Despite all the obstacles that stand in your way (most of which are in your head), make sure that when the literary-equivalent-of-the-fat-lady sings, no one can say you didn't write.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Farmer George in the Classroom

I may be behind the times, but I have added lesson ideas for Farmer George Plants a Nation to my website just in time for President's Day.

I am not a teacher, so I'm not fluent in lesson-plan-ease, but I do love to think up ways to use Farmer George as a jumping off point for teaching about seeds and soil, or discussing how agriculture was such an important element in creating a free nation. In this confusing time of Common Core and changing standards I hope it helps to have an author's perspective on where the information came from, how they write, and how their work fits into the larger picture.  I think Farmer George can be used in social studies or science class, and I'm hoping that any teacher who uses Farmer George will let me know what they did and how it went.

Please add your voice to the discussion of how nonfiction books can be used in the classroom.

I'll be adding lesson plans for For The Birds next.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Hooray For Clichés!

Not too long ago I was sitting in the audience listening to a distinguished writer talk about her craft when she segued into “What Not to Do!”  Then I saw her pick up one of my books.

My mind filled with a numbing buzz like anesthesia for surgery where your soul will be yanked out through your left eyeball. I can’t remember what don’t’s she referred to, but all the while she held my book. Then she opened it and said, “Unless you do it this way.” Ah, a reprieve. Or a backhanded compliment?  I still couldn’t focus. The horror of being so close to the Don’t list left my brain limp.

You have to know the rules, before you can break them. That’s what writers say. And maybe I fall into that category, or at least cling to the outside rim, because I’ve noticed that I’ve done it again.  Another common piece of advice is to avoid clichés.  And yet, one of the literary devices that I employed in For the Birds: the life of Roger Tory Peterson, included several clichés –
            He had eagle eyes.
            Like an owl he worked at night …
           He rose with the Robins
           It was time to make a nest of his own
           Determined as a woodpecker after a bug

I did add a few of my own:  
           He looked as thin and gawky as a fledgling egret
           As focused as a heron after a fish, he perched on the edge of his seat.

But I had a reason. I wanted to create the image of Roger as a Bird, so the reader understood how strongly Roger loved and responded to them. Using phrases like, “he roosted with …” and  “he migrated…” helped to reinforce this.

The use of common phrases and images can serve a purpose if you use them consciously and don’t overdo it.  Seven comparisons sprinkled throughout a 48 page book with 3,000 words seemed to do the trick. 

Will I break more rules in the future?  I’m sure someone will point it out to me.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Ag in the Classroom - Advocates for Children's Books

Have you ever dreamed of having a group of people who would support and promote your books? Even go so far as purchase an entire first printing?  Well, you can – if you write a book that accurately portrays farming or ranching.  I discovered this when my book Farmer George Plants a Nation earned awards from several state Farm Bureaus, and then again when I attended the Writing About Agriculture Workshop at the HighlightsFoundation this past weekend.

Cris Peterson, dairy farmer and author of ten award-winning books about “the wonder of where food comes from” spoke with passion about the negative stereotypes that surround farming (think 'Green Acres') – “We’re the last great prejudice,” she says.  And she’s out to squelch those stereotypes with picture books like Century Farm, Seed Soil Sun, and Horse Power, the wonder of the Draft Horse. “It’s all about the wonder,” Cris says. She wants to create that “Wow, I didn’t know that!” reaction from her readers, so they feel connected to what they eat, wear, and use everyday.  

Ask the next child you see where their food comes from and they’ll probably say, “The grocery store.”  Campbell’s Soup conducted a survey and discovered that 54% of the people they asked thought soup came from a factory. It's cooked and canned there, but what about those ingredients?  The business of Agriculture – the growers (large and small), processors, distributors, researchers, and everyone involved wants kids and adults to know where food comes from and how it gets to their table.  It’s a pressing need in this high-tech digital world where the amount of farmable land is shrinking and the population keeps growing.

I confessed my farm-faux-pas-near-miss in Farmer George when I wrote ‘pushed the plow’. Fortunately, the gaff was caught before printing and we changed it to “guide the plow.”  It may seem like a silly thing to someone who has never tilled a field, but it’s serious business for those who have.  They’re tired of picture books that show farmers in overalls milking a cow by hand, or pigs wallowing in the mud. That was then, but high-tech dairies with rotating carousels, and clean pigs are now.

Leading the cheering section for great Ag books is Kevin Daugherty the Education Director at Illinois Agriculture in the Classroom.  He spoke with such enthusiasm about how he and his staff actively seek out books that portray Ag in a positive light, and when he finds one, he purchases it to give to teachers throughout the state, along with lesson plans, activities and so much more.  And it’s not just Illinois. Every state is eager for books that connect children to their food and fiber. The goal is to help educators teach writing, reading, science, history and math through agriculture.

So, wondering what to write about? Think about agriculture and all of its possibilities. But -- Do your research whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, so you too, can have Kevin and all the folks like him support and promote your exciting, enlightening, and ACCURATE book about Agriculture.

Just a few great Ag books to check out:
       Picture Books:
                Apples to Oregon by Deborah Hopkinson
                Extra Cheese, Please! By Cris Peterson
                Fantastic Farm Machines by Cris Peterson
                Harvest Year by Cris Peterson
                The Scrambled States of America by Laurie Keller
                A Handful of Dirt by Raymond Bial

                A Season of Gifts by Richard Peck
                Little Joe by Sandra Neil Wallace
                The Beef Princess of Practical County by Michelle Houts
                Return to Sender by Julia Alvarez
                Just Your Average Princess by Kristina Springer

Monday, January 14, 2013

A Nod to Susan Kuklin's Blog post on Ethics in Nonfiction.

You might be interested in reading Susan Kuklin's blog post at INK about Ethics in Nonfiction.  It summarizes a panel that Susan sat on with Meghan McCarthyDeborah Heiligman, and Sue Macy at the New York Public Library. I wish I had been there.

All I can add is -- ditto.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Left-brained thoughts on Writing

Several months ago I had a critique with an editor who read the first ten pages of a mid-grade novel I had been working on for several years.  He could tell from my writing that I wasn't a beginner, but there was something about my writing that stopped him from loving it, even though he liked the concept. We talked a bit more and when I confessed that I was primarily a nonfiction writer, he said, "Ah, that explains it," and advised me to go right when my brain told me to go left.  My writing was too stiff, he said. I need to be freer, get out of my comfort zone, go wild.  

I had nearly forgotten about that critique until I went to a workshop given by Andrea Page a fellow member of the Rochester Area Children's Writers and Illustrators.  Andrea was presenting "A Writing Workshop for the Right Brain."  Normally, this is the kind of program I would flee from because I've always believed that if you're going to write, then write. You don't need creative exercises.   But I went, partly because I didn't have choir, which normally occupies my Thursday evenings, and partly because I have to lead a workshop of my own in a few months and was curious how to handle writing assignments within a class setting.  

I'm so glad I did.  Thanks Andrea. Because I realized that the reason  I have disliked free writing and seemingly nonsensical exercises is that I am more left-brained than I'd like to believe.  I prefer to write for a reason. I prefer to be more organized, which surprises me since I am the least organized nonfiction writer I know (just visit my office).  I suspect that most nonfiction writers are more left-brained than right-brained.  What do you think?

And if this is so, that is probably why I have more trouble writing fiction than my nonfiction. So, the big question is: can I ditch my dislike of free-writing and incorporate it into my daily routine (which doesn't exist) in an attempt to pull myself away from the gravitational pull of my left brain and fling myself toward my right hemisphere?  I will try.  I would love to someday zip back and forth across my corpus callosum (the part that connects the two halves, Sibby) and really go wild with my writing.

It might take a while. I'm not very disciplined. But stay tuned to see what happens.