More Handwriting Helps: Write a Book

Handwriting practice is the bane of my existence. I have a five-year-old who reads well beyond grade level. However, getting him to practice his handwriting is like pulling teeth.

Traditional methods of practicing handwriting have proved futile. Workbooks don’t hold his interest, so I’ve had to invent numerous handwriting games to hold his attention. It’s such a struggle that I have not been diligent about sitting down with him to practice.

Recently, I heard Katie Davis’s interview with comic book author/illustrator Stephen McCraine. McCraine recounted making his first book at age sixish. He drew the pictures, and his mom filled in the speech bubbles — except for his name, which Stephen could write himself. The interview sparked an idea. Surely writing a book was something I could try with Cooper, my five-year-old, as a means of handwriting practice.

So this morning I grabbed two sheets of paper for each “book.” I folded them in half and stapled them in the crease, creating 8 pages, including the covers, for each book. I asked Cooper and Finley to brainstorm some ideas. Finley, age three,  opted to write a story that Cooper had just made up: their stuffed bear, Winnie, finding a lost library book under the couch. (Note: The bear was on the right track. I found the missing book behind a couch cushion. Thanks Winnie!)

Cooper wrote a book based upon an animation he’d seen: Springtime on Mars. He drew the pictures and dictated the text: “Watch out! The aliens ran for cover.” I lightly traced the letters and had him write them, following my pencil strokes. We completed the cover and a two-page spread. Cooper was very proud of his first book. I’m hoping we can add a page or two in the days to come.

Color Changing Liquids part 2

We recently tried an experiment from Steve Spangler Science, one of my favorite sites. You can find full instructions for the experiment….here, though we made a few modifications. Here’s our set up and what was supposed to happen:

The blue and green liquids (test tubes on the right in each stand) were mixed using cold water. The red and yellow liquids (test tubes on the left) were mixed using hot water. We put the blue (cold) water on top of the red (hot) water. We put the yellow (hot) water on top of the green (cold) water. We expected the heat to rise and cold to sink in each situation. So, we expected the cold blue to sink into the hot red and create purple. We expected the hot yellow to be perfectly content on top of the cold green, therefore not mixing at all. This is indeed what the beautiful video on Spangler’s site showed.

However, we learned a thing or two about how precise one has to be with science experiments. Here was our result:

Whoops! This wasn’t what was supposed to happen. The yellow-green at left wasn’t supposed to mix together. However, I had used an old recipe card to separate the two test tubes, before I placed them one on top of each other. Pulling out the recipe card wasn’t easy, and I think I ended up lifting up the top test tube, introducing some air and force that caused the two liquids to mix. Spangler had opted for a waxy playing card, which I’m sure slipped more easily. So, we talked about how careful scientists need to be with their experiments to produce accurate results.

Seriously, if you try this at home, follow Steve Spangler’s lead and use something slippery (a playing card) to separate the two liquids. It will pull out from between the test tubes much more easily. Oh, and this is very messy, so we recommend putting a cookie sheet underneath your workspace. We always have fun with these experiments even when we aren’t successful!

Q & A with nonfiction-picture-book maven Melissa Stewart

 

Author Melissa Stewart

I promise not to gush, but Melissa Stewart is one of my curious kids’ favorite authors. Her science books are filled with quirky facts and zippy language proving that children’s nonfiction is anything but boring. When I started my journey into writing nonfiction picture books, Melissa was one of my big inspirations. I go back to her books time and time again to see how a master uses narrative structure and language.

This year Melissa will publish her 150th book. She has 21 new titles coming out in 2012 alone. Each book reflects her passion for science and the natural world.

She knows her stuff. She holds a bachelor’s degree in biology from Union College in Schenectady, NY, and a master’s degree in science journalism from New York University. She worked as a children’s book editor for nine years before becoming a fulltime writer in 2000. She serves on the Board of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and the Keene State College Children’s Literature Festival.

Now, on to Melissa and her words of wisdom for new writers.

Where do your books ideas come from? What inspires you?

Melissa: Most of my book ideas come from things I read, things people tell me, or experiences I have. I’m a voracious reader and sometimes an article in a magazine or the newspaper will start a whole journey of exploration.

For example, my book It’s Spit-acular: The Secrets of Saliva was inspired by an article I read in Natural History magazine. The article focused on how pigs attract one another with pheromones in their spit. Apparently, perfume companies have isolated the chemical and added it to their products. But the chemical in question didn’t seem to work on humans. LOL! After reading that article, I became very interested in spit and started doing research. Saliva is way more interesting that you might think. Interesting enough for a 48 page book.

Do nonfiction authors typically use agents or are they more likely to query a publisher directly?

Melissa: Hmm. I’m not sure what is “typical” for nonfiction authors. I can only say that I don’t use an agent. Over the years, I’ve developed great relationships with quite a few editors, so I just submit directly to them.

What is the querying process like for nonfiction? Do you send a completed manuscript, as with fiction picture books, or is a query completely different?

Melissa: Most of my trade books are picture books. And whether they are fiction or nonfiction, editors need to see the whole manuscript. For longer books, editors generally want a solid understanding of what the book will be—target audience, word count, art ideas, a statement about why the book will be unique in the marketplace. I generally send samples that are long enough to give editors a good idea of the writing style I have in mind. That can range from a few pages to a few chapters depending on the book.

What are the best markets for nonfiction children’s writers, for example mass market vs. trade or educational?

Melissa: To build a career, I think the best idea is to write for all the different markets. Sometimes one market is feeling economic pressure. When they cut their lists, they don’t have to acquire new projects for a while. But I always have to pay my mortgage and electric bill. For example, when the trade and school and library markets are slow, I try to focus more on magazine articles and mass market. In my experience, diversity is the best guarantee of a constant revenue flow. And that’s fine with me because I like doing lots of different kinds of writing.

What does your research process look like, especially when the topic is completely new and/or challenging?

Melissa: My research process is different for every book. Because I’ve been doing this for 20 years and focus on science, I have a solid background in most areas of science. Recently, I wrote a book about the technological and scientific aspects of locating and studying the Titanic wreck. This meant doing a lot of historical research, which I discovered is quite different from researching a science topic.

For most of my books, I can find a scientist to tell me exactly what I need to know. With history, there are some things we’ll never know. And because different people often give different accounts of the same event, it’s hard to know what’s “true.” I’m glad I had this experience because it gives me a whole new appreciation of the challenges some of my colleagues face and overcome with every book. I’m sure they might say the same about the kind of research I do. It’s a strikingly different way of gathering and analyzing the information.

How do you take nonfiction from “just the facts” to a finished product that whisks children through the pages?

Melissa: Ah, that’s the most challenging part of my job. And the part I enjoy the most. It’s the most creative part of what I do, and it’s so rewarding when I know I’ve hit upon just the right approach.

Sometimes a book’s format and hook comes to me right away, and sometimes it takes years. One of the books I’m working on right now has been a ten-year process. I’ve written hundreds of drafts and tried four completely different approaches. Hitting the delete button on a manuscript you’ve worked on for a year can be devastating, but it’s also exhilarating. It opens up so many new possibilities.

The final product of my decade-long struggle, No Monkeys, No Chocolate, is slated for publication in 2013. I’m really curious to see how people will respond. The format is very innovative, but absolutely right for telling the story of how rainforest creatures depend on one another. And it doesn’t hurt that the book focuses on one of our favorite treats—chocolate.

In nonfiction, how does the partnership with illustrators work? Do publishing houses select the artwork or do you have more input?

Melissa: Again, I can only describe what I have experienced. The process may be different for other authors. I generally am involved in the process. Editors send me samples and ask for my input. We usually chose the illustrator collaboratively. I review sketches because scientific accuracy is so important for my books and illustrators may not have a strong science background. I’m very lucky to work with some great illustrators, including Higgins Bond and Constance Bergum. The chocolate book will be illustrated by Nicole Wong and another upcoming book is being illustrated by my long-time friend Sarah Brannen.

Do publishing houses require an expert to review nonfiction manuscripts? What are some good ways to find these experts if you haven’t relied upon interviews?

Melissa: Some publishers will find an independent expert to vet the manuscript, but usually it’s up to me. I have a big file of scientists I’ve developed relationships with over the years. And I routinely contact  them as I’m researching and writing. It’s the only way to get the most up-to-date information.

If I need to find someone new, I usually use the Internet. University websites describe the work of their faculty and include links to their scientific papers. So it’s very easy for me to identify people who are experts in a given field.

Melissa, thank you so much for taking time out of your busy schedule to provide advice to beginning writers.

Melissa: Thanks so much for interviewing me, Kirsten. There’s nothing I enjoy more than writing for curious kids, so your blog is a perfect fit for the kind of work I do.

Visit Melissa at her Science Clubhouse or check out her Celebrate Science blog, which is always full of fun science facts. Also, please see my previous review of her fascinating book, Inside Volcanoes

 

Perfect Picture Book Friday: When the Wind Stops

Author: Charlotte Zolotow
Illustrator: Stefano Vitale
Publication Info: HarperCollins Publishers, 1995 (third edition)
Intended audience: Ages 4 and up, though my three-year-old loved it
Themes/topics: nature, natural science, weather
Synopsis and opening line: “The bright yellow sun had shown all day, and now the day was coming to an end. The light in the sky changed from blue to pink to a strange dusky purple. The sun sank lower into the long glowing clouds. The little boy was sorry to see the day end.”
In Zolotow’s beautiful, lyrically written book, the boy’s mother explains that nothing comes to an end. When the day ends at his house, night begins and day breaks at another spot on the globe. Falling leaves signal not the end of autumn, but the beginning of new life, as the decaying leaves nourish the soil. Zolotow’s text is a poetic preschool introduction to the natural world and its cycles.
Resources: This book encompasses much of the natural world. To explain the Earth’s rotation, you need only a flashlight and a globe. Don’t have a globe? Try an orange instead. Show children where you live on the globe (or mark the spot with an x on the orange). Tell the children that the flashlight is the sun. When the sun shines directly on the x (or your city on the globe) it’s daytime there. Now rotate the globe or orange 180 degrees. Explain that now your home is in Earth’s shadow, and it’s nighttime. But see, the sun is shining somewhere else! You could also compost to explain how old leaves and dead plant matter create nutrients and new life. Boil water to show how water becomes water vapor, which creates clouds. Trap some water vapor in a bottle and let it cool. Now you’ve got rain.
Why I like this book: A busy two-year-old serendipitously handed me this book at the library when he saw me pulling books off the shelf. His choice couldn’t have been more perfect. At each sunrise and sunset my three-year-old asks, “Is the sun coming up or going down?” We talk about the Earth’s rotation and the fact that sunset means a new day is dawning somewhere else in the world.  This beautifully written book provides just enough information about nature and its cycles for preschoolers.
Every Friday bloggers review “Perfect Picture Books.” Find a complete list of book reviews organized by topic, genre and blogger at author Susanna Leonard Hill’s site.

Flower Shop Field Trip

Photo by Julie Gonzalez

Yes, I’m a big fan of field trips, even when they include everyday places like grocery stores, pet shops and libraries. To quote Richard Scarry, I always wonder, “What Do People Do All Day?” Today we visited a teeny tiny local florist, The Farmer’s Wife. Here are some fun things we learned:

  • During non-peak seasons this 3-person shop delivers 25 to 30 arrangements a day.
  • It takes each florist an average of 12 minutes to complete an arrangements. (Boy do I feel slow, considering blog posts sometimes consume the better part of an hour.)
  • Orders come in from a variety of sources, including FTD, 1800-Flowers.com, Teleflora, telephone and in-person orders.
  • Each order is written on a ticket and passed to the designer. It reminded me of a restaurant kitchen. Order up!
  • The refrigerator, where the flower arrangements sit ready for delivery, is about 38 degrees.
  • If you want your flowers to last longer, change the water every day. If the leaves or petals start to droop, score the stems and immediately return the flowers to the water.

The children had fun literally smelling the roses. And everybody went home with a carnation.

Bugscope: BYO Bugs

What could be cooler than bugs? How about bugs up close and personal?

Enter Bugscope, a project at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Through Bugscope, children from kindergarten through college collect their own bugs and study them through a scanning electron microscope housed at UIUC’s Beckman Institute.

The process is pretty simple: teachers or homeschoolers submit an application to use the $800,000 microscope. Once the application is approved and a time is scheduled, students collect and send in their bug samples. The staff prepares the bugs for the session. During the session, students remotely control the microscope and chat with Beckman Institute scientists about what they see.

I can’t think of a better way to get children excited about science. Beckman scientists have participated in 300 microscope sessions with 200 different schools since 1999. Oh, how I am counting the days until I have a kindergartener, so I can convince the classroom teacher to schedule a Bugscope session.

In the meantime, I’ll have to rely on Alexandra Siy’s latest, Bug Shots: The Good, the Bad, and the Buglywhich she illustrates with images taken with a scanning electron microscope. Book review coming soon!

In praise of museum memberships

Yesterday we went to the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach. After having a membership both there and at the LA Zoo for a couple of years now, I’ve become a big fan of membership. Here’s why:

  • If I have a membership, I have to go. I am notoriously thrifty. If it takes me two or three visits to see a return on my investment, you better believe I’ll be visiting the requisite two or three times. Membership provides an incentive for taking the kids every couple of months. We pack a picnic lunch, and it’s practically free (if you don’t count the gas money).
  • We don’t have to see it all every time. If I’m at a new museum, and I know I won’t be back for years, I try to see every single animal, painting, etc. It can be exhausting, but I just hate to miss anything. Membership offers the flip side: we visit over and over again, so we can see as much or as little as we like each time. Today we skipped whole galleries, because it was super crowded, but we watched the sea lion and seal show for the first time, and saw the scuba divers feed the tropical fish. Finley spent a good 15 minutes listening to various whale songs at a kiosk. We didn’t see the otters or the penguins at all. That’s ok, because we’ll be back. As members, we have more freedom to let the children’s curiosity be our guide.
  • As a writer, I love to visit the gift stores repeatedly and see what kind of books are for sale. Now that the aquarium has installed a new polar regions exhibit, there were lots of new books about the Arctic and Antarctic. Visits always generate at least a book idea or two.

So yes, the gift store discounts are nice. The member events can’t be beat. But I love our memberships because they guilt me into visiting; they let our curiosity be our guide; and these visits are always a source of writing inspiration. Do you have a favorite museum or other cultural attraction your frequent?

Perfect Picture Book Friday: Lightship

Title: Lightship
Author/Illustrator: Brian Floca
Publication Info: A Richard Jackson Book | Atheneum Books for Young Readers
Simon & Schuster Children’s Books, 2007
Genre: Historical fiction
Intended audience: Ages 3-7 ( I think it’s more of interest to ages 4 and up)
Themes/topics: History, vehicles, helping others, perseverance
Synopsis and opening line: Floca’s Lightship is a lyrical history of lightships, lighthouses on the sea. These ships first served in America in the 1820s and marked the way in areas where lighthouses could not be built. Working aboard a lightship was a dangerous job requiring dedication and teamwork in close quarters. Floca chronicles the crew, routines and challenges of a lightship called The Ambrose, relying on extensive historical research.
Here is Floca’s first line: “Here is a ship that holds her place. She has a captain and a crew: helmsman, oiler, engineer, deckhand, fireman, radioman, messman, cook, and cat.”
The book received starred reviews and numerous awards:
• A Robert F. Sibert Honor Book
• Booklist’s “Top of the List” Youth Picture Book for 2007
• Winner of the 2007 Cybil Award for Best Nonfiction Picture Book
• An American Library Association Notable Children’s Book
• A New York Public Library 100 Titles for Reading and Sharing Selection
• A Banks Street Best Books of the Year selection
• A Junior Library Guild Premier Selection
• A 2009-2010 Buckaroo Award Nominee (WY)
Resources: Lightship contains a labeled schematic of the lightship, as well as an author’s note briefly explaining the boats’ history. Floca’s Web site includes a coloring page, additional reading resources, notes on where you can visit retired lightships, as well as plans for building your own lightship.
Why I like this book: How do I love Brian Floca? Let me count the ways. As in his Apollo 11 book, Moonshot, Floca marries science-based history with simple poetry. His books constantly remind me that writing nonfiction for elementary schoolers does not mean throwing a constant stream of facts at them. Simple, well-written phrases convey the mood and just the right amount of information.
Every Friday bloggers review “Perfect Picture Books.” Find a complete list of book reviews organized by topic, genre and blogger at author Susanna Leonard Hill’s site.

Licensing Deals and Brand Extensions: Richard Scarry’s Busytown

As a part-time business instructor, I find book-based licensing deals fascinating. I’d love to know how much Warner Bros. is raking in from licensing arrangements for J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter. And then there is Disney’s licensing of its version of Milne’s Winnie the Pooh. Still, it seems like there are far fewer licensing deals that originate with picture books and hold true to the original artwork and characters. Of course there is Curious George and the Hungry Caterpillar, but these examples are few and far between.

One exception is my children’s current obsession: Richard Scarry and Busytown. We’ve been reading Richard Scarry books for years. What Do People Do All Day? is a recent favorite. Scarry’s books are rich in detail. For example in “Building a New House,” Scarry shows how the pipes bring in clean water to the house and carry dirty water to the sewer. “Wood and How We Use It” reveals how a sawmill works, including the water wheel, saws and scrap lumber piles that later get turned into paper. My five-year-old eats up the “how things work” element of Scarry’s books.

I’m not sure how we stumbled across TV’s Busytown Mysteries, based on Richard Scarry’s books. However, one glimpse, and the children were hooked. The animation and characters seem to have jumped off of Scarry’s pages. Each episode challenges the children to make observations and solve a mystery, like who stole the muffins or what happened to the pickle car. Looking closely and finding interesting things are activities Scarry’s books invite children to perform, so the show is in keeping with the spirit of the books too.

My three-year-old sings the show’s theme song constantly. Even on the potty. At the top of his lungs. “There’s no doubt we can work it all out with Huckle….and Busytown!” Given the Busytown obsession, I was immediately on the lookout when my friend Sarah mentioned a that there was a Richard Scarry Busytown board game.

The game is a perfect extension of the Richard Scarry brand. The 6-foot game board is packed with pictures of Busytown, just like the books. The game is cooperative: everyone must work together to reach Picnic Island before the pigs steal all the food. Along the way the children get to work together to solve mysteries and earn bonus points. For example, they use magnifying glasses to find as many kites, ice cream cones or bicycles as they can around the town. It forces them to look carefully. Working together, they find more of the required objects. The game is a lot of fun for two to four players. It’s even won a Parent’s Choice award.

So, I’m curious, what’s your favorite licensing deal or extension of a children’s picture book? Why don’t picture book characters translate into more toys, games, TV shows and other products especially when there is such a market?

Where in the world am I? Make your own sextant

Homemade sextant to determine latitude

I’m continuing to try out activities for my picture book about navigation. Today, I built my own sextant, pictured above. It’s nothing fancy, just an index card, a straw, a paperclip and some tape. However, this simple tool can help you figure out your latitude, a navigational word for your north/south position.

Here’s how it works. There’s a special star visible in the northern hemisphere, called Polaris. It’s also known as the North Star. Polaris is in the handle of the Little Dipper. While other stars appear to rise in the east and set in the west, Polaris stays fixed in the night sky. It sits above the North Pole, so when you find it, you can determine north, south, east and west just as ancient sailors did.

At the equator Polaris appears on the horizon. Here, the latitude is zero degrees. At the North Pole, Polaris is at 90 degrees, directly overhead. Using a sextant, you can determine how far above the horizon Polaris sits. All you have to do is view Polaris through your sighting device, and make note of the angle. That angle is the same as your latitude. For example, if you spy Polaris 30 degrees above the horizon, your latitude is 30 degrees north.

Here’s a great video tutorial for making your own sextant. Let me know if you try it and how well it works.