Writing

Creating luminous, lyrical nonfiction voice

THE FIRE OF STARS, written by me, illustrated by Katherine Roy (Chronicle Books) releases in just 18 days, and I’m getting excited. It’s hard to believe it’s been 8 and a half years since I wrote my first draft of this (now) lyrical nonfiction book. It certainly didn’t start out that way.

Here’s the opening of the book, which I’ve transcribed below:

This is the opening spread of THE FIRE OF STARS


Wrapped in a blanket of sparkling space, 
an unformed star waits for its bright future to begin.
Cecilia kicks and cries.
Until her mother
sets her down
so Cecilia can feel with her own tiny toes
the cold and crackly snow,
which isn’t soft and warm like she expected.
It’s the first time Cecilia learns things aren’t always as they seem.

–THE FIRE OF STARS

An earlier draft my agent saw read much differently. Here it is:

“[Cecilia] was full of surprises and driven by a curiosity as wide as the universe. Young Cecilia spent hours outside watching slimy slugs slink through her garden, picking out constellations in the night sky, and counting trees among her best friends.”

What changed? Aside from starting with one, concrete scene, I learned to write lyrically thanks to Renee LaTulippe’s Lyrical Language Lab. That class was transformative for my writing, and today I want to focus on one thing I learned in that class, the use of sound devices. Sound devices add musicality to our writing, helping us set a specific mood.

Sound Devices

Renee discusses sound devices in this video on her Lyrical Language Lab YouTube channel. Some of the elements she covers include:

  • alliteration
  • assonance
  • consonance
  • rhyme

Let’s look at each sound device in turn with examples to see how it adds to the lyrical voice I’ve chosen.

Alliteration

Alliteration is when words that are close together start with the same letter or sound. For example, “Wrapped in a blanket of sparkling space,/ an unformed star waits for its bright future to begin./Cecilia kicks and cries.”

In this passage, I’ve started many word with the soft “s” sound, giving the first couple of lines a hushed sound, like a baby sleeping. Then I pivot to a sharp “k” sound for “kicks and cries” and “cold and crackly snow” mimicking the sharp cries of a baby (and the harsh snow). That’s alliteration, and I’ve used it to create a specific effect.

Assonance

This phrases above also have examples of assonance, including bright/cries and own/toes/snow. You might also notice that I picked a lot of long vowel sounds, which add the overall soft/hushed tone of the opening.

Consonance

Consonance is when words close to each other have the same consonant sound anywhere in the words. A good example of this is in the very first line, which is peppered with “p” sounds: “Wrapped in a blanket of sparkling space…” Again, these are soft consonant sounds adding to quiet mood of snow-covered stillness and of wonder.

Rhyme

In prose picture books, we don’t usually use end rhyme, but we can use internal rhyme. Internal rhyme is when words in the middle of a line rhyme. Later in the book, I have a line that reads :”Cecilia is forced to say hello to city streets full of strangers/ and good-bye to the company of trees and bees.” Trees rhymes with bees, a good example of internal rhyme.

Your Turn

Ready to apply some of these sound devices to your own work?

Think about your draft and the mood you are trying to create. Is it quiet and soothing filled with soft consonants and long vowel sounds? Or is it active and playful, with hard consonants and short vowels?

Once you’ve decided your approach, you can use tools like Thesaurus.com (for help with alliteration and consonance) and Rhymezone.com (for assonance and internal rhyme). How could you transform a sentence like “The kite flies through the air?” using the thesaurus and Rhymezone?

You could try, “The kite glides through the sky” for extra assonance. Or “The kite swoops through the sky” for alliteration. What else can you come up with? Do any of these alter the mood?

Adding musicality isn’t hard. The key with sound devices is not to overdo them. Too much alliteration, for example, can cause the reader to stumble over the words. Always read your work out loud to make sure it’s both clear and musical.

To read THE FIRE OF STARS, ask your library to order a copy or order your own. THE FIRE OF STARS is still available for preorder wherever books are sold! You can buy signed copies (with a preorder bonus postcard) through Once Upon a Time (scroll down my FIRE OF STARS page for the link.)

Writing

The Plot Power of “Because of That”

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?

An example

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.

  1. Once upon a time there was a young girl, Cecilia Payne, who was captivated by the natural world.
  2. Everyday she studied trees and flowers.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. Because of that, she hid out in a secret place — a dusty science lab for older girls.
  6. Because of that, she taught herself about science, and soon required a science tutor who gave Cecilia her first book on astronomy.
  7. Because of that, Cecilia was accepted to Cambridge University to study botany (because girls couldn’t study astronomy).
  8. Because of that, she took science classes where teachers wanted her to learn facts, not learn anything new.
  9. Because of that, she jumped at the chance to hear astronomer Arthur Eddington talk about his new discoveries at a lecture.
  10. Because of that, she switched her studies to physics where she was the only woman and teased by the men.
  11. 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.
  12. Because of that, she was surrounded by glass plates capturing the essence of stars and women who cataloged them.
  13. 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.
  14. Until finally, she made her groundbreaking discovery about what makes the stars — and our universe.
  15. And ever since that day, other astrophysicists have used Cecilia’s discovery to ask new questions and make more amazing discoveries about our universe.
  16. 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.

Your turn

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.

Books, News

THE FIRE OF STARS strikes gold

This is a graphic showing that THE FIRE OF STARS is a Junior Library Guild Gold Standard selection

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.

Homeschool, Writing

Creativity is Messy…

If I could share one thing with young writers of all ages, it’s that creativity is never a linear process. It’s always full of detours, rabbit holes, and dead ends. And that’s frustrating, but it’s also wonderful! There’s magic in that messiness.

For example, I’ve recently become reacquainted with my notebook pages from when I was first noodling around with a new structure for THE FIRE OF STARS (five years ago now!). Below are my messy and illegible notes. Don’t worry. I’ve included captions to help with the translation.

Before I got to this point with THE FIRE OF STARS, I’d been researching and working on various drafts for almost three years, trying to find just the right way to tell the story of astrophysicist Cecilia Payne. But nothing had come together in quite the right way — yet.

Creating these messy scraps in my notebook through scribbling , experimenting with words, and (badly) sketching led to my eventual creative breakthrough with the book.

The process is a lot like star formation. It stars start with tiny “bits” — dust and hydrogen atoms. Soon the tiny pieces start to clump together, slowly growing until they explode in a breathtaking show of light.

This is also the way Cecilia Payne worked. She tried different things, hit obstacles, and needed a lot of patience before everything came together in her final, ground-breaking discovery.

Creativity — whether writing or science — is messy … and that’s a beautiful thing. So grab your notebook and collect scraps of words, snatches of an idea, and all your swirly scribbles.

Books

A TRUE WONDER is a Booklist 2021 Editors’ Choice Book

It’s always a joy to have your book appear on an end of year best books list alongside books you admire. Thanks to BOOKLIST for including A TRUE WONDER on its 2021 Editor’s Choice list.

And I love the review: “This story about Wonder Woman — in comics, television, and movies — splendidly parallels the history of women in America over the past 80 years. The text stresses how women creators, especially of the 1940s and ’60s, defied expectations, vanquishing misogynistic villains at every turn.”

Thank you, Booklist! And congrats to all the creators on this list.

Books

12 Books to Celebrate #NationalAviationDay

Happy #NationalAviationDay. In 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt turned the anniversary of Orville Wright’s birthday into this U.S. National Holiday.

This year, I’m celebrating this annual event with a book list for young readers.

Inspiring True Stories in Aeronautics

Aviation Pioneer book covers

Airplane Books

Airplane book covers

#MentorTextMoment, Uncategorized

#MentorTextMoment: Dancing Hands

As part of my writing process, I read dozens of books by other nonfiction authors. When I read, I make notes about the craft choices authors make in terms of voice, structure, POV, and other unique elements that add up to amazing books. I recently decided to share my notes (in a searchable format), so teachers and fellow writers can see what I find new and noteworthy. Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below.

dancing-hands-9781481487405_lg

Book: DANCING HANDS: How Teresa Carreño Played the Piano for President Lincoln

Author: Margarita Engle

Illustrator: Rafael Lopez

Publication Info.:  Atheneum Books for Young Readers (August 27, 2019)

Ages/Grades: four to eight years (preschool and up)

Categories: third-person POV, narrative nonfiction, biography, interiority, heart

First lines: “When Teresa was a little girl in Venezuela, Mama sang lullabies while Papa showed Teresita how to let her happy hands dance across all the beautiful dark and light keys of a piano.”

Overview (from the publisher): “As a little girl, Teresa Carreño loved to let her hands dance across the beautiful keys of the piano. If she felt sad, music cheered her up, and when she was happy, the piano helped her share that joy. Soon she was writing her own songs and performing in grand cathedrals. Then a revolution in Venezuela forced her family to flee to the United States. Teresa felt lonely in this unfamiliar place, where few of the people she met spoke Spanish. Worst of all, there was fighting in her new home, too—the Civil War.

Still, Teresa kept playing, and soon she grew famous as the talented Piano Girl who could play anything from a folk song to a sonata. So famous, in fact, that President Abraham Lincoln wanted her to play at the White House! Yet with the country torn apart by war, could Teresa’s music bring comfort to those who needed it most?”

What’s noteworthy for authors and educators:

This book arrived at the perfect time in my writing journey. In my current picture book draft, I’m struggling to remember to focus on the main character’s internal journey, to slow down and share not just facts, but feelings. Engle does an excellent job of tracking Teresa’s emotional journey in this book. Here’s an example: “Poor Abraham Lincoln! Teresa hoped she could entertain the president, his grieving wife, and their two surviving sons. …But Teresa was brave, and she believed in trying her best…” Engle shares not only Tersa’s internal thoughts (“Poor Abraham Lincoln!”) but her feelings too, with words like “hoped,” “believed,” “remembered” and so on. This is such a wonderful reminder of what a picture book biography is about: a person, not just a plot.

Another element I admire about this book is how Engle elegantly shows why studying music matters. In this case, Teresa’s song comforts — for just a moment — a grieving family. What a beautiful testament to why the arts are important in daily life.

Additional resources for authors, educators, and parents:

#MentorTextMoment, Books

#MentorTextMoment: Bloom: A Story of Fashion Designer Elsa Schiaparelli

As part of my writing process, I read dozens of books by other nonfiction authors. When I read, I make notes about the craft choices authors make in terms of voice, structure, POV, and other unique elements that add up to amazing books. I recently decided to share my notes (in a searchable format), so teachers and fellow writers can see what I find new and noteworthy. Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below.

Book:

Bloom

BLOOM: A STORY OF FASHION DESIGNER ELSA SCHIAPARELLI

Author: Kyo Maclear

Illustrator: Julie Morstad

Publication Info.: HarperCollins, Feb. 6, 2018

Ages/Grades: preschool through 3rd grade (ages 4 and up)

Categories: first-person POV, narrative nonfiction, biography

First lines:

“Every story starts somewhere.

My story begins on September 10, 1890, in a beautiful palazzo in the center of Roma.”

Overview (from the publisher):

“Elsa dared to be different, and her story will not only dazzle, it will inspire the artist and fashionista in everyone who reads it.

By the 1930s Elsa Schiaparelli had captivated the fashion world in Paris, but before that, she was a little girl in Rome who didn’t feel pretty at all. Bloom: A Story of Fashion Designer Elsa Schiaparelli is the enchanting story for young readers of how a young girl used her imagination and emerged from plain to extraordinary.”

What’s noteworthy for authors and educators:

What makes something beautiful? For designer Elsa Schiaparelli anything could be beautiful, including a dress made of wool, cellophane, tree bark, and velvet. Or a shoe as a hat. This book could launch a wonderful conversation about what makes something beautiful and how we might broaden that definition. In addition, Schiaparelli takes an inventive approach to her designs, embracing failure much like so many inventors of machines and technologies. This could spark a discussion about the role of trial and error and experimentation in the creation of art.

Authors will note that this book is written in a more experimental point of view — first person. This allows for more introspection than usual in a picture book biography. Kyo Maclear writing as Schiaparelli helps us experience more fully the internal transformation Schiaparelli undergoes as she gains confidence in her designing skills.

Additional resources for authors, educators, and parents:

  • The Philadelphia Museum of Art created an educator’s guide for its 2003 exhibit about Schiaparelli. The discussion guide is fabulous (grades 5 through 12).
  • For younger students, try a mixed media project using recyclables or cast-off objects, turning old things into something beautiful.
#MentorTextMoment

#MentorTextMoment: The Lost Forest

As part of my writing process, I read dozens of books by other nonfiction authors. When I read, I make notes about the craft choices authors make in terms of voice, structure, POV, and other unique elements that add up to amazing books. I recently decided to share my notes (in a searchable format), so teachers and fellow writers can see what I find new and noteworthy. Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below.

image_mini

Book:

The Lost Forest

Author: Phyllis Root

Illustrator: Betsy Bowen

Publication Info.: University of Minnesota Press (April 2019)

Ages/Grades: 4 to 9 years

Categories: second-person POV, narrative nonfiction, biography

First lines:

“How do you lose a forest?

First you need a forest to lose. A forest like the red pines and white pines that once towered in Minnesota, trees that had never been logged.”

Overview (from the publisher):

“The story of a forest “lost” by a surveying error—and all the flora and fauna to be found there.

A forest, of course, doesn’t need a map to know where to grow. But people need a map to find it. And in 1882 when surveyors set out to map a part of Minnesota, they got confused, or tired and cold (it was November), and somehow mapped a great swath of ancient trees as a lake. For more than seventy-five years, the mistake stayed on the map, and the forest remained safe from logging—no lumber baron expects to find timber in a lake, after all.

The Lost Forest tells the story of this lucky error and of the 144 acres of old-growth red and white pine it preserved. With gentle humor, Phyllis Root introduces readers to the men at their daunting task, trekking across Minnesota, measuring and marking the vast land into townships and sections and quarters. She takes us deep into a stand of virgin pine, one of the last and largest in the state, where U.S. history and natural history meet. With the help of Betsy Bowen’s finely observed and beautiful illustrations, she shows us all the life that can be found in the Lost Forest.”

What’s noteworthy for authors and educators:

Have you ever made a mistake? We all have. The wonderful thing about this book is it shows what beauty can come from mistakes, like 300-year old trees with branches reaching towards the sky. There’s tremendous power in such a message for students, I think. This book would pair beautifully with Corinna Luyken’s THE BOOK OF MISTAKES.

Another fascinating element is the extensive backmatter, especially the explanations of the surveying and mapping processes. The endpapers include beautiful renditions of the historic survey of the Lost Forty.

From a writer’s perspective, this book is an unusual biography of sorts — that of a small parcel of trees. And I love how author Phyllis Root admits –with humor–what the sources don’t tell us, including just why Josiah King made his fateful mistake.

Additional resources for authors, educators, and parents:

#MentorTextMoment

#MentorTextMoment: Two Brothers, Four Hands

As part of my writing process, I read dozens of books by other nonfiction authors. When I read, I make notes about the craft choices authors make in terms of voice, structure, POV, and other unique elements that add up to amazing books. I recently decided to share my notes (in a searchable format), so teachers and fellow writers can see what I find new and noteworthy. Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below.

w204

The Book:

Two Brothers: Four Hands: The Artists Alberto and Diego Giacometti

Authors: Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan; illustrator: Hadley Hooper

Publication Info.: Neal Porter Books (April 2019)

Ages/Grades: 7 to 10 years old

Categories: third-person POV, narrative nonfiction, present tense, dual biography

First lines:

“In the Swiss village of Stampa, surrounded by mountains so high that in winter their shadows fill the valley live two brothers.”

Overview (from the publisher): “The inspiring true story of the Giacometti brothers, one an artist, the other a daredevil, both devoted to their craft . . . but even more devoted to each other.

Everyone who knew them agreed. Alberto was the genius of the family. His younger brother Diego was his opposite–he didn’t care much for books or schoolwork, and he had no idea what he would be when he grew up. But despite their differences, the two brothers shared an intense bond.

Alberto Giacometti became one of the iconic artists of the twentieth century, whose tall, spindly sculptures grace the collections of museums around the world. Diego was always at his side, helping and encouraging, and in his spare time creating remarkable pieces of furniture, works of sculpture in their own right.

What’s noteworthy for authors and educators:

The trick with writing a dual biography, in my mind, is finding the focus of the book. What theme connects the two lives together? In this book, the connection is apparent from the title: two brothers, four hands. Alberto Giacometti simply couldn’t have achieved his enormous success without his brother, Diego, who served as a model; built pedestals and molds and picked patinas; and in many ways sacrificed his own creative work to support Alberto. As Greenberg and Jordan write, Diego’s hands touched each and every one of Alberto’s sculptures. Children certainly will connect to the fierce bonds of family.

For teachers, this book serves as an excellent example of a “growth mindset.” Alberto Giacometti was far from an overnight success, instead, he honed his craft for more than two decades. He was a perfectionist who never felt his work was finished. And when he moved away from Surrealism, he was rejected by fellow artists, as well as art dealers, and friends. Through all of this, Alberto experimented, trying new things and striving to perfectly capture the human form.

Additional resources for authors, educators, and parents:

  • The backmatter for this book contains a basic explanation of art concepts and discussion questions for evaluating Alberto Giacometti’s Walking Man II sculpture.
  • The Nurture Store has the perfect Giacometti craft activity: making foil sculptures.
  • Why not incorporate this book into a growth-mindset lesson? Khan Academy has a growth mindset lesson here.
  • This Tate video not only shows Giacometti’s sculptures but also explains why his work resonated after World War II.