Each month, I’ll spotlight a book-based educational activity teachers and homeschooling parents can use with their students. These activities are pulled from the educators’ guides developed for my books by author and former educator Marcie Colleen. You can download the full A TRUE WONDER educator’s guide here.
Every day we are surrounded by people who quietly fight for the common good or stand up for what they believe is right. These outstanding individuals show what the power one person has to impact our neighborhoods and communities.
Who are the superheroes in your community? Interview and write a report or make a presentation about someone in your own community who you think makes a positive impact. This can be done as a whole class, in groups, or as individuals. Here are some things you can discuss:
Why you believe this person to be a hero to the neighborhood and community.
Describe the person activity/activities that significantly benefitted their neighborhood.
How long has the hero contributed to the neighborhood? What was their most recent activity?
Describe the creative and innovative methods used by the hero to benefit their neighborhood.
Include any other interesting information relevant to the hero’s activities.
What is this hero’s impact to the neighborhood and/or community at large? Include documentation such as pamphlets, articles, presentations, photographs, newsclippings, letters of support, etc. if applicable.
Present these reports to the class. Invite the heroes for a “Real Life Wonder” celebration.
For me, one of the most difficult parts of writing nonfiction (or any narrative, really) is choosing what fascinating parts of the story to include and what to delete because it doesn’t fit the focus of the book. One of my most valuable tools for figuring out what belongs is three simple words: “because of that.”
The story spine
I first learned about linking plot points with the phrase “because of that” in this Pixar/Khan Academy video about story spines, pictured below. Once the main character sets off to pursue her big goal in Act 2, her choices should drive the action. “Because of that” ensures that each action and each choice in the second act leads directly to the next. If you can fit “because of that” between your plot points, then your main character has agency.
But what if “because of that” doesn’t fit? What if your plot is more like, “This happened, and then that happened, and then that happened.” If you are using “and then” to link your plot points, that’s a strong indicator that your plot is a random collection of events happening to your protagonist. You need to reevaluate. Who is driving the action? Does each scene have a connection to the protagonist’s big goal?
Let’s look at THE FIRE OF STARS as an example. Cecilia Payne was such a fascinating woman, and there was so much I wanted to include in the book. At one time, the book included all kinds of tidbits, including the fact that when Cecilia won a prize at school and could pick any book she wanted, she selected a textbook about fungi. Though this fact was interesting, it didn’t have real bearing on the Cecilia’s lifelong quest to discover something new, so I ultimately discarded it. In a novel, I might have had the space to keep the scene to illuminate Cecilia’s character, but in a picture book I had to be ruthless.
Let’s look at a plot outline for THE FIRE OF STARS, and you’ll see what I mean.
Once upon a time there was a young girl, Cecilia Payne, who was captivated by the natural world.
Everyday she studied trees and flowers.
Until one day, she discovered on her own why a bee orchid looked like a bee, and her whole body hummed with that discovery. In that moment, she decided she wanted to feel like that her whole life.
But Cecilia’s family moved to London to find a better school for her brother, and because of that, Cecilia went to a new school with no space for a curious girl like her.
Because of that, she hid out in a secret place — a dusty science lab for older girls.
Because of that, she taught herself about science, and soon required a science tutor who gave Cecilia her first book on astronomy.
Because of that, Cecilia was accepted to Cambridge University to study botany (because girls couldn’t study astronomy).
Because of that, she took science classes where teachers wanted her to learn facts, not learn anything new.
Because of that, she jumped at the chance to hear astronomer Arthur Eddington talk about his new discoveries at a lecture.
Because of that, she switched her studies to physics where she was the only woman and teased by the men.
Because of that, when she graduated and learned there was no place for women in astronomy at Cambridge, she moved to America to work at Harvard College Observatory.
Because of that, she was surrounded by glass plates capturing the essence of stars and women who cataloged them.
Because of that, Cecilia studied the star ingredients for her thesis, but grew frustrated when she couldn’t make out their meaning. But she stuck with it.
Until finally, she made her groundbreaking discovery about what makes the stars — and our universe.
And ever since that day, other astrophysicists have used Cecilia’s discovery to ask new questions and make more amazing discoveries about our universe.
And the moral of the story is that what makes a scientist is curiosity, passion, hard work, and belief in oneself.
By using “because of that” I’ve made sure Cecilia is driving her own story and that every action has a consequence that forces Cecilia to make another choice in a smooth chain of cause and effect.
Grab a narrative draft (nonfiction or fiction) and outline your plot using the story spine. Are you able to use the words “because of that” between your plot points? Or is it a bunch of “and then this?” What adjustments do you need to make to your plot a series of causes and effects?
One more thing
If you want to study THE FIRE OF STARS, illus. Katherine Roy, more closely, the book will release Feb. 7, 2023 from Chronicle Books. It’s a lyrical, double read aloud with Cecilia’s story told alongside the story of star formation. You can preorder it now wherever books are sold. You’ll find all the buy links here. Or ask your local library to purchase a copy.
Big news…THE FIRE OF STARS, illustrated by the amazing Katherine Roy, is a Junior Library Guild Gold Standard Selection. I am so grateful to the JLG editorial team for this honor. Each year, the JLG editorial team reads thousands of books before they are published, and selects only the best for their member librarians. 95% of the books they select go on to get starred reviews, win awards, and appear on “best of” lists. Hooray!
THE FIRE OF STARS is now being released three weeks earlier on 2/7/23. You can preorder now wherever books are sold. All the buy links are on my book page here. For signed copies and preorder goodies, order via Once Upon a Time.
Each month, I’ll spotlight a book-based educational activity teachers and homeschooling parents can use with their students. These activities are pulled from the educators’ guides developed for my books by author and former educator Marcie Colleen. You can download thecomplete WOOD, WIRE, WINGS educator’s guide here.
Dear Olivia Sage: Writing a Persuasive Essay
As her dream outgrew her apartment and her wallet, Lilian needed to turn to others for help. One such person she turned to was Olivia Sage, one of the richest women in the world. But often people don’t just hand money to anyone who asks. Lilian needed to ask Olivia Sage while providing enough details to inform Olivia what her money would be used for. She needed to persuade Olivia Sage to help her.
Ask your students if they know what “persuade” means. If not, can they make any guesses?
What it means to persuade
Times you might want to persuade someone (e.g., persuade your parents to letyou stay up late, persuade your teacher to not give a test)Writing to persuade tells the reader what you believe, gives the reader at least three reasons why you believe it, and has a good ending sentence. You want to try and convince the reader to agree with you.
Pretending to be Lilian Todd, have students write a persuasive essay to Olivia Sage stating why they need money and why she should give it to you.
Use the following TREE structure:
T = Topic sentences
R = Reasons
E = Ending
E = Examine Share your essays with the class. Which is the most persuasive? Why do you think so?
Speaking and Listening Extension: Create a TV commercial or PowerPoint presentation to encourage people to read Wood, Wire, Wings: Emma Lilian Todd Invents an Airplane. Be sure to incorporate the TREE structure!
Previously, I shared a “girlfriends” Wonder Woman gift guide aimed at teens and adult fans. While some of those gift ideas might work for little fans too, in this post, I want to focus on gifts perfect for the younger set. So without further ado…
Of course, you should start with the book, which is now available whever books are sold. If you would like a signed copy, Once Upon a Time bookstore has you covered, plus you’ll be supporting America’s oldest children’s bookstore.
Is there a lady in your life with her head in the clouds? I’ve got a few great gifts for women and girls who were born to fly.
WOOD, WIRE, WINGS: Emma Lilian Todd Invents an Airplane by Kirsten W. Larson, illustrated by Tracy Subisak (Calkins Creek: 2020). This is the true story of self-taught engineer Lilian Todd, the first woman to design her own airplane in 1910. Buy it wherever books are sold.
If you’re a writer or a writing teacher, you’ve probably heard of National Novel Writing Month, aka NaNoWriMo. Every November, writers around the world attempt the big, audacious goal of writing a 50,000-word novel in a month. These drafts are not meant to be New York Times best sellers, but rather messy drafts full of plot holes and gaps that will be filled in and shaped later. In other words, these drafts are a starting point.
I’ll be honest. I’ve never “won” NaNoWriMo by hitting 50K words. But when I commit to to the process (as I am this year in an attempt to finish a middle grade historical fantasy), I always write more than I would otherwise. A lot of writing is overcoming resistance and excuses that keep us from getting started. For me, those excuses are things like “but I haven’t done all the research,” or “I haven’t finished my plot outline.” Honestly, I could ALWAYS spend more time researching or outlining and never put a single word on the page. Who’s with me there?
Yet once I overcome my internal resistance and start writing, I know it’s easier to keep writing. For me, that’s what NaNoWriMo is about — finding that inertia (a writer in motion stays in motion). Maybe it’s just for a month, but sometimes that inertia carries me into December or at least until I run into a big fat editorial deadline.
Bottom line, NaNo is about finding the motivation and the time to get the words down on the page so you have something to work with later. And it can be incredibly useful even if you aren’t writing a novel.
So here’s your challenge…Find a length of time — a month or even just a week — grab a few writing friends, and commit to writing something every day. Here are some ideas to get you started.:
Set a timer and write something (anything) for 15 minutes a day. Put an x on your calendar each day you do.
If you’re a picture book writer or illustrator, work on one two-page spread each day.
Write a poem every day, just to flex your writing muscles.
If you’re at the revision stage, why not commit to revising a chapter a day for a month?
OR hit whatever your daily word count goal is (for me, it’s 1,000 a day each weekday).
Anything you do is progress.
The NaNoWriMo website has some wonderful resources for preparing to write a novel, which you can use all year long. You’ll find them here.
Waiting for reviews is always the hardest part of being an author, in my opinion. It’s the first indication of how everyday readers might receive your book. Well, today I can breathe a sigh of relief since our first review for THE FIRE OF STARS is in — and it’s a 🌟!
Don’t miss the double read-aloud of a star’s formation told alongside the formation of astronomer Cecilia Payne as a scientist. The book is written by me, illus. by the uber-talented Katherine Roy. Coming 2/28/23 from Chronicle Books.
Looking for some special gifts for your group of girlfriends or another Wonder Woman in your life? I have you covered with this list of gifts for the Wonder Woman fan perfect for teens or grown ups.
A TRUE WONDER: The Comic Book Hero Who Changed Everything by Kirsten W. Larson, illustrated Katy Wu (Clarion Books) Celebrate strong women and the hero inside each and every one of us with this picture book perfect for grown-up gifting. Find buy links here.