Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Sarah Aronson Writes Just Like Rube

by Sue Heavenrich

Last Friday I reviewed Sarah Aronson’s new book, Just Like Rube Goldberg over at Archimedes Notebook. It’s a biography of cartoonist – and incidental inventor – Ruben Garrett Lucius Goldberg who wielded pen with wit and also just happened to have a degree in engineering.

I loved the book so much that I bribed Sarah to join me today on GROG. Sarah – that chocolate I promised you? Welp, it never made it to the post office….

Sarah has written middle grade and young adult novels. Just Like Rube Goldberg is her first picture book, she says, “and it’s been a lifetime in the making.” Pretty much since she saw Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and tried to build her own breakfast machine.

As fascinated as she was with the Rube Goldberg-ishness of that idea, Sarah never saw herself as a nonfiction writer. And that meant (insert scary music here) Research! Fortunately for her, she has a mentor and friend in nonfiction writer Tanya Stone. But research wasn’t so bad, Sarah confesses. And she discovered that she likes writing things on index cards.

“I find myself becoming more organized with each book,” Sarah says. (Did I mention she’s working on a couple more?) And for anyone out there working on nonfiction, she has this bit of wisdom: write down where you find information, whether on a note card or in a footnote. 

“Doing the research was a fun exploration, and there is nothing about Rube Goldberg that doesn’t crack me up!” Sarah even discovered that she and Rube have some things in common:

  • they both follow their dreams;
  • they both work hard; and
  • they never give up!

The icing on the cake: now Sarah’s working on another book that grew out of her research.

So what was it that drew Sarah to Rube? “His story is a wonderful immigrant story,” she says, “and as a Jewish writer, I was happy to be writing about a Jewish person who came to this country.” Sarah’s relatives also immigrated to the US, so she felt a personal connection. Plus the breakfast machine….

While Sarah was developing nonfiction writing skills, she was also learning to write a picture book. And that meant thinking about page turns and how to fit a story into 32 pages. “I made lots of dummies to see how the text would fit on the page,” she says. Many, many, many dummies later, she figured she had it – and all that time spent working on Rube was totally okay because Sarah LOVES picture books!

Picture books aren’t just for little kids any more. Nonfiction picture books are often the first step for kids when they begin researching a topic. “Fourth, fifth – even seventh graders pick them up,” says Sarah. She loves seeing how teachers incorporate them into their classroom. “We built a Rube Goldberg machine out of kids!” she laughed.

Every writer hits stumbling blocks, and Sarah thinks one of the important gifts we can give kids is to talk about failure. “Writing is a practice,” she says, “and it’s never going to be easy to share your heart. Even when it’s nonfiction.”

We need to allow kids time and space to try things and fail. “I’ve got a mission,” Sarah says. “I’m a member of the 100 rejection club. And I want kids to understand that the word ‘no’ really means ‘not yet’ or ‘try again’. We have to model how we dust ourselves off and do it again.”

Moving forward, Sarah’s working on a middle grade novel and finishing two more picture books. You can find out more about her and her books at her website.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Global Read Aloud

Global Read Aloud with Padma Venkatraman
by JG Annino 

Hello this lovely Wednesday in June. We become world travelers today,
whether the trip is by story or through seagoing or air-riding.
The Global Read Aloud & one of its 2019 authors,
Padma Venkatraman  take us out into the larger community.

Do you see the kids running across a bridge on the cover, above?
They won my heart & they broke it, so many times.
Such is the power of this story, a singular MG novel about unfortunate
children. It is unusual in the way the street-living children appear naturally
with their full humanity, including humor, creativity, joy & deep intelligence.
I also love how they question each other about Faith & their various beliefs
in the goodness of people.

This month the two girls, a younger sister & an older sister & two boys who aren't
related except through the community of life on the streets,  are
front and center characters
at the annual American Library Association meeting, in Washington, D.C.

These kid characters mesmerized me and they are deservedly here there
everywhere in reading groups, classrooms, home study programs
& award considerations. 

Readers in Global Read Aloud, whether they choose one of several listed
picture books or YA,  or THE BRIDGE HOME, or FRONT DESK by Kelly Yang
(see below) connect with other young readers in creative & deep ways,
to exchange ideas about Story.
Checking out the Global Read Aloud Facebook page I found that after
summer recess, classrooms from South Africa
to North Carolina are lined up to participate with their thoughts on
THE BRIDGE HOME, as is the lucky class of Group Blog's
own Patricia Toht - who told me about this neat connection.

Some children will have a jump start at the book before school resumes
if their families are TV watchers, because
a parents Super Summer list from the popular TODAY show
gave THE BRIDGE HOME a groovy shout-out.

The creator of of Global Read Aloud has been called
out as a cool teacher by Scholastic:

Here is the Global Read Aloud website:

                               Who is the author of THE BRIDGE HOME?

                                                     photo: Highlights Foundation
                                                     Author Padma Venkatraman

Padma Venkatram, Ph.D. worked as a scientist-oceanographer,
sailing world seas researching with and directing scientists onboard
research vessels.
She left her native India, where all of her novels are set, for the UK &
later for the USA East Coast, where she lives with her young family.
She is a popular mentor at reading & writing conferences,  in the USA
& outside the country.

THE BRIDGE HOME follows four characters who form bonds during
difficult times, as children living on the streets of Chennai,
(once known as Madras,) a coastal tourism area of India.
The characters are multi-dimensional, seen as complete
feeling thinking doing youngsters.
Tears may flow during tragic scenes - they did for me -
but because of the author's skillful framing of the story,
the reader is left with great hope.

For more on Padma Venkatraman, here is a lengthy recent Q/A interview
where she discusses craft, research, family & how characters stick
with her, among reader-friendly, writer-friendly, topics.

If your reading days are more often spent among 
Picture Books or Early Readers
you will also want to know that
the talented & prolific artist/ author 
amazing Yuyi Morales
is the 2019 Global Read Aloud picture book author.

And the Early Reader Author is Angela Dominguez, who is new to me,
which is part of what this global connection is all about - finding
books & authors new to you &
outside the place or culture in which you or your students/family/friends,
At Global Read Aloud,
alongside THE BRIDGE HOME by Padma Venkatraman,
please meet
(if you don't already know her p.b Where's Broccoli?)
the awesome Kelly Yang, with FRONT DESK, who is knew to me.
Kelly's poignant story is inspired on her immigrant family life as a child.
If I were a school, I would select each of these MG stories - THE BRIDGE HOME &
We will be reading & hearing much about each of the Global Read Aloud Authors
for many years to come. 

A 2016 Highlights Foundation verse novel workshop brought my opportunity
to meet Padma (& other generous souls - bookstore maven Joanne Fritz, in particular,
who wrote the article linked to, just above.)
Padma asked me probing questions about my abolitionist-topic novel manuscript,
which is no where near revised enough,
but I'm glad we have stayed in touch on other topics.
                  Highlights Foundation - Padma Venkatraman,  Jan Godown Annino

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

A Creative Life: Book Recommendations for Writers

by Suzy Leopold

When something makes you want to do something and when something gives you an idea about what to create, this is inspiration. Writers need inspiration. Clever ideas create sparks in a writer's mind along with feelings of emotion.

And this book does just that.

by Elizabeth Gilbert

Riverhead Books

The instant #1 NEW YORK TIMES bestseller
by Elizabeth Gilbert
Many may recognize Elizabeth Gilbert as the author of EAT PRAY LOVE.

In BIG MAGIC: CREATIVE LIVING BEYOND FEAR, Elizabeth Gilbert "digs deep into her own generative process to share her wisdom and unique perspective on creativity, offering potent insights into the mysterious nature of inspiration".

Inspiration is needed to be a writer. This book is inspiring.

Elizabeth Gilbert writes about the mysterious nature of inspiration. She offers attitudes, habits, and ideas for living a creative life. She encourages creatives to look within for the strange jewels.

The book is divided into six sections and includes:
Part I     Courage
Part II    Enchantment
Part III   Permission
Part IV  Persistence
Part V   Trust
Part VI  Divinity

Enjoy listening to the first chapter, Hidden Treasure pages 3-7 of Part I, Courage.

And if you want more, here's more to read as a pdf.

Discover what you were meant to do. Hope you feel curious, encouraged, and most of all inspired to live a creative life.

Writers will find inspiration in this book, too.

by Cheryl B. Klein

W. W. Norton & Company
by Cheryl B. Klein
Perhaps you recognize Cheryl B. Klein as the Editor Lee & Low Books.

"Insightful, enlightening, and practical, The Magic Words is a book that belongs on every writer's shelf. Loaded with concrete examples and specific strategies, it's likely to end up dog-eared and well worn--that favorite book on craft that writers revisit again and again with each new project."
Kate Messner, author

Do you note my many Post-its?

It's like a master class inside a book. It's like a handbook with useful tools for writing children's and YA fiction.

The author guides writers on a practical writing journey from writing principles, crafting a strong story, and publishing.

Take a few moments to check out her excellent web site, blog, and many resources. You'll note additional book titles Cheryl authored along with two picture books.

WINGS made its debut in March 2019 and is illustrated by Caldecott winner, Tomie de Paola. Read more about this book in a dual interview with Cheryl and Tomie. The book is written with one dozen rhyming words: wings, clings, flings, stings, wrings, dings, things, brings, springs, sings, rings, and zings.
by Cheryl B. Klein
Illustrated by Tomie de Paola
In September 2019, look for THUNDER TRUCKS. Cheryl partnered up with Katy Beebe are the a dual author team of this book. The bright, bold illustrations are by Mike Boldt.
by Cheryl Klein & Katy Beebe
Illustrated by Mike Boldt
While we know creating a picture book is a team effort between author and illustrator, have you ever considered writing a book with a writerly friend? The idea is something to consider.

"If you have a writer friend whose strengths complement yours,
AND you can manage your respective writerly egos,
consider drafting a book together to use both of your types of genius."
~Cheryl Klein

The idea is something to consider. Just ask fellow GROGgers Christy Mihaly and Sue Heavenrich. Together they wrote and co-authored DIET FOR A CHANGING CLIMATE: FOOD FOR THOUGHT.
by Christy Mihaly and
Sue Heavenrich
May these books inspire and encourage your writing journey.
Read, write, and create
Every day


From the desk of Sherri Jones Rivers:

Jillanne Hoffman
is the winner of:

By Lydia Lukidis
Illustrated by Tara J. Hannon

From the desk of Kathy Halsey:

Whispering Pines' Writing Retreat
A Working Retreat
October 25-27, 2019

For more information click here and on the New England SCBWI site.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Lovely Lydia Lukidis talks about NO BEARS ALLOWED By: Sherri Jones Rivers

     It is my pleasure to be able to interview Lydia Lukidis about her upcoming book NO BEARS ALLOWED from Blue Whale Press. As an added bonus, she will be giving away a copy of her book to one lucky GROG participant who is a US resident. Now, without further ado, let's get started:

(The winner of the book give-away was chosen by my cat Sophie. Jilanne Hoffman, you are the winner! Congrats!)

GROG: Tell us a little bit about your writing journey.

LYDIA: I'm never low on inspiration, that's for sure. I get ideas all the time and my creativity is always spinning wildly. Sounds great, right? But the issue is that with so many ideas, I get pulled in many different directions. I'm learning the art of being selective, and of spending more time developing the best ideas.

When the inspiration behind NO BEARS ALLOWED was sparked, I knew it was a keeper. But it remained in my "ideas folder" for at least a year before I sat down and actually pounded out the first draft. The concept of the story was 100% character driven. At first, I didn't necessarily know what would happen, but I knew who it would happen to. Rabbit, who spends his time worrying and being afraid of everything, was the starting point. Soon after, a big, oafy yet lovable Bear was born.

GROG: Where did the idea come from for your cute story? What do you want the take-away to be for readers?

LYDIA:  Believe it or not, the idea came from an inside joke. 

Admittedly, it makes little sense, but somehow I always felt there was something there. My inspirations are varied; they can be sparked by an image or a word, or in this case, the phrase "no bears allowed."

I wanted the story to be about the power of friendship, and the importance of not judging others or letting our fears govern our actions. Bear and Rabbit are different, to be sure, but they eventually learn they have more in common than they ever thought. These themes directed the flow of the entire story.

GROG:  How did the story change from your first draft and do you have any idea how many drafts it went through?

LYDIA: Writing NO BEARS ALLOWED was a process. It took time, patience, and multiple drafts! I wrote about 30 drafts initially, but kept getting stuck on the ending. I had to shelve the text for a while so I could get the creative juices flowing again. I always knew I would go back to it. And when I did, I sent it out to all my critique partners to help me whip it into shape. When I was ready to query, I was overjoyed when Blue Whale Press saw its magic. And then, of course, it was edited further. I don't always feel this way about my books, but with this one, I'm happy with the final product and wouldn't change a thing.

GROG:  What do you think about the illustrations? Did anything surprise you when you saw the art work?

LYDIA:  Blue Whale Press was generous enough to allow me to have a say in who we chose as an illustrator, so that was a real treat. I was immediately drawn to the whimsical, unique style of Tara J. Hannon, and I was over the moon when she agreed to take on this project. She exceeded my expectations. She put her on spin on things. I can't express enough how critical a role the illustrator plays, especially with picture books.

GROG:  Is there one spread or page that you particularly like?

LYDIA:  For the first spread:

I love the start of the story, and how Tara captured Rabbit's fearful personality by having him hide beneath the burrow. Suspicious of the world, he inspects everything around him with his binoculars.

And then for the page with bear:

Here's an example of how important the illustrator can be. I never gave Tara directions to make a poster of Bear, or a survival list. That was her own idea, sparked by my story. And that's the magic of a true partnership: when you give space to the illustrator for his-her own creative visions. The book ends up including things you may have never imagined!

GROG: Are there other projects in the works you can tell us about?

LYDIA:  I just released my third STEM book, THE BROKEN BEES' NEST, published by Kane Press. It's part of the Makers Make it Work series that encourages young readers to not just think critically, but also engage. I do a lot of WFH projects as well and have some new books coming out this year on varied topics ranging from ghost hunting to the immune system.

I'm also hard at work on a slew of other trade books. I'm currently developing several picture books, and I seem to be drawn to the world of nonfiction as of late. And, I'm excited to be working on my first middle grade novel based on Greek mythology. Stay tuned for more details!

GROG: Any writing advice for our GROG readers?

LYDIA:  Being a writer is a wonderful journey, but it's also filled with ebbs and flows. I've learned, through the years and the huge pile of rejections letters, to not take anything personally. Not every editor or agent out there will fall in love with your work, and that's okay. As long as YOU love your work and are committed to learning your craft and becoming a better writer. Another thing I learned, through some hard times, is to NEVER compare your path to someone else's. You are on your path, and they are on theirs, so you need to honor that. It's not a race to get published; everything will unfold in due time. Work hard, research the industry, and persevere. And most of all, keep writing. That's where the true joy is, so don't forget to connect to that!

Lydia Lukidis is a children's author with a multi-disciplinary background that spans the fields of literature, science and theater. So far, she has over 40 books and eBooks published, as well as a dozen educational books. Her latest STEM books published by Lane Press include The Broken Bees' Nest
and The Space Rock Mystery.

Lydia is also passionate about spreading the love of literacy. She regularly gives writing workshops in elementary schools across Quebec through the Culture in the Schools Program. Her aim is to help children cultivate their imagination, sharpen their writing skills and develop their self-confidence.
For more info, please visit here.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Melissa Stewart Demystifies Nonfiction and Makes It Fun! by Kathy Halsey

There's no question that Melissa Stewart makes nonfiction bewitching and accessible. With over 180+ books under her belt, she knows this category's ins and outs along with the difference between narrative nonfiction, expository nonfiction and more. (Take a look at her nonfiction tree here.)

Last week, I caught up with Melissa at my local indie bookstore, Cover To Cover Books for Young Readers. after her three day author visit to New Albany schools. Melissa tailored her talk to the crowd of seashell lovers, educators, and librarians. 

 Today I'll share my review of Seashells More Than a Home, some key points from her talk and a few fun facts. 

Book Review 

This expository dual-text picture book follows the structure set up by author Melissa and illustrator Sarah S. Brannen in their first book together, the award-winning Feathers: not Just for Flying. Written for ages 6-9, grades 1-4, Seashells is an engaging, accessible introduction to 13 seashells that "sink like a submarine," and "send a warning like the signal from a lighthouse." 
Melissa's use of similes and metaphors makes the main text a joy to dive into, while the second layer gives well-chosen facts still steeped in lyrical language. 
Sarah Brannen's brilliant watercolor illustrations invite readers to pick up their own science sketch book and take to the outdoors to examine, draw, and take note of the natural world. Even the end papers add information with maps that show the habitats for each sheet/mollusk. Young scientists, parents, and educators will enjoy dipping back into this picture book time and again. 
Third grader in Columbus, Ohio, New Albany Schools  share facts from Melissa Stewarts's visit.

Key Points and Fun Facts
  1. Melissa and illustrator Sarah Brannen created an elaborate back story for the illustrations of the children examining the seashells for the book. More work goes on in the creation of captivating nonfiction than you'd think.
  2. During Melissa's Cover to Cover author visit, we chatted about how informational fiction and true expository fiction are  confused by lay people as well as many educators. Check out Melissa Stewart's award-winning blog, Celebrate Science, to learn more here.
  3. Melissa and Sarah are in the same critique group in Massachusetts that has been meeting for over 20 years. They were paired together for Feathers: Not Just for Flying by happenstance. (Typically authors an illustrators do not know each other.)
  4. Again, in a break with customary publishing practices, Steve Jenkins and Melissa worked closely together on CAN AN AARDVARK BARK? Melissa had to go back and revise the text when Steve changed the type of porcupine depicted for artistic reasons.
  5. Even authors with 180+ books get rejections from publishers. Melissa says that sometimes industry professionals don't know how to edit expository work. They want it to have a plot. Expository nonfiction needs a structure or a pattern to create a through line, not a plot. Melissa says children can pick out a pattern/structure more easily than adults.

Cover to Cover owner Melia Wolf welcomes Melissa Stewart

    What's Up Next?
    Melissa has several school visits in her home state of Massachusetts before she wraps up the school year. She and Steve Jenkins are at work on another collaboration and she's writing a professional development book for educators. Finally, Melissa has revamped her web site which is a treasure trove for educators, librarians, and writers. Take a look soon.

    Wednesday, May 15, 2019

    Work-for-Hire: The Joys and Challenges from One Writer’s Perspective

    Meet Kara Laughlin, Children’s Nonfiction Author
    By Julie Phend

    Kara Laughlin with her books  Photo by Jim Ferry

    Kids love fact-filled books they can read themselves! While these books are a huge piece of a young child’s reading experience, their authors often go unsung because the publisher has contracted them as work-for-hire.

    Meet Kara Laughlin, who has been writing books for children on a work-for-hire basis for the past ten years. Kara is the author of over fifty nonfiction children’s books, including Sparkle and Shine! Trendy Earrings, Necklaces, and Hair Accessories for All Occasions, a series called In the Deep Blue Sea (as Juniata Rogers), and Guitars and Recorders.  

    I asked Kara to share the joys and challenges of her work and give us some advice on how to get started in this field.

    GROG: How would you define contract writing?
    KARA: Contract writing, or work-for-hire (WFH) is when a publisher hires an author to do a specific job for a flat fee, which pays for the work and all rights. For me, contract writing has meant the publisher tells me about a project they’ve designed. Sometimes they give me sample texts to emulate. Other times, they specify what they’re looking for in a contract or spec sheet. All of my work has been in nonfiction, but there are WFH opportunities for fiction writers as well.

    GROG: How did you get your start?

    KARA: In 2009, an online friend needed to turn down a book contract from a publisher who wanted someone to write about craft for children. I had a craft business, so I got in touch. I didn’t get the job. A year later I got an email from an editor at Capstone Publishing, offering me the opportunity to write craft books for them. They’d saved my name all that time!

    GROG: What topics and age groups have you written about? How many books have you published?

    KARA: I’ve written for all ages from tween to kindergarten on a broad range of topics: animals, weather, sports, crafts, and most recently, a set of phonics books. I have 52 books currently published, plus two coming out this fall, and a contract for six more. When I started, my husband joked that someday I’d be the author of 100 books. I laughed. Now it looks like it could happen.


    GROG: What are the particular challenges of WFH/contract writing?

    KARA: It can be a lot of work—and if an editor wants changes, you have to make them. You work under tight deadlines, which you absolutely must meet, and you have to write according to the brief, so there’s not much room for creative flights.
    It’s also important to write to the specified reading level, and it can be difficult and time consuming to distill down complicated information using one- and two-syllable words. But that’s a challenge I find satisfying. 

    You have no control over the final product. A couple of my craft books arrived with completely new projects swapped in, and there was nothing I could do about it. 

    On a personal level, I sometimes let contract work get in the way of my own creative work. And I get the impression that, in some circles, this kind of writing "doesn't count." It's not a high status or glamorous gig. 

    GROG: What are some of the joys/satisfactions?

    KARA: There are so many!

    It's thrilling when I find the perfect way to explain a difficult concept in five one-syllable words. It can lead to moments of poetry. That's what this writing reminds me of most--formal poetry. You have all these constraints, but they force you to find creative solutions. And that's so satisfying!

    I also love learning about new things. Sometimes, I annoy my family with trivia from my research. I wrote a series on sea creatures, which led to some pretty interesting dinners as I talked about all the brutal and disgusting ways invertebrates hunt for and eat their prey.  

    But I think the real reason my heart leaps up when I see a new contract is that this work feels important. There was a moment when I realized, “Some first-grader is going to pick this book up, and it might be the first time s/he learns about this topic.” That feels like a profound, meaningful way to spend my writing time.

    The best surprise is when a child excitedly says, “I read your book! I got it from the library!”

    GROG: How can a writer break into the WFH market?

    KARA: Many school/library publishers are open to working with new writers. Check their websites for how to apply. Usually, they want a resume, cover letter and writing sample. The sample doesn’t have to be published, but it should be appropriate to the age you want to write for, and in a subject you are qualified to write about.


    GROG: Talk about what to do when the contract comes.

    KARA: The first thing to do is to sign the contract and send it back to the editor. Often your contract will pay you 50% on signing and 50% on completion. If so, you should send an invoice right away.

    Then, get those due dates on your calendar!

     If you have more than one title to deliver, find out if your editor prefers them spread out or all at once. If you’re contributing to a series with other authors, make sure you understand the voice they want and any structure/content issues that must be consistent. Be sure you know what age group you’re writing for.

    GROG: What steps do you take to complete the assignment? 

    KARA: After signing the contract and invoicing the publisher, I make a work schedule. Deadlines for this kind of work are tight. Typically, I have about three months, even for a six- or twelve-book project. I put in the due date and work backwards, making my last title “due” a week or two before the deadline. I add dates for rough draft completion, research completion, and writing the back matter.

    Next, I research the subject and take notes. Usually, I learn about three times as much as I'll need, but I want to really understand the topic.

    Then I write a rough draft in my own words. It’s typically twice as long as it needs to be and at a reading level far above the intended readership.

    Finally, I pare it down and simplify the language, editing and re-editing until I’m satisfied.

    GROG: What advice would you give writers to succeed in this business?

    KARA: Be thorough in your research, and be a perfectionist when it comes to saying exactly what’s true. You can’t sacrifice the truth to your reading level or your word count. Be pleasant and on time. Publishers need to know that you can take feedback, that you’re meticulous about research, and you can write to deadline.

    GROG: How can a contract writer build a business?

    Photo by Lori Munro
    KARA: It’s very possible to do school visits with these books. Nonfiction is huge in schools right now, and teachers appreciate having published authors come in and reaffirm what they’ve been telling their kids: choose your sources well, edit and re-edit, know how to tell truth from fiction. Because there is no royalty agreement, I charge for school and library visits. 

    Getting more work from publishers is just a matter of delivering an excellent manuscript on time and putting yourself out there.

    GROG: I asked Kara to recommend some resources for people getting started. Here are a few of her favorites:

    Hemmingway online for real-time approximate reading level.

    Rebecca Langston George has a wonderful article on considering work-for-hire:

    This list of work-for-hire publishers by Evelyn Christensen. She also has a great list of resources here:

    Thank you, Kara, for sharing your work with us!