Friday, January 31, 2014

BOOK BAIT: 10 Ways to Hook Kids On Nonfiction!

Authors, illustrators, and publishers put a great deal of effort into the quest to interest readers in their books. Ideally, every nonfiction book should have a terrific title, intriguing information, sensational sentences, and interesting images (and by all means alliteration...only kidding about that last one!?) 

Because of the great response to my last post about nonfiction activities, I was inspired to focus this time on how to entice students to read a variety of informational texts. Recommendations from their peers is one of the primary ways that kids decide to read a book, so with that in mind, ask students to:

1. Choose a nonfiction book to recommend, place it on your desk, then tour the room for new reading options.

2. Share one sentence that gives an idea of what the book is about.

3. Compile a class book of reviews then explore classmates’ suggestions.

4. Prepare and present book talks to the class in the form of posters, presentations, or videos.

5. After discovering a good book, create a display of more works by the same author.

6. Choose one page in a book and list the facts the words tell, then the information shown by the pictures.

7. Redraw an illustration or other image and add labels and other info.

8. Find a favorite cover and explain how it summarizes the book.

9. Design a new cover for a book to persuade more kids to read it.

10. Compare two or more books on a topic using a Venn diagram.

Click for my Pinterest board with nonfiction teaching ideas.


My web site

Thursday, January 30, 2014

A Change of Scene

My home is in beautiful Missoula, Montana, but my husband Greg (a food writer) and I decided to try something new.  We became snowbirds, leaving home in late October and planning on returning in early April.  At first we condo-hopped in Hawaii, but now are settled in Oceanside, CA, across the street from Del Mar beach.

Some writers need to work in their own familiar space or settle at a table in a familiar cafe near home to write.  But Greg and I feel fortunate that we can write anywhere, as long as we have a few reference books and our trusty MacBooks.  My nephew recently did some consulting for Microsoft and presented Greg with a sticker for his computer that declares "This is my office."  I want one too!

I find working in a new location has its own rewards.  The phone rarely rings, as no one knows this number.  Our cell phones stay mostly silent, since we don't use them that often.  That means fewer distractions.  We don't have the usual social engagements either, or other appointments, so we have more time to write.  The new location also means new experiences, like a variety of farmers' markets in surrounding communities with gorgeous greens and succulent citrus fruits, foods we can't get locally grown in Montana during the winter.  We both feel healthier, not only from the food but also the sunlight and relative warmth.

There's also the stimulation of the writing instinct in a new place. Greg is inspired to devote his blog ( to "unplugged" recipes, ones that don't require a food processor or mixer, since we don't have those things here.  I find myself obsessed with photographing birds and brilliant sunsets over the Pacific, with the damp sand creating magical reflections of the glowing colors.  Maybe I'll write a book about sunsets!  Or about gulls, or maybe I'll revive my out-of-print book on pelicans.

When I take my afternoon break walking along the damp, firm surface of this beach, I feel I could walk forever.  It's a form of meditation for me, allowing my mind to clear and to settle down.  Then I can focus on prioritizing the many tasks large and small that go along with being a writer, or just "be."  I can't do this at home in wintertime Montana, where it can be too icy or too cold to walk and where the sky during the short days is almost always an uninviting gray.  But as I enjoy looking out over the silvery sparkles of reflected sunlight on the waves, I look forward to Montana in the Spring, when fresh green sprouts push forth from the earth and the familiar birds, "snowbirds" like us, return to enjoy new life and creativity in that special place.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Finding Mumbet

My latest book, Mumbet’sDeclaration of Independence, comes out on February 1.  I’m always happy on pub dates, but this one feels especially good (thanks, PW) not least because of the book’s spectacular illustrations by Alix Delinois. He lives in New York, has done since he was seven. But he was born in Haiti, and Caribbean light and color shine all through the book and perfectly reflect the tone I tried to express in the text. I’m going to interview him for my February blog, so I won’t gush on now.

I love writing about little-known people and I’m pleased that editors are publishing books about them. Every season sees more new heroes and heroines lining the lists. As for Elizabeth “Mumbet” Freeman, I discovered her while researching Write on, Mercy! The Secret Life of Mercy Otis Warren.  Not for the first time, research for one book led to the next one.  Both Mercy (white and well-educated) and Mumbet (an illiterate slave) lived in Massachusetts during the American Revolution – Mercy in Plymouth, Mumbet in the Berkshires.  Both used revolutionary fervor to advance their causes: Mercy, to write and publish her political views; Mumbet, to sue for her freedom. (This is a portrait painted on ivory, of Mumbet in old age. It's in the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston.)

I try to bond with my subjects, and that often happens when I travel to their home territory.  This was true with Mumbet. ‘Twas a frigid day of January that I was given a “Mumbet tour” in Sheffield and Stockbridge, Massachusetts by historian Barbara Dowling, then working for the Trustees of Reservations, the conversation group that owns Ashley House, where Mumbet spent her slave years. The house was closed for winter – it being colder indoors than out! – but Barbara opened it for me to poke around, searching for traces of Mumbet’s life there.

  It's a comfortable, not grand, house, with a big hearth where Mumbet worked. I peeked up the chimney, stuck my arm into the baking oven, gazed into the small room off the kitchen when she probably slept. I climbed the narrow stairs that she climbed carrying refreshments to white men who discussed their fight for political freedom from the British.

Outdoors, nearby Bartholomew’s Cobble, far-off Berkshire mountains, and the Housatonic River presented themselves as symbols of Mumbet’s strength and courage, and found their way into my book. 

A few miles away sits the imposing Sedgwick estate, home of her lawyer, where Mumbet worked for two decades as housekeeper and second mother to the seven Sedgwick children. She saved enough from her wages to buy a small farm in the hills outside Stockbridge, and retired there to live with her daughter, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. The house is gone, but I envisioned her, looking out over the Housatonic Valley that held a life's worth of memories. Her grave includes this epitaph written by Catharine Sedgwick, one of Mumbet’s charges:

She was born a slave and remained a slave for nearly thirty years. 
She could neither read nor write yet in her own sphere she had no superior or equal. She neither wasted time nor property.
She never violated a trust nor failed to perform a duty.
In every situation of domestic trial,
she was the most efficient help, and the tenderest friend.
Good mother, farewell.

I ended Mumbet’s Declaration of Independence just after she sued her owner and [Spoiler Alert!] won her freedom. But she lived long after that, and her life led to me other African Americans of that era, and another book about worthy and under-reported lives. I included Mumbet’s later adventures there, but you’ll have to wait until 2015 to read those.

In the meantime, tune in next month to meet Alix Delinois, who also traveled to the Berkshires to bring Mumbet into view.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Let the Games Begin! (But Where are the Good Books?)

Anyone else sorely disappointed in the selection of books on the Winter Olympics? I sure am. I’ve been trying to put together something interesting for my K-3 crowd: a little bit of general history, some stand out biographies, and (if it’s not asking too much)a concise explanation of the actual winter events.

The pickings are certainly slim. As I search and search again, the most frequently viewed item is a fiction book about a certain penguin in a Hawaiian shirt named Tacky playing his own version of the Winter Games.

Where are the I.N.K. books on this subject? Isn’t this the kind of subject where non fiction should shine?

What’s going on here?

Only one book stands out to me, and  I’ve been forced to rely on more than I would like.

 Olympics by B. G. Hennessy. 

 Published in 1996.

Other than that, The Magic Tree House series does tackle the Ancient Games in one volume. It even has a non fiction companion "fact tracker" listing facts about Ancient Greece and the Olympics. It’s certainly possible an intrepid second grader could read it without falling asleep.

Next week lets wave our flags and pretend to bobsled on our sofas. And lets think about, and perhaps even start writing, some medal worthy books.

Friday, January 24, 2014

How Did You Get the Idea of This Book and Other Burning Questions Revealed

This week, Debbie Glade at Smart Books for Smart Kids reviewed my new book Women of Steel and Stone.  The review can be found here.
Following the review, she asked if I would mind answering a few questions for the readers of her website. The questions got me thinking about why I wrote the book, the process, STEM, and girls in engineering fields. I thought INK readers would like to read a part of that interview. The full interview can be read on the Smart Books for Smart Kids website. I'll post the link as soon as it is live on the site. I also added a few extra questions and answers for the readers here. All the questions and answers can be read on my new website Anna M. Lewis.

How did you get the idea to write this book?
My editor and I were going back and forth with proposal ideas in two different series - Activities for Kids and Women of Action.  My degree is in Product/Industrial Design and I took several design history classes in college, so design was an area that interested me.  Then, I found one website that listed the top 100 architects. There were only 2 women on the list – 2 women out of 100 architects. That didn’t sound right to me. I started researching women architects and found some amazing women whose stories hadn’t been told. From there, I also discovered several women engineers and landscape architects, and the book grew from there.

How did you come up with the women you featured in the book, and was it difficult to find the detailed information you needed about some of them? 
Each book in the Women of Action series has about 16 to 26 profiles, so I knew I had to have about that many women. My daughter's favorite number is 22, so I felt that I had to appease her and the karma gods and write about 22 women. That number worked perfectly.
In forming the list, I basically had 7 women per category; which meant, 2 of the first in the field, 2 of the most current, and 3 in the middle. As it turned out, all the women I chose had interesting stories to tell. Every chapter had to have a compelling story to pull the reader in; otherwise the book would just be a rehash of wiki pages and facts. Some of the background stories had to be dug out, and I was digging for days. When I found an interesting story about a woman, it was almost like finding gold. Sometimes, after fact checking, a great story turned out to be not true. A popular book on Julia Morgan tells how she was dusting the family stairs and said that when she was older that she wouldn't design houses with spindly staircase rods that little girls would have to dust, and then she ran outside to play with her brothers. Many other sources also cited that story. It took some digging but I found a transcript of an interview with several family members and co-workers. I read through the entire entire interview and at one point the interviewer asked the family if that was true. They said, "No, Julia never said that." Great story but I couldn't use it… but I found other great pieces to use in that transcript. Julia was hard to research. After she was misquoted early in her career, she never gave another interview. She even instructed her staff to destroy all her papers after she retired.

In the beginning, I asked the leaders and archivists of several engineering and architecture groups to review my list. I wanted to make sure that I didn't leave anyone out. Their suggestions were perfect.

Did it strike you when researching and writing the biographies that the accomplishments of these women from long ago would be equally as impressive in today's world as they were back then?
Three things stood out to me while writing the book. First, it has been over 125 years since Louise Bethune became the first female member of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), and women are still struggling to get noticed in that field. Second, all the women in my book had very supportive parents. Third, all the women chose architecture, engineering, and landscape architecture because they were drawn to those fields.
To answer your question, yes. But also, it also surprised me that after 125 years, things haven’t changed much. Women are still having a difficult time in those fields. The recent petition that sought to highlight Denise Scott Brown’s accomplishments with the inclusion of her name on her husband's 1981 Pritzker Prize put this issue into the spotlight. While media took great note, the Pritzker Committee turned down the request.
In building our future, we need all our students involved in creating wonderful things.

Considering the limitations women in the 1800s and early 1900s had wearing such binding, layered clothing with long dresses and corsets, do you think just the change in the way we dress has made it more possible for women to work in male dominated fields?
I don’t think the change in clothing was a large factor. Julia Morgan used to hike up her long skirt and climb up scaffolding, sometimes three stories high. Actually, the invention of the bicycle was a huge factor in the changes of a woman’s role in society. She was able to go to so many more places – without a chaperone, and her clothing loosened to allow her to ride. Society accepted this change with a few protests. 
Honestly, the women in my book and their strong-willed desire to do something that they wanted to do broke down the barriers and showed that women could work in the same fields as men.
What's your next writing project?
I’ve been going back and forth with my editor. I’ve been trying to decide if I want to write another Women of Action book or an Activities for Kids book. I’m also working with two other publishers on some fun ideas.

What do you most like to do when you are not working?
When I’m working, it doesn’t really feel like work. I love to read, which in a way is working. Actually, I have a pile of books that I can’t wait to get my hands on.
Besides writing, I’ve been doing some illustration work, which is like playing to me. I’ve been having fun learning how to use the Wacom tablet to create digital images.

Questions I added:

Did you have a special process while writing the book?
While doing the research, I had a box of grey folders and I made a folder for every woman. I also made a folder for my intro and chapter intros. I made copies of every quote for easy access when I compiled the Notes section. I also bought quite a few of my research books, a little while after I started racking up some library fines. (It's amazing how those due dates can slip by you when you are deep in work.) The actual books came in handy during the year-long editing process, when I had to check sources multiple times.
Towards the end, I made a spiffy excel spread sheet to keep track of all of my 22 women, images, permissions, word count, etc. 

Did you have a personal connection to this book?
Yes, my father passed away suddenly the day after I got the go ahead to work on the proposal. My father ran a medium-sized engineering practice in Cincinnati for over 50 years. His firm oversaw the HVAC (Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning) on many major construction projects. The last few years of his life he taught engineering at the University of Cincinnati. I think that he would have approved of this book. 

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Happy TENTH Anniversary to the Mars rover Opportunity!

On July 7, 2003, tucked into a Delta 2 rocket, the rover Opportunity blasted into space headed to Mars.
On January 24, 2004 PST (Jan. 25 Universal Time), the rover was dropped onto the surface of Mars wrapped in airbags, where it bounced 26 times before coming to rest in a crater.  This little rover, about the size of golf cart, was designed for the three-month mission to find signs of past water on Mars. 

Tomorrow marks the 10-year anniversary of Opportunity’s mission on Mars. TEN YEARS!!! HURRAH! WHOOT WHOOT! I MEAN, CAN YOU BELIEVE IT PEOPLE??? TEN YEARS!!! It was a three-month mission and this little robot, which was not designed to survive even one Martian winter, is STILL EXPLORING MARS TEN YEARS LATER! It is a miracle. This is perhaps the most successful space mission EVER!

I don’t get to write like this, in all caps and with multiple exclamation points, in my books for children, but this is how I feel about this mission and this rover. I am astounded. I am in awe. I cannot believe that a dream and the work of a bunch of scientists and engineers have given us a ten- year tour of another planet.

Opportunity was designed to only travel on flat terrain but has explored crater after crater after crater and is currently climbing the tallest hill of its mission. This is where Opportunity has traveled so far:
Opportunity is currently exploring the rim of Endeavour Crater, near an outcrop that may contain clay laid down in a watery past. Signs of past water have been found before, but evidence suggests that unlike the battery-acid-like water present on other parts of the planet, the water here may have been neutral enough to have once sustained life.  LIFE!

I hope you can find a little time to celebrate the incredible success of this mission, especially with your children and students. You can:

Watch a live broadcast from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory today Thursday, Jan. 23, 11 a.m. PST (2 p.m. EST) which will include appearances of two of the heroes from my book The Mighty Mars Rovers, Steve Squyres and John Callas. (Webcast live at and on NASA TV streaming at

See’s slide show of the top ten discoveries from Spirit and Opportunity’s mission.

Enjoy these stunning photos from a decade of exploration.

Check out a slideshow about why the rover lasted so long, at NASA’s 10-year anniversary page. 

Read the story of girl who was in eighth grade when Opportunity landed on Mars and is now an engineer on the mission.

Teachers, there is so much this mission offers to inspire your students. As the mission continues to unfold, Opportunity gives you an incredible opportunity to connect reading, writing, science, history, news, books, videos, and primary source material easily available on the internet. A teachers’ guide to my book The Mighty Mars Rovers offers discussion questions, hands-on activities, and resources. You can also find good ideas in two Common Core guides, one short  and one long.

When I started writing The Mighty Mars Rovers, my husband bought me a little scale model rover to keep on my desk as inspiration. But my model kept falling off my desk and breaking.
Perhaps my desk is a more hazardous place than Mars. 

Or perhaps we humans are capable of much more than we can even imagine.

Long live Opportunity!

Elizabeth Rusch

Images courtesy of NASA/JPL, except for the last one, which I took myself.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The Port Chicago 50

I’m excited to report that my new book, The Port Chicago 50, is now out and getting some good attention, including three starred reviews so far. I just happen to have one of them right here:

This is a little-known but very dramatic World War II civil rights story, set at a naval base near San Francisco. The main characters are young African American sailors who take a stand against segregation—and end up getting charged with mutiny and told they’re all going to be shot.

This book is a great example of how I, and I think most of the I.N.K. writers, truly never know where the next idea is going to come from. A few years back, at Thanksgiving, I was talking about my research for a book about the making of the atomic bomb, and my brother-in-law, a great lover of conspiracy theories (as am I), asked if I knew when the first bomb was tested. I said, “Yeah, in New Mexico, July 16, 1945.” He said, “That’s what they want you to think!”

Then he told me this fantastic tale, firmly believed by many on the Internet, that the first atomic test was actually in the summer of 1944, at a naval base called Port Chicago. I was intrigued and did some digging. There really was a massive blast at Port Chicago in 1944, one that killed more than 300 American sailors and marines. But the real story is that it was an ammunition ship, packed with thousands of tons of bombs, that exploded. To this day, no one is sure why.

After a bit more research, I learned that the sailors loading bombs and ammunition onto ships at Port Chicago were all African American. The Navy didn’t allow black sailors to serve at sea, except as messmen, so they were put to work on land at places like Port Chicago—only they were never trained to handle explosives. The men were pressured to work quickly and knew something terrible was going to happen. And of course they resented facing segregation while serving in a war that was being fought, as President Roosevelt kept saying, to preserve freedom around the world.

Then came the explosion of July 17, 1944, by far the deadliest home front disaster of World War II. With much more research, and some travel and lots of help, I was able to track down in-depth, unpublished interviews with many of the sailors who survived the blast. So in my book I’m able to follow the story from their point of view as they face what they know will be a life-changing decision: go back to work under the same conditions, or defy orders and face the consequences?

I won’t give away too much more, except to say that the number in the book’s title refers to the fifty men who wind up court-martialed for mutiny. I can’t promise a happy ending, though there’s no question that the stand these men took helped end segregation in the military, and was an early spark of the civil right movement of the 1950s and 60s. It's a story I am very proud to have the chance to tell.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

News-o-Matic: A Daily for Kids' Fingertips

I'm a long-time news hound. I got my start in children's publishing writing news for kids. Like other nonfiction writers, I continually try to adapt my work to new audiences, new formats, and new markets.  So I was psyched to find an app that brings news directly to kids via iTunes -- whether they're on their own or at the sides of their parents, teachers, and classmates.

I'm the newest contributing writer to News-o-Matic, a news app for children ages 7 to 11 available in pdf for classrooms and in the home via iPad and iPhone.  I think it's pretty great, so I checked in with editor-in-chief Russell Kahn to find out more about it.

Q. How long has News-o-Matic been going?
A. We formed our company, Press4Kids, two years ago, and launched News-o-Matic in the App Store about a year ago. We launched our School Edition over the summer. And News-o-Matic 3.0, which allows users to read the editions on both the iPad and iPhone with one subscription, launched last week.

Q. Why did you create News-o-Matic?
A. My business partner Lillian Holtzclaw Stern, had the initial idea because her two children (then seven and nine) had nowhere to go to make sense of the news happening in the world. Maybe a generation ago it was possible to shelter your children from current events, but it's not possible with today's media saturation.

Q. Who is your audience?
A. We have now been downloaded more than 50,000 times in 120 countries. That doesn't include the 600-plus schools that use a PDF of our publication on a daily basis. (We want to be sure that schools without tablet technology still have access to our stories.)

Q. What kind of response do you get?
A. Kids feel like they have a newspaper just for them.  Kids write comments and draw pictures every day; I usually get about 100 of each from them every day. Our readers are incredibly invested in our stories. They share their opinions and ask additional questions to show how much they care. You should see some of the drawings that we get; it's clear that they understand, for example, how an eclipse works or what the effects of climate change are.
      As for educators, we've had teachers tell us that we're the reason they bought iPads for their classroom. Others have said that their students have begged to read News-o-Matic during breaks in the school day. It's opened up new avenues for discussion, and of course it's helped teachers meet the need to ensure that half their content covered in the class is nonfiction (as directed by the Common Core Standards.)
     If you're a parent with an iPad, it can be difficult to know how to use the tablet as a valuable tool.  The iPad can be much more than a game console. So we're trying to give parents an app that will get their kids READING (and actually enjoying it) without it being a forced assignment. Parents are grateful to know that their kids are being safe on our app and developing a reading habit.

Q. How do you decide what should be covered?
A. The two founders and I are French, Brazilian, and American. It's always been our mission to be international. We feel it's important to expose readers to the world beyond America's borders at a young age. Sometimes that means we deal with tough stories, such as Syria's civil war or the Taliban resurgence in Iraq. But we need to establish a glance in every edition. Our readers constantly request stories about animals, sports, and entertainment. In a given edition I would hope we'd cover at least one or two stories that will appeal to ANY young reader.

Q. I was interested to read the section about what to do if the news upsets you. This is a topic very dear to my heart.
A. We can't shield kids from scary events anymore. Kids hear about them, and without an appropriate place to learn what happened, they may get upset. We want them to understand that News-o-Matic will help explain the event in a way that makes sense. We don't want to be the ones to INTRODUCE scary news to a kid. You won't see us covering a car bomb in Baghdad. But if something happens that makes the front pages of the newspaper, if kids will hear about it in the schoolyard, we feel we have to cover it. We covered Newtown. We covered the Boston Marathon bombing. We had to!
  Misinformation can be scarier than the truth. We have a child psychologist, Dr. Phyllis Ohr, on staff who helps us help young children understand tough current events in a safe and age-appropriate way. Together with her, we try to accentuate the positives and focus on the helpers. That said, we do know that some kids will be upset by the news. We worked with Dr. Ohr to develop a series of strategies to help children cope. But ultimately we hope that News-o-Matic serves as a tool to help kids understand why things happen (and how people try to help), making the world a less scary and more inspiring place to live.

Q. Tell me a little bit about your work load.
A. Oh, boy. First, it's really important to recognize that we're an original content creator, not just a repackager of the news. We've interviewed gold medal Olympic athletes, astronauts, and artists. We've talked to scientists and Iditarod mushers and kids who've discovered supernovas. We've gone into the street to cover events.
    I read the news all day long, every day. As a daily newspaper, we need to be able to respond immediately to anything that's happening. We publish Monday through Friday, 52 weeks a year. At 261 editions a year, that's six more than USA Today! We considered not publishing during the holidays, but we want kids to become addicted to the habit of daily reading -- especially when they're out of school!
  And of course we talk to kids to get their perspectives, such as with our Martin Luther King, Jr., article (posted yesterday).  To be truly a kids' newspaper we need them to be a part of it. News-o-Matic aims to create a dialogue to get children writing, asking questions, and actively interacting with the news. And it's working. Kids feel like they have a newspaper just for them.

Monday, January 20, 2014

We Bumble Onward

"Faith is taking the first step even when you don't see the whole staircase." 

Certainly it is a day upon which I should make mention of such splendid books as Martin's Big Words: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  
written by Doreen Rappaport
illustrated by Bryan Collier
And David A. Adler's A Picture Book of Martin Luther King, Jr. 
written by David A. Adler
illustrated by Robert Casilla 
And I Have a Dream, featuring the great man's words, along with Kadir Nelson's handsome illustrations. 
It is a noble day to remember that all for which the great man is known was once in the 
unimaginable future of a 
bright little boy in Atlanta, Georgia, in a very different America. And, on this here anniversary of Inauguration Day, please note that young Martin had just turned 8 at the time of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's second Inaugural, in 1937.
A freezing, rainy day for an Inauguration, January 20, 1937.
Never before had a U.S. president taken his Oath of Office on the 20th of January. (If you're reading this, it's likely that you know the big day used to be in March and had been since 1789.) On that raw winter day in Washington, DC, 1937. FDR
quoted a long-gone Victorian poet, Arthur Wm. Edgar O'Shaughnessy,  when he said "each age is a dream that is dying, or one that is coming to birth." It was a day to "reconsecrate our country to long-cherished ideals." 
And so it is with this very Monday, this holiday commemorating the words and deeds of an idealistic leader, this anniversary of commencements. It's a far out day for rededication, to our works, our books, our readers, our dear ones, our purposes, various and precious. Though this blog is coming to an end, I'd be willing to bet that I'm not the only author who could cheerfully quote Franklin Roosevelt's buddy, Winston Churchill: "We bumble onward." 

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Goodbye from Tanya Lee Stone

This is my last post on I.N.K.. It has been a wonderful community of writers and I have thoroughly enjoyed interacting with some of the teachers, librarians, and other readers here. Thank you so much for your attention and time.
As I say when I am doing school visits, if I leave with you remembering just 2 things about our visit together, remember this: What If? are the two most powerful words in your writing arsenal (and in life, for that matter). And always, always, always have an emotional connection to what you are writing. If you are interested in what you are writing, your writing will be interesting.
Thank you I.N.K.ers and readers!
You can always find me at

Friday, January 10, 2014

Common Core Care Package: 5 Ways to Sneak Nonfiction into Your School-day Schedule*

1. Booktalks
If you’re a teacher-librarian, you probably already do booktalks on a regular basis, but they also work well in a classroom setting. Think of a booktalk as a 2-3minute commercial that introduces students to a book. If you teach grade 3 or higher, try modeling a booktalk a few times, and then invite your students to choose a favorite book and do booktalks of their own.
 Booktalking is a great technique for introducing your students to the classroom book collection. If you alternate between fiction and nonfiction titles, students will be exposed to a wide range of literature. By including nonfiction titles, you let students know that you value nonfiction and find it interesting to read.

2. Read-alouds
By adding nonfiction picture books to your classroom read-alouds, you provide engaging opportunities to explore content. Choose books with a varying voices so students can explore the many ways to write nonfiction and come to realize that an author's writing style often reflects content. Here are a few recommendations:

Vulture View by April Pulley Sayre

Army Ant Parade by April Pulley Sayre

The Boy Who Loved Math by Deborah Heiligman

Under the Snow by Melissa Stewart

Those Rebels, Tom and John by Barbara Kerley
Lightship by Brian Floca

When Marian Sang by Pam Munoz Ryan

Redwoods by Jason Chin

Here Is Antarctica by Madeleine Dunphy

An Egg Is Quiet by Dianna Aston Hutts

Move! by Steve Jenkins & Robin Page

Neo Leo by Gene Barretta

Dave the Potter: Artist, Poet, Slave by Laban Carrick Hill

Frog in a Bog by John Himmelman

Hello, Bumblebee Bat by Darrin Lunde

Mosquito Bite by Alexandra Siy & Dennis Kunkle

3. Use Nonfiction as Mentor Texts
When you teach writing, use high-quality trade titles (such as the ones listed above) as authentic models for structuring text, crafting beginnings and endings, choosing precise words, selecting voice, and more. Some students may understand the power of vibrant verbs, sensory details, similes, metaphors, alliteration, hyperbole, imagery, and other language devices better by interacting with examples in both fiction and nonfiction texts.

4. Pair Fiction and Nonfiction Titles on Related Topics
Reading fiction and nonfiction titles together enriches student experience by allowing them to make real-world connections to the ideas or themes of a fiction work. It also provides students who prefer nonfiction with a concrete way to approach the story. For more information about this teaching strategy and sample book pairings, see this article.

5. Give Students Opportunities to Skim and Scan Nonfiction Texts
When students have free time, encourage them to look through nonfiction titles and complete activities that involve identifying text structures, text features, key ideas, or specific language devices. You can find some sample ideas here and here and here.
*Strategies based, in part, on suggestions in Reading in the Wild: The Book Whisperer’s Keys to Cultivating Lifelong Reading Habits by Donalyn Miller with Susan Kelley (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2014).

Thursday, January 9, 2014

My Trusty Bike

When we first moved to Portland, OR, we lived in a condo downtown…and my life was downtown-centric.  Now, we live in a little house across the river. I love our quiet neighborhood, but it's a bit removed from the action. Several times a week, it seems like I'm commuting somewhere, and my favorite way to do this is by bike.

I hate driving, for one thing.  The bus is reliable but takes a while.  And I’ve slowly outfitted myself with a variety of bike gear—waterproof this-and-that’s, good gloves and booties, and even most recently, a truly sweet headlamp that is so high tech you just plug the whole thing in to recharge.

And then there’s the commute itself.  Portland has this wonder called the Springwater Corridor and wow is it great.  It allows me to travel much of my commute on a dedicated bike path.  No cars, just bikes, joggers…and the occasional goose.

You see, the section of the corridor I travel runs alongside the Willamette River, skirting the edge of the Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge.

As I ride, I see kayakers or crew teams in the river, and, on the other side of the trail, Great Blue Herons standing quietly in the marsh.  Three times now I have even seen a bald eagle.  There are hawks.  And in the spring, there are baby geese—Canada Geese that start out as tiny yellow puffballs and quickly grow into gangly awkward goslings.

I commute by bike a lot, and my favorite ride is to and from my critique group meetings. The commute home often proves to be almost as productive as the meeting was.

My critique partners raise good points, ask good questions, leave me wondering how on earth I am going to fix the problems I didn’t even realize were there until I went to group.

But as I start pedaling, once I’m off the busy streets and into the quiet, tree-filled, goose part of my commute, I find that I’ve started to work out those problems, without even realizing it.  I’ve had to stop my bike more than once (sometimes more than once in the same ride) to write down what I’ve just figured out while I was pedaling.

I’ve come to look forward to those rides home. And I always pack my notebook and pen in easy reach.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Elementary Science Fairs in the Era of STEM and the Next Generation of Science Standards

As an author of science activity books for children, I've attended my share of elementary/middle school science fairs.  I cannot recall ever being surprised by a project or display that was particularly clever or original.  Mostly the exhibits are the predictable volcano models, electric circuits, acid-base changes detected by red cabbage juice.  Parent fingerprints are all too often all over the display and when I've asked the student about their work, they show little background or knowledge of the subject.  The “fair” aspect of the event is far more important than the science. I’d like to help change that.    Since most science fairs take place in March—two months away—NOW is the time to start.

First, there is a coming shift to looking at science as a process.  Juliana Texley, president-elect of the National Science Teachers Association, told me:
“The Next Generation Science Standards emphasize the practices of science. With respect to science fairs, the first six are most crucial: 
1. Asking questions (for science) and defining problems (for engineering)
2. Developing and using models
3. Planning and carrying out investigations
4. Analyzing and interpreting data
5. Using mathematics and computational thinking
6. Constructing explanations (for science) and designing solutions (for engineering)

 Tomorrow's science fairs will place less emphasis on winning, more on cooperation and on the pathways that were used to get to the products.”

I like the idea of kids working together.  After all, the body of knowledge we call “science” comes more from collaboration than competition.  When I researched my biography of Marie Curie, I was impressed with the eagerness she exhibited when a new journal came in the mail.  She couldn't wait to go to her own lab and repeat the experiments of colleagues in other parts of the world.  Science is the original wiki—a communal body of work. 

Playing with nature, asking testable questions, taking an initially informal, experiential approach to curiosity are the scientific behaviors that elementary students should be doing.  The formalization of experiments and the “scientific method” can be learned after there is some experience with just playing around.  My approach in my own books has always been to bring science into the world of children; let them learn something new about something familiar before subjecting them to the abstract, rigorous generalizations or laws of science that are the result of cumulative knowledge. One problem in elementary school science is that most teachers do not understand it well themselves.  They need to learn to listen to the questions of children so that they become aware of the questions that can be answered by doing something

The best science activity books for children give a reason or motivation for doing an experiment that goes beyond a “wow!” or a “so what.”  So if you’re looking for help, here are two books to get you started:  Prize-Winning Science Fair Projects for Curious Kids by Joe Rhatigan and Rain Newcomb. This book is a collection of experiments actually done by kids for science fair project that answer kid-friendly meaningful questions and show dramatic changes in otherwise ordinary items. 

My own book:  See for Yourself: More Than 100 Experiments for Science Fairs and Projects.  Projects are rated according to “challenge level” so there are quickies and then there are more ambitious projects. 

Here's a suggestion: since science touches every aspect of our universe,  find out what a child is interested in and Google it along with the word “science” and see what you get.  Experiment with other word combinations but always attach the word “science.”  Bring imagination and curiosity to the inquiry. If a question occurs to you or the child, don't dismiss it; think about it.  You just might be led down a path of creative discovery that shows you why scientists love science.

Note: I’m collecting a list of terrific science books to be published here on the I.N.K. blog at the end of January.  Please send your suggestions to me along with the link to the Amazon catalog page, a brief description of the book and an image of the cover: